Being 12 is pretty much the worst. It’s definitely worse than 11, probably worse than 14 and even marginally worse than 23. It’s hard for me to imagine anything as miserable 12, except for 13 (or maybe smallpox), and trying to reckon the actual true nadir is roughly equivalent to trying to figure out whether you’d prefer questioning at the Witch Trials or the Inquisition. I tend to think, even if thirteen is actually worse, you, at least/by then, have a sense of what’s coming. Nobody expects 12, or for that matter, the Spanish Inquisition.
My dad tried to warn me. He left a letter tucked into whatever Gothic novel I was reading a few weeks before my birthday. It kicked off as follows:
Being 12 is not the greatest fun you’ll have in your whole life. On the other hand, you’ll learn some things being 12 that will be real important to you when you’re 22, 32, and 42.”
He went on to explain in lines like: “Being 12 means you’re officially somebody important and nobody hardly at all—both together” and “Sometimes you’ll be doing the thing you know feels right to you—the adult thing—but somebody won’t pay attention and still make like you’re a kid, or worse, a non-person.” Reading it now, knowing my father as I do and sharing with him a penchant for both paradox and humorous understatement in potentially fraught situations, I totally get what he was trying to say. Not-quite-twelve-year old me found it utterly baffling. The only part I could make heads or tails of was a section toward the end when Dad was (I think) trying to empower me to make the choices I wanted, bullies be damned, but he chose the example of me choosing to watch MTV, and snack instead of going outside, getting plenty of exercise and not snacking. By the transitive power of hormones, I read this as “you choose to be fat, fat people deserve to be bullied, therefore you choose to be bullied.” It felt like a punch in the gut. I’m pretty sure I both believed it and thought Dad was total jerk for saying it. I avoided him for weeks, re-read my favorite biography of Elizabeth I (whose father was a notorious asshole) about six times and ignored the stack of conciliatory New Yorker Cartoons he’d slip into my backpack as Dad code for “Are you mad at me? Why are you mad at me? Puns, buddy, puns!”
I have neither a child nor a biological clock nagging me to run out and get one. This means I won’t have the chance to get all vague and existential in a letter to my own miserable, hormonal offspring. I probably won’t be able to sit down with a kid I love and tell her that people are assholes, usually because other people are assholes to them, and they make people feel sad, lonely, miserable and stressed out because they’re sad, lonely, miserable and stressed out themselves. No one deserves to feel that way—not even assholes!—but we all will, sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, until the times that we don’t and it’s a cycle. I’m pretty sure no one enjoys middle school except psychopaths. The best way to get through 12 (and 22 and 32 and 42) is to be gentle with yourself and easy with others. In as much as it is possible, find the humor, the (lower-case) grace and camaraderie among people that don’t expect you to be any more than what you are: a person with a voice and a mind and a story and right to make her own choices and take up her own space.
Also, avoid perms. They’re terrible and anyone that tries to tell you otherwise is not your friend.