Here Comes Junior High

Ask just about any adult, and they will tell you that middle school/junior high was a terrible time for them. Beyond the mortifying awkwardness that is puberty, navigating new social structures, dealing with bullying and mean girls, and adjusting to more challenging classes all add to the traumatic experience that seems to define the middle school years.

As my own daughter approaches junior high, I must admit that I find myself anxious about the experience she will have. Modern technology seems to have made the challenges and embarrassment of those middle years all the more overwhelming. She has already faced academic challenges and bullies in elementary school, and I’d be naïve to think that those situations will suddenly get better just as teenage hormones roll in and complicate everything. I worry that she will struggle, or that she will face situations I am unprepared to guide her through.

Still, I have hopes that junior high won’t be all that bad for her.

Unlike many, I am not one to say that middle school was terrible for me. Sure, I absolutely dealt with the awkwardness of puberty, and I had a terrible bully, but middle school was also a time of growing independence and confidence for me.

In middle school, I found an incredible group of friends, and while we had our fair share of typical middle school drama, we also reveled in shared opportunities for semi-independence, like when we’d beg our moms to drop us off at the movie theater or take us to the mall and let us go off on our own. It may be hard for those who know me as the anxious introvert that I am today to believe that I was the social coordinator of my friend group, unphased by the prospect of calling a friend’s mom to ask her to drive us to or pick us up from the roller rink on Friday night.

In middle school, the classes I had always liked, English and social studies, continued to inspire and challenge me, but I also had amazing math teachers who managed to make a subject I had previously hated fun and interesting. At one point, I even said I wanted to be a math teacher, and even though I’m an English teacher now, I still included Math24 in my classroom board game collection! Elective classes also exposed me to new interests and talents I hadn’t previously considered – like the drafting class that brought together my newfound appreciation for math with a recently discovered talent for art.

In middle school, when my best friend and I proved ourselves to be responsible, level-headed kids with good work ethic, we were given opportunities to help with school events, like getting pulled out of class to bag popcorn for the after-school movie or family bingo night, or getting paid to help vendors set up and break down for the annual craft show that was hosted at our school. While our classmates might have perceived it as the goodie-two-shoes getting special treatment, the trust that was put in us to handle those assignments further built our confidence and independence.

For every fear I’ve had for my daughter as she approaches junior high, I’ve also been reminded of how much middle school shaped me. So as she expresses her own worries about how her new school will be different, I have tried to share with her not only those things I loved, but especially those stories that paint her concerns in a new light.

When she told me she thought having to change in the locker room for gym would be embarrassing, I agreed that it might be awkward at first, but that eventually it would turn into complaining about the science test while sharing deodorant and Bath and Body Works sprays with the other girls (Sweet Pea causes instant nostalgia).

And when she worried that the bullying would get worse, I was honest with her about my own bully: how had she seemed to make it her mission to make me cry every day, but that I had amazing friends who always made things better. I told my daughter about the time in 8th grade, just before I moved away, when the popular boy I had a crush on declared that he wished my bully was the one moving away instead of me after she had made a particularly hurtful remark. And I explained to my daughter that, while that moment felt like a deus ex machina at the end of my middle school career, it was also the moment I saw my bully as an insecure little girl who had tried to make herself feel better by bringing others down. It didn’t excuse her behavior, but it allowed me to see it differently.

I know surviving junior high, this time as a mom, is going to be quite the ride. There will be a lot of laughs and a lot of tears, but I pray that it will do for my daughter what it did for me. That it will not be a gauntlet of academic and social torment, but instead that it will give her opportunities to make friends, to discover herself and new interests, to build independence and confidence, and to see every experience as an opportunity to learn and grown.

Kelly Vollmer
Kelly first moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane University, from which she earned a B.S. in Psychology and English and an M.A. in English. She quickly discovered New Orleans was the place where she had always belonged, and her high school sweetheart, Jeff, soon followed her here. They have now been married for 16 years and have two beautiful girls, Emma Jane (11) and Hannah (6), and 4 year-old pup named Ember. Kelly is a lover of all things nerdy, a proud fangirl, and she is a passionate high school English teacher.


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