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growing up

When Middle School Attitudes Follow You to Adulthood

Beige siding house exterior with covered porch and trimmed bushes in front. View of soft blue staircase with narrow walkway.

When I was in third grade, the girls in my class created a hate club with revulsion for me as their mission statement. My only solace through my loneliness and tears was my mother’s promise: “It gets better when you get older. “

When I was in middle school, I remember eagerly waiting for my teachers to hand back any projects or grades. I could not wait to run home and share the feedback with my parents. If there was an assignment that I was unsure about, I calmed my fears by fantasizing about the day when these kinds of barometers for success no longer existed. Sitting in those little wooden desks, I daydreamed about being older so I would not have to wait for the numbers and letters that were synonymous with my parents’ approval.

I was the anti-Peter Pan. I did not want to extend my childhood, but flee it.

When I finished sixth grade, I had yet another moment that made me wish I could skip the remainder of my adolescent years.

It was my first summer at a Jewish sleep away camp in New York.  I showed up as a lone Canadian, not knowing a soul. While I looked around at the sports field, art shack, and swimming pool, the possibilities of fun seemed endless. But when I looked down at the feet of my bunkmates, the idyllic image faded.

They were all wearing Na’ot, the same Israeli, brown-cork, Birkenstock-like shoe that has repeatedly gone in and out of fashion over the years, had just become “the thing.”

The trend, however, had not hit Toronto in time, and instead of being able to enjoy my new camp and make friends, all I could do was look down and long for the beautiful brown suede Na’ot all my bunkmates were skipping around in. I did not just want those sandals. I needed those sandals.

Even at the time, I remember feeling silly about measuring my self-worth by a fashion trend, but I was convinced that footwear was the only currency one could hold as a twelve-year-old girl. When I got older, I told to my adolescent self, I would not need to fit in. But just now having the right sandal was essential.

The next summer, before going back to camp, I dutifully bought Na’ot. But as I strutted into my new bunk, my toes curled. I had missed the memo. There were no more Na’ot. My new bunkmates were all wearing Shuks, these sandals that looked exactly like the Na’ot I was wearing, except they had thick platform soles.

It now felt like my bunkmates were looking down at my flat shoes from their platform perches. While I thought the previous summer was my most sartorially devastating, the fashion faux pas of the current camp session hit me much harder. The confidence I had coming into that summer had buoyed me up, and being forced to come down from that high on day one— well, I just couldn’t recover.

The problem is, I’m still not sure I have recovered. I had not thought about that summer for a long time. But now, a good 20 years later, I just bought a new home.

And feel like I am twelve years old again.

The excitement I felt at the big purchase hit me instantly, in the form of certainty that this is the oasis which will solve all our problems. Our kids will now have space to play, we will finally be able to entertain in a backyard, and this summer I can design the kitchen I always wanted.

The next day, however, I stop by an open house hosted by my friend. The house has an open floor concept and 14-foot-ceilings. My new home’s generous ceilings suddenly seem claustrophobic.

I spend the next few days with a nauseous pit in my stomach, unable to place what is wrong until I recognize the feeling. It is familiar. Too familiar.

I have found over the years that girls do not actually become kinder. The cliques only get more cliquey–and the footwear increasingly expensive (“perchier” too). I see that I am also still constantly seeking my parents’ approval. Recently, when a student wrote me an e-mail to tell me I was a favorite teacher, even before I fully relished the compliment, I clicked the forward button to share the letter with my mother.

The appeal of Peter Pan only makes sense to me as an adult, when I realize that those superficial self-definitions never go away.

It turns out, I am 32 years old and still trying not to define happiness by the things that I do or do not have. Did growing up not solve these problems, or did I just not grow up? Am I condemned to be envious of others my entire life?

As I move into my new home and deal with the fact that the hot water is not working, we have a storage area infested with ants, and my new oven is actually older than me (it caught fire a few days later, but that’s a whole other story), I take a step back. I realize that it is not that people change as we grow up or that these situations become less complicated, but rather it is we who must change.

Like the characters in J.M. Barrie’s story, I was under the false illusion that some transformation takes place between childhood and adulthood. In fact, I have had the capability to grow up all along.

I have a choice. I decide to take a cold shower, buy some ant traps, and grow up.

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