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?