Stuck in the Middle

My middle boy enters high school this fall. It has been done before and will be done again. And I’m just talking about our family. That’s the thing about being in the middle. You are never the first and never the last. And that is why I love being a middle child and having a middle child. Sooner or later, you force yourself out of the traditional line-up and start playing special teams. Sorry for the football analogy. I am sure it is not right. It is a sport I know nothing about. It’s just all the talk lately around the dinner table.

Becoming a freshman in high school is like entering kindergarten all over again. Although you probably have the whole separation anxiety thing worked out, you are just so low-man-on-the-totem-pole again. I remember, the summer before my ninth grade year, being told by a friend, “You’ve got to pick. Either you are a jock or you are a greaser. You’ve got to decide now and then that’s it.”

This label determination had nothing to do with whether I played sports or greased my hair. (Yes, I am that old and, no, I did neither.) It had everything to do with where I saw myself fitting into the social climate. I was terrified that when I walked through the doors of my new school, I would be asked for my choice. And then be sorted into the appropriate group. Or worse, I would choose a group that wouldn’t accept me. What if I said greaser, and the ticket-takers thought jock? What if I didn’t pick the right one. Was there a reject pile? And if so, would my best friend be in that pile, too?

There is much advice given, as this summer wanes, and we get back to dinner at the table. The guidance is spoken between critiques of fantasy football choices. It is not about my oldest son’s senior year and what his future holds. Or my youngest boy’s commitment to advanced math and his debut on the middle school football team. The advice centers on my middle son’s entrance into high school. It is given by each of us, mom, dad, older, younger. It is unprompted. Unsolicited. Personally, I shift nightly, sometimes hourly. I am in the menopause of advice-giving. I am hot, I am cold, I am panicked, I am emotional. I am consistent only in my knowledge that I have no idea how to start high school off right.

Should he play football? Run cross country? Focus on grades or slack off now, before it gets too hard. How about an after school job? Maybe hit the weight room and get ready for the next season of decisions. Are the friends he has chosen the ones to keep him on the right path? Or the wrong one? My middle son asks none of these questions. It is us, the others, we want answers.

Mr. Middleman remains mostly silent in response. He is thinking. I believe he has an opinion. If he is like his middle-child-mother, it is a strong one. But he is more confident than the high school me, I think. He will gather information. He will make his choices on his own. Most of them, at least.

Mistakes will be made in my middle boy’s high school career. High school is the breeding ground for mistakes. It is hard for me to imagine that now, as I look into his perfect, naive, innocent, beautiful 14 year old face. But I’ve been there before. I’ve made those high school mis steps. As has my progeny. His friends. My friends have, too, I am sure. And their progeny. It happens. And even though it hurts, it is good. Growth requires the occasional error in judgment.

I don’t know if my middle boy has been given the up-to-date version of the jock versus greaser talk. Maybe we’ve evolved beyond that. But if it happens, or if he decides on football or cross country or nothing at all, if he plans to strive for perfection or settle for mediocre, I hope he knows there is always a place for him, a safe place for him, at our dinner table. And the opinions of his family, often wrong, sometimes right, are given because we love him. (Although his brothers certainly have an unusual way of showing it.) And with him, our middle child, our middle brother, we will celebrate many unique firsts and lasts. Regardless of his lousy fantasy football picks.

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