Middle School (Ish), Then and Now

Recently, I hung out with a sixteen year old girl.

Beforehand, I felt flummoxed. I even texted a mutual male friend for advice. (“Shopping?” he wrote. Done.)

This, even though I’ve known this particular sixteen year old long enough to know that she isn’t like most girls her age; that she’s particularly poised and self-reflective and smart. Still, I feared the typical set of Adolescent Female Issues: body, boys, sex.

I shouldn’t have. As we tried on clothes together in a cramped midtown dressing room, I was the only one who flinched. Sitting down at a coffee shop for warm drinks, it was me (ever calorie conscious!) who opted for tea while she drank hot chocolate. As I frantically checked my phone for incoming boy-texts, she breezily shrugged off the foolishness of her peers when it comes to worrying about guys.

Triumphantly–if a bit clunkily–I managed to impart some love-related Womanly Wisdom. But when she replied with a cheerful, “Good advice!”, I couldn’t help thinking it was more for my benefit than hers.

Her poise thrilled me, but it chilled me a bit, too: by the time we parted that evening, I walked through a windy West Village wondering whether her healthy attitude and striking self-possession might surpass that of many a thirty-something friend.

The thought returned a few days later as I sat with two early teen girls I’ve spent the past few Saturdays tutoring. Neither of them, particularly, need it. Which–along with my nonexistent aptitude for numbers–means that our efforts at social studies worksheets and algebra problem sets often devolve into what can only be described as girl talk. Google-image searches of Bow Wow and a certain set of basketball-playing twins (just because I’m a Knicks fan doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate that the Nets have some hunks, with even hunkier twins) may or may not occur.

Anyway. No thanks to me, these girls are also astonishingly mature. They complain about girls they know who go on liquid diets and use terms like “thigh gap” between classes at school, but seem immune to such silliness.

“I really like being friends with boys better,” one of them announced. “But I know how to act girly when I need to.”

“Huh,” the other replied. “I think I’m pretty girly. I mean, I do love to get my nails done.”

That kind of self-awareness really floored me. (In addition to making me pose the question internally: wait, am I girly?)

So, at the gym a couple of hours later, unenthused by the jumbo TVs of Real Housewives and college football, I turned to my perennial fallback–the trusty This American Life iPhone app–and began playing an episode that a friend recently flagged: the one about middle school.

Sure enough, there it was: the talking head (voice, whatever) explaining that we actually do have the most brain cells when we go through puberty. The rest start to fall away soon after, and it’s only those we use that stick around.

In other words, middle school girls are smarter than we are.

The recognition reminded me of a recent, more (nominally) adult interaction. One that rmade me question how little our dating lives have actually changed since those first years.

To illustrate, let’s review a couple of things that I, and likely you, experienced as a young teenager:

  • A boy telling me he wanted to marry me before running down the block. Never to call again.
  • Breaking up with a guy via his best friend’s pager.

And, a couple incidents more recent (technically speaking, within the last week):

  • A guy saying he’d like to marry me before vanishing into the night, never to call again.
  • Cornering a guy into asking me out only after serruptitious emailing with a mutual friend.


In the midst of that last incident, the catalyst/friend sent me an email and apologized for his meddling.

“Sorry, I’ll stop,” he wrote.

“Nope,” I replied. “It’s necessary. I think the lack-of-rules in our present dating world makes us revert to middle school. Right?”

“No question about it,” he wrote back right away.

The implication, at first, was negative.

But a few days later, enlightened to the evident superiority of our sooner selves, I take it all back. As traumatic as middle school was, maybe we know less now than we did then.