“There's something you need to know,” my eldest daughter announces to her younger sister. “Everyone thinks freshmen are stupid.”
“Really?” Her sister's eyes widen as she contemplates this warning. “Everyone?” My incoming freshman already is nervous about the transition ahead.
“That's not true,” I say. I sigh and shoot my eldest daughter a look that says, “What are you thinking?”
“Ya know, on the night before you started high school, there wasn't anyone around eating away at your self-confidence by proclaiming your stupidity,” I say.
“Too bad,” she says, “but it's true, and she might as well know it now.”
I'm trying to figure out if she means it's true that all freshmen are stupid or that everyone thinks so. I almost open my mouth to hash out this issue, but then I remember that you can't have rational discussions with high school juniors. They know everything, and they're not afraid to tell you so.
“The thing to do is keep quiet and don't get noticed. If you stay out of the way, you should be fine.” My junior know-it-all is conducting her own version of freshman orientation.
This is not exactly the voice of experience I hoped to hear on the eve of a new school year, but my second daughter is used to it. She has learned to take her sister's advice with a grain of rebellion.
On the other hand, two years ago, my eldest daughter probably could have used someone to help her blaze a trail through the new territory of high school. Instead of a mentor, she had me. If ever there had been any hope she would be considered cool at school, I pretty much erased that possibility at Freshman Orientation Night.
What did I do wrong? When the principal opened the floor for questions, I raised my hand. I can't recall what questions I asked; I only remember repeating frequently, “I'm a freshman mom” to explain my ignorance (as if this weren't already obvious).
In retrospect, I probably should have sat on my hands and learned the ropes along the way without drawing attention to my overeager excitement about having a child in high school.
By the end of the new-parent meeting, it was clear I was a geek mother, which naturally meant I was raising a geek daughter. “Thanks a lot, Mom,” my daughter said sarcastically.
“Hey, the truth hurts. You'll get over it.”
This time around, I'm no longer a rookie. I don't have questions about the dress code, the tardy policy, the homework load or communicating with teachers. Plus, I have discovered I can get all the information I need and still stay comfortably under the radar, where my teenage daughter prefers I remain.
Of course, this year's new freshman in our home is the child we used to call “Little Miss Independent,” which also makes a difference. When she has questions, she won't look to me for the answers, she'll get them herself. She's not afraid to ask for help or to be known as someone who needs help.
(When they were small, this was the girl who would walk up to a restaurant hostess to ask for crayons. Her older sister would sooner poke her finger and color a picture in blood than ask a stranger for a pencil.)
Still, there's no denying this new frosh has an advantage. With an older sister to forge the way and endure all the embarrassing moments with Mom, she can look cooler and more confident as she faces down the fright of her freshman year. She's playing with the stacked deck in the birth-order game.
We sit around the kitchen table while my high school junior “tells all” about the world she has inhabited on her own for the past two years. She's an expert on teachers (“You will absolutely love Mrs. P.”), cafeteria food (“After about a month, the food will make you sick and you'll want to bring lunch from home”) and time management (“You always want your math class at the end of the day in case you don't finish your homework”).
She has a long list of do's and don'ts that will assure her younger sister is always appropriate.
“Do stick with your fellow freshmen.”
“Don't talk too much in front of upper-class guys.”
“Do break out of your middle school clique and make new friends.”
“Don't shriek and hug your new friends in the halls as if you haven't seen them in years.”
They share a goal not to be embarrassed, so a good deal of listening and learning is going on.
I sit between them, admiring the confidence my eldest daughter has gained since her freshman year and appreciating the deference the younger one shows for her sister's insight and experience.
She's taking it all in, eager to know the ropes without making any humiliating mistakes, which probably are inevitable even with all the coaching from the older, wiser junior in her home.
If she's true to form, Little Miss Independent will absorb everything she sees and hears from her sister, then cut her own path. She counts on sisterly advice to get her out the door, but once she's off and running, her experiences will be her own.
I don't say aloud what I'm thinking because it's too corny, but I sense that after two years at different schools, they're both relieved to be together again even if one of them is just a freshman.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from third grade to junior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)