Busy as a tween bee

Jewel’s middle school had its annual Open House the other night. You know the drill … you get to tour the classrooms the teachers have painstakingly gussied up, check out the projects they are working on and get a brief, tiny glimpse into how your kids spend several hours of their day.

It’s loud (SO loud) and confusing. Jewel’s school is built on this odd, honeycomb- type sort-of circle, with the “mall”/cafeteria/general assembly area serving as the center and hallways and classrooms spreading out from there. Sometimes kids have to go around the outside to get to class, and then they throw in some portable classrooms outside this circle to add to the disorderly jumble.

It amazes me how well Jewel has adjusted to this, because it gives me a headache every time I’m there. She was happy to play tour guide and show off how many teachers and rooms she knows beyond the classes she has. She’s always been great at directions and maps, and interacting with adults more than he peers, so she was in her element.

I tell Jewel that I did the middle school years once in my life and I refuse to do it all again through her. Sixth to eighth grade is something to be survived, an onslaught of slings and arrows and insecurities and “populars” and cliques and raging hormones. The kids are entirely focused on themselves and their place in the school and the world … it’s Trumpian extreme narcissism playing out among the 11- to 13-year-old set.

But here’s the thing: Jewel is LOVING EVERY MINUTE OF IT. My little contrarian, who has never met a statement of mine without introducing it to a counterpoint, is now seemingly the only kid having fun, fun, fun in almost every moment of middle school. She is giddy on Sunday nights, looking forward to the school week. When I pick her up after school, she talks nonstop about her day in excruciating detail, going class by class by class to tell me who did what to who and when and how (and sometimes why if she slows down enough to consider what others might be feeling). So she’s taking me along, whether I want her to or not.

So what’s the problem, right? She’s happy, she’s engaged in her surroundings, she’s part of something. I’m ecstatic for all these things, realizing the hard work she has had to put in to develop her social skills because of her autism.

However (you knew that was coming), I can’t help but worry because she is obsessing. She has great difficulty in what I call “turning the recorder off”: once she starts in on the retelling of her day, she has to go all through her story in her way, even if some other more pressing matters need to be addressed. If I stop her and say, “Yes, but remember, you called me from school midday and you had run out of class and what happened with that?” Jewel will just continue with her story, and I have to stop her again to snap her out of it, get her to focus and stop playing the “recorder.”

As she gets more into her environment, she has become convinced her classes are the most drama filled, the most spectacular and her everyday dealings are the most important events going on. Yes, some of this is the middle school narcissism, but neurotypical kids learn to at least fake interest in what other people are doing or their surroundings, or go quiet and think all about themselves in their head. Jewel has yet to learn this. A trip to the grocery store becomes a recitation of the school hallway Doritos incident, or me looking at a map on the computer becomes a play-by-play account of looking for fault lines in science class, told in real time.

I also can’t help but worry that she will tire of the act or grow frustrated that she must put so much more time and effort into being social, which others take for granted because what they are doing comes naturally. I already hear Jewel’s envy when she compares how her peers and her teachers respond to her versus others. She wants to make her autism “disappear,” but I tell her that it is what makes her her, and she should embrace it instead of fight against it.

There’s a cheesy line from the movie “What a Girl Wants” with Amanda Bynes (Colin Firth is in the movie, I had to watch it) that I repeat at least once a week to Jewel: “Why are you trying to fit in when you were born to stand out?” She rolls her eyes at me, sighs and says I don’t understand her or middle-schoolers and that she has to blend in to survive.

Apparently this blending in even extends to mechanical pencils. After Jewel told me she was running low in her school supplies, I bought more on Amazon. It turns out I bought the “clear point elite” and not just plain “clear point.” This simply won’t do for Jewel: the lead size, color and all that is good, but the design is infinitesimally different than the one “everyone else has.” Is this the attention to detail of her autism or the desire to blend in that every middle schooler seems to have? Either way, it is annoying.

But I do remember that feeling all too well, of trying to make it through the school day without a misstep, doing everything in my power to not draw attention to myself. I also remember failing miserably at it, because I was trying to be everyone else instead of myself. Jewel needs to learn that on her own.

However, as she learns that lesson, she is also trying to suppress something that is part of her. She is changing and growing up. She dresses differently, fewer pinks and purples and more muted colors, and lots and lots of jeans. She is using makeup, and is much better at it at age 12 than I am in my 50s. Many days she’s taking a straight iron to her curly hair and smoothing all the kinks out.

It gets me to thinking it would be awesome if she could take a straight iron to her brain and smooth out the way its wiring works. But there’s no easy fix for that. When the day comes that she embraces her brain, kinks and all, she will be truly happy. And I know that day is coming.

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