Middle-Aged Memories of Middle School Mixers

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I was absentmindedly scanning my sixth grade daughter’s school calendar the other night when, suddenly, my eyes popped wide open and my heart skipped a beat. The first middle school dance scheduled for next week? Already? Eek!

Call me a prude, but aren’t they a little young? I guess I’m a forgetful prude. After all, I was in junior high when I went to my first school mixer, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Not that I enjoyed it, exactly. But I think I believed it was something I desperately needed to experience. Likely, my daughter feels the same way—not that she’d ever let me know how she feels these days. Similarly, it probably would do no good to tell her how silly I think middle school mixers are. My opinion seems to count for very little. To her I’m practically a dinosaur. Which is pretty ironic, because I remember those ridiculous mixers like they were yesterday.

First came the pre-dance preparations, a vital part of the evening. My best friend Cathy and I would squeeze into my family’s tiny upstairs bathroom and sneakily unload the contraband: makeup. During the day, no one in their right mind at the parochial school I attended would be so bold as to show up at school wearing black rings around their eyes (aka 80’s-style eyeliner) or glittery purple and green eye shadow up to their eyebrows. The nuns would have our heads. But for a Friday night mixer, makeup was a must. The more the better, in our adolescent eyes. Not that anyone at these dances could actually see the mess on our faces.

Held in the gymnasium, the dances were dark, late-night bar dark. From a distance, when the “fast” music played, all you could see were a sea of pre-pubescent bodies jumping up and down as if bouncing on invisible pogo sticks, trying desperately to keep up to the fast-paced punk-rock rhythms of Devo. That exercise never boded well for what was to come next.

Because later in the evening, after everyone—especially the boys—were saturated with sweat from frenetic, aerobic-style dancing, the DJ would suddenly switch gears. We knew it was coming. But it came as a shock, nonetheless. A slow song, usually the illustrious, eight-minute and three-second Led Zeppelin classic Stairway to Heaven, would blare through the gymnasium, sending everyone into a tizzy.

It was like the adolescent version of musical chairs. Only difference is that when you’re six, you dread being the only one standing while everyone else at the party sits smugly in a chair. At these junior high mixers, humiliation would hit hard if you found yourself without a partner, which meant watching idly from the sidelines as classmates clambered to couple up.

It’s hard to know which side was worse. It was pretty tough to feign indifference when some lanky, mop-topped boy you thought was cute walked right by you and grabbed your best friend’s hand. Then again, getting close to a 12-year-old boy who had been bouncing around for hours in a stuffy gym was no picnic either, especially to a song like Stairway to Heaven that never ends. Then there are the uncertainties. Where do you put your hands? Where does he put his? How do you know which way to circle, or do you just sway side to side? And how do you avoid stepping on someone’s feet when they’re so darn close to you, anyway? Last, but not least, what the heck do you do when the song’s finally over?

Dredging up these buried memories from my awkward adolescent past, it’s no wonder I freaked out when I came across the middle school mixer on the school calendar. It was like a shot of post traumatic stress-style adrenaline surging through my middle-aged body. But no matter. It looks like this timeless rite of passage, like adolescent cliques and acne, isn’t going anywhere. And as parents, probably the best thing we can do is skip the advice and just show up on time when it’s over to pick up our kids—smeared makeup, dashed dreams, and all.



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