high school—it doesn’t just never end; it never stops beginning!
September 21st, 2009
So, last week was a Very Big Week for all three of us girls in the Forman household.
Willa had her first real week of kindergarten. Denbele started daycare. And I went back to work, doing a first read through of the draft of the thing that I’d been working on when I stopped working in June.
First, the good news. Denbele seems to love daycare. She kisses me goodbye and then toddles off to play with her buddies in the play yard and does not cry or scream like Willa did when I unsuccessfully tried to put her in daycare. Then again, I couldn’t get Willa a spot in this particular daycare, which is like a best-kept secret in my nabe, run by this big loving family who will give Denbele kiss after kiss, on the lips, no matter how wide a river of green snot is flowing out of her nose. This is her on day one; She’s the brown one with the protruding pregnant belly.
Also, when I re-read the draft of the book I’d started, I did not want to throw it away or throw up. Always a good sign.
Willa’s kindergarten entry, not so smooth. It made me want to throw up. It did make me cry all week. Both of us. She tantrummed and slept a lot. I cried and slept a little. It is very hard to see your five-year-old miserable. And not miserable in the way the other scared kids were; clinging to their parents and saying they hated school. No, Willa clearly dug her new school. She goes to a very cool, progressive public school that I had to nag, nag, nag for a year and a half to get her into. It was the social dynamics that were killing her. After two years at this tiny, cozy preschool where she knew everyone (and she knew half her class before she started there) Willa is suddenly at this giant school, where she doesn’t know anyone in her class and knew two kids her grade. Her old friend, Sophia. And Gabey, who we met once a few weeks before school started. When she talks about him now, her eyes sparkle and she sort of flushes. She has her first crush, it appears. But aside from Gabey and Sophia, Willa is a little lost in this giant sea of faces and when she feels insecure, like her mother, she gets kind of bitchy. And when she gets bitchy, the other girls get bitchy back. And then my little girl wants to crawl in a corner. Or, come home and sleep. And yell at me. Fun!!!
As someone who remembers being pretty socially isolated from third grade until about ninth grade when I started to figure it all out—embrace your weirdness, be friends with boys, who were nicer than girls, if no nice girls could be found—it is so painful to watch my kid struggle with, what is probably very typical kindergarten transition issues. (Though for Willa, who got a fully-grown toddler little sister about two months ago, this Major Event is coming on the heels of another Major Event). Then again, my kid is this weird combination of bossy ball-buster and socially awkward shy kid (fragile yet tough, is how her dad used to describe me, so maybe we have that in common). She’s also very smart, too smart, I think and high-strung (and no, I don’t know where she gets that from) so I know, it’s not going to be an easy ride for her. And part of me wants it to. Part of me wants her to have it be all butterflies unicorns, and cupcakes. Ease. Happiness. Sweetness, with a film on your teeth afterwards.
But on the other hand, as I keep telling myself, no, I really don’t. I compare it to how I feel about YA novels. There is the world of Gossip Girl, A-List, Clique novels. To me, those represent the sort of easy, charmed-girl life. The one in which your biggest dilemma is getting the guy, or getting into school, or dealing with the social hierarchy. Those books have a place in this world, but not on my bookshelf. The books I care about are always the chewy ones about the on-the-outside protagonists, whether it be James from Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You to the three sort of misfits in David Levithan’s latest Love Is The Higher Law to the delightfully quirky Bea and Jonah in Natalie Standiford’s forthcoming How To Say Goodbye in Robot. All the best YA characters have to go through the mill of life, to earn their stripes, to lose their shine. And school is often the first place this happens.
The same holds true for the writers. It’s not too often you meet a YA author who had a happy childhood or teenagehood—though here, I should probably admit that my teen years were decent. I was so miserable as a youngster, hitting my apex, or is it nadir?, of misery in about 7th grade, that my teen years were relatively drama-free. I think the reason many of us write about teenage stuff, well into 30s, 40s and beyond is that part of us got stuck there. And (and I’m totally stealing this from Laurie Halse Anderson, who said it at a panel I was recently on), the reason so many adult readers gravitate toward YA is that they never got over the tumult of the teen years, either.
Well, maybe for me, I never got over the tumult of the grade-school years. Because really, all those social dynamics that everyone likes to attribute to high school bitchery, it really gives high school a bad name. It happens so much sooner. It happens in grade school. And maybe that is why I’m blanching on behalf of Willa. Maybe she’s just having garden-variety jitters because it’s the first week of a new school and that’s a total mind-fu#@. Maybe I’m just over-reacting because I’m projecting all the hurt I know she might face in the coming years. And I can’t protect her from it. And part of me doesn’t really want to. For her to become the person I want her to become—an empathetic, thoughtful person, one worthy of a cool YA character—this is her storm to weather. I just didn’t figure on the clouds gathering so soon.