The new academic year marks a turning point in my household, as we enter the imposing doors of middle school. I have vivid memories of this pivotal moment in my own educational saga. Gone was the comfortable, predictable lifestyle I'd cultivated in the elementary grades. Overnight the horizon seemed to leap outward, revealing a multitude of unfamiliar faces.
The first couple of weeks are the most unsettling, as incoming sixth-graders adjust to a different class schedule, and students scan each other for signs of social compatibility or embarrassing ineptitude. In the midst of such collective uncertainty, some kids begin to test their power of manipulation over others. I've told my daughter to observe the phenomenon closely because it's a foreshadowing of everyday adult life.
When I entered middle school, it had never occurred to me that anyone would be less than truthful as we all met in the hallways. I considered myself a solid citizen, raised in a family that didn't have much use for smart alecks or practical jokers. While this outlook made me popular with teachers, words such as "naive" and "gullible" only hint at my monumental lack of street smarts. So I was caught completely off guard when confronted by peers intently pursuing agendas that did not emphasize scholarship. Topping this list was:
*The Comedian, a boy who'd memorized an amazing number of crude jokes and seemed to think I'd enjoy being bombarded with undeleted expletives. He could also squeeze the flesh on his arms into obnoxious shapes. I found it disquieting that the school didn't assign any special personnel to suppress such annoying behavior. This administrative oversight loomed even larger when I met:
*The Hoaxster, a suave, self-confident chap who said he was the author of a novel. As evidence, he showed me a science fiction paperback entitled "Beyond the Stars" and said his pen name was Andre Norton. Fans of the genre know that's like claiming to be Ray Bradbury - but I was clueless. Looking at a blurb on the inside page, I asked, "How come this says Andre Norton is a woman?"
"A printer's mistake," he replied unhesitatingly.
Instead of being skeptical, I was impressed that our student body included such literary talent. And with such unrealistic notions disrupting my common sense, I became an easy mark for:
*The Scam Artist, a heck of a nice guy who showed up one day carrying a clipboard, saying he'd been authorized by the vice principal to make a list of locker combinations. I was dubious, but the clipboard looked official. When I told my dad about the incident, he warned me to be more cautious with strangers who claim to have special connections. But he was also sympathetic, and told me about similar shady characters he encountered at flight school during World War II.
After a couple of months, everyone settled down. The Comedian stopped his patter, the Hoaxster shelved his book, and the Scam Artist never mentioned the locker combinations again. I didn't pursue any of them for explanations, either. My only satisfaction came from knowing they'd quickly pushed me to a higher awareness about the unpredictable personalities that exist in society.
I want my daughter to understand that as she gets older, the learning curve will almost certainly include a few unusual twists. And some of the most important lessons won't come from any textbook.
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