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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.
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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.

Sigh. I suppose all I can do is provide appropriately cute rain gear.
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  1. Ugh! Gayle, I feel your pain. My daughter is going through similar angst in her pre-K class. Several emails from the teacher later, she is still acting out. She got into a fight with another little girl and got bit. Yes, apparently, 4 and 5 year olds still bite. And my heart is breaking for her. She too, is sensitive and tough as nails at the same time.

    I wish I could take her place, but then again, she needs to learn these lessons, too. The hard way. The way that makes you more resilient and better able to handle the more difficult stuff that’s coming.

    But, as her mom, I’m still quaking in my boots, sitting on the sideline, trying to cheer her on and hoping, against all hope, that she scores a touchdown or a goal or whatever it is that will give her self-esteem a boost and make her realize that she is Da-Bomb!

  2. i feel your pain too. i was miserable right up THRU high school. i think when willa finds her community and the school feels a little less strange and new and when missing her old school recedes and having a little sister becomes the way things have always been, she’ll be ok. but i think, like my big girl, she will always be drawn to drama and angst. it is their lot, and ours, as their moms.

    in the last two years things have been better for jojo b/c she has more guy friends (as you say, they are less mean) — i will be happy if she keeps digging pokemon and computer games so she can bond with the boys instead of having interpersonal mishegas and hannah montana and slutty fashion discussions with the girls.

    you are a great mom and you’ll do fine.

  3. Wish all the best for your girls and you!.. Sidenote from the post; The books you state in your blogs, are wonderful hints for me on my book reading trail. Back to the topic in this recent posting, personally still socially awkward but I deal and learn from many things while being quiet and shy. It can be kinda a catch 22, but with more of an upside.

  4. Wishing you, Willa and your entire family a wonderful school year and beyond! I related all too well to this post!

  5. oh my god, i totally agree. middle school-aged kids can be so cruel! my friends and i were total lunatics to each other up until 8th grade, so catty and unreasonable and overly dramatic. and then, we all got our periods and – poof! – problem solved. my mom and i were just talking about this the other day, because my sister is well into her first month of 7th grade, and already facing some of those mean-girl challenges (my sister made the volleyball team and was voted captain – yay! but now her dance friends are mad at her for getting into something else. and her school-friends-who-were-already-athletes are angrily jealous that she’s better than them). i def. think you’re right – it’s these things that make us strong, interesting people, and give us little stories to tell that are so YA. (like when i first read “if i stay,” i had to call my friend kim to laugh with her about a girl-fight her and i had when we were in 7th grade. it was about something stupid that happened at basketball practice and, other than kim elbowing me and me pulling her hair, that’s all i remember.) i hope willa starts liking school more, and that she’s not too stressed out or traumatized! i just think that the first couple of weeks are tough on everyone!

    ps: they are too cute in the raincoats.

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