Keeping up with the Joneses

November 04,2011
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.

When I was in middle school my parents drove a blue VW bus, just like this one. Although in its heyday the van had once been trendy and shiny, by the time I reached 7th grade it looked just the opposite. You could hear the bus coming from miles away, and closing the sliding door on the passenger side was a feat requiring huge effort and much noise and grimacing, all done in front of school property. It's funny how things come around again--I think it would be uber cool to pull up in front of L.'s middle school in a vintage VW bus. At least, I think it would be cool.

I hope I didn't complain too much to my parents about how embarrassed I was. I know I did complain, though. I know I felt ashamed as I hunched my way into the van after school each day and hauled the door closed and my dad was there, happy to see me. Some afternoons he was able to pick me up in a state-owned vehicle--some unassuming sedan that looked wonderfully average and modern and very unobtrusive. I felt wonderfully average and modern and unobtrusive on those afternoons, when I slipped into the neutral interior and we drove off. For me, belonging and feeling accepted was connected to the car my parents picked me up in each afternoon; we didn't have cell phones or laptops or other trendy gadgets, but what kind of car your parents drove spoke volumes to your peers.

I expected a certain amount of keeping up with the Joneses to happen when L. started middle school. I wasn't prepared for how sad and disappointed it would make me feel, even though I know it's a rite of passage for parents of tweens and teens. While L. is completely uninterested in impressing through clothes and accessories, he has launched some jabs our way about what he doesn't have and isn't allowed to have or do, and made plenty of statements about how this makes him feel. According to L., everyone else in 6th grade has:

A smartphone, either a Droid or an iPhone

A Macbook Pro

An iPad

An Xbox gaming system

Accompanying inappropriate games we would never in a million years buy for him, like this one and this one

Free license to drink caffeinated soda beverages

Last week his school hosted a job fair, called the Truck Fair. Kids got to roam around the buses and vehicles belonging to people who worked jobs that kept them on the go. The most popular pull, next to the K-9 unit, was a "gaming truck" wired with video game systems. When I picked L. up that afternoon he was hyper and very overstimulated, the way he gets when he's had to process too much sensory information in a short period of time. It is not a good combination, and one I hadn't seen in awhile.

"How was the Truck Fair?" I asked.

"Great," he said, bouncing in his seat. "I got to play Call of Duty AND drink a Coke AND a Mountain Dew."

I steamed to myself for a good five minutes before responding. "Are you sure? Call of Duty? Mountain Dew?" What was going on here? How could a middle school allow 6th graders a turn at a game rated M, and let them fill their bodies with Mountain Dew and then send them home to their parents and homework time?

I spent the whole afternoon writing a carefully-worded e-mail in my head to the school and the room parents. L. was out of control all afternoon, bouncing off the walls--literally. By 9:30 I had edited out all the polite parts of my e-mail and reintroduced the ugly parts. By 10:00 Scott and I were up in L.'s, room, threatening all sorts of drastic measure if he didn't stop pacing wildly and settle down to sleep.

"Listen," I said. "Are you sure you played Call of Duty and drank Mountain Dew? Because I'm getting ready to send an e-mail to your school about this and need to know the truth."

L. stopped in his tracks. "Okay, okay," he said. "There was no Call of Duty and no Mountain Dew."

"Why did you make that up?"

"Because I want Call of Duty and Mountain Dew, and you won't let me have them."

He rolled his eyes up to the ceiling. "Do you know how embarrassing that is?"