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Surviving middle school -- again

By Wendy Sachs, Special to CNN
updated 8:43 AM EDT, Thu June 27, 2013
Wendy Sachs, left, posed with friends on their last day of middle school in 1986. Has it gotten any easier since, she wondered?
Wendy Sachs, left, posed with friends on their last day of middle school in 1986. Has it gotten any easier since, she wondered?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • When Wendy Sachs' son started middle school, she was assured it had changed
  • Sachs: Parents know "middle school can be another circle of hell...because we've all lived it"
  • In fact, bullying is a no-no, teacher connectivity improved, homework is tougher

(CNN) -- About a year ago, I sat in the auditorium at South Orange Middle School in suburban New Jersey and listened to the cheerful principal prepare the incoming sixth-grade parents for what would lie ahead. The big, bad dreaded middle school years were upon us. After the principal posted his Twitter handle so we could get his feed on our digital devices, he then tried to assure the jittery crowd that middle school isn't as awful as it used to be.

Leave your own baggage behind folks; we're in a gentler, more tolerant era.

Not only has social media and modern communication like Twitter and e-mail opened access to teachers and staff, but a trickle-down effect of our progressive age apparently inoculates kids from some of the horrors of those hormonally charged and awkward adolescent years. Bullying is a big no-no at school, a punishable crime in New Jersey that the school administration, fortunately, takes seriously. It's unlikely for kids to be pushed into lockers or stripped naked at gym. But the fear that your kid would be the school loser or have the dreaded "cheese touch" courtesy of the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series -- well, that's something that even an aggressive, politically correct school policy can't prevent.

Despite the principal's peppy speech, we remained skeptical. Parents know that middle school can be another circle of hell. We know it, because we've all lived it. Roam the halls and witness the wide range of students. Some kids seem small enough to still ride in a booster seat in the car. Others look like they need to shave. The disparity in development seems inherently unfair in a land where cliques can be based on looks, maturity and 12-year-old swagger.

The social caste system begins gelling in middle school and where your child fits in can open old wounds and create panic for parents. Is my child hanging out with the right kids? The fast kids? The smart kids? Any kids?

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It's impossible to truly know what's up because something bizarre happens from elementary to middle school: Kids go mute. They stop talking to anyone but their peers. The inner sanctum of middle school is secretive and strange. Frankly, there's something to be said for steering clear of the drama. Who really wants to dive back into the abyss of all of that pubescent angst? But we can't help ourselves; we are living it again through our cranky, temperamental, self-conscious tweens.

The social scene has gone 2.0. Spin the Bottle dance parties of my John Hughes-ian youth -- where I prayed the bottle would land on Noah, the cutest, tallest boy -- have been replaced by virtual parties of group texts filled with emoticons of winks, hearts and kisses.

I've watched my son's own metamorphosis from rolling out of bed not giving a hoot about what he looked like to being obsessed that every curly strand of hair be in its proper place. Hair is everything and so is conformity at this age. The current socks, the right jeans, cool sneakers and accessories. Some things never change.

And some do: The schoolwork is much more intense than I remember. My mom never studied for tests with me in sixth grade, or any grade that I can recall. But the amount these 11-year-olds are required to learn makes my own brain hurt. I'll admit, I've been stressed by the tests, probably because this is the first time the kids get real grades that really matter.

I don't know if we're prepping our children for dynamic futures or burning them out prematurely. But with state-mandated curricula now covering so much in so little time, the load is massive. A social studies test on World War II this year nearly put me over the edge. You know that you're too close to your kid's schoolwork when you lie awake thinking about the U.S. military strategy of fighting in Iwo Jima. After six weeks of making note cards and drilling my son on every battle from Europe to the Pacific with dozens of random dates to regurgitate, I was ready to rock this test, too. Game on! Bring it, Miss Pew!

Our digital age has also meant that schoolwork and even grades are all a few clicks away. A site called Edmodo keeps kids, teachers and their parents in constant virtual contact. At Back to School night, parents were strongly advised to link to each teacher's Edmodo site -- the mother ship for every class assignment. What we weren't warned was that meant getting a tidal wave of e-mails all day long as students and teachers post on the site. Not only do kids have no excuse to not know their homework or test material, parents are on the hook, too. And all that updating and information can make me tense. What do you mean that science project is due Monday? Ahhhh!

The good news is that we seem to have survived sixth grade relatively unscathed. My son has successfully mastered switching classes, staying organized and working hard -- all important skills for those years to come.

Now in the final countdown to the end of sixth grade, I think our principal was partially right. Middle school has evolved and administrators are clearly more sensitive today to the fragile and combustible chemistry of adolescent kids. But let's be honest, kids can still be mean and with modern technology they have arguably more potent ways of hurting one another. So together among my village of middle school parents, we take a collective deep breath, promise to look out for each other's kids and hope that they will muddle though the next few years as best as they can.

Now if we can just get through final exams. (Yes, final exams in sixth grade.) My son isn't stressed, so I shouldn't be either, right?

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