Brigitte Bowers: Seventh-grader has a tendency to turn off, tune out

June 3, 2013 

My husband and I did the unthinkable and embarrassed Everett, our 13-year-old, in front of his entire school a few weeks ago.

We made him take us to open house. He thought he had kept the event a secret from us, having neglected to alert us to the open house fliers that lay at the very bottom — in the netherworld — of his backpack.

But we'd found out by accident, when my husband ran into a neighborhood mother at the store, and my son's worst fear — that he would have to be in one place with his teachers and parents at the same time — became reality.

According to Everett, attending a seventh grader's open house was, in the annals of his junior high school, unprecedented.

Then he told us that the mother at the store had been mistaken about the date, that it had been yesterday or maybe even last week.

"Let's just drive over there to be sure," I said.

"I'm not going," he announced.

"Yes you are," my husband answered.

"No. I won't go. I'd rather die," my son shot back.

"Well, then, you'll lie in your grave without your iTouch," I countered. "Hand it over."

In the end, he hated us and wished we were dead — really, really, dead — but he went.

At first I thought he was afraid for us to see his teachers and learn from them, firsthand, exactly what he's been up to this past year. But no. He was mortified about having to participate in an activity so patently uncouth as the open house celebration.

Open house reeks of everything the average 13-year-old yearns to cast out of his life: construction-paper posters bearing handwritten sonnets, the final products of weeks spent studying Shakespeare; folders of unfinished algebra worksheets; teachers exuding good cheer; and principals wandering the halls, looking for something to do.

Worst of all, at open house one could potentially run into other kids who might catch you interacting with your parents, finally dispelling the myth, one you have meticulously cultivated over the past year, that you never talk to your mother and father.

Everett, though, did his best to keep this myth intact. When we asked him where his English class was, he nodded toward a door and then followed behind us, glum and silent.

He muttered insults we could not hear but nevertheless understood. He looked the other way when we greeted his teachers, sighed when we asked him to show us his work, and snuck off to shoot baskets at the first opportunity.

His only consolation, I think, was when he realized that there were other seventh-graders there, not all of them social pariahs, and that they, too, had been accompanied by their parents.

The boys gathered on the blacktop and commiserated with one another, glad to know they were not alone in their misery.

The highlight of my evening came when we forced Everett to take us to his history class, where his teacher informed us that the annual seventh-grade Medieval Faire was coming up, and that the kids were encouraged to wear costumes.

"Really?" I said. "Are parents allowed?"

Of course they were allowed, the teacher said, and even welcome.

And so, for the past few weeks, I have been openly musing about attending, though Everett tells me I am not really permitted.

"Parents aren't allowed," he told me last week. "My teacher was wrong. They won't let you come."

"Sure they will," I answered. "Maybe I'll ask Aunt Jena to come, too. We'll go in costume."

"As wenches," my husband suggested.

"And we could speak in Old English," I added.

For a few days Everett was terrified, but now he realizes I was kidding. Still, he can't be absolutely sure, and I know the day of the faire is looming before him, my possible appearance lurking like a plague in the shadows of his junior high world.

But there is something he does know for certain, even if he can't admit it to us or even to himself: We attended open house because his world is our world, too. One day, he will not find that reality quite so humiliating.

Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.

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