Sorting Oneself Out in Middle School

December 2004

“Who am I?” was not so much my middle-schooler’s question, as “Who am I not?” Max had always been my easy-going child, but when he started sixth grade I observed some changes that were troubling. He began to talk of himself as fitting into none of the middle school types, and he began dropping activities, and also, it seemed, dropping friends. He gave up soccer, because he was not a “sport.” He gave up the school musicals, because he was not “arty.” Though bright enough, he divided himself from the “brains.”

When I looked around at the boys he had always played with, I saw that their common activities bonded them firmly together. They participated in a variety of things; the more, the better, it seemed. One boy we knew was doing three sports in addition to the school musicals. Another boy was beginning electric guitar, and playing both soccer and basketball after school. I saw Max setting himself adrift from everyone and everything familiar, and I worried about it.

I tried to get him to see what he was doing. “What will you do with yourself, then, while everyone else is busy with their clubs and things?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged. “There’s so much more homework in sixth grade. I just want time when I don’t have to do anything.”

Should I insist, and make him participate in activities anyway? Was this change okay? I looked at him, not knowing what to say. His shoulders sloped but his jaw was unmistakably resolute.

I talked to my husband about it. He did not share my worry. “What does it matter what he does, as long as he’s happy?” he would say. So, despite my misgivings, I let Max go through with his plan, but I would determine if he was, indeed, happy. I would rescue him when disaster struck, as I was certain it would. I watched him covertly when he came home from school. He would dump his bushel of books all over the dining room table and work silently for hours. I saw that in this he had been right: there was much more homework in sixth grade. And his new free time did give him the freedom to get all of his work done.

Here and there, I tried talking to him, as much as he would allow. Never much of a talker, as an adolescent he revealed his emotional terrain even less, just a brief smile or sudden blush. He seemed to open up to me mainly in the car, probably because we could not make eye contact there. I listened to his stories, his tones, probing gently, discreetly, for problems. I could not find anything except the same stubborn insistence that he was not going to play soccer or basketball just to fit in; that he was going to do what he liked. I tried to relax, to give him space, but I could not. And soon I discovered, to my disappointment, that the main thing he liked was the computer.

This did not seem so bad, however, to my husband, who is a software engineer and reminded me that he, too, is heavily interested in the computer. He installed a filter so that we would not have to worry about Max stumbling upon pornography. And he kept a careful eye on Max’s computer activities, limiting his surfing and his game time. At some point, I’m not sure how or when, Max started asking him about Flash, software used for animation. They began having long conversations about writing code. Suddenly, a manual as big as the phone book appeared on his desk. Soon he wanted to show us everything he was making, which included animating his little brother’s robot drawings. As Max’s animations sprang to life, so did Max.

A few months into his programming foray, a new friend started showing up at our house. He was someone I had not noticed before, a small, kind of quirky character. The two of them would talk computer comics for hours. I would find them at the desk, pencils in hand, full of purpose, the computer screen alive with drawings, squiggles and shapes. As I watched him with this new kid, it dawned on me that maybe I was the one who would have to change here, not Max. For this was not at all the picture I had been carrying of my son, of a gregarious, popular, golden-haired boy who played sports and starred in the school play. I was going to have to let that go.

But as I listened to them, arguing earnestly in cracking voices about design and character issues, I couldn’t help smiling. Maybe Max was right. It really didn’t matter what clubs he belonged to or how many friends he had. I could see for myself that he was just fine, whoever he was — or was not.