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True Love, Aisle 2 MAG
“The best part of life,” the card read in Times New Roman 12-point type, “is sharing it with someone you love. Happy Anniversary.” I looked up at him: his self-assured grin, his confident brown eyes, his Yankees cap fit snugly over his blond hair. His expression and body language seemed to say, “Aren’t I so thoughtful?”
I was unsure how to react to what I then perceived as a sincere gesture of affection. In retrospect, I should have responded with a heartfelt yet direct statement like, “We’re 11 freaking years old, Alex.” What actually came out of my mouth was, “I love you too! Thanks for remembering our two-month anniversary!”
The idea of a monthly anniversary is at the core of the Middle School Love Code. The Code is an unwritten convention of behavior for middle school relationships. Along with the celebration of monthly anniversaries, there are several other crucial elements. A follower recognizes the numerous social implications, which include regular correspondence with your friend group regarding any progression or regression of the relationship, nightly IM chats, and an unofficial pledge to buy at least one Hallmark card over the course of your relationship.
It seems that our cultural instinct is to measure personal devotion to anything – hobbies, job, spouse – by the number of years since we established involvement. For a married couple, a calendar year provides ample time for the participants to lose their initial feeling of bliss, remember it ahead of time, and prepare to renew that thrill exactly 365 days later. While some people acknowledge the monthly anniversaries of minor things – your goldfish’s death, your driver’s license revocation – they are commonly used by middle schoolers to measure their devotion to a boyfriend or girlfriend.
As for Alex and me, the card marked the two-month anniversary not of our mutual agreement of profound companionship and respect, but rather of an AOL Instant Messenger conversation among a large group of 11- and 12-year-olds (including us) who made up the elite of my middle school’s sixth grade class. The discussion had been focused around whether Alex and I would make a “good couple.”
After 20 minutes or so, the consensus of our ten friends was that we were, in fact, a compatible pair. A few seconds later, I received a private IM from Alex, in his familiar 10-point Comic Sans font: “Will you go out with me?” “Yes,” I responded, adding a smiley face emoticon, before abruptly signing off and calling all my female friends to spread the word.
Similarly, upon receiving the card from Alex two months later, one of my first thoughts was that I could not wait for lunch to show it to my friends. I anticipated my smug satisfaction at the inevitable response of how jealous each was that my boyfriend was so much more affectionate than theirs. “Love” was the highest measure of status for a sixth-grade girl, and I was not about to waste this opportunity to progress socially (if even for just a lunch period). I considered these girls my best friends and accordingly my closest competition. We would regularly discuss our relationships, seeking advice or recounting stories. Lunch-table conversations about relationships were, for girls, a key element of the Code.
Many adolescents do not yet understand how to have a relatively intellectual conversation, much less one that does not at some point go off on a tangent about a peer. Middle schoolers emulate older teens, and societal and media influences lead them to believe that superficial conversations are common among high schoolers. Popular teen shows prematurely introduce adolescents to the concept of a malicious social hierarchy, and an extremely overstated one at that. For example, the Disney series “Lizzie Maguire” (whose target demographic is preteens) revolves around Lizzie’s struggle to climb her high school’s exaggeratedly competitive social ladder. Hillary Duff, as Lizzie, has become a role model for tween girls, apparent in her sold-out concerts, multimillion-dollar clothing line, and impressive post-series acting résumé.
These modern influences have turned the transitional academic period of middle school into a three-year social competition. Like a new kindergartener or a high school freshman, a sixth grader is once again at the bottom of the social pyramid.
Other popular teen TV shows have also established dating as an integral part of the fantasy high school lifestyle, and middle schoolers consequently seek this form of contrived love. A preteen’s desire to be in a relationship is similar to a child playing house; children act out the home life of a healthy family, while adolescents emulate the lifestyle of high schoolers.
Come February (Valentine’s season), I would find myself and five middle school friends at the mall, each seeking a gift for our boyfriend. The “perfect gift,” as we had discussed ahead of time, would be one that showed we cared and had put thought into it, but not too much thought or that we cared too much. I picked out a new Yankees hat for Alex because he had lost his. While my present was both thoughtful and practical, it did not demonstrate my affection in the way I had hoped. I was certain it was missing something, but I did not know what.
Valentine’s Day gifts are part of the idealized high school relationship that was drilled into my head at a young age. I realize now that the media influences of my childhood robbed me of the opportunity to independently discover what dating in high school really could be. Through Disney sitcoms, Nickelodeon shows, and chick flicks, I always pictured the “average date” as one where the boy came to the girl’s front door with flowers, met her mother, had a heart-to-heart with her father, then finally, when the girl was ready (always fashionably late), the couple sped away in his convertible to a posh restaurant (always at the boy’s expense) and a movie (always the girl’s choice).
This scenario, taken in part from the movie “Clueless,” is many girls’ dream date and any less would warrant doubt of a boy’s potential. Why do we have such high expectations of courtship? How are we supposed to eliminate sexism with such a specific template for how men should pursue us? This notion plagues me now, but in middle school, it never occurred to me to question it, much less rise above it.
Back at the mall, I found myself in the Hallmark store. I studied the overcrowded shelves of throw-away gifts and candy. “Singing” picture frames played different monophonic love songs, their collaborative sound creating a migraine-inducing chorus.
Behind the rainbow mess of gifts was a vortex of greeting cards. Each of the six aisles had a sign indicating a theme/occasion: “Births/Birthdays,” “Wedding/Engagement,” “Over the Hill,” “Just Because.” My eyes stopped at aisle 2. “Love,” it read. Having found what I was looking for, I paid my $2.95 and proceeded to the food court to meet my friends.