When I was eight years old, I started cracking my knuckles. I can’t remember who taught me, or why I thought it was a good idea, but once I started, I couldn’t stop.
When I was eight years old, I got the world’s worst. Freaking. Perm. Ever. It was hideous.
I also got glasses that year.
I was diagnosed with both allergies and asthma when I was eight years old, and began the hell of weekly allergy shots. I detested them, even though my mother would take my brother and me to a local bakery for a treat afterward, to ease the sting.
You might infer based on the previous three items that I was a bit of a dork at age eight. You may be right.
When I was eight, my imagination was boundless. I was a superhero with an exotic name, long black hair, and an arsenal of descriptive words ready to explain my character to any of my rapt (or weary) playmates. I was one of the Boxcar Children, one of the Bobbsey Twins, and the quintessential Cabbage Patch mother. I was the orchestrator of games, theatrical productions, magical daydreams, and rainy day escapades.
When I was eight, my third grader teacher Mrs. McLaughlin had our class push all the desks together in the middle of the room for a class Halloween party. Then she told us the story of how one day she returned home to find her husband hanging in the basement, having committed suicide earlier that day. I was eight.
We learned long division that year, and I learned to become horribly anxious because I didn’t understand it. I also couldn’t see the chalkboard. Getting glasses helped, but the pervasive anxiety that I really had no idea what the hell was going on never really went away.
When I was eight, I was characterized by a perplexing dichotomy: my entire being was torn between confidence that comes from a deeply-rooted belief in one’s own innate abilities and a seemingly incongruent sense of self-consciousness and anxiety that perhaps I didn’t really fit in. If it is possible for an eight-year-old to be neurotic, I have no doubt that I was. In some ways I was painfully shy and awkward, in others—full of buoyancy and limitless self-assurance. How did two such personas distinctly exist within one body?
My oldest daughter turned eight this week, and has started third grade. When I look at her, in many ways I see myself at that age, but I also see a different creature, one with less shyness, fewer inhibitions, and more unconditional confidence in herself.
She is a voracious reader, delighting in the characters and worlds she inhabits when she holds a book in her hands.
She is verbose, and feisty, and clever; she struggles to find the line between humor that is appreciated by both children and adults and downright rudeness. I firmly believe she hears a laugh-track to a tween sitcom when she opens her mouth to speak. She delights in eliciting a genuine laugh from me, her wry mother.
She is anxious about the weather, frequently asking questions about the severity of storms, how much rain is too much, how safe is the car, the school bus, her home. We have worked to combat that anxiety and worry, but part of me believes it is embedded in her person—that it is simply who she is. Sometimes it lies dormant for months, only to appear again later in a different form.
When she dances, she is unaware of how she looks to others. She moves the way she is moved to move, with her spirit and exuberance rushing through her limbs as she sways and spins and shimmies. Someday she will lose that beautiful confidence, that lack of inhibition. It will be replaced by the curiosity of who is looking, and what do they see?, and the fear that maybe she looks foolish. My heart aches when I imagine that day. If a mother could somehow arrange for her children to be spared that particular rite of passage while still growing, still increasing their efficacy and independence, wouldn’t we all do it?
She is polarized by the ferocious love and protectiveness she feels for her toddler sister and a deep irritation that she is negotiating with someone who speaks only the most primal language of self-indulgence and impulsivity. She is proud of her status of big sister, and honored when her sister showers her with affection, and also perturbed when her privacy and plans are not respected.
She is comfortable in her own skin; she lacks the paralyzing self-consciousness that caused me to deeply evaluate whom I might play with at recess or join in the cafeteria. She walks naturally into the school building, calling out to friends of both genders with a self-assuredness that eases my heart. She can identify when her peers are anxious and concerned, and she genuinely tries to make her friends cared for—she is a nurturer.
Eight changes things. It is a giant leap away from the preciousness of childhood, from the type of “cute” that begins to change as the permanent teeth take up residence in their unrestrained smiles. Eight feels monumental to me—we have reached a precipice, and there is so much to learn, so much at stake. As a mother, I feel a certain urgency to protect the smoothness of this transition into the next stage of childhood. I am compelled to protect her fragility and sensitivity, to prolong the confidence and social graces she naturally possesses, to attempt to cushion her from any forces that could break her in the next two years.
My wish is that she will emerge from eight with her belief in herself and her dreams still intact. That she will grow, and learn, and shed some of the necessary innocence without losing the most beautiful purity of childhood. I hope that it is within reach—to move through those last years of childhood feeling empowered, comfortable in her body, and safe in the world, that she might spring into her tween years feeling connected and whole.
Today I am at The HerStories Project sharing my tips for teaching our daughters about friendship struggles and breakups. Have you had to teach your young daughters about the challenges of girls’ friendships? Stop by and join the conversation!
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I remember and have maintained that 8 was my favorite year. I can’t tell you what happened, but I have always said I loved being 8. Such a beautiful story. And I cannot believe your 3rd grade teacher told you that story!
Isn’t it crazy? Clearly, I’ll never forget it. I don’t remember 8 being my favorite, but it was definitely memorable! 🙂
I hope this for her, too. Once again, I am struck by how similar our childhoods were. The power of anxiety in our ability to learn is phenomenal.
Was that teacher reprimanded? That is horrifying!
Isn’t it awful? It took years to oust her from that school system. She was a bully, too, and was often cruel to kids. I was sensitive and anxious, but a good student, and fortunately she didn’t target me, but it still left a lasting impression. Do you think telling that story in these days would get a teacher fired? I wonder.
What a beautiful post, Stephanie!
Thanks so much, Alethea!
Oh Stephanie, so beautiful. My daughter will be ten this weekend and I have such a web of feelings I cannot even begin to describe, let alone so eloquently as you did. I’m older than you – uhg – but your eight, as opposed to your daughter’s, sounds pretty much like my 18! Oh those perms…
Though I have a son, it isn’t much different. I lose track of what he’s saying because I start thinking about how cute his facial expressions are and they way he twirls his hair with his left index finger when he’s talking about something he’s unsure of or emotional about. All the “baby” is gone and I feel the dwindling of childhood. Soon he won’t be so open and close with me, wanting to cuddle. I loved this.
Thanks, Samantha. Sometimes mine catches me staring at her, trying to memorize those last few bits of “baby.” I like watching her sleep- I can see her preschool face in there. 🙂
Oh friend, absolutely beautiful and inspiring and a little heartbreaking. Seeing our kids grow up is obviously natural and the new things that they pick up are incredible and perfect but damn!t if it’s also so hard to not miss younger-them, and realize that the baby parts are going away. I wish for all wonderful things for Izzy and hope so very much that she maintains her natural confidence and ability to dance as she feels it. Happy birthday to your baby. Also? WTF to that teacher? I can’t believe she would share that with a classroom of eight year olds! Did you tell your parents? Holywow.
Is it weird that I can’t remember a thing about being 8, other than the fact I was REALLY into Abba?
Happy 8th to your girl – she sounds amazing!
Have I told you lately what a fantastic writer you are? This post captures so beautifully the perfect nuances of your little girl and, in many ways, all of us. Childhood is such a special time. I don’t know how this happened but I really do find myself getting misty over the tiniest little things having to do with my kids: the first day of school, their prayers at night, the sweet things they say to each other… parenthood is the most amazing and devastatingly difficult job in the whole wide world. I feel honored so be sharing in your journey.
Lovely post. I esp loved the line about shedding innocence w/o losing the purity of childhood. I was also an anxious child, afraid to go to school, worried over anticipated fears that never materialized. Sometimes my daughter is completely fearless; other times it’s like she’s going through a mental storm. I suppose this is normal for 4 and I have some years to go before I get a glimpse of her true personality. I’m strapping myself in for the ride!
Beautiful post. I don’t remember eight, but I had a perm that rivalled yours at some point. And glasses and allergies. And I too hope for so much more for my kids.
OH this is just so good. I am amazed that you remember so much about being 8. And I am just sick that your teacher shared that information with you precious little souls!! What the HECK? How on earth was this woman teaching? My kids would be traumatize for life.
Your beautiful perspective on your little girl is just so powerful…
“As a mother, I feel a certain urgency to protect the smoothness of this transition into the next stage of childhood. I am compelled to protect her fragility and sensitivity, to prolong the confidence and social graces she naturally possesses, to attempt to cushion her from any forces that could break her in the next two years.” Yes- this.
Beautiful story. I remember my perm at about that age!