Archive for October 18th, 2012

Middle school

I had a bit of a breakdown this morning just as we were pulling into our parking spot. I had to take a minute to compose myself before heading into the office. You see, we had been listening to This American Life’s ‘Middle School’ episode. Sigh.

After dropping Bear off at school (yes, I insist on calling it school. ‘Day care’ sounds so sad to me), AO – who was driving – abruptly turned off public radio and switched to the Oldies station. Something weird was going on with WPR – the station seemed to be playing yesterday’s news. Anyway, I didn’t want to listen to the Oldies station because, for one, it’s not even Oldies anymore. I mean, they play Billy Joel and Modern English for crying out loud. For two, I really like hearing calm, chatty voices in the morning. I just do. So I plugged my iPhone into whatever it is I plugged it into and clicked on my This American Life app.

(Before TAL started to play, though, this came through the speakers. I had watched it before we left the house. It’s really amazing and I think you should check it out. Gosh, I love that movie. And sometimes I still wonder if we should have just gone for it and named Bear ‘Gertie.’)

The app started to play an episode I was about halfway through listening to: ‘Middle School.’ The episode is about how awful middle school can be, with the first chapter centered on how odd middle school dances are and the second about two sisters who renamed themselves ‘Mimi’ during their tween years and pretended to be rich, blonde, white girls instead of the poorer Latina gals they actually were. The next chapter was just starting as we drove toward work. It was about middle school ‘news’ reporters and the daily shows they put on for their schools. It was entertaining. I admit to spacing out for a bit and when I returned to listening, the program had changed to a story about a kid named Leo who, I gathered, had been uprooted from his home in Rochester and was transplanted elsewhere, along with his sister and parents. I didn’t pick up on where Leo’s family had moved, but I quickly felt his despair. He told the reporter that he was miserable and everything about his new school was terrible. And he said he had no friends. Leo observed, correctly I worry, that his nine-year-old sister had an easier time making new friends than he because, as he put it, people become more judgmental as they age and it becomes harder to find people who like you. So, Leo goes off to school every day, sad and alone. He emails his parents from school, “I feel awful.” The reporter notes Leo, unlike how I just wrote the sentence, did not even put a period after awful, demonstrating how infinite his awful feelings were. I ached for Leo.

A teeny tiny ray of sunshine then appeared. One day, Leo emailed his parents from school (I know, this is shocking to those of us who can’t remember how we would have ever contacted the outside world in the middle of a school day) that the school’s mashed potatoes were simply delicious. At this point, I start to cry a bit. Little Leo has found a little smile in some mashed tubers. My heart ached just a little more. There’s more, though. Leo also told his parents that he had invited a boy, named Devon, to come over some time. I smiled. Later, though, Leo can’t get himself to call Devon on the telephone to finalize their plans. It’s just too much. My heart resumed its light ache. Enter: Leo’s dad. Leo’s dad then called Devon’s parents to arrange the meet. We hear Leo’s dad leave a message for Devon’s parents that went something like this, “Hi, I’m Leo’s dad and Leo is really looking forward to playing* with Evan someday soon, so I was wondering…Oh! Devon. Devon. I’m so sorry. I’m getting evil glares from my son…” and the call quickly wraps up. I giggled. Leo’s dad giggled. Leo’s dad pleaded with Leo, “I’m sorry! I panicked!” Leo then giggled, too.

At this point, Aaron had parked the car and it was time to head into the office. I sat in the car for a moment,  pretty much weeping. I composed myself and we headed in for our day.

I haven’t heard the rest of Leo’s story yet and while I want to, I am not on the edge of my seat. I heard so much in that little bit to make my heart ache and then swell with genuine affection. I just find it heartbreakingly sweet that Leo’s dad would call another kid’s parents – parents he didn’t know, a kid Leo barely knew – to set up a play time for them. I know this might seem like a small gesture, but it’s a tremendously important one. It must have meant so much to Leo. I’m sure there are parents all over the world who would say, “You’re old enough to use the phone, Leo. If you really want to make friends, you’re going to have to call them yourself” or variations on that theme. But to Leo, it was daunting and it was scary and it was awful. He had already asked Devon to hang out – a courageous move in itself – and he just needed a little help with the next step. And why not help? Life’s hard, but if we feel like we’re all in it together, it’s a little easier. Which leads me to the next part of the story that I love. I love that Leo’s dad said, “I panicked!” With that confession (whether it was true or not), he bonded with Leo in a way that let Leo know his dad gets scared, too. He let him know he doesn’t think his son is a coward or a social leper; meeting new people, making new friends can be frightening, even for dads. I laughed through tears at this simple and invaluable paternal gesture.

And then, of course, what’s maybe the best part: hearing Leo laugh with his family. If I had to guess what happens next, I’d guess that in a couple of days, Leo gets to hang out with Devon and they find out they both love video games, vanilla ice cream and tire swings. I’d put money on my guess, though, that Leo turns out a-ok.

*I realize ‘play’ might not be the word you use for 12 or 13-year-olds, but just go with me.

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