So when I was in fifth grade, I was riding home on Bus #22 after school one day.
Two popular and cute boys were sitting in the back: one the Alphamale, the other his Wingman.
My friend Jenny, who usually sat beside me on the way home, had just gotten off at the previous stop.
I felt vulnerably alone in a way only a young girl could with two cute and popular boys sitting behind her, as they whispered and giggled and plotted.
I felt something coming. Then it hit me. Something literally hit me.
One of them threw gum in my hair.
Let me repeat: they threw gum in my hair and laughed about it.
I’m pretty sure the following stages of feelings happened in this order–although Hubba Bubba may have left my memories a bit sticky and tangled:
1.Shock: Did that really just happen? Is that my heart or my pride that just hit the floor instead of the gum? I want my mom.
2. Pride: Do not cry. Do not let them see you cry.
3. Feigned Confidence: Not Turning Around to Face Them
4: Strength: Ignoring their Laughter
5: Relief:Getting off the Bus
6: Comfort:Running Home into my Mother’s Arms
7: Catharsis:Crying. Crying. Crying.
8: Reflection/Processing: Explaining to Mom What Happened
9: Recovery:Peanut Butter-ing the Gum Out
10: Hell Hath No Fury Like a Mother’s Hover
Once the gum was worked out with the peanut butter, things got even stickier.
My mother picked up the telephone and dialed the boys’ mothers.
Anybody who knew my mother knew that she knew when to stand up and when to shut it (though that ratio was probably more like 80/20 with my mom). You did not mess with her kids.
Alpha’s mom was defensive and in denial. Wingman’s mom, on the other wing, was receptive, conversational, and apologetic.
I was aghast during these phone calls–I hid in my room with a pillow over my freshly shampooed and conditioned head. Which was worse? Gum in my hair or my mom calling the boys’ moms? (Fifth into sixth grade is where mortification is quite possibly conceived.)
Approximately 30 minutes after the phone calls (right after “Saved by the Bell” but before Ghoulash for dinner), the front doorbell rang.
Mom told me I should answer it.
So I did and and there stood Wingman. His eyes were blotchy, red, and swollen from crying, and he abashedly handed me a note. He then quietly apologized as contritely and awkwardly as any fifth grade boy could.
I just as quietly and sheepishly thanked him.
Then he left. And things moved along more smoothly the rest of our school years together. I think that gum stuck to him more than it stuck to me.
I’d like to thank him for that note today, but I’m afraid I’d either dredge up something he’d rather not remember, or I’d merely embarrass him. If he reads this…he’ll know. (I’m friends with him on Facebook.)
But I want him to know that I am forever grateful for his courage and apology.
Why does this memory resonate so much with me lately?
Because now I have a middle-schooler of my own whose run into (or away from) the same kinds of issues–sans gum in hair.
And I’m no longer that 5th grade girl, I’m that 6th grade girl’s mother hover. What a different perspective and context motherhood has given me. My heart empathizes with what she’s going through, but now the mother in me is torn:
When do I stand up or shut it? As parents, when do we stand up for our kids or when do we need to allow them to figure out life for themselves?
And therein lies the conundrum of middle-school parenting, my friends.
When your kid comes into your room at 10:30 at night to spill the beans, looking worried and nervous, begins having stomach aches, wants to avoid going to school, shows you things on her phone that make her uncomfortable…you intervene.
I had a long conversation with my kid. I listened to her. We brainstormed a list of ideas to problem-solve, then we edited that list to what would make her comfortable and what would make me, the parent, comfortable.
I ended up intervening on my daughter’s behalf: reaching out to other girls’ mothers who were my tribe, seeking their advice, and finding their daughters in the same situation with a group of boys at school.
But instead of calling the boys’ mothers (my daughter crossed that off the list first), I emailed her school counselor. Luckily they are professionals and know how to establish rapport, create a safe space for kids to open up, and help problem solve.
I think what disturbs me the most is that my confident, brave, and assertive daughter had suddenly appeared vulnerable because of boys doing “boy things”.
I realize that’s a sketchy definition there, but I have a boy, so I get it; but I have a daughter, so I also don’t accept it.
Middle school will always and forever be that totally awkward space in between elementary and high school. Kids will all be vulnerable at varied times.
But parents should always be in tune. I’m not perfect. I’m no expert by any means. But the social and emotional well-being of our kids, all kids, needs to be watched closely these days. So that it doesn’t bubble up in somebody’s hair…or worse.
I acknowledge that the Mother Hover should only be used when absolutely necessary. It’s a tool, not a go-to. Kids should struggle through middle school, figure out things for themselves, and learn to grow up and into what lies ahead.
The job of a parent, afterall, is to work him or herself out of the job.
But keep some peanut butter on hand in case you run into some sticky times.