The other night, we attended a program introducing middle school to our older son, who will be a teenager in just a few months.


Going from elementary to middle school, with its faster pace and more difficult challenges, is just the beginning for him. Becoming a teenager, and all that comes with that milestone, will be another challenge. The competition for grades becomes more intense. The opportunity to make big mistakes increases exponentially. And the willingness to accept personal responsibility will become the determining factor in forming his character, along with that of his classmates.


Personally, I hated middle school. One of my first days there, a kid walked up to me on the school grounds with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his t-shirt sleeve and, in a scene practically lifted from a bad movie, offered to light me up. He had a few liquid temptations with him that day, too, all stored neatly in his bike backpack. It was the first of many times this particular kid found himself on the wrong side of the rules.


Over the years, though, we became good friends, despite his tendency to wander back and forth across the line. This isn’t to say I was Mr. Clean either, but it bothered me to break a rule more than it bothered him. I always operated under the assumption that my parents and teachers would find out what I was doing and be angry or ashamed or both; he always assumed his parents and teachers had no clue. That thinking impacted our behavior; it still does, even today.


Now, he’s a divorced father of two working in a job he doesn’t enjoy with a bit of a drinking and anger-management problem. His life hasn’t turned out like he thought it would, and I think it all started with that pack of cigarettes those first days in middle school.


Well, this wasn’t where I intended to wind up with this column, which originally was going to talk about how my son’s impending 13th birthday neatly coincides with the fact that our publication begins its teenage years this month, too.


But as I wrote, I wound up meandering down a different path and reaching a different conclusion.


And I suppose, in a way, that’s not much different than the twists and turns life takes, beginning in middle school. The path seems both obvious and elusive, and for better or worse, it won’t lead where we expect, regardless of our best efforts.


Our son seems blissfully unaware of the challenges he’ll be facing shortly. I hope he enjoys these last few months of his relatively carefree pre-teen years. And I hope we’ve prepared him to tackle the bigger issues he’ll face this fall.



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