My own memories of eighth grade are so vivid that I’m pretty sure—until I glance into a mirror and see the telltale wrinkles around my eyes and the absence of orthodontic hardware—that it all happened a few days ago, at most.
By eighth grade, I was blessed to have a solid group of friends with whom, I didn’t realize then, I would remain close to this day. Many are members of this site (and I love you guys for all the support over the years).
Eighth grade was our last year of middle school. No one had ever heard of iPods or Uggs or Kanye, but skinny jeans were hugely popular back then, just as they are now. So were clogs, and little leather pouch purses in which we carried our Bonnie Bell flavored Lip Smackers. Everyone feathered his or her hair—everyone—and carried a comb for emergency re-feathering, conspicuously protruding from the back pocket of those ubiquitous straight-legs.
We read The Pigman and The Diary of Anne Frank in English class; we smuggled our mothers’ Jacqueline Susann novels to slumber parties with the dirty pages folded down. We watched Three’s Company and Happy Days on TV on weeknights after we finished our homework, and while the shows themselves were considered racy, we were far more mortified when Kotex commercials came on if our parents were in the room.
The movie Grease was new in theaters, and I personally saw it eight or nine times, memorizing all the lyrics. I imagined that I was Olivia Newton John’s Sandy, in love with a bad boy who had John Travolta’s dimples and dancing skills.
Back then, Friday and Saturday nights were usually spent babysitting; Sundays were spent at mass and visiting family. Saturday afternoons, though, were ours. I usually spent them with my best-friend-since-kindergarten Suzanne, walking all the way up Central to go shopping at the local plaza with precious dollars we’d earned babysitting. Top of my shopping list: the latest Judy Blume book from the Book Nook or a new vinyl 45 at Record Giant from Styx or Peter Frampton or, of course, the Bee Gees. Before heading back down Central, we’d eat burgers and French fried onions in a booth at the Your Host, feeding quarters into the tabletop jukebox.
Where did the years go? How did this eighth grader turn into a mom who has been informed repeatedly, lately, that I am not only not cool, but that it’s to my detriment to imagine or suggest that I might be cool to anyone who is in eighth grade and thus, genuinely cool. Or hip. Or whatever it is they call it now.
Yesterday, I visited my older son’s middle school, where I conducted writing workshops with four different groups of eighth graders. With my own middle school experience fresh in my mind--and all those media stories about the deterioration of our children thanks to the Internet and divorce and various other issues-du-jour--I was prepared for discipline problems, for eye rolling, for sullen stares, and lack of participation.
Instead, I got rapt attention, eagerly raised hands, creative responses, smiles, respect. My son smiled and not only admitted that he is my offspring, but actually let me touch his shoulder in front of his friends. His friends were glad to acknowledge not only that they know me but that they like books and authors and school and learning.
I came home buoyed by the experience and just had to share.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve come into contact with the contemporary 13 year-old—not by a long shot. We frequently have a houseful of boys here (usually hungry boys) and I’m always impressed by how articulate, respectful, and bright my son’s friends are. Yesterday, I learned that they aren’t the exception.
Our middle school is filled with kids who aren’t afraid to speak up, to be creative, to share their thoughts and feelings. Kids who know the difference between foreshadowing and red herrings and will volunteer the information when asked in front of the class. Kids who are far more savvy than I was at their age—and, in some ways, far more savvy than I am at my age.
At the end of one class, a boy came up to me and said, “Thank you so much for boosting my confidence in myself.”
I wish I had thought to thank him—thank all of them—for boosting MY confidence. Not just in myself, but in my kids, and their generation, and our collective future.