How to survive junior high

This is the time of year when our country experiences a sudden, massive surplus of sage advice. Schools are hosting commencement exercises, and most of the ceremonies feature a distinguished speaker offering words of alleged wisdom to enlighten and inspire the graduates.

I know the occasion is an important milestone for high school and college kids, but I think most of them are mature enough to chart their own maps, without any extra platitudes from me. I want to aim my arrows of insight at students now facing a truly intimidating threshold: The fifth- and sixth-graders of America saying farewell to elementary school.

Good-bye, cozy little campus, leisurely lunchroom, and lining up for recess. Hello, gym class, jammed lockers, and mobs of unfamiliar faces. Advancing to middle school and junior high is tricky, and no one has ever come up with guidelines to guarantee a smooth transition. But I've got a few useful hints for the journey through the halls of academe – and beyond.

• Make friends with the teachers, counselors, and office staff. They can be very helpful. In school, and in life, it's always good to have the people running the system on your side.

• Stay away from kids who invite you to hang out with them in the bathroom. Milling around in a lavatory is not the kind of lesson plan that produces great ideas or stimulates intelligent discussions.

• Refuse to let other people talk you into doing their dirty work, like pulling the chair out from under a classmate. They may say, "It'll be really funny." No way, dude. This happened to me. While I declined to assist with the prank, I should've gone one step further and stopped it completely. I'll never forget the look on the victim's face as she hit the floor. Fortunately, she wasn't hurt.

• Do your best not to fall into the habit of criticizing every detail of your surroundings. School, and the real world, is not utopia, but constantly complaining won't help. It just makes you tiresome.

• Don't try to figure out the mystery of what makes some people popular. Popularity is an inexplicable gift, like a MacArthur Foundation grant. It either comes to you or it doesn't, and there's no way to predict who's getting it next.

• If you ever want a break from the pressure and anxiety of growing up, find a quiet playground and head for the swings. One of the hard truths about the end of childhood is that we can never go back to the simpler days of elementary school. But I know from personal experience that riding a swing on a summer evening can carry you a long way in that direction.

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