by Leslie Morgan Steiner
Thirteen years ago, hugely pregnant with my first child, I read Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions . I laughed so hard I nearly snorted myself into labor. Describing the final weeks of her first pregnancy (as an unemployed 35-year-old single mom, no less) Lamott writes:
“The seventh and eighth grades were for me, and for every single good and interesting person I’ve ever known, what the writers of the Bible meant when they used the words hell and the pit. It was Lord of the Flies. Springtime for Hitler, and Germany. So how on earth can I bring a child into the world, knowing that such sorrow lies ahead?”
I knew exactly what Lamott meant. In 8th grade, the popular girls put deodorant and Listerine in the locker of another girl (hint, hint) and then claimed they were doing her a self-improvement favor. After my best friend and I and a third girl snagged the three leading lady roles in the school play, on opening night, my friend and the new girl showed up like twin sisters, having gotten their hair and makeup professionally done (it was a period piece), making me look and feel like an unloved, straggle-haired stray cat on stage next to them. Another friend told me she had cancer (not true, but I didn’t figure that out for several days, as everyone else sniggered at my concern). The same girl told everyone in the class she’d seen my dirty, smelly maxi pad through my gym shorts. You get the picture.
So now, that big baby is getting ready to enter 7th grade. Hot on his heels is baby number two, a girl born 20 months later. She’s set to enter the 5th grade, which with age inflation for girls at least has become the new 7th grade. This summer I feel like I’m in the church pew preparing to witness two sacrifices at the altar, as both kids inch closer to The Pit into which preteen school children descend. My stomach hurts for them, just imagining the cruelty and paranoia that lies ahead. I feel like locking them in their rooms for two years, or at least convincing them to take a vow of silence at school, even around children who have been their sweetest, most caring friends since kindergarten. Because middle schoolers lost in the maze of early adolescence can turn into children possessed by the Devil.
But it just wouldn’t be fair to deprive my children of this life-changing rite of passage. I’d be one of those myopic over-protective parents who inadvertently sabotage the rest of her children’s lives. Because surviving middle school in America is actually the best imaginable training for thriving in corporate America later in life. Small consolation to my innocent, emotionally-secure children right now. But because I’m the parent here, I will cheer them on through the difficult days to come, assured that a lifetime of steady paychecks, healthcare benefits and annual bonuses are at stake.
During my 15 years working for Fortune 500 companies, I once discovered a married colleague kissing the company president (also married) at the holiday party; a few weeks later she got the promotion I’d slogged after. Years later in a managerial position at a different company, my favorite salesperson, whose career and psyche I’d nurtured for five years, filed a formal discrimination complaint with human resources because I sanctioned a co-worker with three young children who had to leave early on Wednesdays. A man I worked for once told me I had breasts like a milk cow. I myself once hid an obnoxious musical card in a rival’s office, which played so long and so loudly she had to leave work until the office cleaners could track down the device. Sound familiar? Kind of like 7th grade. Yet because I had survived 7th grade, I was able to laugh my way through the worst corporate America threw at me.
So I need to steel myself for the only thing worse than 7th and 8th grade: watching my defenseless offspring go through the painful trial-by-fire themselves. Knowing they will be stronger for the struggle. One day.