Middle School Nightmares

June 1, 2011

(please note: the following post was fully vetted by the dreamer, who was gracious enough to allow me to share it with you.)



I answered vaguely, if at all. My body was there in the kitchen with her, but my head was getting her on the bus. I was setting out the cereal, the milk, the funky-organic brown liquid vitamin.  I was weighing each minute of the time she had left before 7:30 AM, wondering whether she had packed her science notebook, whether she had brushed her teeth, when I could get her an orthodontist appointment to fix her broken braces.

She tried again. “Mummah?  Are you listening?  I need to tell you the dream I had last night.

“In it, I had all the normal problems of my life — you know, missing the drama club meeting, and having broken braces, and sometimes being late for class, and acne — but everything had the worst possible consequences.”

I listened then, a little more closely, swinging from the table to the fridge to get her some milk for the cereal, and orange juice to wash everything down before it was time to go.

“I had pimples all over my cheek, the really big red kind.  And I got a part in the play, but it was a really weird and small part, because the director wouldn’t forgive me for missing that meeting.  It was last Thursday, she kept saying, as though I could turn back time and not have missed it.”

The actual meeting had been last Thursday, I was pretty sure.  And, no surprise to me or anyone else, she had missed it, just one of four or five similar things she had missed just last week.  Even for twelve year olds, there are so many meetings.  So many demands.  So many, many things to remember.

And while her skin was beautiful in the morning light — clear and childlike, still — a new coldsore was forming at the corner of her lip.

As we grow, even our own skin betrays us.

The dream rehashed  the actual facts of her life this week in sixth grade.  Her braces were broken.  She was late for class — somewhere between sometimes and often.  The dream smushed together everything bad, and turned the volume up.

Finally I had assembled the last of the ritual items for her trip from the safe world of home to the big world of school.  Despite my dreams of birthing and raising wholly self-sufficient children, these are still my tasks.  As long as I could get her to eat breakfast and could shove her out of the house in time for the bus, I could say I had done my job.  The rest of the day’s responsibilities would be all hers.

But her dream would sit on my heart all day. Confident that I had prepared her to leave the house on time — whether or not she actually wanted to go, I sat down across the table, my coffee going towards cold now, but still bitter-strong.

“Mummah, it was a horrible dream.”

I wasn’t sure if this was one of those moments when I should talk or another one of those when I should listen.  I was pretty sure it was going to be one of those times when I would have to shoo her out of the house to make the bus, at the very last minute, but I knew that this dream was telling us both something. Maybe I picked wrong — I never ever know — but I elected to counsel and to broaden the lens.  This dream was the precise size of her feelings and fears, but it was bigger than that.  It was the nightmare that dogs us all through middle school and beyond:  the dream that we are somehow never enough.

I took a deep breath. “That sounds so painful.  You know what, though? I think you just had a dream about being a teenager.  Every single thing you mentioned is something that every single teenager ends up dealing with.  And it’s all just feeling really hard to you.  Really real, and really hard.”

She looked at me for a minute, as though not sure whether to be comforted or irritated by my generalizing her specific hell to all of humanity.

She continued, “So there I was with all my really bad teeth and the bad part in the play and bad grades for things I had kept on missing. But there was an even worse part to it. Because then, I went into the cafeteria.  You know how at our school, you don’t have to pay for lunch?  Well, in the dream, I did.  I had twenty dollars, but that still wasn’t enough.  So I pulled these two toy action figures out of my pocket to give to the man.

“The man taking my money looked at me and laughed. ‘These are great — for a person with no friends!’ he mocked.

“Suddenly, the whole cafeteria got silent and everybody looked at me. Everybody.  Stared.  At.  Me.

“I wanted to yell at him that he was supposed to be a grown up, and help me rather than making me feel worse. I tried to stand up for myself then.  ‘I do have friends.  Don’t say that,’ I told him, but then I couldn’t find any words to make him understand.  To make him believe.  Then, I looked around and realized that there was no way I could prove him wrong even though he was. So I just kept on getting more and more of this obnoxious feeling of frustration, knowing the hopelessness of the situation.”

In the dream, the whole world telescoped to confirm her awful self-consciousness — no matter how undeserved and unfair.  The lame part in the play.  The angry pimples.  The bad grades.  And worst, worst, worst of all the knowledge that she would stand alone in the cafeteria, the talismans of childhood used as weapons against her in this harsh new world.

We birth these lovely children of ours.  We nurse them and clean them and tend their every little boo boo.  And then, we send them into middle school.  We shove them out the door with their backpacks weighing more than they can carry.  We push them out the door whether or not they are ready to go.

We do this, even though we know, through experience, early adolescence sometimes takes the form of a living nightmare, no matter how well adjusted you once were or will be.  Everything is changing.  The world spins faster, and suddenly you — still only a bundle of process and possibility — find yourself at the center of loneliness.  Not just alone, but alone with an audience witnessing the aloneness.  And staring.

This was all a dream, of course, but it is also precisely what it feels like to be twelve.  You imagine the world staring.  You imagine the world judging.

No matter that every other kid is too preoccupied with her own self-consciousness to really care.  It feels to you  as though they have nothing better to do than to stare, rapt, at the spectacle of your misery.

In fact, that self-consciousness is exactly the reason why kids — why we all — feel so alone.  We get so lost — alone in our dramas of loneliness — that we can only rarely bridge the gaps between ourselves and others.  In our self-consciousness, we become the mocking audience for our own loneliness.  No matter what awful things our peers say to us, we tell ourselves worse.

There are good days, for sure.  Sometimes my smart, beautiful, ethical child skips in the door at the end of the day, on fire from something terrific that has transpired.  A hard-earned A.  The warm — if fleeting — regard of a “popular girl.” (Nevermind that that girl was probably dreaming the same awful dream in the wee hours of her own lonely morning.)  A great performance in drama class.  Even blueberry scones in the cafeteria can set her world alight.

And then, thank god, there were enough stolen minutes at the table this morning so that she could also tell me the very end of her dream.  The moment of rescue, coming from the most surprising of quarters.

“But let me tell you the end of the dream, Mummah.  I looked around me, and I was really surprised to see this girl from my class come up to the mean lunch guy and start shouting at him.  She’s the smallest girl in my whole class, and I barely ever talk to her in my real life! I don’t understand how my head could choose such a small somebody with a miniscule part in my life to stick up for me in a dream.”

This smallest of girls arrived in her dream, riding the cavalry of the ego, to shout the truth against the armies of awkward.

I’m no dream-expert, but somebody smart once told me that every character in a dream you dream is a manifestation of you.  How fitting, really, that the pipsqueak savior here is the smallest part of my daughter — the one to whom she barely speaks these days.  This is the self that was her before middle school.  And the one who will grow into the woman she becomes.

That little girl inside her may get smaller before she gets bigger, but I need to love and bolster that part of her with all my heart. Let me never forget, deep down in my soul, what it is to live those nightmare parts of adolescence.  So that even on those days when the world seems to swirl against her, I can hold firm and act in ways that remind her of the only things I know for sure:

I love her. All the people in this house love her.

And, most importantly, she has every reason to love herself through these years.  In fact, this is the only way through the nightmare of staring at herself, imagining the world is staring too.

I can take this stolen four minutes at breakfast and tell her that this moment is a chrysalis — a moment you step into as one kind of being and emerge from another.  But it can’t be avoided.  We can only go through.

But every day you walk through, head held high and open wide to what the world has to teach you — that is a day that you are you.

And that you within — the self that comes before and will be there after — that is you.  And you are far, far more than enough.

GailNHB June 2, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Amen, amen, amen.

I still have that dream. And I still wake up in a cold sweat – only to have to get out of bed and live it out, the dreamy part of it, the nightmarish part of it, the pimply part, the missed meeting, the scared little girl who screams anyway part…

Thank you for sharing those four morning moments so thoughtfully with your daughter – and now with us.

Launa June 3, 2011 at 9:23 am

You are so right — those dreams never really go away, do they!?

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