Look how cute my date is in his white button up, stylish dress pants, skinny tie (from the Kevin Bacon Footloose era), slight product in his hair. I was one lucky girl, despite the fact that I didn’t even really like pink. I loved my hair in this picture with the matching, giant pink bow in the back. I definitely did not like the shoulder pads, and as I truly examine this picture, a little synthesized background music, maybe it was Journey, maybe it was Whitesnake, plays in the background. Some girls wore prom dresses, which seemed weird because a prom was the last thing I was ready for in eighth grade. Here we were in my old house for pictures before the FAMOUS Mastricola Middle School Eighth Grade Semi Formal. My date was Matthew Pouliot, and, through the magic of Facebook, we have recently reconnected. He now lives in San Francisco and is a successful realtor, a guy with a compassionate spirit and generous heart for collaborating with architects and builders to bring affordable housing in underdeveloped places. He’s also a writer- how funny- and I haven’t seen him since we graduated from high school in 1993, oh so long ago now.
But I look at those young sweet faces from the photograph, mine framed with giant bangs, and his with those little freckles, our awkward hands, his looking cooler in his pockets, while mine twisted not knowing what to do with them. At the time, I was a few inches taller, which resulted in me slanting my leg weirdly ahead so we looked like we were the same height. I feel like we may have actually had that conversation before the photo was taken. Remember, digital cameras did not exist, so these were taken with real film. We knew we only had one or two chances to look our best. But back then, these pictures really were for our parents and aunts and uncles, and not really for us at all, although I’m so glad I have this copy saved in my photo album relic. We spent the night living in the moment of the eighth grade semi formal. At times, we probably hung back with our friends nervous about being the first people on the dance floor, but I do clearly remember dancing. I don’t remember the slow songs if there were any, but I do remember coming home hot and tired and sweaty (shoulder pads added a lot of heat). I suppose one of our moms drove us there and the other one drove us home, but those details have taken a back seat along with any boyfriend girlfriend drama which may or may not have occurred over the course of the evening. Matthew and I went “as friends” because we were friends- both too young and goofy and immature to understand that we could, would, or should be anything more than just friends; kids still use this terminology which I always find endearing.
But, this girl in the photo looking back at me is clearly not the same person. She was insecure and struggled in social settings and was afraid of telling people exactly what she thought. She may have been a great athlete, a diligent student, and nice person, but all of that peer crap that happens in middle school scared the bejesus out of her. She didn’t talk about it really with anyone, despite having the best parents ever– instead she turned to her journals and wrote everything down– I mean everything. I hated middle school for the way it made me feel fairly regularly: completely unprepared, uncool, and unclear about expectations.
And when I became a middle school teacher all those years later, I was reminded about why that age is so tough– even for a person who has a supportive and loving family and a life filled with experiences to help them grow. What about those kids who didn’t feel loved or supported; whose moms or dads didn’t make sure they had clean clothes or deodorant? Or those moms and dads who fought all their kids’ battles for them so when the time came for them to stand alone and stand up for themselves, they had no skills to do so? We learned at the bus stop how to fend off bullies; we learned on the actual bus how to find safe people to sit with; we learned in the woods how to use our imaginations to scare the crap out of each other.
Childhood was not perfect, but those years (even the horrible prepubescent and early adolescent awkwardness) shaped the men and women we grow into. And whenever I hear a good Journey song; see a woman with a big perm or giant shoulder pads; or hear a casual reference to Kirk Cameron, Duran Duran, or MacGyver; or I drive through my hometown again, I’m grateful. Grateful for growing up when and where I did. Grateful for having been allowed to be an imperfect young adult. Grateful for experiencing first dates like Matthew Pouliot. (especially grateful also the world of social media did not exist when we were 13 or 21 for that matter)