This is how it works. One day you glance at your kid over your morning breakfast and where there used to be a small child — a fluttering jangle of hopes and anxieties and dreams — there sits a smaller, thinner clone of you. This person now shares a solid chunk of your favorite authors and bands. They watch you cook, see how you dress, how you treat your spouse. A son who quietly internalizes how you treat baristas, how you conduct yourself when hit up by homeless people, which news stories you prioritize and which you discard.
Through a blend of design and environmental happenstance, deep and unchangeable portions of our children end up remarkably similar — if not identical — to ourselves. So often, our perspective of our children is muddied by our own experience. You recognize in them who you are and who you were.
And then they do something so out of sorts to you that makes you wonder what life is like on their home planet. Which brings me directly to when my son attended “Eighth-Grade Karaoke Night at the Middle School Cafeteria.”
First, please enjoy this brief and hopelessly incomplete list of activities I would not have attempted in the eighth grade:
- Speaking words to the girl who sat next to me at the biology table for 18 weeks
- Walking down a hall containing Jason, who decided I was his exceedingly punchable nemesis for reasons that were never made clear
- Performing karaoke in front of the entire school
- Performing karaoke in front of four percent of the school
- Performing karaoke in the band-instrument storage closet by myself
- Attending the karaoke party instead of staying in my room and playing Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos
If there’s a more potentially socially-ruinous situation than Eighth-Grade Karaoke Night at the Middle School Cafeteria, I simply do not know of it. The phrase alone has caused visible reactions and exhumed latent formative-year terror in friends and family members. At my son’s age, I would have crawled into a cafeteria heating duct to escape singing karaoke. I would have burst through a wall, leaving a me-sized hole in the bricks.
Eighth-grade self-esteem problems are hardly headlines, but I spent the vast majority of those years hiding as best as possible. I was younger and thus noticeably smaller, anxious, and thus conspicuously quiet. I worried about gym, passing periods, lunch tables, my shirts, my shoes, my appropriate degree of jeans-cuffing. In middle school, I probably don’t have to tell you, visible neuroses make you an easy target, so the cycle ends up conveniently perpetuating itself.
As such, when the announcement of the Eighth Grade Karaoke Party arrived, I naturally assumed my son would have the same reaction. And, just to be supportive, I panicked the customized panic you panic for your kids, that thing where you shovel up all of your decades-old junior-high anxieties, wait for them to wash over you like a wave and then summarily dump them upon your unsuspecting children, projecting while pretending to keep these feelings stowed safely beneath your stomach so as not to look weird in front of the humans you are charged with sending into the adult world. I told him it was okay to feel weird and he didn’t have to go to karaoke.
But here’s the thing: my son wanted to go to karaoke. He was, in seeming defiance of all social law, excited about karaoke. And so, I dropped him off at karaoke, and he walked up to karaoke, and opened the door to karaoke.
And he signed up to sing first.
My son went first. He volunteered to go first. First, of the night, in a karaoke party, full of eighth-graders. And he did so because of what he later told us was a very reasonable reason: “I didn’t want anyone else to take my song.” (The song: “Livin’ on a Prayer,” which, to be honest, is a solid way to open a karaoke party.)
Obviously, we didn’t know any of this was happening. By the time I texted him to see if one of his friends could take a video, he’d already seen a million faces and rocked them all. All we could do was guess at what had transpired and send a text.
Me: “Did you melt everyone’s brains?”
Naturally, “Basically” resulted in an entirely new round of my panic, like, oh God, did he do okay? Did the kids clap? Did they make fun of him? What were they saying?
When we came home, we searched his face for answers to all of this, for gestures or creases that would betray his mind-state, how he navigated this hellish middle-school social labyrinth, how he survived this nightmare ordeal, or we would have, if he would have ever stopped boing-ing around the kitchen and laughing. It didn’t matter; what mattered is that he did it. He defied what I thought were his neuroses, but were actually mine.
It came down to this: Whatever genetic darkness that burrowed itself into my DNA is simply not there with him. Parts of our DNA match perfectly: the parts of him that love “Weird Al” Yankovic; the parts that adore reading, the parts that love the Winter Olympics, the parts that can’t resist a dumb pun.
But there are these other codes, apparently clamped to his cellular structure, that come from his mother or somewhere else entirely, that are stronger than mine, more powerful than mine, better than mine. Just by walking on that stage — just by writing his name on a piece of paper — he betrayed the primary difference between the two of us: a self-assuredness I did not have, a strength I lacked. And I was proud of him.
I don’t know if it’s confidence — maybe it is — but he’s well more secure in himself than I was, and it’s like I don’t know how to process that without mucking up the works by preemptively injecting all of my latent, long-buried middle school insecurities. So I’m doing the only thing that makes sense: Getting the hell out of the way while he gives it a shot.
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