Some days it is completely apparent what to write about, and on others, there is a cluster storm in my head of words and feelings that need and want to be expressed. Today, this is my fourth attempt at the same topic, but the other three evolved into bigger thoughts than I can write about today. Why today? Where does this indecision come from?
Well, it could be the five cups of coffee I drank at the Welcome Back Coffee for parents that our PTA hosts on the first day of school. However, I think it has a lot more to do with the fact that I often find myself experiencing my own turmoil and angst on the first day of school. Forget that I haven’t walked into a classroom as a student since 1996. (I was a late, late bloomer.) At the morning coffee I quickly touched base with a few friends whose daughters have embarked upon life at the Junior High. They are seventh graders!! So many memories from those days have been floating through my head for the last week.
The summer before Junior High my family moved to Shelton Washington from El Paso Texas. Not only did I have knots in my stomach about leaving the safety net of elementary school, I had knots about being the “new girl.” In El Paso I was still in that phase of life where I was torn between wanting to play with my Barbie’s or hang out with the neighborhood kids and my brothers. I was in the 6th grade; signs of my late blooming were already showing.
When we moved to Shelton, a timber industry town, it was like stumbling upon small town America. The town is situated in a valley, the hills surrounding were thick with Douglas Fir, and a river wound its way lazily through the valley floor. Downtown had one clothing store, a pharmacy, the post office, a grocery store, and the other small fillers – cafes, barber shop, ice cream parlor and churches with steeples. That which I remember most powerfully about the summer of 1977 is the smell of sawdust and boxwood which hung in the hot summer air. The next most powerful memory was feeling somewhat blinded by all the green. Trees and shrubs were everywhere. Drastically different from the sand and cactus of the desert we’d left behind.
In the days leading up to my first day of school I scoured the JC Penny catalog, the Woolworths catalog, and trolled the aisles of the one clothing store in town. I pronounced them all inadequate. Fortunately for me my parents plonked my brothers and me in the car and drove us to Olympia to go shopping. I really cannot remember much of what I bought, but two shirts really stand out. Both had strips, both had white collars, both were short sleeved. They hung lovingly from hangers in clear plastic bags until the first day of school.
The last night of summer vacation I chose my clothes carefully. I remember picking the shirt that had stripes in shades of blue with a thin line of pink repeated infrequently. I picked it out instead of the shirt with pink stripes with the occasional thin line of pale green. I wanted to wear the pink, but sensed that blue would allow me to blend in more. Jeans of course, some form of tennis shoe, and after much discussion, my parents gave me the okay to wear my hair down. Wearing my hair down was a big deal.
Every day of my life before the first day of Junior High, I wore my hair in two braids. There isn’t a single picture that exists that has me sporting anything on my head other than two braids. I had never had more than a trim since birth, so my hair was really long. Braids were the only way to protect against tangles and globs of chewing gum.
Surely seventh graders didn’t wear braids; maybe a pony tail. I was relieved when I arrived at school and found out that I was correct on both counts; blue shirt, not pink, loose hair, not braids.
I quietly, yet nervously, maneuvered the halls, looking for any familiar face. I saw my brother a few times, but of course I wasn’t going to talk to him, he was my brother! Besides, I was jealous, he was walking with someone. He’d already made a new friend.
By the end of the first week of Junior High I realized that the clothes I picked were okay, not great, that girls wore make-up, they hung out and they knew all kinds of words that I didn’t, and were experts on subject matter that I was clueless to. I have a memory of a girl using a word that to this day I would find horrific, and I laughed because she did. I stumbled from group to group looking for someone to connect to and after a month or so the weirdest thing happened. The most popular girl in school announced to her “best friend” that I was going to be her new best friend, but that was okay because the old best friend had picked out a new best friend too. Did it matter that I couldn’t reveal my inner-Barbie playing self? No! The most popular seventh grader, sister of the most popular eighth grader, wanted to hang out with me.
I’m sure you are wise to what happened! That friendship lasted until the two girls quit fighting. So, we the leftover friends did what any sane girl would do. We became best friends. We did hang our heads in shame for a day or two, but then went about the business of being cool all by ourselves… literally! It turns out that being the new girl whose father is the town’s priest was bad, and hanging out with the girl whose parents were freshly divorced (remember this is 1977) and poor, well, we were pariah! We were unable to withstand the pressure, and that friendship died a quick death as well.
Somewhere along the way, I met Lori. She and I remained friends until we moved from Shelton when I was a sophomore in high school. Together we could be part of the big crowd. We could blend in. Her mom was cooler than us. She drove a white Camaro and wore white jeans.
Sure junior high had some terribly awful moments. But many were sweet, funny, and others poignant. My group of friends grew bigger as I began to develop the ability to discern what made someone a true friend from the rest. I grew strong enough that on my last day of school in Shelton, sitting in biology lab, I confronted the girls that had hurt me the most and asked them why. They were embarrassed, but admitted that they did it because they could. It wasn’t personal; it was just their way of trying to figure out the pecking order. Does it make it alright? No. But no matter how cool they may have looked to others, they too were trying to find their place.
Thanks to my mother, I learned that less is better than more when it comes to make-up. I came down the stairs one morning in the eighth grade, not having gained permission to wear make-up, fully painted up. She looked up briefly and said, “Take half of it off.” She didn’t say, “Take it all off.” So I did without a fight. She did me a huge favor; I would have been laughed out of school. I wish she’d have taken a picture of me with it all on.
My very first boyfriend, Greg, asked me to go steady. His buddies chatted not too far away, lounging near their lockers, offering some form of moral support. Greg’s coolness was way above mine, so not only did I have my first boyfriend, but my coolness factor went way up. Greg played center on the boys’ basketball team, we nodded at each other at lunch and recess, and it was a beautiful relationship. We dated the whole school year!
The following year, behind the gym at a school dance, I had my first kiss. Chip is his name… or at least I think it is. I never asked if Chip was a nickname, now that I think about it. Anyway, it wasn’t a scary first kiss. It was a nice, “I like you”, respectful first kiss. I was absolutely giddy and terrified at the same time. I remember bolting back into the gym to find the bathroom. I was moments away from wetting my pants! We never kissed again. We did date the rest of the school year though, graduating from nodding at each other to talking once in a while.
People don’t believe me, but it is true, I am shy. I’m not sure if I was born shy, but I can tell you that moving all the time was hard. I have learned to throw myself into situations, I have learned that I cannot let my shyness control me, but to this day, even on mornings when I am surrounded by people I know, I can find myself nervous and clueless. Am I cool enough? Are my clothes right? Should I have worn the blue instead of the pink?
The angst I feel on the first day of school is my own. My children are miles ahead of me. Granted they haven’t hit junior high, and I know that they’ll have hic-cups. But they also have an ever widening group of friends, a deepening understanding of themselves, and they know that we’ll help them blend in when they need to and stand out when they want to. I remind myself often that true joy is learned by experiencing pain, and that they’ll be okay if the water gets choppy from time to time. Do I want it get choppy? Heck no! I just can’t stop it, regardless of how hard I may try. All I can be certain of is that as their parents we’ll always be there, will always love them, and when necessary, guide them towards beige eye shadow instead of blue.
Thanks for reading!