Blog by Mandy Ortiz
You know the feeling you get while strapped to a rollercoaster that is slowly ticking uphill? When you arrive at the top, just before the giant drop, there is a slight pause. In that moment, you are bursting with excitement and fear — the anticipation of the thrilling ups, downs, and turns as you fly through this ride. This is exactly how I was feeling last year as I was getting ready to send my first baby off to middle school.
We were both ready! When I say ready, I mean, we had the neutral-colored sporty outfits and shoes to blend in perfectly. The required school supplies, gym clothes, water bottle and lunchbox that were all exactly tween-ish enough to pass. But I realized quickly that we were not ready for the nerves that would hit right before school started. I started thinking about all of the details and became anxious about everything.
Thinking back now on the first year of middle school, there are many things that were not a big deal. On the other hand, there were things that blindsided me as a first-year mom of a middle schooler.
My (Semi-Rational) Worries
“Will he get lost and find himself wandering aimlessly around the halls? Will he be late? Will he know how to work the locker? Will he have time between classes to even go to his locker?”
We bought a combination lock and practiced for a few weeks. Left, right, left. We all had fun learning how to work the dreaded lock; this proved to never be a problem. We toured the building and had a map. After meeting the teacher, we reviewed the class times and when he should go to his locker. He ended up carrying many of his books in his backpack and only going a few times during the day. The school seemed so big at first, but it is amazing how quickly it shrinks. After about a week, he had his schedule down without any worries.
“How will he stay organized? How will I communicate with the teachers? Who ARE the teachers?”
It was recommended that we use the modern version of a Trapper Keeper to keep organized. He would come home, unzip the binder and papers would fly out like a confetti gun. Not a good system for everyone! We went with 1″ binders with a folder for each class. This worked well and at least kept the papers in the right folder. Every Sunday we “regrouped” and planned out the week. Much of the information is online. He used a paper calendar and planned every week. This was also helpful for me so we could look at sport practices, tests etc. Now for the part that caught me off guard and yet is so relieving: If anything is left at home or forgotten, you do not have to scramble and deliver it anymore! They will get zeroes or have to borrow lunch, but they learn and become better for it. He learned to communicate and email with his teachers. What a great lesson. Although my gut wants to help him fix things, it’s time to let him fall and pick himself back up.
“Will he find friends in this big school full of so many new faces? Who will he sit with at lunch? Will he be bullied?”
All these concerns were valid, and yet he was able to navigate it on his own. He made many new friends from other elementary schools. I also made new friends since we did not know the parents. This was actually one of the best parts of our first year. At the same time, kids are mean. They do mean things to be funny, and it is most certainly not. I used these situations as a prompt to talk about the importance of being kind to others. Also, we talked about how things seem really big and overwhelming one day and something else will take over and be really big the next day. Of course, bullying is no joke and should be taken very seriously, but there is also part of learning the ropes of being in middle school and life. Unlike elementary school where he hung out with kids in his class, he began to find friends who are interested in the same things he is interested in.
“Will he remember to bring his gym clothes home so I can make sure they are washed? Will he put on deodorant so he isn’t the stinky kid?”
These worries were quickly replaced with the fact that he did not want to change in the locker room because he was afraid to be made fun of. (WHAT?!) My stinky boy, who has never cared about his appearance ever, all of a sudden is VERY worried about his body, his hair, his clothes, his phone, his level and skins in Fortnite and the list goes on. Peer comparison starts right here and now. It is the worst because it is real to him and watching his self-esteem be measured on anything but kindness and a great heart is beyond hard. On this topic, I felt lost and sad. I received some good advice from a very smart teacher: “Just love them through it.” I listened, talked a lot and loved him through it. Between puberty, body hair, braces, awkward bodies, and pimples, this is just a ridiculously awkward period of life. And the gym clothes, they came home every Friday. I think the coach reminded him because the locker room would smell like rotten eggs on Monday morning if none of them brought their clothes home. Thank you, Coach! Once a week became a normal wash schedule, albeit a gross normal.
“Being exposed to drugs, drinking, smoking, vaping, and whatever else I have not heard of…”
We talk openly and often about all of these topics. There were rumors of some of this going on, but at this point, he is still scared of everything in this department. Thank goodness, because so am I, so for now we will just keep talking. My nervous boy does avoid the bathrooms during the day, and waits until he gets home. Not really sure if this is why or if it is because of the all of the other aforementioned awkwardness.
“Will he know what to do at the first dance? Will he dance? Will he ask a girl to dance?”
So the first dance was funny! None of the boys were sure what to expect. I wanted to practice dancing, and he did not feel that would be necessary. He was right. They held up the wall. I can so remember my first dance and all the weird feelings it brings up. When I picked him up, he said it was fun. He did request that I not chaperone the dance and that he and his friends be dropped off at the corner.
Things I Hadn’t Thought Of
The phone zone. According to him, everyone in the whole school had a phone except him. Also, there was no way I would be able to find him and pick him up from practice and other events. After my eye rolls and explanation that somehow my parents always found me way before cell phones, we decided that based on his grades and chores we would look into getting a phone after winter break. He worked hard, showed the maturity and gave us a few months to determine some rules that would be required. I have become more technical than I ever imagined! Managing a kid’s phone and checking everything to make sure they are safe is hard work.
Taxi status. It’s a constant pickup and drop off, so much so, that I often feel like an Uber driver (without the tips). These are some of my biggest learning moments. I try and listen close to their conversations. I also love to use this opportunity to expose these kids to the most amazing music ever, the ’80s! They all roll their eyes, but when Bon Jovi comes on and I see them sing along it is a huge win for me!
The hard talks. My rule is that I will answer ANY question. This has proved to be most important this year. Many of the questions are not as scary and uncomfortable as I thought they would be, but others I have had to look up. I am happy that he is hearing it from me, even if I am in a full sweat and cannot believe the words I am having to explain.
Swelling with pride. The biggest surprise as we wrapped up the first year of middle school and this rollercoaster pulled in, was the amount of pride I felt. Somewhere along the way, I remember reading a poem about giving your child strong roots and strong wings. Some of the first flights are awkward as they are still figuring things out. It’s scary at first, knowing they are ready and able, but afraid. Proud of the strong independent people they are becoming, but still standing close to help if there are any falls.
So, to my soon-to-be middle-school mamas, fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the ride! It’s not as bad as you think.
Mandy spends her time at Target, working her 9-5 job, and looks forward to spending time with her kids..... when they have "time" for me.... lol