Middle School’s Silent End Is Painful for Students and Parents

There’s a reason the series Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life has sold 230 million copies worldwide. It’s probably because for 230 million people, middle school was in fact, the worst years of their lives.

When schools first closed my kids were excited

It was no surprise that my children, who are both in New York City public middle schools, cheered on the Sunday night in March when they found out that school buildings would close. Like many adults, they didn’t fully understand the catastrophe unfolding around us. The only unscheduled closings they previously experienced were snow days, so this felt somewhat like that.

My son, who is in sixth grade, started middle school in September at 4’9”, shoving through hallways crowded with 1,500 adolescents, some of whom were already 6 feet tall. The forty-pound backpack he lugged half a mile to school weighed half as much as he did; of course he wouldn’t be upset to see that trek come to an end.

After three years, my 13-year-old daughter, a very social eighth grader, seemed entirely over middle school, too.

Then schools closed for the rest of the year

Yet, weeks later, when I told her that school would be closed for the remainder of the year, her face fell into childlike sadness. In June, she would have celebrated her first-ever graduation; an important marker for surviving adolescent awkwardness and definitively saying good-bye to childhood.

It would have been my day, too.

When my children were in elementary school, I knew every one of their friends, their friends’ parents and most of their classmates. There were so many publishing parties, class trips and schoolwide events, graduation seemed like just one more time for us all to be together.

Middle School graduation would have been a rare and final glimpse into my daughter’s life. (Twenty20 @kaylakelsall)

Middle school has been so different than elementary school

Middle school was entirely the opposite.

My daughter generally took the subway to school and if my husband or I drove her or picked her up she asked to be dropped at the corner, where no one would see.

The only thing my son liked about middle school was being able to walk there and home with friends. (I trailed them once, it didn’t end so well.)

Playdates were replaced with Frappucino dates at Starbucks, the excitement of seeing my husband or me chaperoning a school trip became a desperate plea for us not to come.

“I’m not a child anymore,” they said, but with foot stamps and slammed doors, not in words.

President Barack Obama will preside over a prime-time televised commencement for the high school class of 2020. Celebrities like Ben Platt and Malala Yousafzai will also be in attendance. In New York City, Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced the city would hold a grand virtual ceremony for high school seniors. “We’re going to make it something very special,” DeBlasio said. “We’re going to give you something you will remember for the rest of your life.”

On Facebook, my feed filled with friends posting their own senior high school pictures to honor this year’s graduating class.

What about middle school graduates?

But what about middle school?

“How do you feel about not having a chance to say good-bye to your friends?” I asked my daughter.

“Whatever, it’s fine,” she said and rolled her eyes. Which was a standard answer to just about any question and did not necessarily mean that anything was fine.

“Do you care that there’s no graduation, senior trip or senior prom?”

“No, do you?” This was also a frequent reply to many questions but this time it actually made sense.

“Do I?”

Well, of course I do.

Graduation has always been more for parents than children. This would have been my only chance to meet friends I hadn’t met, the boy she had a crush on and the one who broke her heart.

It would have been a rare and final glimpse into her life over the past few years, and even before we knew it was cancelled, I already imagined what it would have been like.

I would have started to cry when pomp and circumstance started—because the pain of middle school and promise of childhood were over, and I missed out on so much. She would have pretended not to notice when I waved as she walked down the aisle in heels and the dress she picked out herself.

I would have cheered wildly as the principal called her name—even though parents would be asked to hold all applause until the end. I would have said, “I’m so proud of you,” afterwards, before she rolled her eyes and walked into a tight-knit group of friends, whose names and faces I’d try to place.

That’s when I would have stepped away; because although the day was for parents it belonged to the kids, who were no longer children, but were children just a moment ago.

And she would have looked back at me from among them and smiled. A smile I would have remembered forever, because it meant thank you for letting go.

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