Saturday, January 4, 2014

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The Secret Lives of Tweens-Guest Author Nick Healy

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It’s a late-summer evening, and I am at the kitchen sink. The window above the sink is open, and through the screen I watch my son and two of the guys he knocks around with. They scrape and bang across the patio on skateboards and urge each other, “Watch this! Watch this!” They don’t notice me, don’t hear the water run as I rinse a couple dishes. I dry my hands and keep watching. 
Soon they gather together, the three boys at the edge of the grass. They flip their skateboards up and lean them against their legs. They talk. I can’t make out much of what they are saying. I’m not particularly interested, but it’s fun to observe my son in his natural state. He’s nearly 13 and hardly looks like a kid anymore. He wears Vans and skinny jeans and a gray T-shirt. He laughs at what his friends say. He smiles. When he speaks, I hear, “Something, something, FU#!ing something, something.” I can make out only the one word.
My impulse is to chastise him, to send his friends home, to order him inside. But I don’t. I’m eavesdropping, after all, and what’s the point?

My son is in seventh grade now, and during his long hours at school or cross-country practice or the skate park, he lives a life that I really don’t know much about. That’s the truth of it. As parents, we like to think that our tidy little nuclear families are the units in which our children exist, that the family provides their frame of reference and shapes their daily experiences. We like to think that, but it’s hardly true.
For broad swaths of time, school and work and other demands separate us. They isolate parents from kids, spouses from each other. As kids leave elementary school for middle school or junior high, their independent experience expands from the relative cocoon of a neighborhood school to the wilds of an ecosystem populated by kids we’ve never heard of from families we know nothing about. They have separate lives, well beyond the range of parents with spying eyes, eavesdropping ears.
It spooks me to consider that distance, that lack of control, the limited realities of parental influence. Without wanting to, trying to, or even realizing it, our kids lead secret lives.
Sending our oldest off to seventh grade hasn’t been an easy thing. I remember that year as a miserable time. The worst. Seventh grade chewed me up, formed me into a large spitball, and thwacked me against a wall.
Like a lot of kids, I teetered between the naïveté of childhood and the hard realities of young adulthood. There were still some toys on the shelves of my bedroom, but at school I had to hear about how my friend Liz had been to third base with the biggest loudmouth jackass in the school. What was third base? I didn’t really know. And what was Liz doing there? I couldn’t imagine.
Now here I am, an adult, standing by the kitchen sink while outside my foulmouthed son and his buds get back to the grinding racket of skateboarding, and I’m thinking about Liz and her secret life and her parents. At the beginning of the school year, she’d become a friend among a pack of loosely affiliated guys and girls who stood around together outside the cafeteria. Then we told people we were going with each other, and we even tried Frenching. That did not go well, and soon we were just friends again.

As the school year went on, Liz hardened into a different person—a person who really hated me for some reason. I tried to avoid her in the hallways, but she would find me. She was always trying to knock my folders or books from my hands, or to kick my heel and make me stumble. One day she ran up behind me, hooked a leg around mine, and threw her full weight against my back. We both thudded to the floor, crashing down near the feet of my science teacher, a bearded middle-aged guy who looked down and said, “What’s wrong with you two?”
“Us two?” I thought. “Us two?”
My family had no idea. If they knew Liz existed, they thought of her only as a girl we’d see at church sometimes, a girl I’d talk to for a few seconds on the way out. I told them nothing about what was going on at school. The only thing more humiliating than the Liz problems and the hallway takedown would’ve been talking about it with my family. Soon Liz moved on to the next drama. So did I. Whatever it was, I wouldn’t be telling my family about it.
I go back to watching the guys on their skateboards. Seeing my son with his friends, I think he must be doing okay. Apparently he curses. Maybe he curses a lot. He seems to do it naturally, with a certain command. He deploys the F-bomb with aplomb. Maybe it will last. I hope not, but I know it’s trivial compared to everything else he might experience when we’re apart.
They must come at him all day—new friends, old friends, false friends, and loudmouth jackasses. And surely he’s met by baffling teachers and clueless adults, people who ignore or misunderstand the plainest events even as they unfold right before their eyes. How does a seventh-grader get along all day? What is his secret life like? I’ll never really know.


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Nick Healy is a short-story writer whose first book, It Takes You Over, was released in 2012. The Friends of American Writers selected the collection as one of three literary prize winners for the year, and it was a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award and the Midwest Book Award. Healy lives in Mankato, Minnesota, with his wife and two kids.