by Eric Braun
“We need to find a bigger herd.”
When my son was getting ready to start middle school last August, that quote kept coming back to me. It came from my first day of middle school, and I was surprised at how clearly I remembered the moment. I was standing before the first bell with two of my elementary school buddies in a corner of the schoolyard, looking around at a sea of kids—some familiar, mostly unfamiliar—who like us were waiting to start the first day of school. Some of those kids looked pretty tough. They all looked more confident than I felt. There were no swingsets, no monkey bars, no duty teachers patrolling the yard. Just a bunch of intimidating kids and a big, gray brick building.
One of my buddies surveyed the landscape and put into words what we were all thinking: Our group was too small. We were vulnerable.
“We need to find a bigger herd.”
I don’t remember whether we were hazed that day as we expected, but certainly I faced bullying and other social trials—exclusion, peer pressure, etc.—over the course of the year, and that’s primarily what I remember about middle school: the social pressure cooker. Most adults I know have similar memories. So I had a lot of anxiety last summer as my son’s first year of middle school approached.
A year later, as he’s about to start seventh grade, I talked with Henry about his first year. If he could go back in time to last summer, what would he tell himself about starting middle school?
“You can’t just coast on being smart,” he said.
Huh. Nothing about social problems. No words of advice about bullying.
For the first time last year, schoolwork had been a real challenge for Henry. He had to track his own due dates, and when things didn’t get turned in, nobody reminded him—until he got an “I” for incomplete. He took a foreign language, crazy math, and extracurricular projects. He had to work in groups and manage the responsibilities and challenges that come with that. There were extra responsibilities like locker combinations, moving from class to class, and a school-issued iPad.
My wife and I worked with him to use the online portal to check for missing assignments. We bought him a binder with subject dividers to help keep everything organized, and we reminded him from time to time to check it. We hounded him to keep in touch with his teachers via email and in person to ask questions and get help when he needed it. Over time, he learned to manage—not perfectly, but pretty well. He finished the year feeling confident and proud.
Of course, Henry did face a shifting social scene as well, including some hurdles, and just like with his academic challenges, we provided tools and guidance to help him. Maybe more importantly, so did his school, which sets up all students in an advisory class where they address social issues, build social skills, and discuss bullying. We sure didn’t have anything like that when I was a kid, but many schools do now.
Socially, middle school is complicated, weird, and plain hard, but a little awareness helps a lot. Not that cruelty and peer pressure have disappeared, but times have definitely changed for the better.
If I could go back in time to last summer, what would I tell myself about the start of middle school? I might tell myself to have a good plan for helping my son keep organized right from the start. I might urge myself to brush up on my algebra. I would definitely tell myself to relax with the anxiety: His middle school experience was not going to be my middle school experience. With the new bullying awareness in schools, I believe fewer kids will have to worry about finding a bigger herd.
Mostly, I would say: Enjoy. It’s not going to be a parade of sweet moments and easy times, but in the end, you’re going to love watching your middle schooler mature before your eyes.
What would you say to a parent whose son or daughter is starting middle school?
Eric Braun is a writer, editor, and publishing professional living in Minneapolis. He is a 2013 McKnight Artist Fellow and a convincing air guitarist. Learn more at www.heyericbraun.com.
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Very nice job with lettig viewers know about middle school organization. I am a student going to junior high also, and even I can still take some advice from here!