The Third Third

The Eternal Lessons of Seventh Grade

Robert Fulghum may have learned all he needed to know in kindergarten, but it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that it is seventh grade that holds the key to survival. Either that, or the entire world is stuck at the seventh grade level of social intercourse so I find myself constantly reliving the lessons of that particularly painful school of hard knocks year even now, as I enter my seventh *decade*. You remember seventh grade. It’s when “Life isn’t Fair” becomes your mantra, and you learn that bullies usually win, that good girls are never the most popular, that seventh grade girls say “You’re my best friend” as often and with as much leverage as first grade girls say “Or I won’t invite you to my birthday party,” and that flirting is a life skill and conjugating Latin verbs is not. It’s the time you learn how to enter a party, scan the room, and find a seat in the cafeteria, I mean, find a small group of people who will, by shifting ever so slightly, open their conversation to you or shame you into walking by without interrupting. It’s when you learn to dress like everyone else before everyone else realizes that’s the way they’re supposed to dress (but not too far before), and when you learn to hate your body and your hair and your complexion and you also learn you have very little control over any of it, which is worse. It’s when you learn group projects always have their slackers and their control freaks and someone who takes all the credit anyway, and when, if you ever learn, you learn to kiss-up. It’s when you decide if you are going to play the game at all, and if you are going to play, if you’re going to win. In seventh grade, it matters where you locker is, what side of the tracks you live on, and to whom you tell what. In seventh grade, everyone is going to let you down. Everyone. At least once. It’s in seventh grade you learn any relationship with any guy trumps any relationship with any girl any time. It’s in seventh grade you learn how mean and vicious, petty and catty people can be. It’s also in seventh grade you realize how essential a good friend can be. Just about the only truth you don’t learn in seventh grade is that seventh grade is eternal. Even though we’re past it, we don’t seem, most of us, to outgrow it. To be sure, we don’t live it in constant high drama, as we did at ages 12 and 13; but we live it nevertheless. I hear “junior high” echoing in the chambers of my brain every time I’m told about law firm power struggles, the new girl who’s only getting ahead because she’s sleeping with the boss at the TV station, blackballing in sororities, and even, or especially this year, the petty “gotcha!” machinations and popularity contest components of presidential politics. I feel seventh grade in new social situations (*What should I wear? Will I know anyone?*) and when I get absolutely outraged about the unfairness of the world with its wars, disease and poverty. And I recognize seventh grade when my grown kids in new work environments describe their office politics and my friend with a mother new to a senior living community complains that no one will invite her to play bridge. The good news in this is that if you identify the situation as something you in fact experienced before in seventh grade, you can move beyond it. You can – perhaps a good therapist has taught you this already – identify both the “old stuff” that’s so-very-seventh-grade and the “mature you” who has more and better tools to apply. At least that’s what I tell myself when I find it too depressing, this idea that our culture has not advanced beyond seventh grade much at all. And sometimes, when I am feeling particularly bad, I remember this: I got all A’s in seventh grade. So there.
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