Thursday, October 13, 2011

Preteen Angst Take Two . . .

It's October - time for thoughts to turn to pumpkins and cinnamon, airing out the sweaters and scarves, and preparing for ghouls and the undead. Perhaps that's why, when thinking about how to start this post, I had a flash of the scene from Carrie where Amy Irving goes to visit Carrie's grave and Carrie's dead, white hand shoots out of the ground and grabs her. This year, Princess' sixth grade year, has made me feel a bit like Amy Irving. Sixth grade was a very tough year for me. I thought I had dealt with and buried all of those feelings and issues, but no. Just like Amy Irving's character, I'm finding myself surprised at the mess that's come up from what I thought was a peaceful rest. (Okay, okay, that may be a touch dramatic. But you have to admit, it's a good visual!)

The town in which I lived during preteen years had a very unique system for 5th - 8th grades: each grade had their own campus. There was ONE fifth grade campus where ONLY fifth graders attended. Same with sixth on up to eighth. That was actually a system that I can get behind. Not only did you take any sort of seniority and age rivalry out of the equation, it also really helped the class bond. And with that system, you didn't have to worry about any Robin Hood programs or busing issues - EVERYONE went to the SAME SCHOOL. One of the drawbacks to that system is that there are no escapes from your classmates if you don't fit in.

Sixth grade was probably the hardest year of my life. Face it, the preteen years are no picnic for anyone with all of the physical and emotional changes going on. So what do we do? We make these walking, talking balls of insecurity BE TOGETHER six hours a day, five days a week. Ack! And THEN . . . in the sixth grade . . . they added . . . football. And . . . cheerleaders.

(Disclaimer: This is not a post bashing cheerleaders. Please read on.)

All I wanted to be when I was a kid was be an actress. I was raised hanging out backstage with my parents so it was a natural progression to move on to the stage as soon as I could. By sixth grade, I had been in several productions in the local college and community theatres and was hooked. My sixth grade year, the community theatre had announced that their fall production would be The Bad Seed. I had my sights set on getting that role. All the other girls in sixth grade had their sights set on getting a spot on one of the five cheerleading squads.

Yes, five squads. Or six. I can't remember. The football teams were NOT affiliated with the school district. School football didn't start until seventh grade. But there was a non-profit organization in the town that sponsored a football league for sixth graders who just couldn't wait! In small-town Texas, that's pretty much ALL sixth grade boys. And girls. (Girls for cheerleading.)

I do remember making a conscious choice to eschew the cheerleading try-outs. I knew that there was no way I could do cheerleading practice AND rehearse four nights a week for the duration of the season/production. So I gambled that I would get the part. I got the part. And most of my friends got spots on the cheerleading squads. Here's where my life became an after-school special. (Okay . . . that was pretty dramatic. But from an eleven year old stand-point, it was pretty traumatic.)

All of a sudden, I had no friends. Even my best friend from fourth grade, Elizabeth*, dropped me like a hot potato. No more phone calls, no more going to each other's house after school, no more sleepovers. I vividly remember riding the bus one day and watching Elizabeth and Tina (a friend since second grade) get off the bus and walk home with Audrey (another friend from second grade who lived a few blocks over), laughing and giggling the entire time. They were off to cheerleading practice and I wasn't invited. It was so painful.

I withdrew. I became depressed. I would come home and immediately change into my pajamas, watch Dick Van Dyke reruns, do my homework and then watch TV again until bed. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what I had done to drive away my friends and what I could do to get them back.

I haven't even mentioned that sixth grade was the year that I got glasses . . . sigh.

Once rehearsals started, I felt better. I was in my element. I had something to look forward to at the end of every school day. I still missed the company of people my own age, but the others in the cast treated me as one of their peers (for the most part), even though I was a kid and they were adults. It solidified my love of theatre and theatre people.

Then it was over and my reality once again became school days filled with inside jokes, handshakes and songs that I had no part of. Again, I felt isolated and shunned. All of my friends from years previous, those whose parents I knew and in whose houses I had slept, were cheerleaders. I was never bullied, I was just . . . . forgotten. And, worst of all, my BFF Elizabeth, had become BFFs with Josie - the most popular girl in school. Oh, the preteen angst! The tears in my pillow! The notes composed but never sent (Do you still want to be my friend? Check yes or no)! Inner turmoil and drama!

So . . . again I turned to theatre. My dad mounted a production of Godspell that year for the college theatre department. I went to rehearsals with him every night. I knew the lines, the blocking and every vocal part to every song. I became the cast's mascot - everyone's little sister. I still have relationships with some of those "siblings" today. THAT was where I fit in. And when Dad took that production to an international theatre festival in Dundalk, Ireland, he took me with them.

There was still that pesky fact that I had to spend the majority of my waking hours Monday through Friday in a place where I felt so alone. And also, a twelve year old girl isn't really supposed to look to college students as her peers and closest friends. It just doesn't work. So here I was, caught between two different worlds with really no one to relate to in either.

And so it stayed for a couple of years. I could NOT find my footing in school with my age peers. And I could not have deep friendships with people so much older than myself. I was floating. I was disconnected. I did have some friends my own age, but it always cut me to the quick when I would see my former friends all sitting together at lunch or walking down the halls and know that I was not really welcome any more. I was an outsider. I think that, subconsciously, that affected the friendships that I did make. I didn't invest totally in those friendships. I didn't trust as much or enjoy myself as much as I could/should have. I was guarded. I still am, to a degree.

Once I got to high school, everything changed. I had always been more comfortable with people older than me, and here was a school full of APPROPRIATELY older people - older by just a couple of years, not five to ten or more. Here was an entire drama department of people who were like-minded about performing and CLOSE TO MY OWN AGE. Here were teachers who were more invested (not that I didn't have good teachers at the other schools, but none that really took me under their wing) and who demanded more maturity from their students. And not only did I make older friends when I started ninth grade, I made some of the best friends of my OWN age. Once I was able to finally let go of the hope and desire that Elizabeth would come back to my world - or that I could be a part of hers - I was free. That sounds strange, but it's true. I stopped holding her spot in my life and gave it to someone else. Actually, to three people! Donna, Jeana, Tara** and I became like the Four Musketeers that year. It was one of the best years of my life.

And then I moved. But that's another after school special. (With an amazingly happy ending.)

Why am I telling this story? Because all of this is bubbling up to the surface now that Princess is that age. I find myself on edge sometimes and I realize it's because I'm waiting for the bomb to drop. Sixth grade to me means turmoil and pain and isolation. When is that going to show up for Princess? Answer: probably not gonna happen. Or . . . maybe next month. Or . . . maybe it started and Princess stopped it.

Princess signed up for volleyball at the beginning of the year. As it happened, there were quite a few more sixth graders to sign up than fifth graders. This meant that the coaches had to create a team comprised of fifth AND sixth graders - the Silver team. The Blue team is only sixth graders. Guess who is on what team. Yep. ALL of Princess' friends are on Blue. Princess and two other sixth graders (one of them is new to the sport) are on the Silver team. That was tough to hear. And that's what brought Carrie's hand up out of the grave. (There's that drama again!)

When I heard the team assignments, I could feel the tears coming. In MY eyes! Not Princess'! I was heartbroken - for her and for my 11 year old self watching all the cheerleaders go to practice. I knew the disappointment and the helplessness she was feeling. (Or at least that I thought she was feeling.) I prayed that she would be able to handle the (perceived) disgrace and (real) disappointment and then the (perceived) inevitable shunning and isolation and condescension. It was going to be 1979 all over again.

But then . . . it wasn't. Princess sucked it up and accepted her spot on the Silver team with grace. She makes it a point to go to as many Blue games as possible and cheer on her classmates. She takes her volleyball outside several times a day and bumps it off of the side of the house. She works hard in practices and she's aggressive in the games. And after school, she and at least half a dozen other girls gather in a circle and practice in the courtyard of the school. She's asked to play the winter league at the YMCA to improve her skills. And she's got her sights set on the varsity team. There are still after school play dates and sleepovers with her same friends. It's . . . not my life.

Not my life. Yet so close. Almost every day I think about my sixth grade experience. I'm not dwelling on it. Not at all! I promise! It's just hard not to think about it as I see Princess as a sixth grader. But these *cough*cough* many years have given me a LOT of perspective. Several class reunions and Facebook have shown me that I was so very wrong in my perception of others' view of me. (I fully expect that, should any of the name-changed read this and recognize themselves, they will be mortified that I felt that way!)

As I look back now, I see that it was nothing personal. Back then, I took it as a personal "let's all NOT talk to M". But, of course it wasn't. It was a case of circumstance. It was a case of me choosing NOT to participate in an activity and, as a result, not being a part of that world. I believe that had I shown any sort of interest and gone out of my way at all to support my friends (like Princess has), they would have eagerly included me (like Princess' friends have). However, at the time I was too insecure (there were the new glasses after all) and I was kind of shy. I didn't want to force myself on anyone and I felt that they had made it clear that they didn't want anything to do with me. How did they make that clear? Uh . . . by being interested in something other than acting? By having fun at an activity without me? Yep. Ah, the eleven year old reasoning at its finest.

I wish I could go back and talk to my sixth grade self. I wish I could tell her to get off her butt and stop feeling persecuted. I wish I could tell her that it might be worth it to try out for cheerleading - that cheerleading is definitely a form of performance and it might be fun! (And that football isn't really that hard to understand.) Or that she should make her parents take her to some games. I wish I could tell her that sitting at home in pajamas watching reruns was NOT the way to fight for friendships. And I wish I could tell her that friendships are worth fighting for. (I'd also tell her that one day she's going to have an amazing daughter.)

What about you? What issues have popped up for you as you watch your child go through school? How have they handled it? How have YOU handled it?

*Names have been changed because hey, we were all young.

**Names have not been changed because hey, these chicks ROCK! And can play a mean game of poker with M&Ms.