Latching on to laughter in the midst of combat (column)
June 3, 2015
Yesterday closed the chapter on another school year for Summit kids. Our schools have applauded significant success, and, together, we have mourned heartbreaking loss. Our family is bidding adieu to the middle school that has been the home to one or both of our girls for the last four years. When our oldest embarked on the Middle School adventure in 2011, I gushed about "our" first exciting day at SMS, declaring my intent to cheer our girls to the top of that daunting middle school mountain.
I suppose there's no fault in going into any experience dewy-eyed and enthusiastic. Despite my best intentions, and, always to my chagrin, my cheering sometimes morphed into chiding and criticism. Welcome to adolescence, where kids and parents have an equal, and similarly agonizing, opportunity to grow up. A beloved assistant principal waxed philosophic about the middle-school experience recently, explaining our schools provide institutional mooring for shared societal goals and values. Schools move civilization forward, providing guidance for each generation. Thank goodness for the dedicated group of teachers who take this charge seriously because I'm pretty sure without them, my ship would have sunk long ago. Daily, these folks voluntarily — I kid you not — enter into a venue chock-full of adolescents. It's difficult to imagine what could be more exasperating and exhilarating.
Years ago, I sought out a "graduating" eighth-grader, Riley Beck, to provide advice to incoming middle-school students. He fittingly started his words of wisdom with a quote from "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," where older brother Greg explains, "So, look: Mom asked me to give you some advice about middle school. It's real simple: Don't talk to anyone, don't look at anyone, don't go anywhere, don't sit down, don't raise your hand, don't go to the bathroom, don't get noticed, don't choose the wrong locker, don't … Ahhh, who am I kidding?" His choice to use humor as an introduction to the middle-school experience should have tipped me off to the skill that trumps adulation and one I, too, often forget, the gift of laughter. Because, as Harlan Coben aptly explained, "Adolescence is a war, no one escapes unscathed."
What better armor during these tumultuous times than a bit of humor? I've often failed to underestimate how potent laughter can be to overcome even the most harrowing of middle-school encounters. Take, for instance, a room packed with more than 200 eighth-graders pleasantly combined with music blasting in the near-super-sonic decibel range. I had not made it through the threshold of the "moving on" celebration before commenting that somebody really needed to turn the music down, confirming I had indeed become my father. Wincing with me in my discomfort, one of the moms commented that I'd get used to it or maybe that I'd need booze for it. Really, I couldn't hear. The students milled around, oblivious in laughter, well-practiced in the adolescent skill of avoiding parental eye contact.
Welcome to adolescence, where kids and parents have an equal, and similarly agonizing, opportunity to grow up.
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One mom helping with the food absently commented that all the forks seemed to have gone missing. The mystery soon was solved when the decorative balloons started exploding, confirmation that mixing forks, helium balloons and eighth-grade boys may not have been our best idea. We also figured out that dancing while on the shoulders of a nearby friend seems like all fun and games, right up to the near collision with the swirling disco ball. Now, we can speculate what happened to those relics of the '70s. Perhaps our most enlightened activity included a send-off with a bag of assorted candy because nothing says hyperactivity like two hours of music, two liters of soda and a few hundred Sour Patch Kids. Fortunately by then students were safely signed out into their awaiting parents — no need to thank us. The entire event could have been viewed several different ways, but I think the young man who posted on his Instagram account that the night was "radical" had it right.
It reminded me, too, that even though I've had the chance to ponder some esoteric educational issues with our departing principal, I still recall the very best advice he gave me when I was feeling especially jittery before the girls embarked on their middle school journey. "If we see them running with scissors we'll let you know," he quipped, "otherwise, everything is just fine." It made me laugh, and I'm pleased to report that Riley was right when he concluded, "The good news is that middle school is a fun time filled with lots of new things, people and ideas." Our experience at SMS has been fine indeed, and the guidance along the way much appreciated.
Cindy Bargell is an attorney and a mom who lives outside of Silverthorne with her husband and two (high school) daughters. She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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