Bag of Tricks: Staying Sane Through the Middle School Decision

January 20,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

If Tuesday was through-and-through a dog-poopy sort of day (literally and figuratively), Wednesday redeemed itself. It had been shaping up to be pretty bad, since it was a day promising two meetings, with the afternoon one involving the monthly juggling I find so exhausting: picking up the kids early, dropping them off at Scott's office, and then racing back to my campus to sit in a late afternoon meeting when all I want to do is be home. But the meeting got cancelled! When I got the e-mail about this I felt a surge of disproportionate happiness. I know most of us are happy to find a meeting unexpectedly cancelled, but I felt like celebrating. I realized at that moment more fully what's been slowly dawning on me since Christmas: that I've been feeling pretty stressed out, and that T.'s birthday and party had masked a lot of that stress, and been a wonderful reprieve from it all but then, when the weekend was over, the stress was still there, front and center, and it kind of overcame me all at once.

I realized in a way that also caught me a little by surprise, although I'm not sure why, that I've been pretty stressed out about this whole middle school decision business. When I was telling a friend about this the other day she told me to stop projecting my own fears about middle school onto L. This made me pause for a minute, because I hadn't thought about it in those terms before. We all fear middle school, I think. MIddle school comes with a big panic button attached to it. Middle school is supposed to be stormy and horrible--our sweet elementary school children tossed abruptly into the turbulent waters of raging hormones, social awkwardness, body odor, pimples, and lots of algebra. I hated middle school, and I had a less-than-ideal experience. Maybe I'm projecting some of this onto L., but I also bring lots of extra baggage to the prospect of next year--baggage I didn't have growing up, but baggage I've acquired over the years as a parent, as we've tried to navigate the stormy waters of elementary school. Because Scott and I have spent so much time second-guessing L.s' experiences in elementary school, and so much time and effort fixing things gone wrong, smoothing the way, wondering about decisions that were made along the way, and dealing with never-imagined experiences, I've been letting myself feel as if everything hinges on this next Big Decision. And, because three of the four middle schools on our list have admissions decided by a lottery, I've been feeling even more overwhelmed and helpless because I can't stand it when things are taken out of my hands.

So I'm using this space to get down in writing some resolutions to myself about how to cope with the coming weeks, without coming unhinged in the process. Maybe these resolutions will help you, too; maybe you don't need the help (I envy you!); but I hope at least they will keep me grounded.  Please send more suggestions my way, if you think of any that could help, or that helped you.

I will:

1. Stop worrying about the what-ifs and focus on the here and now. Instead of spending time worrying about what will happen once L. starts middle school, I'm going to focus on helping him with the transition starting NOW. We'll combine our efforts and work little by little on getting L. ready socially, emotionally, and academically, for what will be coming his way, instead of my wasting valuable time on that sinking, dread-filled here-it-comes-ready-or-not feeling (not unlike the feeling you get when you're swimming in the ocean and you see a huge wave begin to crest on the horizon).

2. Keep perspective by focusing on the small pieces, not the large picture. I've been feeling overwhelmed, as if everything depends on making the right decision for not just next year, but for the next three years and beyond. Instead, I'm going to focus on making the right decision for next fall, and on getting us all ready for that next step. Switching schools is never ideal for any kid, and especially for L., but I need to move away from the feeling that we're making some etched-in-stone decision that can never be undone.

3. I will stop dwelling on unmet expectations, and mourning the loss of them. Period. I thought about this one while I was standing in walk-up line yesterday. Ten minutes before the last bell rang, a group of L.'s classmates--fifth-graders--came tumbling out into the sun. They lowered the flags at the front of the school--an important task reserved only for fifth graders. I felt a twinge of nostalgia as I watched these kids--kids I've known since they were kindergarteners. They are so big now, and seem so confident and content in themselves, and their places in their social world. I remembered standing in the walk-up line when L. first started at the school, and seeing that year's fifth-graders fold the flags, and they seemed so big next to my new kindergartener, and the years lay ahead of us, filled with promise. I felt sad all of a sudden, thinking about how elementary school was drawing to a close; about how circumstances have made me always wish the years away, to bury the unpleasantness and difficulties of the previous school-year, while looking ahead with hope to the next one. Was it my fault the time has passed so quickly? Why had I wished the years away? Could we have done more? But then I shook myself--while it's always difficult to hold up the expectations next to the realities, it's important to let go of what didn't happen, or what you wanted to happen, or what you hoped for and realize the goodness of what you do have, and to celebrate the milestones, even if they look a little different now then they did five years ago.

4. I will let go of the things I can't control, and work on what I can. There's no way I can swing the results of the middle school lotteries, so there is absolute no reason to spend too much time worrying about it all, or staying up at night wondering what the odds are, etc., etc. That's it. (Although I could write a separate post about how I know for a fact that people have managed to skirt around lotteries and the magnet decision process in our county.)

5. I will not become emotionally attached and invested to any of the potential schools, but will keep a calm, objective, emotional distance. This one I'm still working on, but I put it in there. It may never happen--in fact, it probably WON'T happen because it might be too late already, but at least I know I need to try and make it happen.

It could be weeks before we know for sure what school L. will go to next fall, and we have a lot of work to do in the meantime. Somehow we'll make it to March, but until then--if I crumble a little on the way, I hope you'll hold my hand now and again, point me back to this post, and help me keep my sanity through it all.