As I said goodnight to my 12-year-old son recently, I asked him if he was excited about starting seventh grade the next day. He sighed heavily and replied, "Well, at least I can see my friends again."
For him, school is at best an institution where basketballs are forever inflated. At its worst -- and in his mind school is almost always at its worst -- the school year presents itself as one long endurance test. I think he would enjoy education much more if only adults were not so serious about it.
When the alarm went off the morning of the first day, I tried to coerce him out of bed.
"Dad's making sausage and pancakes," I said.
He threw one long, skinny leg over the blanket and let it hang off the edge of his bed.
I sat next to him. "If you don't get up, you won't get to watch any TV tonight."
One more leg came out of the covers, and the first leg dangled a little closer to the floor.
"You need to get up," I said, more firmly. "You have to take a shower and it's late." I waited. "If you don't get up, you won't get to watch any TV tonight."
"Umph," he said.
"OK. No TV and no computer for the rest of the day if you don't get up. NOW. I mean it."
He rolled out of bed then and stumbled to the bathroom, his eyes still half-closed.
Later, I watched him as he waited for the school bus, the only kid at the stop because, even though most kids are driven on the first day, he was determined to face this alone, like a man.
He stood there at the edge of the road, his new backpack at his side, waiting with resignation for the bus that would deliver him to another year at the gulag. I stood at the window and sipped my coffee, thinking about what lay ahead of him for the next 10 months.
Seventh grade is a difficult year for most kids, not just academically but also socially. I remember seventh grade better than any other grade, perhaps because it was so filled with the kind of angst I would like my own children to avoid.
I went to my first dance in seventh grade, wearing a neon-orange empire dress with black patent-leather shoes. I waited all night for Artie Vierra to ask me to dance, which he never did.
Still, I will always remember that night -- standing at one end of the room, the boys at the other, all that space between, and the longing I felt as Artie stood with the guys and laughed at something -- maybe me -- and never even looked in my direction.
I remember, too, trying out for Macbeth that year and making it to the final cut for Lady Macbeth, only to choke from nerves and lose the part to an eighth-grade cheerleader who was driven to school every day in her older brother's Corvette, which was always there when my bus pulled up to the curb.
I ended up having to take the part of Gentlewoman, forgot to remove my Mickey Mouse watch on opening night, and suffered humiliation for seven periods as kids pointed out my error many times the following Monday.
It is our instinct as parents to shield our children from the inevitable stings of growing up, particularly when they are on the threshold of adolescence, a time when we are defined by our vulnerabilities.
I know, though, that in our moments of mortification and heartache we learn empathy, and I would not want my son to miss those lessons.
Still, on the first day of school, as I watched him board the bus to start a potentially awful year, I vowed to remember what junior high is like as you're living through it.
While we might be able to remember those years with humor, they are funny only when they're in our far-away past.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.