Childhood, Slowly Shifting

There's a new girl in school," Tim told me over dinner recently. Going on 12, he has lately developed a way of talking about girls that suggests the dusk of an era. No more easy chats about longer-haired peer playmates. Subtle nuances of tone reveal a different and more self-conscious interest.

"What's she like?" I asked with studied nonchalance. Tim saw right through me, and smiled broadly. His hook had been effective.

I love listening to my son, who is a natural, even resplendent talker. Admittedly, though, I have limits to how much I can absorb and respond to. Tim is undaunted by my regular lapses in attention - but he clearly sensed this wasn't one of them. He squared his shoulders and looked me straight in my watchful eye.

"She's nice, but she wears way too much makeup."

Now he had me completely.

"Makeup? Already? In sixth grade?"

"Mom, that starts in about fourth grade."

This I thought was an exaggeration, but I had in fact noticed some pretty mature faces in the hallways on my visits to his school. Tim explained that many girls wear and carry cosmetics to class - at ages when my only "blush" consisted of grass stains heavily concentrated about my elbows and knees.

"Gosh, no one I knew wore makeup when I was in sixth grade," I mused aloud.

"That's because there wasn't any back then, except maybe paste from olive leaves." Tim was wholly matter-of-fact. Having once asked my own mother what it was like to bounce along on square wheels, I didn't take offense, but I corrected him. There was indeed commercial makeup available in the 1950s, but it was something mothers put on for occasional evenings out. None of my peers bothered about their skin and lip tone before high school.

OK, things might be different now. Kids mature more quickly; preteens are smarter, more sophisticated than we ever were, and as such they are much more aware of the opposite sex. So goes the modern mantra.

WHAT 12-year-olds are not is solidly committed to either childhood or its passing. My son may look at girls with a newly critical eye, but I still have to scoop action figures from the tub before I shower. Tim is on strange and shifting ground, a fact brought home to me anew on a recent Sunday evening. I'd told him we were dining out with a new friend of mine and her two children: a preschool-age boy, and his sister who was also in the sixth grade, though at a different school.

"What's she look like? Is she taller than me? Is her hair blond?" My son pressed for a visual preview, but I could offer him nothing. I hadn't met Debbie's daughter myself. En route to the pizzeria, Tim scanned his clean face in the rearview mirror and (whoa!) tucked in his shirt. We arrived first and took a window table.

In fact, Cece had wavy brown hair that fell along her face to her shoulders - past some braces but no makeup, I was happy to note. Her complexion glowed with pure unadorned youth, surely the least appreciated of all toners by those who still possess it.

She and Tim ducked their heads behind menus at the first sight of one another, and did not reemerge until we two moms were well into exchanged enthusiasms for the IU women's basketball team and recent movies. Cece was pulled in by "Titanic," Tim by "Blues Brothers 2000." Before long, Debbie and I sat back, outclassed. Cece, it turns out, is as effusive a conversationalist as Tim is. We adults and little Julian barely got a word in edgewise.

As for our sixth-graders, both had entirely forgotten any initial concern over how they might appear to one another. They shared wacky senses of humor, similar likes and disgusts, and a rapport wholly natural. When they began making rude noises with a blob of stretch putty Cece pulled from her pocket, I knew Tim had found a soul mate - who happens to be a girl. Both kids still center their gravity in the terra firma of childhood. I hope they'll keep homing to it a good while yet.

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