I Can’t Save My Son from Junior High

juniorhighIn life, there are universal truths: one plus one will always equal two, Gwyneth Paltrow will always be better, and junior high will always suck.

We don’t question these truths because we’re smarter than that, dear friends. We’ve lived enough life to know better. So as my son geared up to begin junior high this year, I knew we were in for a rocky road. Like any junior high survivor, I had fears, but I hid them under an encouraging smile because Boy Wonder had fears of his own and the last thing he needed were mine.

As my son exited the car on that fateful first day of 7th grade, I said a little prayer for his comfort. I knew his day would be filled with the uncertainty and frustrations of stubborn lockers, can’t-find-in-time classrooms, and friends with alternate lunch periods. And even though I knew these inevitabilities would rattle him, I held out hope for the possibility of it all. Maybe he’d find this brave new world somehow inspiring. Maybe he’d develop new and lasting friendships. Or maybe he just wouldn’t crumble.

As he shuffled to the car at pick-up that first day, his eyes were cast ever-downward. Something in my gut sounded the mom alarm. This wouldn’t just be a bad first day; junior high would be the battle of his short lifetime. And we both knew it.

For the first time in forever, Boy Wonder didn’t have it all figured out. He couldn’t commit the lessons and teacher specifics of each class to memory. He’d have to crack a book, get himself organized, keep himself organized, plan ahead, work hard, and do about a billion other things he had little experience doing. Elementary school had been a cake walk for this kid. Pulling A’s with minimal effort, school up to this point had served as little more than an inconvenient pit stop on the way to something better. He’d never been invested in his educational experience, but maybe that’s because he never had to be.

Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I didn’t push him hard enough in elementary school. But how do you push a kid to care? And further, when the grades are outstanding, why would you? You wouldn’t, or at least I didn’t, because there were always other, more pressing fires to extinguish in motherhood.

But now the figurative fire had spread to school. Missing assignments, failed exams, grades slipping fast. This wasn’t my kid. And these certainly weren’t his grades. So I did what any mom would – I jumped in hard and fast attempting to rescue my son from junior high’s fiery inferno.

Step one: Pull my kid to safety.

Step two: Develop a system. (And oh, what a system it was! There were folders and agendas and schedules. Hell, there was even color coding!)

Step three: Assess the damage.

But it was here, amid the ruins, that a noticeable shift in our relationship began to occur. Part of him was grateful for the rescue — as anyone would be — but the other part of him was super angry about it. Whether he was angry at me for swooping in, angry at himself for needing the rescue, angry at the entirety of the junior high institution, or angry at a combination of all three, I didn’t know. But the bitterness was palpable.

The academic decline continued. I tried asking him about it. I begged for a peek inside his backpack of horrors. “Mom, I got this!” he’d hiss. “Ugh! Mom, just stop!”

But he didn’t “got this.” Thanks to a grade alert system the school utilized, I was privy to every assignment, every grade, every upcoming test — every everything. I knew how he was performing better than he did and I seemed to care a helluva lot more.

Freaking junior high. Or rather, freaking Boy Wonder in junior high. What were we going to do?

Upon asking my husband this question (with a strong emphasis on the we), he responded from his usual no-rescue parenting perspective. He believed this was Boy Wonder’s battle; a battle that could only be fought and won by him. But I didn’t see it that way. We had one of our own on the front lines fighting the good fight … but was he really fighting at all?

“Sometimes they need to fail, Lori. You know he’s smart enough. You know he’s capable, but you also know he has a tendency to get lazy when the going gets tough. How hard will he ever have to work if you’re always waiting to rescue him? He doesn’t have to worry about failing; you worry enough for him.”

God, I hate the sting of a truth slap, but I knew my son. I knew this wasn’t the young man or student he wanted to be.

“Help me understand,” I calmly insisted of Boy Wonder. “What’s going on here?”

“It’s just … so big. All of it. It’s bigger and way different than I was expecting. I was smart at my old school and I feel dumb here. I don’t know.”

“You know, that’s why I stepped in. That’s why I created a system and why I ask you about things and try to — ”

“Yeah,” he interrupted, “But I never asked for your help. You never even gave me a chance to figure this out; you just came in and took over like you always do.”

“I get that you want me to back off, but I can’t just allow you to keep going like this.”

“You mean I can’t allow myself to keep going like this.” he countered. “I’ve been talking to my teachers and I’m working it out. Just give me some time. If I need your help, I’ll ask.”

He’ll ask. Hmm. At what point will he ask? What does it mean, he’ll ask?

“It means what it means; he’ll ask.” my husband explained. “He knows we’re here to support him in whatever he needs. Just back off and wait. He won’t disappoint you.”

How could he be so sure? Did he not bear witness to the drama of the last 10 weeks? How could he just sit there without as much as a junior worry in the junior high world? “It’s growing up stuff.” he insisted, as if I needed the reminder. “He’ll get through it. You did. I did. He will, too. Have some faith. No one wants to repeat 7th grade. NO ONE.” OK, so maybe I did need the reminder.

And so, I’m parenting by faith these days — or at least trying — and things are slowly calming down. Boy Wonder seems to have stopped the grade bleeding, but GPA healing takes time. And even though it’s horribly uncomfortable, I’m forcing myself to trust in my boy’s unconventional methods. I’m choosing to look the other way when it comes to last-minute cram sessions, partial credit received from late work, and his *ahem* “organizational process.” I trust that he’s learning something in all of this — that one day his education won’t involve putting out fires. But most of all, I trust that in time, he won’t be starting fires at all.

Image courtesy of ThinkStock

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