My son… the preteen

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We were at my 8-year-old son’s parent teacher conference. Mel and I sat across from his teacher, Ms. J, a woman in her mid-forties with brown curly hair parted to the side, wearing a dress made from blue jeans. Tristan sat in a small sofa next to a bookcase reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

 

He was in 3rd grade. Kindergarten through 2nd grade, he sat on Mel’s lap during parent teacher conference, his face shyly buried into her chest. But now, he sat on the sofa, away from us, one leg tucked under the other, reading a book as though he were too cool for this crap.

 

He was within earshot, clearly wanting to know what was going on, but at the same time, trying to act like he wasn’t listening. Part of me wondered who he thought he was. I don’t recall being all that cool at 8 years old. I remember being terrified. I recall seeing my teachers as some sort of Greek Gods atop Mount Olympus, all knowing and all-powerful, with unpredictable emotions. It’s not that he was doing anything bad, its more that he was paying attention without trying to show he was paying attention, and all of it, his slacked shoulders, his disengaged face, seemed to say, “I’m a teenager.”

 

But he wasn’t a teenager. He was 8 years old. He wouldn’t officially be a teen for another five years, and I couldn’t understand why this was all starting so soon.

 

Ms J. opened a folder and told us about Tristan’s performance.

 

“He’s a good kid,” she said. “He reads really well and he is a good classmate. His handwriting is horrible, though, but we are working on that. However, it is bringing down his grades a bit because sometimes I can’t read his answers.”

 

I turned to look at Tristan during that comment, to see if he was listening. Tristan’s sloppy handwriting had been a topic of conversation for a few years now. He glanced up from his book, made eye contact with me, and then rolled his eyes.

 

And while I admit, good handwriting isn’t as important as it was when I was a child. It’s is a problem if the teacher can’t read his answers. But that wasn’t what I was the most worried about. What bothered me in that moment was his eye rolling. He’d been doing a lot of that lately, and every time he did it, I wanted to sit him down and say, “Don’t be that eye rolling kid. Don’t be the hipster youth that thinks he’s got everything figured out, but in fact, doesn’t know shit. Please don’t, one day, spend hours in a coffee shop taking pictures of your food to post online, or tell people that you read The Great Gatsby before it was cool.” But I haven’t, because I’m not sure just how to tell him something like that. I don’t know how to tell him to be humble, to sit back and listen and learn from the people around him. So I usually just say, “Stop rolling your eyes.”

 

Mel tapped my leg because I wasn’t paying attention. Ms. J was asking us a question.

 

“Sorry,” I said. “Tristan was rolling his eyes at me. He does that.”

 

“Well…” Ms J. said. “That’s another thing I’ve been meaning to tell you. Third grade is usually when kids start the pre-teens. They start to get B.O. and Tristan might start noticing girls.” She went on, telling me about a few years ago when she had a boy bring a girl he liked a $100 bill as a gift. “I brought it up with his parents and they said that it was his decision to give it to her.”

 

I leaned back in my chair. “Wow,” I said. “Did things work out for him?”

 

Ms J. snickered. “I doubt they even talk any more.”

 

Ms J went on, telling us about what to expect. Mostly it was a warning I wasn’t ready for. She was telling me that my cute, sweet, snuggly little boy was starting to change. He was entering a new stage in his life, and it seemed far too early. Just last year he was afraid to flush the toilet because the sound was scary, and now he kept his door shut because he didn’t like people coming into his room. He wants his own space and independence, and as much as I’m happy that he isn’t clinging to my leg anymore like he often did at two or three years old, I kind of miss going into his room and having him excitedly tell me about his day rather than tell me to get out. And indeed he has been a little more sheepish around girls, often not making eye contact when they are around, his head down, one foot behind him balancing on the big toe.

 

Mel asked for Ms. J’s advice on how to best work with him during this transition, and as she spoke, I zoned out thinking about the words we were using, transition, pre-teen, girls, B.O… all of it sounded really scary. I felt a pit in my gut that was very similar to when Mel first told me she was pregnant with Tristan. Obviously it wasn’t as intense as it was that day, but I must say it was very real feeling that made me a little nauseous.

 

It felt like Tristan was becoming something new, something strange… a teenager. It was happening much faster than I anticipated. I thought about all the horror stories I’d heard from other parents, and I thought about some of the ridiculousness I put my family through as a teen, and realized that Tristan rolling his eyes was just the start of a long irritating journey.

 

We finished chatting with Tristan’s teacher and loaded in the van. As we drove away, I didn’t say anything about his handwriting or how well he did in math. I just said, “Tristan, you are growing up too fast.”

 

I looked back at Tristan through the rearview mirror. He gave me a straight-faced look that seemed to say, “Well duh…” Then he rolled his eyes.

 

I let out a breath and braced myself for the next several years.

 

 

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