By lex, on October 23rd, 2003
Observations on middle school social rituals
This is the Biscuit on the right, child number two after her sixth grade graduation last Spring. A sixth grader! Top of the heap. She has won the school prize for scholarship in science, and her parents are ready to burst with pride.
Fast forward through a San Diego Summer, lazy days at the beach, untold hours on IM, the occasional book…
Now we are a seventh grader, our first year in middle school. A year that many experts consider critical in the formation of adult self-esteem, especially for young girls. No lesser observers of pop culture than Maureen Dowd (whom, like others , I usually find unreadable) and Linda Perlstein (of whom I’ve only read) have documented the social precipice our youngsters seek to negotiate these days.
Now, I remember it being hard, being young – not wanting to wait another moment to grow up, always wondering if next year would be the perfect year, when everything came together. But I was a boy of course, and cultivated a certain devil-may-care insouciance. I don’t know that most girls can carry that off, or that anyone should really try. Still, it’s a little painful watching my beloved daughter enter this stage of her life, and not be able to do much in real terms to help her through it.
There’s a perfectly enormous public high school that my son attends – enormous because it’s academic performance so routinely leads the county, and the sports teams don’t suck either (not hard when you’ve got a student body of nearly 4000 to choose from). Anyway, the Friday night football games are quite the social ritual. There are all manner of adults who attend, alumni and parents. High school students too, of course. But a shockingly high number of kids that are obviously not yet in high school and apparently are not sports fans attend as well, all dressed up like little Justin Timberlake’s and Brittany Spears. There is a marked propensity to offer and receive hugs. It was not until very recently that I figured out just how freighted with consequence these hugs could be.
OK, it’s entirely possible I’m seeing too much in this. Anyway, I took the Biscuit to the game with three of her friends. (Three seems to be the perfect number of girls to a female combat unit – in fighters, the basic combat element is a two-ship, for mutual support, although a four-ship is much more flexible. I suppose that a three-ship of young females offers advantages as well – if there is a fight among two girls, they can only split up and proceed as singles, with the obvious implication that they are unworthy, and engage-able by the pack. The third part of the three-way girl combat element serves as a moderating force, I can only presume, since a fight between any two might cause the unengaged fighter to pick sides, with potentially drastic social consequences for the remaining single – call it socially assured destruction [SAD]).
We’re fairly new to the town, two years now. Some of these kids have been together since diapers. Goes with the military family turf. We rented for a year, in one (wonderful) grade school district, and then bought a house a couple of miles away in another grade school district and nothing I could do could shake the bureaucracy from the conviction that neither the Biscuit nor the Kat belonged anymore. I cannot describe the river of tears…
Anyway, back to the football game: We’re at the gate, and there is much rejoicing (and not a little trepidation) as another three-ship female combat element is recognized from school. Our lead (not Biscuit) promptly goes up and gets a hug. Not your usual, friends and family, haven’t seen you in a while hug, but something almost kabuki-like in formality. One arm is raised at a 45 degree angle to the horizon, while the other is lowered by the same amount. The prospective recipient follows this lead (deconflicting axes), and there is a full three second, longitudinal squeeeeze… well, a hug, anyway. Dramatic faces are apparently expected, since they are delivered without comment.
The Biscuit is close in trail, like a good wingman at an offensive merge. There is a moment’s hesitation as the other flight’s lead makes eye contact, and evaluates the threat… everything hangs in the balance. The Biscuit hesitates, unsure whether to proceed. The other lead raises the arms, makes the face, and the Biscuit is accepted into the clan. This time. Crisis is averted, and a father can breathe again, only now aware that he had stopped for a moment.
Two more years of this?