My daughter – my oldest daughter, I should say – started middle school this year and though it was a rough start and huge adjustment, she is now doing really well. She’s found her stride not just with her classes and subject matter, but also with the getting to all her classes on time, walking to the bus stop, being out there in the world with all her stuff and keeping track of it… which, written down, seems like very basic skills but for her was completely new this year.
She actually gets herself up, makes breakfast, packs a lunch, dresses appropriately, loads her backpack, and heads out the door with no real supervision required. She returns and unpacks her lunchbox, does her homework, practices her violin, and gets her cleats on in time for soccer practice. This is astounding. Especially compared to my son, who, in second grade, would eat maple syrup for breakfast, still puts his shirts on backwards, forgets his underwear, forgets to pee, forgets indeed that he is supposed to go to school without my serious, minute-by-minute interventions.
Anyway. This big kid of mine. She’s knocking it out of the park. And while she is doing really well academically and organizationally and out-in-the-worldly, I am fretting for her on the social front. The hard thing, for me, is figuring out how much of the fretting I should just do privately and how much – if at all – I should act on. The substitute who yelled at her for asking a question and then not understanding his answer. Do I let the teacher know her sub was a douche? Or remind my daughter that the world is full of people who abuse their authority, and strategize how to deal with it next time? Or, the bus driver who yelled obscenities at another driver who got in the way: call the transportation office to complain? Or remind my daughter that people can react inappropriately when frustrated, and if it’s not threatening her safety, try to roll with it?
And then there’s the kids.
Her best friend from elementary school moved away over the summer, and there are a few kids from that school attending middle school with her now, but it’s a huuuuge school and she hardly sees them, and the ones she does see she tries to be friendly with, but it doesn’t seem to me that it is being reciprocated. She says she’ll ask one girl, let’s call her, oh, Madge, she’ll ask Madge to save her a seat at lunch, but when she gets to the cafeteria the table is full and there’s a rule about the number of people at a table so she has to go find somewhere else to sit. Or she’ll text her asking about a thing in a class or if she’ll be on the bus and Madge will text back, “You suck.” And then a few minutes later, “JK, LOL :-)”
And my daughter is confused, because she thinks this girl likes her. Because this girl is the supposed awesome girl, you know, that one who is both popular and nice and talks to everyone and has the best outfits and the coolest bag and compliments everyone else on their slightly less cool outfits and bags and shares her candy and has the latest iPhone and perfect side-swept bangs and knows the words to all the songs. That girl.
We all know this girl, right? She’s super cool but makes a point of being really nice, too. She talks to everyone, even the secretaries and the lunch lady and that weird mumbly guy with the puppet. Being nice is her thing. It’s her brand. Malcolm Gladwell would call her a connector. Everyone wants to talk to her. She sparkles, she schmoozes, she’s got the world on a string and she’d be thrilled to hook you up.
But sometimes we get a weird feeling. She’s still smiling, but it seems a little unfocused, like maybe she’s not smiling right at us. She put her bag on the seat next to her just as we got on the bus, seemingly absorbed in Candy Crush, then moved it off when someone cooler boarded. She forgot to include us at the company presentation, when we had done that whole big Section on the important Thing, and when someone pointed out her omission she said “Oh right, they worked on it too.” She would have invited our child to the birthday party, but the venue only allowed thirty people, so sorry. She didn’t get the three voicemails we left, her phone was being “weird”.
And most of us, I think, receive this unspoken message and move on. We find people we really connect with instead of continually trying to connect with someone who seems “on” but is never actually available. This is what I keep hoping my daughter will do. It’s a school of more than one thousand kids, so I know her people are there, people she’ll click with, who will appreciate and relate to her, goofy quirks and all. People who will want and remember to save her a seat.
I just don’t know if I should say it out loud or let her come to it on her own. Madge isn’t really that nice. She doesn’t really want to hang out with you. Go, find the people who do.
What hurts more, hearing the harsh reality in one fell swoop, or months of ambiguity and solitude?