Twelve : The Gateway Year

Twelve isn’t, in and of itself, a particularly noteworthy age. It isn’t 10 (double digits!). It’s not yet 13 or 16 or 18, all of which carry special significance. There was no magical owl to arrive, either. Just… twelve.

As I searched my memory for twelve, one of the first things to come to mind was The Hunger Games. Although most of the characters in the series are older than 12 (and, in the case of the second book, much older), I nevertheless remembered that 12 is the age at which tributes from each district can be chosen.

Starting at twelve, these boys and girls are thrown into a literal life or death situation. They forage for food, sleep outdoors with no provisions or cover, create and wield weapons, and fight to save their own lives… while simultaneously killing other children. At age twelve. This is, of course, Suzanne Collins’s fiction; that doesn’t necessarily make it less jarring.

Ella turned 12 last weekend. She had been eagerly anticipating it, not so much because 12 is so special, but because her birthday fell on a weekend and, for the first time ever, she was able to celebrate with friends on her big day. This past summer, I remarked to Nick that Ella seemed so much older. In fairness, she’d just graduated elementary school, so perhaps there was a natural transition from “kid” to “a bit older kid”… but still, she just seemed different – more mature, more confident, more poised.
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After her first band concert of the year; I wish I could rock a white parka like this.

This trend has only continued. The girl who once had to be hounded to complete her homework now finishes everything during study hall or immediately upon arriving home. Where as she had, only last spring, being hesitant to talk to her teachers, she now maintains full and open relationships with them, asking questions, advocating for herself, and holding her own. She takes full responsibility for everything she needs for school and swimming, with her bags and lunches packed before I can even remind her.

Ella’s not only more mature on the “doing stuff” front; she’s also somehow more grown-up in her behavior as well. She is easy to talk to and offers keen insights. She has a dry wit and makes fantastic puns. She is also quick to laugh at herself, something that only a few months ago was not really happening. She considers other people’s opinions and is excellent at owning her own mistakes – not necessarily in the moment (because, really, none of us does a good job with that), but upon reflection, she is remarkably astute at dissecting a situation, figuring out what emotions were in play (“I was nervous that I wouldn’t make it on time, so I got mad when you asked if I was doing okay”), and determining where to go from there. I know adults who still suck at this, so Ella is pretty much an emotional mindfulness guru.

Nick and I have begun to share movies with Ella that we’ve been dreaming about since before she was born – The Birdcage and Mission: Impossible were our first picks – and she not only got them, she enjoyed them. I no longer worry about introducing her to stories and songs with swear words or more adult concepts (thanks, Hamilton!), because she understands their context and we can talk about what’s going on.
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Birthday cannoli! 

So, I guess, in many ways, twelve is a turning point – for Eleanor, anyway. She can cook and bake. She babysits. She can stay home alone (for a bit), be trusted to do the right thing, and knows what to do in an emergency. She’s curious and smart. She is a tremendously empathetic and supportive friend. She is cautious but determined, quiet but bold. She is Shakespeare’s famous, “Though she be but little, she is fierce!” and all that.

I suppose, reluctantly, I can see why Suzanne Collins decided that twelve was a reasonable age for Hunger Games tribute-hood.

And yet… Twelve is still but little. At 12, Ella still reaches for my hand. At 12, she and her friends giddily discuss the latest update of an animated hair design app. Twelve is still wanting to be tucked in. Twelve is arguing with your sister argue over who has to shower first. Heck, at 12, there is still opposition to showering, for the love;  apparently, twelve year-olds dislike being clean.

Despite Ella’s awesome desire for knowledge, at 12 there is still so much she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know why people are fighting over Aleppo (then again, in fairness, most of us don’t know that, either). She doesn’t know how to set aside time to complete a big school project. She doesn’t know how to navigate social media. I mean, just a few days ago, we had to explain to her that it’s not safe to put metal in the microwave – after she removed a metallic travel mug from a 30-second nuking – because she simply had no idea. No one had ever told her: metal + microwave = bad.
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You can see her holding the offending mug in this birthday morning photo… Close one, y’all…

Somehow, I feel like maybe Eleanor wouldn’t do so well if she were dropped in the middle of a biosphere and forced to battle to the death. I suppose this mature-childlike dichotomy is exactly why Ms. Collins decided to use 12 as a starting point… but when it’s your own child you’re imagining, the Book Club discussions become a lot less fantastical.

Twelve is a gateway year. It is the only thing standing between child and teenager. And, oh, how people dread the teenager thing… Everyone knows that teenagers are, like, terrifying, angst-ridden, dramatic, trouble, troubled, hell on wheels, exhausting, always hungry, sarcastic, withdrawn, moody, know-it-all (go ahead and fill in the blank) creatures whose sole purpose seems to be to antagonize their parents. At least, that’s what society has us believe… Which means that in about 361 days, Ella will instantaneously morph into a hormonal, self-centered devil-child with whom I will argue every moment of the day. OH YAY!

If twelve is the precursor to teenage-hood, you’d think that Ella would already be showing at least some characteristics of The Dreaded Teenager. But here she is, twelve years old, still delightful, still utterly herself – every day wittier, kinder, more full of gratitude. Perhaps – just maybe – the buffer of twelve isn’t a last hurrah before morphing into a new, defiant, sweaty, completely unfamiliar human… but a merely gradual transition into an older, more mature, more certain version of the children we already know.

I’ll be the first to tell you that Ella has her moments. We have, um, clashed on more than one (like, many more than one) occasion. I am under no illusions that we will make it to adulthood without the stuff that accompanies virtually all of us on that journey. That’s not only a healthy (and inevitable, so I’d better get used to it) thing, it’s a good thing – because if the growth Ella has shown in the past six months is any indication, I don’t want to miss out on this.

So far, I really like twelve.

Happiest 12th Birthday, E-Bean. You embody the “tween” stereotypes and smash them, at the same time. Can’t wait to see what comes next!