Our daughter started her first day of eighth grade last Monday. She got up super early to be at her girlfriend’s house so they could walk up the hill to school together.
Elizabeth, or Liz as she calls herself, is at the top of the heap now in middle school, no longer a Taylor Tot or suspended someplace in the middle of seventh grade. She’s one of those girls she found herself looking up to not even a year ago, poised to enjoy a year full of special events that no one else gets -- a trip to Great America, a special graduation dance, a yearbook with her name embossed on it, and of course the sacred ceremony itself. Eighth grade girls are spoken of in hushed tones, like “He’s dating an eighth grade girl,” or “I’ve been friended on Facebook by an eighth grader!” Elizabeth will have braces by December, too. Maybe even green ones, although when I was a kid we didn’t get to pick cool colors. The fact that she’s actually looking forward to getting them, like they’re a right of passage, blows my mind.
I knew we were approaching a rocky spot this past weekend when by Thursday Elizabeth juggled both her computer and iPhone almost religiously to connect with her best friend, Jessica. Their need to reaffirm their friendship before school started seemed manic. Friday morning, she announced a “Stay at Home Day”, the last of the summer, and she simply refused to go anywhere. Liz glued herself to her technology, as she and Jessica shared an obsession over a gaming site called OMGpop, and their constantly competitive interaction increased their tension. At one point, Elizabeth exclaimed with glee that they were addicted! Yay!
Time For An Intervention
Despite Elizabeth wanting to spend time with Jessica in person over the weekend, Leslie and I gently declared a no friend zone and instead intended to bask our daughter in the healing, inner warmth of our tight family. Saturday would be about shopping, one of Elizabeth’s favorite activities, and the list of errands to complete and prepare for Monday. We shopped for clothes, shoes, and school supplies (which, by the way, cost a fortune no matter where you get them).
While we were out, Elizabeth maintained the link with Jessica over her iPhone. In real time, she vacillated between reluctant cooperation, exasperated impatience, and then downright irritation with Leslie and I. Each time she got too snippy, she heard about it, and soon it became obvious we were cramping her style.
After a slightly tense dinner of chinese food, we ended up at a brand new Van’s shoe store on Burlingame Avenue. It had just opened the day before, was fully stocked, and the sales boy seemed eager to please. That was a good thing because Elizabeth is notoriously difficult to fit. After being a size eight and a half for the last year and a half, Elizabeth declared that she was only seven and a half, and thus began a tug ‘o war around shoe size.
I heaved an enormous sigh.
We were not “those jerks” or worse as some other children have called their parents. No. Elizabeth referred to us as “my moms” (which we are) and “those people”, as in, “I can’t get away from those people” (which I don’t mind). She complained we were finding fault with everything she did, and, I suppose, from her limited perspective, we were.
Eighth Grade Time Machine
Eighth grade was a blur for me. My brothers and I lived with my mother in a pretty little rental in Milford, Connecticut, but the front door revolved in a long series of freaks and weirdo’s. These were people my mother considered friends, but who, at any point in my life, I would consider a roster of the lowest form of barely vegetative life forms available on the Milford bar scene. The all night parties complete with band, open use of drugs and alcohol, people asleep on the couch, floors and showing up in bedrooms, punctuated by the occasional conflict between inebriated scumbags was a frightening parade of on-going craziness. You wouldn’t believe the completely inappropriate scenes I walked in on, and god only knows what my brothers were exposed to. I was frequently stunned, to say the least. My immediate family was no safe haven, and my mother’s behavior became a source of confusion. While there was a guardian angel that kept me focused on constructive activities, my mother showed no interest in what I was doing, and so at this point I started leaning heavily on my friends for emotional support and got out of the house every chance I could get.
Leslie, on the other hand, was a different kind of kid. She was in seventh grade in 1964, and her mother had gone away for a long medical convalescence. Leslie was left with her father, who worked in show business, to fend for herself. Her older sister had long since flown the coup. Leslie was a private child who didn’t share her problems and never strayed from her family.
* * * * *
Our family approached a nuclear meltdown more than once over the weekend. Elizabeth teetered on a high wire of tension, brought on by eighth grade expectations, and Leslie and I were her safety net, guiding her. I found myself wondering what would happen if that safety net disappeared? How would our daughter fare if we weren’t there to guide her? Would she be like I was, needful of people and activities? Or would she be like Leslie who was private and self-sufficient? I’m happy that her biggest worry revolves around when she can visit with her friends after school instead of focusing so intently on homework.
Elizabeth is an uncanny combination of both Leslie and I, and if you’re familiar with how she was conceived, you’ll see the irony in this. She can be flighty and forgetful one moment, and then incredibly focused, attentive, and connected the next. At school, she manages to juggle a complex social network of friends, which extends across the internet, and still she gets good grades. We just received the results of last year’s California STAR testing, and her marks were outstanding.
All speculation aside, I got the reassurance I needed from Elizabeth’s text messages. Yes, she is poised however precariously on the brink of being a teenager, like most kids her age, and believe me, Leslie and I get on her nerves regularly.
But we're confident she’s holding her own.
Note: Photography by ellSNAP Designs (aka Elizabeth Leslie Faber).