Middle Earth

By Gregory Keer

My oldest son is entering middle school and I’m wondering who tinkered with my clock? Wasn’t it just the other day that I was in middle school? Wasn’t I so afraid of talking to other kids that I lugged a heavy book bag to avoid locker conversations and never showered after PE because of embarrassment? Wasn’t I too clueless to appreciate the smiles of Jaynee Strickstein and chose to sit alone in my room reading about The Hobbit’s Middle-earth?

For me, reality is sinking in. I’m middle-aged. And if my son’s transition to the next level of school isn’t symbolic enough, there are other signs. Two icons of my junior high years, Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett, prematurely exited the world. My back muscles spasm if I look the wrong way. Facebook reconnects me with friends and pictures from my elementary through high-school years (did I really part my hair in the middle and wear such tight swim trunks?).

I stop the 8-track rewind to consider my first born. The one who had baby thighs like the Stay Puft marshmallow man and giggled hysterically when I crawl-chased him through our apartment. The one who liked to flash his size 4 superhero underpants to everyone because he thought he was cool. The one who just yesterday learned to read the picture book George Shrinks.

Benjamin isn’t shrinking. He’s 11 years old, more than five feet tall, and hipper to the jokes on The Colbert Report than I am. But over the past six months, he’s been going through his own reflection.

It started last winter, as he joined Wendy and me at meetings for the public middle schools we were considering. Benjamin looked so small as he walked through the halls of much-bigger institutions than the one he was attending. He listened to us, looking a bit lost, as we explained the various magnet and specialty programs.

“I don’t know if I’m ready to do homework all the time,” he said, sounding a little stressed. 

We worked hard to whittle down the details and help him decide. My wife made countless trips to school offices to turn in paperwork and ask questions. I went to a two-hour science meeting and brought Benjamin to see an exhibition of one program’s student projects.

The deciding factor, in addition to Benjamin’s greatest interest in learning about community work and social studies, was that a number of his good friends would be joining him if he went to the civics program of our neighborhood school.

Being with friends became increasingly vital for Benjamin in the spring as he experienced a flurry of activities to mark the end of his elementary education. He went to Yosemite National Park with his schoolmates, teachers, and mom. He ignored Wendy most of the time, but she got to be a fly on the wall to watch the social politics and see him laugh with his buddies. The trip was wonderful for Benjamin, but it heightened his emotion about leaving his cohort.

The final school weeks were marked by a host of “lasts.” There was Benjamin’s last orchestra concert after three years of playing trumpet and a hip-hop dance performance in which Benjamin shared a stage with his middle brother for the final time they’d be on campus together. Then, the elementary school culmination ceremony arrived. It showed the deep mutual adoration between the kids and their teachers. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and Benjamin’s eyes were two of the wettest.

Year-end parties went on for at least a week, causing Benjamin and his friends to be alternately celebratory and wistful. Wendy and I grew weary of shuttling our son to so many get-togethers, yet we also were impressed with the level of connection he had made with his contemporaries.

And this is one of the important truths for me. For all his crankiness about hygiene and homework, forgetfulness about chores, and biological attachment to the cell phone we caved in to buy him for graduation, my son has a greater ease with people than I ever had. He makes friends quickly and keeps up relationships.

As he heads to middle school, I know he will not shy away from locker-side chats or ignore girls out of fear of talking to them (though he forbids me from detailing his communication with females just yet). He may be headed for big adolescent and academic challenges in the sixth through eighth grades, but he’s ready for the transition — even though I’m not so sure that I am.

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