The Road Not Taken Because It’s Not There Anymore

The Pool. Good then, good now.

Cents I used to carry in case I needed to call home. From a pay phone: 25

Backpacks I owned before college: 0 (they were so uncool)

Letters I used to write per week. On paper. With complete sentences: 2

News flash: things change.

As I approach 40, my older child is about to start middle school, and each May is beginning to feel like the time I should make Christmas purchases because I know the holidays are about to come around (again!), I think about how things have changed and how they have stayed the same. Walk with me through the antiquated, bygone roads of my childhood:

1. Phones. Our son wants one. Really bad. Really, really bad. He may, in fact, be the only almost-sixth-grader who does not own an iPhone. And my heart aches for him.

When I started middle school, my mom and dad both worked. I stuck a quarter in my pocket and walked the three-quarters of a mile to school with my two buddies, carrying my violin case and a stack of books. It was uphill both ways. No snow, but like-Africa-hot can apply here.

If it rained on the way to school or the way back, their moms might take pity on us and drive us there. If not, tough cookies.

There weren’t any pay phones on the side of the road in our neighborhood. My mom and dad couldn’t have done anything anyway… they were in their cars, on the way to work. In retrospect, I’m not sure what the quarter was for. But it was a lot cheaper than carrying an iPhone.

I would gladly supply my son with a quarter, but he is oddly disinterested.

2. Afterschool Activities. After school, we didn’t watch TV or get driven all over Timbuktu to Ashram Yoga or Fencing or Getting in Touch with Your Inner Child or Lacrosse. We went over to whichever home had a mom who could tune us out the best and jumped around to loud music and called it dancing. This went on for two hours, at a minimum. It was the first time I realized my stomach could sweat. And I thought it was cool.

We also ate huge bowls of ice cream and mixed in: peanut butter, sprinkles, chocolate syrup, caramel, butterscotch and M&Ms. We didn’t get sick from eating such a feast, and we never put on weight. Our legs resembled those of a fawn, narrow and long and unencumbered with cellulite. Sigh.

3. Terrorism. We didn’t need to worry about Al Qaeda or terrorist attacks, because we were pretty sure the Russians were going to wipe us all out with nuclear bombs. Those of us who survived would need to know how to speak Russian, and I wasn’t great with languages.

We lived near a major Air Force base, so the coach who taught us geography said the best thing to do was to go out onto the runway and wait for the bombs to drop. Better to be close to the epicenter instead of still alive and feeling the effects of nuclear fallout.

I did not think Sting’s “I Hope the Russians Love Their Children Too” lyrics were tongue-in-cheek. I really hoped. Like, for real.

4. Video Games. I was not good at video games, but my sister was. She played “Pitfall” like a champ, passing level after level, leaping on alligator heads and not getting chomped, swinging on vines in perfect synchronization…

Later, she said, “I liked it, but it never went anywhere.” It was the same few screens, over and over.

When a fellow blogger and her two teenage sons visited us this weekend, they showed my son the app, “Temple Run.” I talked to the older boy about how video games never used to do much more after the first few screens. Guess what? They still don’t. “Temple Run” has dodging and jumping… over and over.

5. Safety. We were in middle school, and we were tough. PE teachers didn’t worry about whether we would get hurt. They let us practice things like archery and said, in a laid-back kind of way, “Now, don’t walk behind the targets while someone is shooting.” Sometimes people did, and too bad for them.

During the summer, we hung out at the pool by ourselves. If we were lucky, a mom would drive us up there. But usually, we walked through a number of backyards in our flip-flops and only left the pool during adult swim and obvious thunderclaps.

The lifeguard was a druggie, but we didn’t know and quite frankly, didn’t care. Could he save us if we started drowning? No, but he sure was cute.

Sunscreen? Why in the world would you want to remain lily-white? The Bain du Soleil lady was our idol, and we compared forearm coloration with enviable scientific intensity, never again applied to something as mundane as mousetrap cars or high school chemistry experiments.

6. TV and movies. We all watched the same TV shows. There weren’t a whole lot of choices, especially for those of us who distinctly remember getting a color TV and whose parents thought cable TV was the work of the devil. I still remember staying up late with my mom watching “Friday Night Videos,” the poor child’s version of MTV.

My friends and I were horrified at the underarm hair on the lead singer of Dexy’s Midnight Runners. “Come On Eileen” was a song best listened to on the radio; it may, in fact, have led to MTV’s eventual switch to reality TV. Some things don’t need to be seen to be appreciated.

And when we wanted to see a movie, even multiple times, it was a mom or dad who was forced to either sit through the beloved movie or cover pick-up and drop-off. I saw “Back to the Future” three times in the theater, and “Pretty in Pink” was part of a friend’s birthday party: fifteen middle-schoolers kicking the backs of seats at the new movie theater in town. Divine.

Now, my kids often say they’ll wait until it comes out on DVD. No biggie.

What do you remember about middle school? What are you glad about that’s changed, and what do you wish kids today still got to experience?


26 thoughts on “The Road Not Taken Because It’s Not There Anymore

  1. bearrunner says:

    I don’t have a cell phone now… I find them too expensive… I remember a long bus ride to middle school…. Early mornings and Saved by the bell haha

    • annewoodman says:

      Cell phones ARE too expensive. Middle schoolers just have a notion of money along the lines of “it’s only $100” or “it’s only $1,000!” Hilarious.

      Saved by the Bell!!!! Awesome.

  2. bearrunner says:


    I couldn’t imagine having a cell phone in middle school, i was too concerned about the playground!

  3. Melissa says:

    Ha! “Temple Run” is just the beginning..they know so many more games 🙂 And those games are much more complicated.

    Tell your son not to feel bad about the phone. The boys didn’t get theirs until they turned 16. And (are you ready?) they have phones. No texting, no internet, just phones to make calls – no multi-media entertainment systems – that’s why they have the iPods.

    BTW, I had a “dime pocket” sewed into my bra…our phone calls were a lot cheaper.

    • annewoodman says:

      Whoa! You were high-tech with your undergarments! Impressive.

      Your sons are very cute and nice to people they don’t even know. You must be doing something right. My son will be very distressed to hear that a high school senior is stuck with an old-school phone. It doesn’t help his case. ; )

  4. I love this retrospective – I giggled at the archery targets! I helped at field day last week and one teacher insisted on walking the kindergartners through how to hold and pull the rope safely! What happened to a bit of rough and tumble?? My husband still cringes at the thought of the children having to wear helmets on their scooters…I was telling my daughter only yesterday how all the swings and roundabouts where I used to play were surrounded by tar – no wood chip or foam for us – when we fell we had to pick the gravel out of the wound before applying a band aid! Oh the good old days! Let’s get some scars back on the knees – after we have applied sun screen of course:)

  5. …hold the rope safely in tug of war by the way!

  6. p.s. I didn’t even have money in my pocket – if we were out and needed assistance my mum had taught me how to call the operator from a phone box and reverse the charges! Thanks for all the memories you’ve uncovered for me this morning!

  7. annewoodman says:

    Hahahaha! So funny. Yes, hold the rope safely. I helped at field day one time. One time. The whole thing was total chaos! And a group of dads got in trouble for squirting kids with water. ; )

    We always had to pick gravel out of our wounds, too. Can you remember how the monkey bars used to have asphalt underneath them? And we’re still here today!

    Oh yes, I guess I could have called “collect” on the phone. But the quarter in my pocket made me virtually bullet-proof!

  8. We didn’t have anything quite as sophisticated as monkey bars – but we had an awesome roundabout made out of scaffolding-like iron bars that we could push around at rocket speed…on asphalt of course – I lost count of the number of times we had to check if someone’s head was bleeding!

  9. crubin says:

    The other night my husband and I watched the “Big Bang Theory”, our family’s favorite TV show. I saw from the newspaper that it was about Howard’s bachelor party, so I “prescreened” it with my husband before letting my kids watch it. I’m a horrible parent and told my kids it was a repeat, but recorded it for my husband and I. If I felt it was okay, I would let them watch it.

    Now I’m no prude, and my kids watch a lot of stuff that might be questionable–it’s inescapable nowadays–but as much as I love that show, I couldn’t let them watch that episode which included Howard’s fiance learning about his former sexual escapades including hiring a prostitute and a three-way with one of his other male friends and an obese woman. It was all in fun and hilarious as usual, but my husband and I decided as far as the kids were concerned, it would remain a “repeat”.

    How does this tie into your post you’re probably wondering? (Or maybe you’re sleeping by now, who knows.) My husband and I went on to have a conversation about how we watched “The Cosby Show” and “Full House” when we were young. Didn’t find three-ways on those shows. “Three’s Company” was about as risky as it came, and that would probably seem tame by today’s standards!

    • annewoodman says:

      We LOVE “Big Bang Theory!” But yes, it has its racy moments, for sure. Prostitutes are difficult to explain to 9- and 11-year-olds. ; )

      “The Cosby Show” was Must See TV. I don’t think he and the Mrs. were swingers or Oxycontin addicts or secret cross-dressers. So refreshing. The world is a different place today.

      According to my son, your description of that episode of “Big Bang” was tame compared to what his friends watch on NetFlix and unscreened cable when their parents aren’t around.

      • crubin says:

        I’m sure it was. That’s why we don’t have NetFlix or any pay cable channels. And why I have major parent controls on computers. 🙂

  10. Jenn Schiess says:

    Thanks for the memories! I am sure I will be equally “uncool” when my kids start asking for cell phones in kindergarten or whenever. They’ve already asked for an iPad. My response was “you are four years old.” They just looked at me and blinked. When I was teaching high school, it was the era of pagers. And pagers were verboten in school. Whenever I would be forced to confiscate one (I had an “if I can’t see it, I won’t hassle you” policy), the kid would always try to argue that his/her parents needed to be able to reach him/her in case of emergency. My response was always two-fold–the very logical “if you are where you are supposed to be (i.e. in school, in my class), then your parents can find you. The school does have telephones” and the very “get off my lawn” response of “when I was your age, nobody but Sonny Crockett and the drug dealers he moodily chased through the streets of Miami in his Ferrari had cell phones, and they weighed 40 pounds, and we lived to tell the tale.” At the time, I was probably 6 years older than the youngest kids I taught–so maybe I should assume that in a year or so when my kids ask for a communication device, that they will have already been implanted with some type of chip or something. And how I recall those Bain de Soleil days….every time I apply some kind of tone correcting/anti-aging burning stinging acidic penance to my skin, but we looked good :).

    • annewoodman says:

      Your boys don’t have iPads yet? For shame.

      And Sonny Crockett looked so smooth lugging around a 40-lb. cell phone. We should all be so blessed.

      On the anti-aging front, what’s the dealio with Rob Lowe? Did he make a deal with the devil? He looks unscathed by the ravages of the Bain du Soleil days. Tragically unfair.

      When your sons start tapping the sides of their ears and talking to unseen people, you will know that cell phones are archaic, and implantable talking chips are all the rage. Your iPhone is but a flash in the pan. ; )

  11. Bernie Brown says:

    When I was in middle school, it was called “junior high.” And my husband, who is in charge of cell phone arrangements, won’t let me have an iPhone, either. But I still want one and may choose to ignore him. 🙂

    • annewoodman says:

      They are kind of fun. ; ) The difference between you and my son: you worked for your money and are over 21. He has never worked (although he wants to, desperately) and is 11. Tomato, tomahto…

  12. jmmcdowell says:

    Um, cell phones were not an issue when I was in junior high. They didn’t exist. 😉

    I remember the first color TV we got in the ’70s. It had three knobs for adjusting the color. I think my friends and I had fun making all the characters green…. Our parents were probably not so amused.

    I walked to school, and the trip was probably just under one mile. I think that was the magic cut-off number for getting to ride the bus! But we never really worried about “stranger danger,” even though we learned about it in school.

    Thanks for raising some fond memories!

    • annewoodman says:

      Yeah. The first color TV we got was in the 80s, long after they were the “in” thing. When I babysat, I cherished the opportunity to watch “Hunter” and “Golden Girls” and “Remington Steele” on color TV. Good times!

  13. I so enjoyed this – I’m in the same place, nearly 40 with a kid headed to middle school and desperately wants a phone – no concept of the cost involved! Our P.E. teacher taught our gun-safety class – find that in a school today! My kids will never know what life was like ‘before computers’ when without the internet we actually looked things up in books called encyclopedias. Great post – enjoyed this very much!

    • annewoodman says:

      I’m not alone! I’m not alone! And yes, our son frequently says things about money like, “It’s only $100!” Hmmm. Let’s think how long it takes to earn $100 on minimum wage.

  14. Dad says:

    I could say we walked to school and the snow was up to our chests, but I won’t. We were in Miami.

    Other than the telephone and writing letters, communication devices did not exist. Well, maybe the teletype did and maybe that’s why we had to learn morse code in Boy Scouts. But we never got close to a teletype machine, so I am still dumbfounded about why we needed to learn morse code. Maybe if we got stuck on a World War I ship and we were the poor soul who had to communicate to another ship via the searchlight blinker thing ….

  15. Daryl says:

    I used to go to the local phone box and let it ring once, twice or three times. Each meant something different, and it didn’t cost me a penny. I thought I was so smart.

  16. babin101 says:

    I wish our PE teachers didn’t care so much if we get hurt. In my opinion if you get hurt you should just get up and tough it out like you guys did. I like the video that you embedded!!!!! ʕ •ᴥ•ʔ

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s