Junior High Anxiety

Last Friday, my daughter and I went to her seventh grade orientation at the junior high school. If you’ve ever stood in line waiting to get on the fastest, scariest, and most thrilling ride at an amusement park, then you’ll understand the feeling in the air on that day.

For the new junior high students, there was excitement about being in a much larger school, anticipation about classes and making new friends, and fear about fitting in. I could practically hear the butterflies flapping in the kids’ stomachs as we waited for yearbook pictures to be taken. I’ve got to believe that for most seventh graders, waiting in line to drop 13 stories on Medusa is probably less anxiety producing than trying to get your locker combination to work.

The parents had a look of subdued panic; the day represented the transition from parenting a child to parenting an adolescent. Even though I’ve been through this twice before, it is a little like getting on a roller coaster. The years in elementary school were just the ride to the top of the hill. Now I’m at the crest and I’m about to plunge headlong into the challenges of having a (soon-to-be) teenager in the house ““ whether or not I’m ready for it. Fasten your seatbelts; it could be a bumpy ride.

It was obvious from the very beginning that there were a lot of junior high jitters on Friday because the parents made sure that they got themselves and their child there early. This is also a technique I use when I’m anxious about going someplace. If I know I can easily find a place to park and figure out the system before the crowd arrives, it takes away a lot of the stress.

So when Jennifer and I arrived at the Junior High at 9:02, there was already a long line of parents and new seventh grade students waiting to get into the multi-purpose room for yearbook photos. The principal even commented on how this year’s group of parents had showed up at school very early. I couldn’t help but wonder if the school administration thought this boded well for the year because the parents were really on top of the schedule. Or perhaps they thought meant that it was going to be an especially difficult year because the entering class of seventh graders has a bunch of control freaks for parents.

As we waited in line, it gave me an opportunity to watch the kids and I had the same thought I always have whenever I have contact with junior high age kids, even contact as brief as driving past them on my way to pick-up at the high school, “Is there any age that a person feels less sure of themselves than seventh grade?” By the time they are in eighth grade, and certainly by the time they reach high school, the kids have sorted themselves out into groups. But most seventh graders seem so desperate for attention and approval from each other that I can’t help but feel a painful twinge when I watch their exaggerated interactions. I think you know what I mean, the really loud laughing, shrieking, and the literal pushing and pulling between the boys and the girls.

On Friday, I couldn’t help but notice a group of very slim and stylishly dressed girls flit back and forth across the courtyard giving air kisses and hugs to classmates they hadn’t seen since school ended. They made sure they were acknowledged by the surfer dude boys with the Jonas Brothers haircuts ““ the ones they had identified as not-dorky. I really don’t think these girls felt any more secure than the other 300 students; it’s just that rather than sit back and see if others accepted them, this group of girls was playing offense; they would decide who they accepted as cute.

Watching this kind of drama has made a special place in my heart for the teachers and school staff who work with junior high kids. After having two kids go through this school, I believe that they work very hard to keep the inevitable distractions at school to a minimum. They actually have a very specific dress code (no exposed underwear and tank top straps at least an inch and a half wide) and they do their best to stick with it. If the rules at the junior high feel a little rigid, I don’t mind. It makes it feel like a safe place.

After the yearbook photo, comments from the administration, and purchase of PE clothes, Jennifer finally had a chance to do what she had really come for: turn in her paperwork so she could get her class schedule and find her locker. The administration had done their best to keep all the nervous parents reassured and the students moving through the process but it was a long morning.

It’s the last junior high orientation I’ll ever go to”¦and I’m sort of sad about that. When Jennifer goes to high school orientation, there won’t be a parent in sight”¦but there will be a lot of bra straps showing.

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