Love & Wisdom

Junior High: Some Things Never Change

Chaperoning my daughter’s dance took me back in time

By Sarah Stackhouse April 10, 2024

School Formal Dance_16x9

I’m the parent who, instead of vigilantly patrolling the middle school dance perimeter, finds herself backed against the gym’s cool, cinder block wall, succumbing to an unexpected and full-on ugly cry.

I’m here to chaperone the middle school formal, a duty that leads me to the back of the gym. It’s partitioned: one side bright and familiar, the other dark and full of potential — the dance floor. A DJ stands on the stage with his eyes glued to his laptop. He is surrounded by a sea of pink and red streamers. A sign above a doorway hints at a makeshift photo booth.

Four moms are busy setting out pizza and chips on a long folding table on the bright side of the gym. One of them tells me that her daughter, an eighth-grader, has allowed her to attend but has given strict instructions for minimal interaction. Round tables are scattered, some hosting activities. One of the games looks like a teen-friendly version of beer pong.

Some of them are in short ruched dresses paired with sneakers, others in button-ups with slacks, and some in jeans and hoodies — swaying, taking selfies, dancing, and laughing to the latest pop songs.

I’m transported back to my own middle school days. The gym, a squeaky time capsule, echoing with the ghosts of my past self, to a time when I, like the kids before me, felt like anything was possible. A time when it was quite likely I would actually live forever because Justin Mefford finally (finally!) asked me to dance. It was the last song of the night, “End of the Road” by Boys II Men. And when he put his sweaty hands on my waist, nothing could stop me. Not even my best friend Chelsea, who was crying in the bathroom because Randy was making out with Courtney.

My daughter’s middle school dance isn’t just any dance — it’s a strange little portal, taking me back in time. Each hesitant step and laughter-filled twirl is my own. And my daughter, dancing in a group of friends with her sparkly eyeshadow and shy smile, is having an experience I remember so well. Until we arrived at the gym, I’m not even sure what expectation she had. We hadn’t talked much about it. I think she just wanted to be with her friends and try something new.

And as I watch them, in the middle of their own dizzying journeys through puberty and adolescence, I wonder about the memories they’re forming right in front of me. Imagining them in the future, remembering this very dance, connects me to these kids and it hits me, all of it — them, their future, their past, my past, all converging here in this moment in the gym, which could be any gym in any city.

So there I stood, crying in secret like a complete lunatic. It wasn’t from teenage heartbreak. It wasn’t from the sting of rejection. It was the gut-punch of memories this place unearthed. And as the final notes faded and the harsh fluorescence of reality flickered on, the principal’s voice over the microphone, instructing everyone to have a safe and fun night, pushed reality back over us.

My role as a chaperone, meant to be one of oversight and mild embarrassment to my kid, had instead left me grappling with the ephemeral nature of youth and the relentless march of time.

As we drove home, I played a few songs from my middle school dance days. We laughed at some of the lyrics. By now, Justin Mefford’s memory had resurfaced as a full-blown crush. I wondered what my daughter’s experience felt like — what or who was gripping her thoughts. What friends of hers from tonight would go on to be in her life when she is my age? Would she someday chaperone at her daughter’s school dance and would this night come zooming back at her? Would I be lucky enough and live long enough to hear all about it? 

As I glanced at her face illuminated by the passing streetlights, I thought about how life is truly bursting with moments of indescribable beauty, and sometimes, all we can do is blast the best, most cheesy Boys II Men song and belt out all the words.

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