09/17/2010 12:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Letter to My Son As He Adjusts to Middle School

Hey Charlie,

It's late as I write this -- even the cats look sleepy -- but I was just watching a documentary on HBO that made me think of you. It was about kids your age all over the country who are having trouble fitting in at middle school. Some have trouble because they look different, some because they're poor, some because they're gay, some because they're small, some because their friends from elementary school are now suddenly cold and mean.

As hard as it is to imagine, I was in middle school, too. Even though it was over 30 years ago, I remember my first few days vividly. It took FOREVER to learn how to work the combination lock on my locker -- like trying to break into a bank safe! And I never liked getting dressed into my gym clothes in front of everyone else.

All of us who went to middle school experienced moments of both great joy and deep sadness. Those feelings -- and everything in between -- are inevitable, and it's nearly impossible to see them coming. But know that each day serves up a new moments, just like your cafeteria serves up daily specials. You just have to hope it'll be good.

But here's something you can count on: Me. I AM ALWAYS HERE FOR YOU. Because you and I know each other so well, you can call me anytime, day or night, about anything. I love listening to you. I may not always have Yoda-like wisdom to share, but consider my ears just as large.
When I was in middle school, I was pretty small for my age, just like you (see the attached photo for proof!) I was known as a good joke-teller, but I wasn't as athletic as other kids, so I shied away from sports. I also wasn't naturally outgoing. But a teacher encouraged me to join the speech and debate club, and I discovered I was pretty good at it. In fact, I stuck with it for the next 11 years.

I also loved to write stories. A lot of my stories were about monsters, but that's me. I wasn't as good a reader then as you are now, but I was addicted to a series of books called "The Three Investigators". That was my "Harry Potter" as a kid.

It's thrilling to have so much independence, isn't it? I remember staying late at school for practices and rehearsals, buying myself a can of strawberry soda and a bag of cookies from the vending machine while waiting for my dad to pick me up. There was no one telling me what to do or what not to do. I ate quickly, always hoping Dad would announce he was taking us all out for hamburgers. (That burger-love hasn't changed, huh?)

But with independence comes pretty intense responsibility, like remembering project assignments and meeting times, not forgetting things like your cell phone and your jacket, taking care of your health, and generally making safe decisions on your own (especially when you cross the street!) The list goes on and on. Being 11 is a big deal.

One of your greatest gifts (in addition to smarts, wit, and mind-blowing remote control expertise) is self-awareness. So my Yoda-like advice to you, new 6th grader, little man, and my son, is to always steer yourself towards the crossroads of the stuff you truly enjoy and the stuff you do well. As you grow older, you'll just get more and more opportunities to do those kind of things -- whatever they are -- as long as you get your less-exciting assignments done as well (depressing, but true).

Remember that school is not about feeding your brain as much as it is about training your mind. That's why it all the boring, annoying stuff matters too. It's also about learning to trust people, and what it means to have them trust you.

It's also about what's in your lunch bag, personalizing your backpack, and how to eat breakfast in 12 seconds... but you already know that.

I know you will always make safe decisions for yourself and for your friends. You are one cool kid, and I am one lucky dad.

I wish you happiness, success, adventure, giggles, enlightenment, new friends, and an endless supply of magic markers, Silly Bandz, and Lucky Charms.

I love you.



Unscarred from his middle school experience, Joel Schwartzberg has written personal essays for The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, New Jersey Monthly, The New York Daily News, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. He is also a screenwriter and author of the award-winning essay collection "The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad".