Theo started middle school this year.
The first day, he got off the bus at the high school instead of the middle school. A teacher there helped him catch the next bus to his school. He boarded to find a neighbor friend in her seat.
The second day, he saw a bus pulling away when he arrived at the stop, and called Tobin, who picked him up and drove in the direction of school. They passed a school friend and her family at their bus stop — and stopped to catch the bus with her.
The third day, he walked a little further to the bus to ride the route with the two neighbors.
“School is great,” Theo said, when people asked. He came home cheerful, planned out the homework routine he would adopt when the homework began in week two, snapped his planner into his three-inch school binder, packed the gym outfit he would wear when gym began in week two.
Last Monday was the first day of week two.
He came home from school, dropped into a chair, complained of being bored to death, stared out the window.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. He has grown an inch in the past month, it seems, and his legs hung long over the side of the armchair. He is almost as tall as I am. He rolled his eyes.
“Did you have a bad day?” I asked.
He kept looking out the window.
“At school?” I asked. “Did you have a bad day at school?
He nodded, the smallest of nods, easy to miss.
I walked to him.
“Scooch,” I said, though there was really no room for me. I squeezed onto the armchair beside him anyway. He let me.
“You’re hurting,” I said.
He nodded again. And then he leaned into me and began to sob.
I put my arms around him and we stayed like that for a while.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” I asked.
He shrugged, his shoulder blades pushing up against my arms.
“Can you ask me questions?” he said. “You just ask me questions, and I’ll answer yes or no.”
Really? I thought. “OK,” I said.
Was he feeling overwhelmed? Yes.
Did someone hurt his feelings? No.
Was it the schoolwork? Kind of.
Was it the homework? No.
Was it the classroom? Not exactly.
Was it the time between classes? Kind of.
“This could take a while,” I said.
“I want you to know,” he said. “But I don’t want to have to say it out loud.”
We were still squashed together on the armchair. His voice was small.
“Can you give me a few hints?” I asked.
He took a deep breath. “I expected the classes to be faster,” he said. “But I expected them to be like 15 times faster. And instead they’re maybe 200 times faster.”
“And we’re always changing rooms.”
I nodded again.
“And I have different lockers with different combinations.”
More nodding from me.
Theo dropped his head to my shoulder. “I’m so busy remembering where I was and trying to remember where I’m going next, it’s like I’m never where I am.”
My arms were still around him.
“Oh,” I said. I put my hand on his hair.
After a while, I said, “That sounds like a lot.”
After another while, I said, “You know, grown-ups struggle with that too.”
And, eventually, I asked him if he wanted to brainstorm some strategies that might help (yes, he did) and about whether there was an adult at school who could be a helpful friend when he was feeling overwhelmed (yes, his homeroom teacher) and from there, we came up with a list of ideas.
He wiped off the tear tracks, blew his nose, and got up to cuddle the dog.
The next morning, we sent a note to his homeroom teacher, color-coded his schedule, put his gym locker combination on the inside of a rainbow wrist band. And he and Tobin headed off to the bus stop.
It felt like not enough.
I was at work, but I kept picturing him in that big school with its wide corridors. Should we have made him go to the neighborhood middle school instead of letting him choose the magnet school across town? What if schedule changes were always hard? What would high school be like? College? The years unrolled before me: unchanging, difficult.
That afternoon, he arrived home smiling.
“How was your day?” I asked.
“Great,” he said.
I looked at him, relieved and perhaps doubtful.
He explained, “I didn’t realize. Yesterday was the first Monday of the school year. Now I know what they’re like. I’ll be prepared.”
He reminded me that Mondays were shorter days, but they still had all their usual classes, so that everything really was faster, relative to other days. His regular teacher had checked in on him. His school counselor had checked in on him.
“Did the color-coded schedule help?” I asked.
He shrugged. “I didn’t really use it.”
“Was it good to have your locker combination on your wristband?”
“It wore off,” he said. “Anyway, I gave you the wrong combination. But the gym teacher helped me.”
He pulled his three-inch binder out of his backpack and put it on the dining room table. Then he opened the fridge.
“I’m going to have a snack,” he said. “While I do my homework.”
by Alison S. Lebwohl
Image by Genty from Pixabay