i have a 12 year old little brother who starts junior high this year.
[my sister and i, band concert, 7th grade]
7th grade. even typing that sends a rush of shivers down my spine, and not the good kind. not like i just tipped the edge of that first hill on a rollercoaster ride, where the drop comes at you so fast you feel it in your stomach. more like i just overslept my alarm and also forgot that i had a presentation in front of 7,000 people, and i didn’t brush my hair or teeth.
despite the fact that it is 17 years later, i still vividly remember my first day of 7th grade.
i wore a short sleeved yellow sweater that i’m pretty sure belonged to my grandmother, and somewhere along the line i managed to cut one of my fingers, and it bled everywhere. i got red splotches all over it, which made it even less cute, as if that were possible.
i can still envision my first gym class, in which a girl pointed at my left knee and sniffed, “you missed a spot shaving.” she said this loud enough for everyone to hear and then looked at me like i was gross.
i had a keychain on my backpack that accidentally swung and hit the most popular girl in school while i was walking down the hall, trying not to be late for class. she shouted at the back of me as i fled the opposite direction, “why don’t you just go around hitting people with your backback, you freak!” i can still hear her voice.
funny which words stick around years later.
to that end, i have created a list of things that i think my little brother should know. things that i wish i had known when i was starting 7th grade.
to my little brother:
hey. you are now entering a period in life where everything seems topsy turvy. i’m sorry. i love you and here are a few things that might be helpful for you to know:
1. the things that you’ve always been taught about how to treat people are still true,
even though it may not seem like it.
i remember looking around and thinking that all of a sudden, it was no longer acceptable to treat everybody the same. whereas kids used to be on more of an even playing field, now there was visible hierarchy. it was okay not to be nice to people. if they were a “loser,” then you made mean comments to them, even if they didn’t deserve it. if they were “cool” and beautiful, then you were super nice them, even if they didn’t deserve it. i bought into this and enjoyed ranking people, because it made me feel better about myself. but it’s a big pack of lies. oh, and kids treated teachers badly too. they didn’t deserve that, it’s not like they made a lot of money.
2. if somebody treats you badly, it doesn’t mean you have to treat others badly.
this one is huge for me. when i was halfway through my 7th grade year, i got tired of all the kids picking on me. they were always saying mean things about my clothes, my hair, the things that i liked. it had gotten old and i was building up all of this anger and confusion inside of me. a new girl transferred halfway though the year and i remember looking at her and thinking, “finally. somebody even less cool than me.” she was lost and confused and i picked on her because i could. i can still remember the look on her face when i said something mean to her in band class. i turned away thinking that i would feel so good, because i was finally able to be on the other side of the mean words. but i felt so bad. i felt terrible. i couldn’t shake it for weeks. i never apologized to that girl, but i wish i had. she didn’t deserve that. and i had become what i’d always hated. it was a hard lesson to learn.
3. it might seem like there’s a million things wrong with you,
but you’re exactly who God made you to be.
i remember looking in the mirror and hating everything about myself. i was different than everybody else. and i felt it to the core of my being. you’re adopted and your family looks different than everybody else’s, maybe because your parents are older or maybe because they don’t share your rich, tan skin and thick curly hair. i was taller than all the other kids and i had bad teeth and my hair wasn’t doing what everybody else’s was doing. i was clumsy and uncoordinated. you’re athletic and fast. i know for a fact that you are exactly who God wants you to be because our whole family prayed our guts out that you would be a part of it and now you are. so even if you feel different, that doesn’t mean that you’re not exactly right. i hope you can see that.
4. your parents are doing the best they can.
speaking of parents . . . i was so mean to my mom. i thought she and my dad were hopeless and had no idea what i was going through. i pushed them away and then yelled at them for not being there for me. it was a cycle of exhausting conversations and hurtful words. if you think that they don’t understand you, you’re probably right. the person that i became in junior high was foreign even to myself. i can only imagine how desperately conflicted my parents must have been. try to be patient with them, and try not to be mean. they might seem like they’re centuries old and have ridiculous ideas of how the world works, but they love you with all their hearts and would do anything for you. also, if they’re sitting through all of your band concerts, football games, and parent-teacher conferences, that means they love you, dude.
5. words are way more serious than you think they are.
the first time that i tried cussing, i felt like the words were burning my throat. tossing them out felt so brave, so tough, so rebellious. little did i know at that point how powerful words can be. the things that kids say to each other become more experimental, more dangerous, more hurtful. i heard a boy in my 7th grade art class tell his friend that his dad yelled at him every night. then i understood why he always cussed at teachers and other kids and ended up in the principals office. i think i realized that mean and crude words weren’t a good idea when i saw the way that friendships fractured around me, and when i saw the hurt expression on the girl’s face in lesson #2. from the lyrics of pop songs to the casual conversations around the lunchtable, i heard combinations of words at that age that i’d never known before. and i said things that make me, as an adult, close my eyes tightly and apologize for. it says in the Bible that the tongue is full of restless evil and deadly poison. yeah, that’s true. it’s 17 years later and i remember the things i said, and the things others said to me. be careful. you can’t take them back.
6. your core values make you who you are,
and nobody can take those away from you.
there was a boy in my math class who turned to me one day and asked loudly, “hey, do you love Jesus?” when i responded that i did, he proceeded to ask me questions and gave a bunch of examples of things i might do that would make Jesus stop loving me. i remember being mortified beyond belief as the other students in my class joined him in teasing me about what i believed in. as drops of tears splashed all over my homework page, this girl sitting behind me put her hand on my shoulder and said, “it’s okay, janelle. don’t listen to them.” i avoided that boy for several years, and then one day, when i was in high school, i saw him at the grocery store where he worked. he looked at me and smiled, and i wondered for the first time if he asked me all those questions because he really wanted to know. i hadn’t even considered the fact that he might be genuinely curious about what i believed in. i wish that i’d been less afraid. if somebody asks you, tell them. maybe they really wants to know what’s important to you.
7. appearance isn’t as important as it seems.
gosh, i laugh so hard when i look at what was cool when i was in 7th grade. butterflies on your jeans and handheld “pets” trapped in a keychain. clunky doc marten sandals and anything from the Gap. but i remember trying SO hard to find stuff at the thrift store that even somewhat mimicked what the other kids were wearing. i cried when my mom wouldn’t buy me a pair of jeans, because they were too expensive. i thought that if i looked like all the other kids, then i would be accepted by them. i was humiliated that i couldn’t get my hair highlighted and wear makeup and dress like the other girls, and i was convinced that if i looked like them everything would be better. now that i’m an adult, i genuinely believe that the opposite is true. wear what you want because appearance doesn’t really matter as much as you are told, and try to be confident in who you are. looks are only temporary, anyways. and trends change.
8. everybody is insecure, even the ones who don’t show it.
which brings me to the aspect of confidence: there was a girl who dated the most popular boy and had perfect hair and didn’t ever skip a beat and looked down her nose at the world. one day i found her in the bathroom wiping her nose and looking sad and when i came in and she saw me, she quickly straightened up and glared at me. she said, “don’t you dare tell anyone.” i didn’t. partially because i was afraid of her. but mostly because i felt reassured that she was human after all. i didn’t need to try so hard to be perfect like her, because it turns out she wasn’t perfect. she just walked around with confidence like a mask, and nobody ever knew. i’m not sure that she ever stopped doing that. sounds exhausting. if you think you’re the only one who feels a certain way, i bet you’re not.
9. be into what you’re into, even if others don’t get it.
i discovered a series of books that i really liked in my second semester of 7th grad, and checked every single one of them out from the library during lunch time. there was a crew of boys who would sit around a table in the library and talk about smart things while playing chess. they were always there, every lunch. these were the boys that the girls wouldn’t talk to and the athletic boys made fun of while they copied their homework. now, those are the guys that work for microsoft and have really big houses on the water. oh, and there’s a tv show called The Big Bang Theory that is super popular about guys like this. sooo . . . i’m not telling you to join a club that meets in the library at lunch. i’m telling you to do stuff that you like even if other people don’t get it or don’t think it’s cool. eventually it might pay off. and even if it doesn’t, at least you had a good time.
10. have a sense of humor, but not at others’ expense.
my sister and i used to fight a lot. but even with that, she was [and is to this day] the person that can make me laugh the hardest. she gets me. a sense of humor is really important and it will get you through the tough days. the world is a funny place, you just have to look for it. laughter, in 7th grade, was pretty rare . . . unless you were laughing AT somebody. i think that’s why people made fun of each other so much. they were seeking comic relief from the stress of being pubescent, and others were easy targets. because suddenly differences were wrong and needed to be pointed out. i challenge you to find things that are funny that aren’t people. jokes are awesome and everybody loves to smile and laugh, but the ones that are truly funny are the ones who can make people laugh without saying rude or hurtful things about somebody else. i know you can do it.
11. and last one: i love you.
i know i’m old now. even though i remember 7th grade as if it was yesterday, i know that you look at me and see somebody who’s kind of outdated. but i have a car and a credit card and almost have a clinical degree. if you need a trip for frozen yogurt or somebody to talk to, i’m here. you’ll be okay. despite what you might think, you’re not the weirdest person on the planet. i was. and i survived. i believe in you and i love you so very, very much.
with sincerity and deep affection,
your big sister.
[tamagotchi, one of my 7th grade trends]