Murky Mumblings from a Middle School Mom

It takes a special person to be a middle school teacher – don’t you think?  While choosing an educational field in any capacity is something I admire, there is just something about the whole middle school aura that is different & commands a new found level of awe from me.  True – I mean awe in both the “wow” way and the “slightly crazy pants” way, but I digress.

Last year, I wrote more than a few red couch entries about the E man starting middle school – it was a tough transition for him, and frankly left me teetering on the edge of sanity even more than usual.  And while it’s true that having kiddos on the autism spectrum may add an element of parental anxiety to the transition from elementary to middle school, I’m realizing more and more that it’s kind of a funky/cool/scary/fun/bizarre/angst provoking/amazing rite of passage for everyone regardless of a diagnosis.  Huh – who knew?

I remember last year, sitting in a room filled with hundreds of incoming middle school parents as E’s soon-to-be Principal spoke to us about how middle school was just one more step towards independence for our offspring.  Frankly – he did everything right during that presentation, likely from years of experience dealing with parents every bit as nervous/excited/uncomfortable as their kids.  He opened with a photo of himself from his middle school complete with a terry cloth shirt and perfectly feathered 1980’s hair.  But as he delved more and more into the new-found freedom our kids would have, and the educational opportunities that were available to them – I looked around that crowded room and realized that I had never felt more alone.  No matter how positive and optimistic I am about E’s amazing journey thus far, and all that remains possible for him, it was at that moment just utterly heartbreaking for me to hear how vastly different my son was from every other middle school student starting that journey, and the tears just streamed down my cheeks.

But here’s the kicker – this year has not been that much different, and I didn’t see that coming.  Elliott’s younger brother, Henry, starts middle school this year, and while he is not on the autism spectrum, he has his own unique strengths and challenges.   Being a middle school mom could make anyone a bit whacky – but having 2 boys in 2 different middle schools with 2 vastly different personalities – well, I can’t help but feel this could easily be a new Olympic sport.

Sure, I don’t worry about Henry asking random classmates to marry him or emailing school administrators to express love to them because of social skill challenges, but I do worry about him getting lost in the shuffle as a super introverted, painfully shy guy who takes months to get up the courage to ask for help when he needs it.  While I wish with every fiber of my being that E’s reading comprehension difficulties were not so challenging for him, there was an element of security having him start his middle school career last year spending a portion of his day with a special education team that had literally truckloads of data about his strengths and challenges.  In some ways, it feels like I’m sending Henry off to the great unknown, and that’s unnerving in a whole new way.

I realize that there are likely a boatload of parents who are better at this process than I am.  Heck, there may be parents who don’t even need medication! (we’re likely never going to be friends).  But I’m also guessing that I’m not alone, and that while the struggles I’m facing may be unique to our little corner of the world, we all have our share of difficulties – some more visible than others.  Bottom line – this growing up business is hard – for kids and for parents.

This year, we’ll have 3 kids in 3 different schools.  That’s crazy!  As someone who graduated with a class size of 50 in a small farming community in southern MN, I’m overwhelmed just reading Elliott and Henry’s daily schedules – blue days and green days, or green days and white days, phy-ed uniforms in one school, not in the other, Flex Time or Panther Time – no “unnatural” hair color in one school, no sleeveless shirts or droopy pants in the other – ugh!  Gratefully, the only one who would try to push the envelope in any of these areas is Ada, and as a 2nd grader none of these rules yet apply to her – who knows, maybe they will when she is done with them?  And as Ada (also on the autism spectrum) is moving from the only school she’s ever known to our local community school, where Henry attended elementary – don’t think I’m not experiencing a mountain of anxiety about that situation as well – but I can only process so much craziness at once, so let’s save that for another day, shall we?

In spite of all the big feelings and excitement and anxiety and apprehension I have about the boys getting off to a good start this year, there are some signs of positivity and hope that I want to share.

Henry had a lot of challenges learning how to open his locker at his school “Jamboree”, but when his Panther Time (am I ever going to get used to that name?) teacher called us about updates this week, and I shared Henry’s challenges, she asked to meet us that afternoon, and experienced the same problems with his combination lock that we did – sweet vindication!  Best of all, she’s speaking to the custodians about it, introduced Henry to a teacher nearby his locker in case of trouble, and then took us on a tour of all his classrooms just to be nice.  She immediately recognized that he was a bit of an introvert, and said something like “I can tell you’re kind of a quiet guy, and that’s ok because I’m outgoing enough for both of us.”  He left that day with a pinch more confidence, a small swagger in his step and a smile that conveyed he was ready for her to shake him out of his comfort zone (just a little).

Then, we attended a 7th grade back-to-school night at E’s school.  After the challenges he faced last year, I was ready to once again feel down about how different E’s experience was going to be from that of his peers.  But this year, I had a different kind of unexpected reaction thanks to my pal, E, who always finds new ways to surprise us.  For as this large crowd of people filed into the school auditorium, 99% of whom Tom & I didn’t know, E was chatting and high-fiving more than a few teachers and administrators, sharing smiles and well wishes the whole way.  I’m not sure why that surprised me, as despite him attending a large school, whenever I would pick him up early for an appointment last year, nearly every custodian, office personnel, teacher or lunch room attendant would greet him by name.  No doubt, E knows how to turn on the charm, has a bright smile to share, and has oodles more self-confidence about who he is than I ever did in middle school!  He’s forged these connections in his own slightly funky/unique way and feels a sense of pride and belonging to his school – maybe in a way I hadn’t realized until that very moment.

As each group of educators got up to share something about their respective subjects, I found myself excited to learn a little bit about who E would get to work with, and having him tell me who was funny and who was really “tough” according to E.

Some time ago, Elliott’s amazing tutor, Ms. S, (a middle school teacher by day) shared with me that she felt lots of middle school teachers have retained a middle school sense of humor in order to do what they do effectively.  I must admit, that was what I’ll remember most about 7th grade back-to-school night – the funky, slightly off-center sense of humor that many of the teachers shared – it was calming and soothing – for the students and the parents.  Even Dr. J. – the Principal – as even though he seemed the most buttoned up of the bunch, all you had to do was imagine him in his terry cloth shirt to know that he likely still laughs inappropriately whenever he hears the word Uranus.

Maybe the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in all of this is that growing up is tough stuff for all of us, and perhaps the best thing we can do is try to retain some tiny piece of yourself firmly grounded in middle school (the funky humor part, not necessarily the awkward hormonal part).  While autism, combination locks and sassy pants 2nd graders who insist upon carrying a small stuffed gopher everywhere may be keeping me awake at night, we all face our share of challenges.  Maybe, by allowing ourselves to find some element of humor in even the ugliest of situations, it will lighten the load just enough.

Who knows, had autism never become part of my life, maybe I would have become a middle school teacher?  I kind of appreciate people who choose to hang out with young folk who are literally swimming in hormones, explore exceptionally unfortunate hair styles  and tend to learn in a very slow manner how much man smelling spray is too much.  After all, I did get a degree in Social Studies a lot of years ago, and I can’t help but laugh out loud at the state fair when we stop by the pig barn and notice that the biggest boar in MN is clearly not neutered.  And whether it’s appropriate or not, I’ll consider it a success if my middle school guys know all their planets, but smile a little whenever they say Uranus . . .

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