My son is in second grade and today he asked me what my favorite year [in school] had been. It was an interesting question; I’d never really thought about it. When I did try to answer, I found it easier to pick out the bad years than the good.
Seventh and eighth grades (ages 12 to 14) I recall as being difficult. Not in terms of curriculum; I always found school itself remarkably easy. But those were emotionally problematic years. We had moved and I had trouble settling into my new surroundings. School was school was school but the other students were different from what I was used to, and they mostly all knew each other, and it didn’t help that those were awkward years involving things like braces on my teeth.
Somewhere between eighth grade and moving on to high school, though, I found my place. Maybe because our high school consisted of two middle school populations, and so at that point everyone was dealing with new faces. I did all right until my junior year. To this day, that counts as the worst, most painful year of my life: September 1992 through the summer of 1993. The lingering effects were felt as my senior year began, but by the time we got through to graduation I had cleared away the worst of it and was looking forward to going away to university.
(And I have my high school reunion coming up in June . . .)
“But did you like college?” my son asked, and I told him I did. “I was good at it,” I said, which is true. University life afforded a freedom and independence that I craved, and I enjoyed starting fresh and learning to be myself without the constructs of my classmates or even my immediate family defining me. There was no one to say who I should be or how I should act, no one around in the sea of faces who had preconceived notions about me. As an only child I already knew how to be comfortable alone with myself, but at university I learned how to be comfortable being myself around others. I made some of my best friends during my undergraduate years. (Not so much as a grad student, but that’s a very different dynamic and my schools were very different as well, the first being a massive university with a beautiful, sprawling campus, the second a college bound by a dense and compact city. It was good, perhaps, to have both kinds of experiences.)
My son wants to skip some grades and go to college early, is trying to decide between Stanford and Cal Tech. (For the record, he’s eight years old.) He’s certainly smart enough, but he’ll need to focus a bit more. Or get a fencing scholarship. Which means he really needs to practice fencing more. It’s that careful balance that parents must maintain: encouraging their children while still managing their expectations. Which is why when my son asked me which were my best school years, the diplomatic answer was, “Some are always better than others. In school and in life. You just enjoy when you can and get through the less fun stuff as quickly as possible. Because there will always be another good year coming.”