When Back-to-School means Middle School

I grew up in the woods. Our house wasn’t isolated in the middle of the Blue Ridge mountains or anything, but it was at the end of a court on a five acre wooded property. I spent my summers in those woods, hunting crawdads and tadpoles and anything else that moved. My sister and I operated out of our clubhouse, which we decorated with paints we made from different colors of clay in the creek bed. We “cooked” all kinds of “food” for our poor old labrador, most of it from grass and acorns. Children are the ultimate foragers, and in the woods, we were content.

But summers end, and by about mid-August it was time to go back to school. I loved school. Learning from my teachers was heaven and homework was my jam. Elementary school was fun overall. I had friends and sleepovers and spats, but nothing too serious. Then it was time for middle school.


I remember showing up at the building that first morning and feeling so intimidated by the school’s three stories. My primary and elementary schools had been single story buildings that were pretty easy to navigate, thanks to being quite small. Both have since been significantly expanded, and when I drive by the buildings I always think about how much more those children have to be prepared for these days.

Middle school turned out to be impossible to prepare for.

First of all, there was the gigantic, open common area where kids gathered in the morning as they arrived on the school buses. The commons was just a foyer, really, but having the freedom to wander wherever I wanted was uncomfortable for me. I craved rules and directions and teachers who told you exactly where to stand and what to do. Middle school had a whole lot less of that, which left me unsettled.

Without the rules, I didn’t really know where I belonged. All the other kids seemed to have it figured out. They rushed around, smiling and giggling, shouting with each other in clusters around the commons, grouped around benches or sitting boldly in the middle of the floor. I wasn’t without friends, but even standing with them I felt unmoored. All of that freedom was overwhelming.


I remember the way it felt, walking in each morning from the bus with my friends. Would we sit on the same bench again that day? Would they think my story about my little sister cutting off her doll’s hair was funny? Or would this be the day that my friends stopped talking to me? That kind of thing happened all the time in middle school. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, in between battles to force my hair into place with ridiculous amounts of hairspray.


Looking back, I don’t see what I was so worried about, with my friends or my hair. Both were fine, really! It was just so easy to obsess over something new every day, from how tight to roll my jeans to whether or not to wear a bra. There were so many new things to learn about and tough decisions to make. Sometimes, being eleven is just so much.

For all the kids facing their first day of middle school: your feelings are valid. Middle school really is a big deal. Adults can be quick to dismiss middle school “drama,” but the truth is that you are growing up, and that is no small achievement.

You will find your place. I promise.

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