Monday, August 10, 2009

It's not easy being green

Today, Amy confronts a common fear, one that many of us probably remember well (I know I do): the first day of middle school.

The impending doom of middle school was an ominous cloud over my summer of 1996. I'm almost positive I had similar nerves about kindergarten, but I don't remember them--it's the middle school transition that stands out to me. This letter reminds me of that feeling (well, and every other scary "first day" feeling since: high school, college, grad school, new jobs, even showing up to conferences, meetings, and social groups for the first time). I think Amy addresses it really well:

Dear Amy: I'm 11 and about to enter middle school. There's a problem: I'm scared to death of middle school. I've talked to my family and my friends, but nothing they've said helps at all. I'm not afraid of bullying, but it's everything else.

I'm worried about getting up early, doing all the homework and having alternating schedules. It's all so scary. Even actual middle school students, who tell me how much fun it is, don't help. Time is running out. Please help me, Amy. No one else can. — Eleven and Scared

[OK, ok, first things first: all together now, "Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope." You know you were thinking it too. And now that that's out of the way....]

Dear Scared: I've started and restarted so many new things that I know this butterfly-in- the-gut feeling very well.

Starting at a new school (or new job) is almost always scary, but here's what I do: I tell myself, "All I have to do is show up." Then I tell myself, "I just have to make it until lunch." Then I think, "The end of the first day isn't too far off. I know I can make it." What I'm saying is that this will be easier if you take it in stages. Once you figure out where your locker and the bathrooms are, you'll be well on your way.

Middle school teachers know how kids feel during that first week of school. That's why they make sure that every student knows where to go and what to do.

Find a buddy that first day. Going through the process with another student who also has questions and might also be a little nervous will help both of you.

A book you will find helpful is, "Too Old for This, Too Young for That!: Your Survival Guide for the Middle-School Years," by Harriet S. Mosatche and Karen Unger (2005, Free Spirit Publishing).

My cousin is starting middle school in a week, and is getting nervous. I wish I had some good advice for her. I know she'll do great, but I don't know how much it helps to keep saying that--as this student suggests, nothing much parents, relatives, and older friends say helps, perhaps especially if you're the oldest in your family. You're sure they don't really understand or remember, and their constant reassurances can feel like they don't take your fears very seriously. (FWIW, though, they probably both Amy and I mentioned, this feeling comes back before nearly every major transition, so it's never really very far away. Feel better? ;) )

Even "helpful insights" from those just a year or two ahead of you can make things worse. When I was about to enter middle school, all the volunteer helper middle schoolers told us things like, "don't worry, your locker hardly ever gets jammed like everyone says it will." My reaction was along the lines of, "WHAT? THE LOCKERS JAM?" Your own fears are bad enough without having to pick up new ones from the folks who are trying to help!

The scary truth is that, as you've noticed all along, no one else's kind thoughts, warm words, or described experiences can ease your fretting. You just have to see and do it for yourself. This nauseating fear is really a fear of the unfamiliar, a new routine in a new place, and the only way to face it is to get familiar.

Recognize that the first day might be hard, but no day afterward will be that stressful. Ditto the first week, and the first semester. Know that it's OK for there to be a learning curve, and that almost everyone feels just the way you go, and go along for the ride.


Ashley said...

This is a great and timely post, Becky. You've gotten me a little bit closer to back-to-school-mode.

Here's what I've found about giving advice in my teaching career thus far: Usually, just being reassuring in a cursory sort of way is about as helpful as telling someone you pass on the street to smile. You aren't getting to the root of the problem, and you aren't helping alleviate that problem, either. If you really want to be helpful, and give helpful advice, you need to find something concrete you or the kid can do to make them feel better. Most often, worries like this with teenagers are about a lack of control over an unknown situation, so give them something to do to feel control - take your kid shopping for dorm stuff and let him/her pick it all; set up a planner and schedule for the middle school/high school newbie so they have a way to keep track of and organize their new schedules; call the school and see if you can walk your son/daughter through the halls before everyone gets there so they'll feel familiar with the space; get them involved in an extracurricular right off the bat so they can make friends.

I've found that it's really DOING things, not just TALKING about them, that really helps.

Becky said...

great advice! You're definitely right. Nothing like picking out your supplies and getting your backpack organized and pens sorted by color (or maybe that's just me...) to feel both more excited and in control of the situation.

Becky said...

update: Ashley's insightful advice turned out to be the case.

My cousin had her registration day--got her locker combo and class schedule, and I think even moved through a mini version of her school day to practice going from class to class. She's very excited, and guess what she's most eager about? Her elective class: creative writing!