A few nights ago, I went to see the movie “Eighth Grade,” not with my eighth grader. I felt guilty at first that my son had opted, much as an eighth grader might, to miss this humorous but raw portrayal of middle school life to see “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” My regret didn’t last long. This film was as much about his 13-year-old self, acne and all, as it was me—a near 46-year-old divorcée with raging hormones and a new zit on her chin.
But it wasn’t because “Eighth Grade” depicted a single parent raising a middle schooler alone like I am, though Josh Hamilton’s touching yet comedic performance as Mark, an overprotective dad struggling for a friendship-based assertiveness with his daughter, did hit close to home. It was because I identified so closely with Kayla (Elsie Fisher) as she navigated her way through the final week of middle school amid the traditional, i.e., IRL (“in real life”) peer pressure of yesteryear and a new digital kind brought about by the Internet, Instagram, and Snapchat. “Nobody uses Facebook,” popular classmate Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere) quips to her mother who, far north of 13, still uses Facebook, as do I, I admit, to judge and be judged.
If that’s not enough, Kayla’s struggle to come of age involves surviving superlatives (Kayla’s voted “Most Quiet”), a pool party, an awkward flirtation with scrawny heartthrob Aidan (Luke Prael), who shared the title of “Best Eyes” with Kennedy, a near sexual assault in the backseat of a car, and a school shooting drill. Except for the drill (I don’t attend or work in a school but parent kids who do), I’d say Kayla’s existence is pretty much my own, a hodgepodge of confidence, insecurity, loneliness, and freak rolled up into one. As it turns out, middle school isn’t so different from middle age, especially when you’re single following a long marriage.
Similar to Kayla, I was an awkward adolescent, except worse. Not only did I have the whitest skin ever and a congenital eye disorder that became less obvious with age, both of which incited such “superlatives” from my peers as Whitey and Googly Eyes, I also had braces (twice) and scoliosis, requiring I wear a back brace for two years starting when I was 10. My red hair was (and still is except when I pay for it not to be) unruly. And despite being one of the skinny girls at school in 1985 (read: Olive Oyl, the “superlative” given me by the guy behind the counter at my mom’s dry cleaner), my inability to tan like most of the other kids left me feeling less than anxious to parade around a pool in a bikini. Reader, I’ve never owned one. Watching Kayla walk out in her ill-fitting one-piece, her few extra pounds bulging over its elastic sides, I was, as my eighth grader says, shook.
Things improved in high school enough for me to get a boyfriend (later a husband), and I’m betting if there’s a sequel to “Eighth Grade” Kayla will, too. In a touch of brilliance, or out of sheer necessity to maintain her sanity, I’m not sure which, Kayla uses the Internet and social media, each responsible in large part for her feelings of inadequacy, to create YouTube vlogs starring her alter-ego, a confident eighth grader who’s more together than even she realizes. Through this medium, Kayla offers advice culled from many trials and lots of tribulations to struggling middle schoolers like herself, with one catch: no one’s watching, or so she thinks, based on how many, or few, likes and comments she gets. For the time being at least, Kayla is destined to remain a self-help guru to herself above anyone else, yet powers forward anyway. “Confidence,” she counsels, “is a choice.”
In 2013, after my divorce, I set out on a similar path, starting a blog and writing articles at my kitchen island that chronicled my life as a newly single parent and infidelity survivor. I walked myself, and as time passed a growing audience, through my joys, sorrows, copious dates, and whatever else happened in between them. I had no idea what I was doing (on most days I still don’t), and in one fell keystroke while clicking on the word publish, became an eighth-grader all over again. She lives inside me—in all of us—no matter how smart, pretty, handsome, or successful we come off to others. Uncertainty never leaves. Divorce and any life change for that matter merely serve as the catalysts that push our self-doubts to the surface, at least for a while, until we figure them out. When we do, though, it doesn’t take us long to understand we’re only one catastrophe, illness, firing, setback, breakup, or fuck up away from those feelings coming back and our newfound confidence leaving, giving us everything, and nothing, to lose all over.
For those of us well beyond the eighth grade, we know too well how precious time is. Which means there’s no sense waiting to begin the blog, write the article, film the video, start the business, set the boundary, end the relationship, or leave the marriage. Instead, we need to let our freak flags fly. Soon enough, as is usually the case, we’ll find that the most important person we wave it for is the one who’s actually waving it, the one who’s still standing, whether we’re standing alone or just feel alone. It’s scary out there but as Kayla reminds us, “You can’t be brave unless you’re scared.” Today, I choose brave.
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