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And Then They Stopped Talking To Me: Making Sense of Middle School by Judith Warner (Book Excerpt)
We’ve all been there.
It might have happened last week.
Picking up your son outside his middle school, you watched as he stood on the sidewalk while his classmates swirled around him, leaving for sleepovers, birthday celebrations, or impromptu parties that came together right under his nose. His frozen smile as he stood there, hanging in until the last minute in the hope that an invitation might come his way, made you crumble inside. As did the knowledge that, other than try to offer up an alternative weekend plan for family fun—which he would undoubtedly dismiss as “just sad”—there was nothing you could do to help.
It might have happened last year.
You bought your daughter a too-expensive white Abercrombie dress for her eighth-grade graduation because, she said, “everybody” was wearing one, and you knew how badly she wanted to fit in. But, on the morning of the ceremony, when she went to join her classmates, you realized that “everybody” was, in fact, only the clique of rich, popular girls who had dropped her two years earlier. They were all lined up, posing as their parents snapped pictures. When they saw your daughter walking toward them, they burst into laughter. And their parents—who, not so long ago, had been your friends—laughed, too.
Or it might have happened a long time ago.
You walked into your seventh-grade homeroom on the first day of school a couple of minutes late and saw that everyone was pushing desks together into friend-group clusters. Your best friend was waiting for you, but now the two of you made just a lonely little desk dyad, and all your other friends seemed, very happily, to have moved on. As the teacher took attendance, you wondered: Had some new friendship map been drawn up over the summer? Would there ever be an opportunity to reconfigure the geometry? You didn’t look at your friend, and she didn’t look at you, but as you both sat there uncomfortably, you knew that she was wondering the very same thing.
Middle school is brutal. Ask just about anyone, and they’ll very likely tell you it was the worst time of their life—if they’ll tell you anything at all. If they don’t, as is so common, simply let out a cry of “Raging hormones!” and cut off the conversation.
The awfulness of the middle school years—ages 11 to 14 for kids these days, 12 to 14 or 15 for adults, if they’re old enough to have attended what in previous generations was seventh-to-ninth-grade junior high—is a given in our country. Suffering through is almost a rite of passage—a modern American initiation ritual marking the transition from a life mostly lived in the warm bubble of home to one that’s spent in the colder, sometimes cruel, and always competitive company of peers. Scratch the surface with most people and you’ll get a well-remembered anecdote, its details fresh and its telling almost automatic, the way stories told over and over again in the mind often are, particularly when they contain a form of trauma. Which, for a great many people, middle school truly is.
For a long time, I thought that there was no greater pain possible than the agonies I’d experienced in seventh and eighth grade. The whispers and giggles. The anonymous “slam books,” in which everyone wrote what they really thought about you. Having my oh-so-private journal read out loud before French class. Having my every self-conscious habit—licking the front of my braces, chewing my lower lip, biting my nails, pulling in my stomach each time I passed a mirror—mocked and imitated. Being “dumped” by my first “boyfriend.” Coming in one morning in eighth grade to find that, with no warning and for no apparent reason, none of my friends would talk to me, look at me, or even tolerate being in the same room with me—and no one would tell me why.
I can still remember how it felt: The ground disappearing beneath my feet. Not a single friendly face. Not a word of recognition, much less reassurance. It was like one of those bad dreams where you’re shouting and shouting, and no sound comes out of your mouth. I felt utterly abandoned and completely powerless. I was in a black hole of pain, and it seemed like there was no outside to it.
I was fortunate in that—unusually for that time—our concerned homeroom teacher soon stepped in and brokered a conversation to try to clear the air. He put me at one end of his classroom.
At the other end sat my longtime nemesis, Marci, flanked on either side by Anna and Jill, whom I had, apparently, deeply offended.
Anna, my until-that-week very good friend, was so angry, so utterly disgusted with the mere fact of my existence, that she couldn’t even lift her head off the desk where it rested between her crossed arms to look at me. Jill sat sort of blank-faced, while Marci graciously leaned forward to speak for them. Her hands were clasped daintily before her as she spoke, soft-voiced and with a sweet expression, just one bright red spot on each cheek betraying the high emotion she was otherwise masterfully keeping in check.
It was a command performance—far more subtle and sophisticated than anything I had ever seen from her before in the nine years we’d spent in the same school. On our first Girl Scout camping weekend, for example, her cheeks had flushed completely and floridly scarlet red when I’d walked into our cabin, just before dinner, and she’d led everyone else in stomping out. It had been my very first ground-disappearing-beneath-my-feet moment. It had also been my first time away from home. Marci had been my bus seatmate and had watched me try to hold back my tears as we’d pulled away from the curb and I’d waved goodbye to my mom. She was 9 or 10 months older than me—which was a lot at the time—and was a lot more sophisticated, if “sophisticated” is a word you can apply to a 9-year-old.
I never found out what I did wrong that weekend. But now, in that eighth-grade classroom, my crimes were elaborated: (1) I thought I was better than everyone else. (2) I didn’t say hello in the hallways. (3) I looked through people when they said hello to me, like they weren’t even there.
This was news to me. I thought: (1) I didn’t think I was better than anyone else—I hated myself! (2) I wasn’t aware of not saying hello in the hallways. (3) If I looked straight through people, it wasn’t because I meant to snub them; it was just—how to explain this?—that I didn’t see them. I was smart enough not to make that latter point out loud. I just apologized. I promised to try to do better. And I did, after that, try my hardest to remove my head from my ass long enough to acknowledge the existence of other people—a struggle that continues to this day.
In the end, thanks to our teacher’s intervention, my time in the wilderness lasted for only about a week. But my very acute recollection of how that week felt lasted for decades. For many years afterward, the episode showed up in my dreams. The actors would be different—I didn’t think about my middle school classmates anymore—but the experience, and above all the feeling, was precisely the same. All through my 20s, and even into my 30s and early 40s, I felt compelled to regularly ask my close friends if they were mad at me. The fear that, from one day to the next and for reasons unknown, someone could turn on me, stop talking to me, and start hating me was simply part of who I was.
My daughter never had experiences quite like that in middle school. Neither, thankfully, did she encounter the all-out horrors that some of today’s middle schoolers do: Extended online bullying. Cruel insults. Sexual violence. Death threats. But she did suffer. She was different at a time of life when the secret to social success is fitting in seamlessly. And when she had her own friendship struggles in seventh and eighth grade, in the course of which she ended up going through one very long period of isolation, I learned that watching your child be rejected socially can be a form of misery that’s every bit as bad as being a middle schooler yourself.
I said and did the right things most of the time: encouraged her to talk things out, to make new friends, to seek help from the school counselor, to hang out and have family time on weekends. She dismissed most of those suggestions as “useless.”
She asked me to intervene and try to work things out with the other moms. I told her that parents didn’t do that in middle school. But the truth was that I had tried. When the trouble had started between her and another girl in her small friend group, I had approached the girl’s mom, Julie, whom I considered a friend, to ask if perhaps the four of us—the two women and our two daughters—could go out to lunch. I thought maybe she and I could team up, put our heads together and come up with a way to say to the girls:
Get it together. You have eighteen months left in each other’s presence. You can make them miserable, or you can make them decent. We vote for decent.
Here’s how to proceed: You will be nice. You will be pleasant. You will be polite and considerate. You will co-exist—which, since you’re part of the same group, means you will have to share friends. I had a model in mind for this. A few years earlier, one of my closest friends, Anne, had convened such a lunch when my daughter and her daughter, Isabel, were having some issues in school. Isabel was saying things that were upsetting my daughter. My daughter kept crying and going to the teacher, who was known to play favorites. Isabel kept getting in trouble for saying things that, Anne knew, were far less malicious than clueless. She suggested over lo mein that there might be better ways to communicate and handle conflicts. We made some suggestions. Everyone agreed.
And that was that.
I kind of gulped out the basic idea one morning when Julie and I ran into each other on the street. In my head, it had seemed logical. Out in the air, it seemed awkward, beseeching. It was not well received. Better to let the school handle things, Julie said, with a notable lack of warmth in her eyes. Better not to get involved. Better to let the girls sort things out. “They’re all just trying to figure out who they are,” she said.
I remember thinking that it was undoubtedly a mark of intellectual superiority to have been able to generate—and find meaning in—that particular sentence. But I couldn’t really disagree. After all, I’d listened at Back to School Night. I knew that parents shouldn’t get involved in sorting out their kids’ business, especially in middle school. School business was school business, and over the years I’d actually seen the school step in with other people’s kids, to good effect.
So I tried to do what I was supposed to do. I did my utmost to take a back seat. To promote independent problem solving. To stay in my lane. I tried not to “interview for pain.” Julie and I encouraged the girls to seek out the school counselor, who then emailed Julie and me to “commend” us for our “wisdom” in encouraging our daughters to work out their problems at school, “with adult help, but essentially independently.”
A couple of years before, when my daughter had been in fifth grade, that same counselor had almost cried while telling me about a “friendship group” meeting she had run with the girls in the class. My daughter hadn’t been involved in whatever crise du jour had precipitated the intervention; she, like many of the others, had been required to attend so that the adults could maintain the fiction that what was going on was “everybody’s” problem. In fact, at that point, she’d been somewhat young for her age and needed more time to master, or even pick up on, the social intricacies of high-level girl drama. So she had sat there, uncomfortably, wearing a cherished pair of green rubber rain boots with frog faces on the tips, while her more advanced classmates, already all but interchangeable with their straightened hair and Uggs, had eaten one another alive. The counselor had had tears in her eyes, talking about my daughter’s footwear, because once upon a time, in a different era, in a different place, and with different shoes, she had been that froggy-booted girl, too.
By eighth grade, my daughter and Julie’s daughter were running circles around this counselor, managing to be extremely busy and/or filled with nothing but the most benevolent thoughts toward each other every time she tried to make an appointment to meet with them. I was spending every moment of my driving time listening to Stephen King’s Carrie and fantasizing about pyrokinesis.
Over and over again in yoga, I set an “intention” at the start of my practice to become a positive, joyful, and comforting presence in my daughter’s life. But no amount of Ujjayi breath could shake my Carrie-like vibe. Particularly once, toward the very end of the year, another mom made an offhand and well-meaning comment that truly made me feel like I, too, was back in eighth grade.
She paused alongside me for a moment just outside of school, watching my daughter chat with her friends. My daughter was “in” and “out” all the time at that point, and we happened to be observing an “in” moment.
“You know, the girls would have been just fine,” the woman said, “if only the moms hadn’t gotten involved.”
Yes, involved. In every single aspect of the girls’ social interactions and school lives. “The moms weighed in so heavily,” she said, “and instead of giving the girls the space to work things out, they brought it up to a whole new level that almost made it impossible for them to find a way out.”
She actually told me that last bit a few years later, when I was writing this book. At the end of eighth grade, however, the conversation had ended with the word “involved.” And I felt like a fool. “Useless,” indeed. And pretty damn mad.
But I really shouldn’t have been surprised.
The parental-involvement revelation wasn’t the first “I can’t believe this” moment I’d had as the mother of a middle schooler. Over the years, there had been so many things that I’d experienced, witnessed, or been told about that had simply seemed crazy. There was the time I got a lecture on “social codes” from the mother of a popular girl when my daughter bought a party dress, at the height of bar and bat mitzvah season, that had already been “claimed” by her daughter. (The girl herself called me a few minutes later. “Please forget it,” she said. I can still, to this day, hear her tearful voice pleading while her mother made protesting noises in the background. “I didn’t want her to say anything.”) There was the time another mom brought in a professional hip-hop dance coach to teach the girls in the class some choreography for the school talent show, inciting a cabal of stone-faced moms to gather to watch the dance practices and then march to the principal’s office to complain that their daughters were being trained to behave like “sluts.” (The girls were thrilled. The show went on. My un-dance-educated daughter gestured a bit too wildly during the number and sent all her bangles flying off the stage.) And there was the dad who bragged that he’d signed a big check to reserve a “cool” kids’ table for him, his wife, and their friends at a school auction.
The weirdness wasn’t just contained to parents; other adults had their issues, too. There were a couple of academic-subject teachers who had repeatedly been overheard making nasty comments about girls’ “big boobs” or detestable skinniness. There was a gym teacher who often lost it with the eighth graders, making them sit silently on the floor, their backs to the wall, for entire class periods, while he berated them for letting their “drama” leak into the time they were supposed to be devoting to PE. (“All the teachers were constantly telling us how ‘bad’ we were as a class,” my daughter recently told me. “Maybe we were,” she reflected, “but being told that all the time didn’t help.”)
I had no right, really, to dole out judgments about boundaries. I had spent my middle school parenthood years cataloging hurts and snubs that my daughter wasn’t even aware of: how others looked at her; whether or not they held doors for her; whether they sat with her, spoke to her, settled in next to her or scuttled away. My husband had, too. With his far more finely attuned social radar, he was constantly scanning the horizon for evidence of exclusion—and then prodding me to do something about it.
It was hell. We were all in hell. It was no accident that I was driving around listening to the story of an insane 1970s teenager with the power to channel her rage and hurt into murder. We were all going through middle school together, thinking and feeling and behaving like selfish, self-protective, and, above all, un-self-aware 12-and 13-year-olds. It was no wonder that so many of the kids—boys and girls alike—were struggling so greatly, despite all the careful social orchestrations and emotional ministrations of their attentive parents. The inmates were running the asylum. Life really was, as the women around me so often put it, “seventh grade all over again.”
In the midst of all this, I was supposed to be working on a book proposal about modern women in midlife. A kind of Perfect Madness redux. But something else kept making noise in my head. Floundering deep in middle-school-mom misery, I yearned for good explanations for what my daughter was living through, why parents and kids were behaving as they were, and what I could do to make things better. I had no information—nothing useful to read, no relevant advice, and no insights from the parents around me, who by seventh or eighth grade were too locked into face-saving competition and proxy wars to permit any potentially damaging self-disclosures.
What I really wanted were explanations from experts who could answer the specific questions forming in my mind: Why, precisely, were the middle school years so awful? Had they always been this way? Were they this way everywhere? How much was about middle school per se, and how much was about middle school in a high-achieving—and highly competitive—American enclave? What was going on in the heads of the kids I saw parading by at school—the boys with their hair in their eyes, the girls in shoulder-to-shoulder symbiosis? What was going on in the heads of their parents?
Not so many years earlier, when my daughter was in the elementary grades, I would simply have asked around. Or not even—the conversations would have started spontaneously. But in the middle school years, there were fewer opportunities for those kinds of easy exchanges. The kids were more independent, and even on the occasions when parents did come together, the atmosphere was different. There was more distance and, seemingly, more distrust.
Each school year would start with a sense of dread, as the parents girded themselves for what everyone knew would be the very worst time in their children’s lives. Well before the first day, the sighing and anticipatory eye-rolling would begin, along with an uptick in gossip. By the time the semester began, there would be whispers of “drama”—not just among the kids, but among the adults as well.
At those times, I’d email out Anne Lamott’s quote about “hell and the pit.”
The moms in particular loved it. It was “perfect,” they said.
And yet no one—including me—ever talked directly about what we were feeling, or asked if there was any way to try to change the general atmosphere. A lot of the parent relationships by this point had started to fray. There were so many competing agendas, so much polluted water under the bridge. Nobody was even bothering to be fake anymore. Even at school-sponsored grade events, the former talk of “our kids,” “our classroom,” and “our community” had noticeably subsided. It was as though the balance between adult ideals and kid realities had shifted. The window of opportunity for teaching our children the rules of kind and thoughtful co-existence appeared to have slammed shut.
The sense of inevitability was so deep—that sixth, seventh, and eighth graders were destined to be mean; that middle school sucks, sucked, and will always suck—that it was inconceivable that adults might do anything about it. Except, of course, dig the trenches and start arming their kids to do battle, using many of the same weapons they’d used to defend themselves during their own middle school or junior high years decades earlier.
Judith Warner is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety and Hillary Clinton: The Inside Story, as well as the award-winning We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication. A senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, Warner has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times, where she wrote the popular Domestic Disturbances column, as well as numerous other publications.
Excerpted from AND THEN THEY STOPPED TALKING TO ME by Judith Warner. Copyright © 2020 by Judith Warner. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.