My son is in his final week of elementary school, which means middle school is right around the corner. This makes me nervous, not because I’m worried about my son, academically or socially. He’s a smart, kind-hearted, well behaved and thoughtful kid. I’m actually really proud of him. And he doesn’t have to be ‘the new kid’ like I did when I started middle school. I’m projecting, because of the sharp memories I have of my lonely and confusing experiences in middle school myself.
I was a quiet, nerdy new kid. That led to a nearly solitary existence, and when I did talk to other kids, I was mostly shocked by what they said. My peers had um…experienced a lot more social life than I had, particularly when it came to burgeoning romance. I had a hard time navigating my place as an anxious introvert on the asexual spectrum in a sea of kids in the throes of puberty and raging hormones and the beginnings of spending way more time with peers with way less adult supervision. But obvious social anxiety aside, when I think of middle school, the most potent memory I have is of what is potentially my biggest regret. It’s a memory of me being selfish, and treating another person poorly for…no real good reason. A memory of a moral test I failed. It’s a memory of discovering my worst potential as a person…just how bad of a human being I could be. I think my son standing on the precipice of this new stage of social life and education is an alert to me that he probably has some negative potential too…and that I should keep my eye on that in case he needs help dealing with that discovery, just like he might need help with higher level science and history and English homework, or with feeling lonely or left out.
And The Boy’s current position is also a big, glaring reminder that I still have all of that negative potential.
I just have to try my best to make choices for kindness and optimism and selflessness every day to beat it back and keep it at bay. Kindness and caring and forward thinking and positive spin on things are choices…choices that sometimes take careful thought and work to achieve and maintain. Maybe that’s why I feel so strange and worried and dark about the beginning of middle school for The Boy, despite no evidence to make me feel that way. Maybe I should talk about it. I never really have before.
So here’s a story about the worst I ever treated another person.
When I was a 7th grader, I didn’t talk very much. I’ve never made friends easily, and I was in a big, new, loud environment, which basically just makes me quieter. I admit I mostly was actively trying to NOT be noticed. But I could only hide ‘smart’ for so long. That became a quick, initial reputation…quiet, smart new girl. The other girls in my classes and who rode my school bus (which were the only kids I was exposed to, because I am not a social butterfly) were really into boys.
So and so is cute.
I like so and so.
I hope whatsisface asks me to dance at the dance on Friday night (oh yeah…there were dances like *every* Friday night it seemed…crazy).
Girls talked about making out. In 7th grade. Like…watching PG-13 and R rated movies style making out. I’d never even held a boy’s hand! I didn’t even THINK about boys like that. At all. Even a little. Really. (Ace spectrum. Damn, I wish I had information about that as a kid. I’d have felt way less damaged. And it probably would have saved some boys from hurt feelings too.)
Anyway, it wasn’t like I was getting a whole truckload of attention from boys because ‘quiet smart new girl’ isn’t really a big draw. Not in 7th grade. And not even in college. Let’s be real. So when Robby started talking to me, I was surprised. And happy. I didn’t really ‘like’ him, because I didn’t really ‘like’ anybody. But he made me feel less weird. Less like I didn’t fit in at all. Less lonely.
He was sweet. He was kind to me. Always respectful (he never touched me…not even to hold my hand). He said he liked me. He LIKED me liked me. And admitted it. Out loud. Again…all this stuff made me feel great, not weird or nervous or scared. He never made me uncomfortable. He never made me feel pushed or rushed or bad in any way. And he even kinda looked after me because I think he could tell (duh) that I was socially anxious and shy and a little naive (no…really? Not me…I’m super worldly now at 40…I definitely wasn’t naive when I was 12…sarcasm font can come around anytime, guys…). He explained things to me I didn’t understand and would make sure to say, ‘Not that YOU have to do anything like that. That’s just what that <word, phrase, hand gesture> means…’
Robby made me feel safe, which wasn’t something I had really felt since I left my old familiar surroundings. After a couple of weeks of him talking to me at school every day and walking me to a few classes and sitting with me in the gym, he asked me for my phone number. So I gave it to him. Robby was the first boy to call me on the phone. It was a Saturday afternoon. My mom was working and my dad and my little brother (who really WAS a baby then) were napping and it was raining outside and a commercial for the John Goodman movie, King Ralph, came on television, interrupting the old sitcom reruns I was watching on cable because cartoons were over. We stayed on the phone for over an hour…maybe two. I don’t know. I lost track of time. I know my mom never came home from work and my dad and my baby brother woke up, and that’s the only reason the phone call ended. ‘How long have you been on the phone?!’ Um…
I liked Robby. Not the way I’m sure he wanted me to, but I DID like him. I liked talking to him. I liked having a real friend; someone who I could feel actually cared about me, not who wanted to copy my history notes. I liked the way he made me feel…safe and not lonely and SEEN. He didn’t see ‘quiet, smart new girl.’ He saw JEN.
That Monday at school, he asked if I’d be his girlfriend…whatever that meant in 7th grade. He didn’t have the kind of ‘make out’ expectations some other 7th and 8th grade boys clearly had, because he knew me. He just liked me that much. Maybe he wanted to hold my hand while we were walking to class together. Maybe he’d want me to go to one of those Friday dances and slow dance with him. I was ok with that. And I liked Robby more than I liked pretty much everyone else I’d met at school up to that point. I was grateful for his presence in my lonely middle school life. So I told him ‘yeah.’ It made him really happy. And that made ME happy.
And that’s when the girls sitting around me began to tell me what a terrible decision I’d made. Robby wasn’t ‘cute.’ Robby wasn’t a boy all the other girls deemed ‘likable.’ No one wanted him to ask them to dance at a Friday night dance. I was already the ‘quiet, smart new girl.’ If I continued to willingly and out loud agree to be Robby’s girlfriend, well…I could get used to being really lonely for a long time, according to all the girls sitting around me. They were doing me a favor, telling me these things about Robby. For my own good. ‘You should totally break up with him, Jen.’
So I did.
The same day he asked me to be his girlfriend, and I said yes, and it made him really happy, I told him I didn’t want to be his girlfriend anymore, and it made him really hurt and sad. He didn’t call me on the phone again. He didn’t walk me to classes anymore or go out of his way to talk to me at school. I never got to slow dance with him at a Friday night dance. But he was never mean to me. And I think he still kind of looked out for me and protected me…from a distance. I never thanked him for making me feel safe and less weird and less lonely. In fact, I hurt him…I KNEW I was hurting him…and did it anyway…to align myself with the opinions of people who didn’t see me…who didn’t make me feel safe and less weird and less lonely…even after I broke up with Robby like they told me to.
That was the first and only time I went along with the crowd and did something solely based on what other people thought. And I never said I was sorry. Robby and I went to different high schools, so we were separated, and then before our junior year was over, I heard from a mutual friend that he was on a trip for Spring Break and *died* in a swimming accident. He died. So young. He was technically my first boyfriend…the only boy I ever broke up with…the first person in my new environment to make me feel safe and not totally alone…to see me. And I treated him like shit. For what? To appease popular kids who didn’t give a damn about me. And I never had the chance to apologize and atone for it.
Middle school was probably the worst two year stretch of my life. It was definitely the worst part of my childhood. It was a lot of change and sadness and anxiety and loneliness. I do always try to look for positives and silver linings because I’m That Dork, and when I try to find the good parts of middle school, there aren’t many. I mostly think about Robby, to be honest. He was the best part of middle school for me. And the worst.
Time goes by faster than I thought
The moments I wasted cannot be bought
Back for me to change my fate
I found myself arriving too late…
To change the things I most regret
The things that I cannot forget
My fault he cannot forgive
And now, in death, he’ll always live
In my memories and sorrow I feel
For both our wounds will never heal.
For Robby ❤ 😥
I promise I’ll be back to writing happy stuff tomorrow.