Middle School’s Bumpy Road
Lauren Kessler revisits the early teens
by Lois Wadsworth
In Lauren Kessler’s latest book, My Teenage Werewolf: A Mother, a Daughter, a Journey Through the Thicket of Adolescence (Viking, $25.95), she tackles the domestic disturbance created by her 12-year old daughter’s coming-of-age angst. Kessler reads a pile of current books; talks to other parents, to teachers, to psychologists and other experts; attends the child’s school and camp with her; and goes to the girl’s athletic practices and competitions.
This immersion in Lizzie’s world proves itself far more thorny, inscrutable and frustrating than either of them anticipated. Only when the mother allows the daughter to teach her to see and move around in her daily life do they begin to relate more easily and lovingly with each other.
Her daughter’s choice of two girl friends is a troublesome subject for Kessler. Observing her at school with one girl who lives in a less desirable neighborhood with a divorced mom who works the early shift at a convenience store, Kessler worries about an “entranced” Lizzie listening to the girl’s dramatic stories about her neighbors and their problems with the cops.
“This is so not her world, not our world,” Kessler writes. Later, she muses:
“The truth is, I don’t know why she chooses the less-fortunate, issue-burdened friends she does. She may not know herself. What I do know is that while having friends is always important, at this age, it can be everything. That’s what more than a few middle school teachers have told me. The biggest, most important challenge facing girls in middle school, they say, is learning how to negotiate friendships, learning what makes a friend and how to be one.”
Kessler may be preoccupied with Lizzie’s friends, but Lizzie seems oblivious to her concerns. She continues to befriend the two girls as well as hang with a trio of boys, mostly playing video games with them. Middle school is the time when boys and sex become interesting to girls and terrifying to their parents. Sure enough, Lizzie has a series of boyfriends.
“We made out,” Lizzie announces to her mom about the latest infatuation.
“I am more floored that she is telling me than what she is telling me,” Kessler writes, acknowledging she would never have shared such information with her mother.
In the ensuing conversation, Lizzie reveals she was talking about a “lot of kissing” and an “accidental” touching by his arm of her breast.
Lizzie’s generation lives “in a world surrounded by, inundated by, sexual messages, images, and symbols,” Kessler writes. She offers Lizzie her thoughts about the immaturity of boys this age and urges her not to allow such intimacies. In response, Lizzie cracks a joke that Kessler doesn’t get. Noticing her mother’s reaction, Lizzie says it’s just a joke.
And for the first time, Kessler takes a moment to acknowledge that Lizzie tells her things and makes jokes to connect with her. “I keep my mouth shut,” the wiser mother says.
Through the next 150 pages such hard-won moments of insight and clarity arise. Kessler’s determined to make sure the lifelong rift that developed between her and her mother during her teen years is not replicated with Lizzie. She spares no effort to connect, to be part of her daughter’s life. Maybe a little too much.
Many women with middle-school girls may benefit from the lessons Kessler learns in this journey with her daughter — especially if they, too, are accomplished, educated women with successful husbands who share childcare and help maintain household stability.
Lauren Kessler reads from My Teenage Werewolf at 7 pm Thursday, Sept. 16, at Barnes & Noble.
In the interest of full disclosure: Lauren Kessler served as my undergraduate advisor, my graduate advisor and chair of my thesis committee when I was a journalism student at the UO 1986-1991. And, oh yes, I have enjoyed and reviewed four of her previous six books for this publication.