Making the grade at middle school Education: It's pretty scary, that first day. But, with a bit of a hand, Michael Harned didn't have any trouble.

September 03, 1997|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

BEL AIR -- He went to bed early, but he couldn't sleep. He woke up early, but there was nothing to do. It was the first day of middle school, and Michael Harned was as ready as he'd ever be.

"You don't have to wear your backpack during breakfast," suggested his father, serving the pancakes.

Michael had heard all the warnings. From his friend's friend: When you first walk in, there'll be a huge fight going on in the lobby. From the daughter of his mom's colleague: Sometimes the older kids push sixth-graders down the stairs. From his friend's little sister: Nervous about middle school? Well, you should be.

The First Day of Middle School. It was a mountain to scale, a creature to tame, a river to cross, a nation to conquer. It had been out there, waiting for him, his whole life. He was 11 years old. This was his time.

Michael Harned shoved a handful of coins in the pocket of his new brown corduroy shorts. He put a ham sandwich and frozen juice drink in his backpack. He kissed his mother and father goodbye.

He marched toward the bus stop, where a posse of seventh- and eighth-graders already owned the sidewalk.

His parents followed in the minivan, shooting video.

Michael stood at the curb yesterday morning and pretended not to notice.

The bus ride could have been scary. The noise. The big kids in back. The Body Fluid Cleanup Kit hanging near the door. But Michael looked around and breathed a sigh. "Some of the kids I didn't really like aren't here," he said. "They graduated."

It was a good omen.

When Michael arrived at Southampton Middle School, the first thing that happened was a ruddy-faced gym teacher got on the bus and handed out slips of paper to remind the kids of their bus number for the journey home. Michael took his slip, hopped off the bus and blasted past the aforementioned lobby and down a stairway, muttering to himself: "I think I'm supposed to turn right and then go outside as soon as I see the portable classrooms. I'm in portable No. 2."

He found it easily. But that wasn't the best part.

The best part, as Michael was about to learn, was that this entire day -- this legendary First Day of Middle School -- had been designed to be as terror-free as possible. "We want the children to be happy," said assistant principal Nancy Owen. "If they're anxiety-ridden, they can't learn."

So, when Michael arrived at Mrs. French's homeroom, he learned, among other things, that he would be walked to every class by a teacher until he knew his way. He learned that assigned seats at lunch would spare him the anguish of wondering who to sit with. He learned he'd be given 30 minutes to learn to work his lockers.

He learned that the lockers -- 6 1/2 inches wide -- were far too narrow to get stuffed into.

He learned that nothing was quite as complicated as it seemed. "Technology education," for example, was just a fancy word for shop. And "lit-er-a-ture," as Mrs. French called it, just meant the time after lunch when you read stories or were read to.

"We're going to go through things one at a time," said Mrs. French, a gentle teacher in a floral dress. "And then we're going to go over everything again and again.

On the First Day of Middle School, Michael learned there was a place for him.

To be precise:

Team 6-5, west group. Purple band group. Hall locker 901. Gym locker 383. Bus 561. Lunch row B. Lunch table 11. Lunch line 1.

He learned that since most of his classes were in portable classrooms, he had few occasions to cross paths with seventh- or eighth-grade toughs. But the kids he did see in the halls were familiar-looking. Girls wore chokers around their necks and scrunchies on their wrists. Boys wore long shorts and big T-shirts. Oversized backpacks dragged behind them like ox-carts.

It wasn't long before he was joshing and bantering with his classmates, particularly the boy named Joe whose last name also starts with an H, guaranteeing close proximity until graduation.

"This is a lot better than elementary school," said Joe. "We're not doing anything but walking around from class to class."

"I know," said Michael. "In elementary school we actually did work the first day."

Seven hours after he'd left for the bus stop yesterday, Michael returned home.

"How was the first day?" asked his mother, holding the video camera.

Michael shrugged.

"Good," he said. He hugged her and left it at that.

Pub Date: 9/03/97

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