My oldest son started 5th grade this year, which feels a bit shocking and horrifying to me. How do I have a 5th grader? He’s not ready for middle school next year. I’m not ready for him to be ready for middle school next year. He’s not ready for a girlfriend. I’m not ready for him to have a girlfriend. He’s not ready to navigate the social pecking order. I’m not ready to re-irritate my battle scars from trying and failing miserably at navigating the social pecking order.
I mean let’s be honest. Did anyone here actually like 5th grade? That’s what I thought. 5th grade sucks. It’s nothing but drama and lunchroom politics. It rips you out of the protective cocoon your parents worked so hard to weave around you and forces you to start the process of learning to think and act responsibly and independently in the face of constant irresponsible and co-dependent behavior. It’s the first peek into the window of grown up life, and it’s pretty scary stuff, frankly.
So it’s no surprise that my son has been temperamental these past few weeks. He’s a sensitive kiddo. He internalizes the energy of the world around him, so much so that it overwhelms him at times. Some days I like to think he gets that from me, and other days I hate myself for passing that burden along to him. He’s also very hard on himself and wants to please, but at the same time is viciously independent. I watch the battle between these two opposing forces and it tears me apart, because I know it tears him apart even more.
Fortunately, my son hasn’t hit the point where he won’t talk to me about anything yet, so when he is having a moment, usually about something totally unrelated, I can pull out what’s really bothering him. We had one of those moments last week. A complete breakdown while waiting for the elevator to take us to school. He hated me for asking him to turn off the light in his bedroom before leaving. His face burned red and tears streamed down his face, while between sobs he screamed at me, “You don’t get it. You’ll never get it. It’s too much. Everybody’s asking everything from me and it’s too much.” I tried to pull him in for a hug, but the young boy who would have collapsed into my arms just a few months ago stood rigid, like he knew that even if he wanted hide in my embrace, things were changing and he had to start standing on his own. Instead, he dried his tears as the elevator approached and silently strode in to join our neighbors for the ride down.
As we descended, I reminded myself that everything bothering him is everything I would expect to be bothering him these first weeks of 5th grade. There are new responsibilities, new expectations, and new opportunities, and all of it is making him feel overwhelmed. There’s an overnight camping trip with his 150 classmates at the end of the school year that is already on his mind, there’s no more blaming Mom or Dad for late or missing homework assignments, and there are middle school applications and portfolios to prepare. (This is NYC, after all, where nothing about school transitions is easy. In our district, there are no neighborhood schools after elementary grades, which means everything beyond 5th grade is a process and an opportunity for stinging rejection. It was hard enough going through the experience for college applications at 17 or 18. Can you imagine how a 9 or 10 year old feels? Can you imagine how we neurotic, competitive, overachieving NYC parents handle it? It’s not pretty.)
“You know what this reminds me of?” I asked as we made our way out of the elevator and onto the sidewalk.
“What?” he mumbled, eyes fixated on the concrete below.
“It reminds me of those long bike rides your dad and I took this summer.”
With that, he looked at me. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” I said, “when we would ride, sometimes the road would be flat and smooth and easy, sometimes we would ride up long, gradual hills, and other times we would ride up tall, steep hills. When we were on the flat sections I could relax and look around and enjoy the scenery. It felt like I could ride forever. But when we got to the long, gradual hills, I had to start paying more attention. My legs were working harder, my lungs were working harder and I started to tire. I motivated myself to keep going by setting a goal off in the distance, like the next mailbox or the next intersection or the giant oak tree on the horizon, and that would help keep me going. But eventually we would come up to one of the really steep hills, hills that seemed to be shooting straight up out of the ground. On those hills, with my legs and lungs burning like an inferno, all I could do was put my head down and pedal. If I tried to look up and see how far I had to go, it would crush me. One leg at a time was all I could focus on. Pedal left, pedal right, pedal left, pedal right.”
“Kind of like that hill grandma and I had to ride up on our way to the park,” he responded.
“Yes, that’s exactly the kind of hill I’m talking about. It sounds to me like 5th grade feels kind of like that hill to you right now,” I offered.
He thought about it for a moment and I saw some of the tension in his face ease as he started to comprehend that maybe I did understand what he was feeling.
“So here’s the deal,” I continued, “you’re going through a steep hill time. Don’t worry about all the stuff that’s down the road. Just do the things you are asked to do each day. Do the classwork and homework your teacher asks you to do. Go to baseball practice. Be kind to your friends and classmates. If you do those things to the best of your ability each day, when it comes time to put your portfolio together or go on your class trip, you will have everything you need. Just do the next thing, and you will be ready.”
I saw his shoulders relax as we approached the school yard, and I knew that, for today at least, he would be fine.
A few days later, as I felt myself crumbling under the weight of my own aspirations and commitments and to do list, I found myself in the cycling studio just up the block. With the torque cranked high, and the lights turned low, the instructor offered these words of advice, “Just put your head down, close your eyes and pedal.”
So I pedaled left and I pedaled right, I pedaled left and I pedaled right, head down, eyes closed, tears tumbling down my cheeks.
When I was finished, I knew what it was I had to do to find my strength and keep moving forward. It wasn’t anything special. It was simply the next thing.
Just do the next thing.