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Volume 4, Issue 79: Irregular Around the Margins
"I said I wouldn't date you and look, you survived."
Hey, the book’s out. If you haven’t bought it yet, you should. If you have, you should write a (hopefully positive!) review of it on Goodreads or Amazon or both. I hope those of you who have a copy are enjoying it. Also, all bookplates have been mailed out. If you don’t have yours by the end of this coming week, please email me and let me know.
On Wednesday of this coming week, this house will have a middle schooler living in it. We start school very early in the South.My oldest son is beginning middle school. Wednesday.
Unlike when I was in middle school—so long ago that it was called “junior high,” a nomenclature I’ve only recently trained myself to stop saying—you enter this new school in sixth grade, not seventh. I’ve never understood the mindset behind this change. The difference between a kid in the sixth grade—emotionally, physically, psychologically—and a kid in the eighth grade is dramatic; I’d argue a sixth grader has a lot more in common with a fourth grader than an eighth grader. This is compounded by the fact that middle school is, by its very nature, miserable. As I’ve written before, there is no such thing as a “good” middle school in the same way there there’s no such thing as a “good” root canal or a “good” kidney stone. Middle school is just something that’s deeply unpleasant and entirely inevitable: The goal is simply survival. If you ever meet someone who tells you the best time in their life was middle school, know that this person is a sociopath and that you should contact the appropriate authorities immediately. I’m not sure why rounding up sixth graders into middle school—tossing them into this maelstrom a year earlier than they have to be—was ever a decision that would be made. Like all terrible decisions, I assume it was because somebody decided it was cheaper.
Middle school. Wow. We were the Mattoon Junior High Wildcats, and our colors were blue and gold. I played for the baseball team, the basketball team and the scholastic bowl team; I remember a kid took a charge in basketball practice from the heaviest kid in the school and broke his arm, you heard the snap, everybody groaned and almost threw up. I first became friends with my podcast co-host Tim Grierson in the seventh grade; we were both in all the gifted classes and we both liked the Cardinals, it was pretty much inevitable. There was a dance in the gym at the local YMCA just for junior high kids, called Friday Night Lights, which the Y put together as a way to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble on the weekend; it’s weird to think my kid is old enough that grownups would want to make sure he and his friends stay out of harm’s way, for the public good. I remember being too afraid to ask any of the girls to dance. I’d just walk around the gym in a circle, sad Charlie Brown style, while all the boys who could grow mustaches better than I could danced with girls who were taller than they were. I remember Geoff Clarkson standing on a bleacher stand, hands straight out in front of him, not quite touching Sarah Jeffreys’ waist, as they slowly swayed back and forth to “Almost Paradise,” the theme from Footloose.
What I remember most from middle school is feeling that no one understood me—not least of all myself. To be clear, I don’t think there was much to understand; I was not some enigmatic genius with unfathomable depths. It’s just that, in middle school, for the first time, I was self-conscious. I felt misunderstood, like the world didn’t get me, even if there was nothing to get. Middle school is when you realize you’re different than everybody else, but this realization really doesn’t do you much good because you don’t have any idea why you’re different: You just know you’re different, all of a sudden, out of nowhere. What I remember most from middle school is isolation, even when I was surrounded by people who were going through the same thing I was. I felt isolated because everything about me was changing at the exact same time everything about everybody I knew was changing as well. And I had no idea why, or how to handle it, or even what, exactly, was changing.
I didn’t act out or anything, or at least I don’t recall acting out. In fact, I tried extra hard to act like I wasn’t going through anything whatsoever. This only deepened my isolation, like I was weighted down with some burdensome secret I hadn’t asked to keep. I remember marveling at the fact that my parents, the people I lived in a house with and had to answer to every day and every night, didn’t seem to know me at all anymore, even if I wasn’t sure what they were supposed to be knowing in the first place. I kept it all inside. Whatever “it” was.
I started writing for the first time in middle school, something that’s surely not a coincidence. They were mostly short stories and little columns about the Illini on my old typewriter, which in retrospect were surely just attempts to figure out how to express all the weird, confusing things going on in my brain. I’d come home on the bus from school, do all the chores my dad had for me, and then go in there and type until dinner. I remember writing a short story about global warming called “Wet Dream”—the perfect middle school combination of the infantile and the self-serious—for my eighth grade Enrichment english class, for Mrs. Swartzbaugh, the wacky but earnest teacher we all adored while finding her a bit mad. She died last year. I look at her picture in that obituary and can recall every second of that class, how she fostered an environment where you didn’t need to feel embarrassed telling the world how you felt, what scared you, what you thought was funny—she taught you to say what you needed to say. Every year her eighth grade Enrichment class put on series of plays, and I wrote one called “Rough Day.” It was about me and my life and the people around me. To watch it today is to see every single one of my middle school fears reflected back out for the world to see, filtered through the eyes of a 13-year-old in a painter’s cap and an “MTV’s Remote Control” T-shirt.
I cannot believe this was performed in front of the entire school. My parents came to the junior high to watch it. They didn’t bring it up once at dinner that night, and I don’t think they’ve brought it up since. I consider their silence an act of mercy.
And I remember all of these fears, all this confusion, all this isolation … I remember it all just vanishing when I went to high school. It would all be replaced by new fears and confusions, to be sure. But I felt better prepared to handle them by then. Maybe it was getting to express them, both publicly and privately, in middle school that taught me how to process everything, to break it down into its parts, to cobble into some sort of narrative, a story, that I could make sense from. I don’t know if I was a creative person, a writer, whatever, before middle school. I think that’s where it started. We all handle the horror of middle school however we can. The goal is simply survival.
I don’t know what the world of middle school is going to have in store for my sons, and, of course, neither do they. I just hope, when whatever is going to hit them does eventually hit them, that they are ready, that they do not feel alone, that they will be able to handle it, in whatever way they find works for them. I will do my best to help them, but I will not overrate my influence: This is their battle to fight, and my job is to be there when they need me and to leave them to themselves when they do not.
I do not remember much about elementary school, the place that William has now left behind. The world, for me, started in middle school—that real world, the place that had to be reckoned with, the place I learned to cope, the place that taught me the first lessons of how to navigate all that was coming. Wednesday is just Wednesday, just another day, just another start to another school year. But it also might just be the start of everything. I can only hope that William and his friends and classmates find a way to process what’s happening to them, and find a way to express all the strange and confusing things they are about to encounter for the first time. I wish them all the luck in the world. They are going to need it.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Matt Damon Movies, Ranked, Vulture. Updated with Oppenheimer.
Verlander/Scherzer Trade Destination Power Rankings, MLB.com. It’s truly hilarious that these two guys might get traded.
Why the Brewers Are in First Place, MLB.com. Unfortunately.
Aaron Rodgers Would Like You to Forget, New York. And I bet we do.
Will Ferrell Movies, Ranked, Vulture. Updated with Barbie.
Grierson & Leitch, we recapped the most fun movie weekend in years, the weekend of Barbenheimer. We also talked about Tom Cruise’s new movie, which, insanely, has already been forgotten.
Seeing Red, Bernie and I talked about every Cardinal and whether they might be traded.
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we’re about to go back to weekly shows, it’s that time of year.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
This is your reminder that if you write me a letter and put it in the mail, I will respond to it with a letter of my own, and send that letter right to you! It really happens! Hundreds of satisfied customers!
Write me at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“Rudolph,” MJ Lenderman. Quietly, MJ Lenderman has shambled his way into “holy crap MJ Lenderman has a new song out!” status.
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
That’s all I’ve got for us this week. Be safe out there, everyone.