My 12-year-old daughter is now attending boy-girl parties. This started last year in 5th grade and it was a much-discussed Big Deal but now in sixth grade it’s expected that all her classmates’ parties will be coed. No more pink-drenched affairs at Build-a-Bear, Color Me Mine, or the local skating rink. Most of these new boy-girl gatherings are dance parties. I believe that what goes on at these parties is completely innocent (there’s not even any slow dancing), but I also acknowledge the selective amnesia that overtakes me and many other parents of pre-adolescent children. Either we’ve forgotten the pain and angst we experienced at that age, or if we do remember, we believe that it’s different for OUR kids. They are still the same angelic creatures without a care in the world (as if) who know nothing about love, loss, or lust (ha!), and who have yet to experience the agonies of mercurial friendships (keep dreaming), the cruelty of their peers (we wish), or the desperate need to fit in (yeah, right).
When I was a kid, most depictions of children in popular culture were idealized fantasies created by adults who couldn’t bear to look at the harsh realities of childhood. I knew full well that the experiences of the Bradys, the Waltons, and even the Huxtables were out-and-out lies, but I embraced this deception with relief. A world in which difficult issues and agonizing emotions were resolved within minutes with the help of caring, involved adults was a world I desperately wanted to live in. Yet part of me resented the phoniness of it all and wished there was at least a nod to how difficult it was to be a kid. I think that’s why Roald Dahl was my favorite author back then. He offered a rare glimpse of the dark, ugly side of childhood, ramped up to nightmarish proportions and full of abuse by hideous adults and the constant threat of injury or death. The terrifying adventures that Dahl’s protagonists faced in over-the-top books such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach” seemed far more authentic than the travails of most other fictional kids I encountered.
Yesterday Leah and I went to see the movie “Bridge to Terabithia,” an excellent new adaptation of Katherine Paterson’s thirty-year-old Newbery Medal classic. The story is about two unpopular kids who invent a magical world to cope with their pain and loneliness. It’s one of the best children’s films I’ve seen about the power of friendship and, though a Disney film, is blessed with the most talented group of kids I’ve seen in a long time. Nothing can ruin a kids’ movie faster than a smarmy “child actor” but these kids rang true in every frame, especially the two leads played by Josh Hutcherson and the always good AnnaSophia Robb (who played Violet Beauregarde in the remake of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). Here’s something I so appreciated about the film: the kids are a mess. They are dressed the way real kids who are picking out their own clothes would dress, they are frequently unkempt with their hair all over the place, they are covered with stains of one sort or another, and you get the distinct impression that they don’t exactly smell like freshly cut flowers. If you’ve ever been in a room with a bunch of 12-year-olds, you know how rank they can get, I don’t know how sixth grade teachers can stand it.
There’s a wonderful scene in the film which shows the exact moment when Jesse Aarons falls in love with his pal Leslie Burke. It’s done without words, but it feels utterly real and exciting and scary and uncomfortable, as first loves usually are. But Jesse also has a deep crush on the young music teacher Ms. Edmonds, played by Zooey Deschanel. He’s confused by these feelings which ultimately lead him to do something that he will deeply regret. I won’t spoil the story for those of you who may not be familiar with it, but suffice it to say that by the end of the film Leah and I were both sobbing audibly.
Afterwards, we talked about how difficult it is to be a kid—the cliques, the meanness, the bullying, the terror of young love. I tried to see it from Leah’s perspective for a change, instead of reverting to the patronizing adult attitude as I so often do. “Oh, kid, you don’t know what real problems are. You’re so lucky to have no responsibilities yet. Enjoy your carefree life!”
Leah has several more boy-girl parties coming up in April. Despite my belief that “nothing is going on” at these parties, I’m quite aware that I was in sixth grade when I went to my first “kissing party.” Maybe it was the emotions brought up from watching “Bridge to Terabithia,” but I could suddenly remember exactly what it was like to walk into Scott Whitcup’s basement and see that line of bewitching sixth grade girls sitting on his plaid couch. I was wearing my new white bell bottom pants with a powder-blue wide-collared Qiana shirt and my palms were sweating so bad I kept rubbing them on the shirt, leaving palm prints in the synthetic faux-silk.
I was petrified but excited by the heady scent of hormones filling that dank room. I think we played several rounds of Spin the Bottle and I can remember how flushed I got as I kissed my pretty classmates. After each kiss, we’d hurriedly take our seats, not daring to meet the person’s eyes for at least several minutes. I wish I could remember my first kiss. Who was it? Randee Soroka? Mindy Nussbaum? Debbie Shub? Alina Garcia?
A few months later, somewhere between the killings at Kent State and the Apollo 13 near-disaster, things got more brazen in my own basement. We graduated from Spin the Bottle to Truth or Dare, Post Office, and Seven Minutes in Heaven, the first game we played in which couples would go off on their own for extended makeout sessions. Oh boy. I remember two of my partners from that party. Rhonda Hellstrom was a popular member of the stunning Swedish contingent at my school (thanks to Chicago immigration patterns, we were primarily Jews, Swedes, and Greeks, with most of the Jewish boys lusting after the supremely goyishe Swedish girls). Kissing Rhonda that night (and I doubt it approached anywhere near seven minutes) was the most thrilling sexual experience I’d had to date and I was instantly in love. Isn’t that what kissing someone meant? Of course I was SO in love that I couldn’t speak to her for the next several months and I’d quickly look away if I ever saw her glance in my direction in class. Sigh.
My other partner in “heaven” that night was Sandy Siegel, another popular girl who, like Rhonda, was way out of my league. Gotta love those kissing parties and the level playing field they created with their forced pairings. It was during that session that my older sister Sue, a white lipstick-wearing woman of the world (even though she was only in 7th grade) came down to the basement and decided to teach us kids how to make out properly. She stood over me and Sandy and expressed disgust at the way our mouths were plastered against each other. “You’ve got to move your lips the whole time,” my sister explained, in what might have been an embarrassing intervention had Sue not been one of the cool girls everyone looked up to at Mary Gage Peterson Public Elementary School. The crowd followed her kissing instructions with rapt attention. “Pretend you’re making figure eights with your mouth, and keep doing it over and over.” It worked. In seconds, Sandy and I were transformed from clueless novices to Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon writhing on a beach on the French Riviera.
Oh-la-la. Where was Rhonda Hellstrom, I needed a re-do!
As fond as those memories are, I admit I’m horrified at the thought of Leah slobbering with some sweaty pre-pubescent boy in her sixth grade class. I wonder what kissing parties are like today and when they start. Leah swears that there’s been no “activity” at any of her gatherings. In late 2003, parents of pre-adolescents reacted in group horror to the newly exposed epidemic of “rainbow parties” that was supposedly sweeping the country involving children as young as sixth graders. These were oral sex parties at which fellatio was performed on boys by girls wearing different colors of lipstick. The girls were challenged to go as “deep” as they could, thus leaving a “rainbow” of colors on each boy’s penis. Yuck! This phenomenon was first mentioned on the Oprah Winfrey Show but now many child experts say that such parties are either entirely an urban myth or else were extremely isolated occurrences, not the “epidemic” that was claimed.
I think it’s only natural that we want to keep our kids as “innocent” as possible for as long as we can. Still, I have to admit that I enjoyed the tame kissing parties of my youth, probably because I never would have gotten any “action” without the structured set-up. Kissing parties were only cool for a few short years. By high school, no one would be caught dead playing those games. Once the forced pairings had ended and we were on our own, it was all over for me. For years.
Sixth grade is such a transition year. Puberty is barreling in at breakneck speed despite our misguided attempts to keep it at bay, and it’s bringing all sorts of novelties such as menstruation and breasts and the first flushes of romantic longing that seem oh-so-important and difficult. Parents are often caught off guard. Where did our kids go? Who are those smelly adolescents and why are they acting so weird? I hope I can be there for my daughter, letting her have her normal experiences without getting too involved or worried and yet providing input or support when appropriate. Oy. Who said being a kid (or parent) was easy?