Photo: Betsy McNab

About a year ago, I finally brought several boxes of stuff home from the closet at my parents’ house where I’d stuffed them (the boxes, not my parents) sometime during my college years in the mid-90s when I was ready to pack up my childhood but not quite prepared to chuck it all. I’ve been going through everything slowly—rediscovering some old 80s treasures (hello, rainbow Trapper Keeper, pizza and dill pickle Scratch ‘n’ Sniff stickers, and Swatches!) but also realizing that I held on to lots of stuff for wayyyy too long (multiple school passes calling me down to the counselor’s office? Why?).

After sorting through all of it, I found myself left with several shoeboxes full of notes from my middle and high school friends. Elaborately folded and often multi-colored, they bear witness to the pre-digital days when we had to use pens and paper to write down the things we wanted to say to each other. And we had SO MUCH to say. Reading through these artifacts of my youth, I was reminded of classmates I hadn’t thought of in decades, crushes I thought I’d never get over, teachers who just weren’t fair, and endless inside jokes. I smiled, I cringed, and then did a fair bit of cyberstalking. (LinkedIn proved unexpectedly fruitful.)

All of this feels especially relevant right now because my 11-year-old daughter is days away from starting middle school. She just got her first phone; instead of handfuls of folded paper, she and her friends exchange texts, YouTube videos, and memes, but it serves the same purpose. And what I keep thinking about, as these girls I’ve known since they were tiny kindergartners take this giant leap together, is that I hope it’s easier for them than it was for me. All my dusty memories of slights real and imagined, hopes raised and dashed, and gossip shared and received have inspired me to share a few bits of advice for my rising 6th grader (whether she’ll listen is a whole other matter):

1. Be Kind: You don’t have to be friends with everyone, but if you treat everyone with kindness, you’ll have better memories and fewer regrets.
I said some really nasty things about other people in some of the notes I found buried in my boxes, and it made me sad to think that I wasted time (and ink) on petty resentments.

2. Be Inclusive: Make sure everyone feels welcome—to your conversations, your lunch table, your activities. I felt left out so often as a teenager. A lot of that was my own insecurity, but some of it was my friends just not thinking about how their actions and decisions affected others. Totally on point for teens, but still hard. And in today’s world of social media and FOMO, it’s worse than ever.

3. Give Yourself a Break: Nobody expects you to be perfect except you, and you’re going to make mistakes; try to accept them with grace and learn from them. There were far too many times when my friends and I ran ourselves down for being stupid, clueless, or unworthy, when we should have been looking for opportunities to support and praise each other.

4. Stay in Touch: Believe it or not, someday you’ll want to remember these years with the people you lived through them with. My trip down memory lane has included people I barely remember (but apparently was close enough to at the time to exchange long rants about French class?), but it has also made me think nostalgically about once-close friends I let slip away. And it turns out you can’t find everyone online decades later (even on LinkedIn).

5. Remember: None of This Is Important (But, Also, It’s All Important): I know how huge everything feels right now—and I will do my best to remember that if you also believe me when I tell you that it’s temporary. The she-said-WHAT?! outrage. The you-went-to-the-movies-without-me pain. The they-asked-someone-else-to-the-dance heartbreak. The I-lost-the-student-council-election-because-my-opponent-got-the-vice-principal-to-fudge-the-sign-up-deadline disappointment. (Wait, that last one didn’t happen to everyone?) There are so many things I wish I could tell my teenage self to skip the tears about and maybe read a good book instead. But I remember how big it all felt then—and I will be ready with tissues when my daughter inevitably goes through it, too. And then we might talk a little smack about some of the other kids. Because when all is said and done, it is middle school. But it’s not forever.

 

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