"Do you wear white socks?" an eighth-grade girl, who was a family friend, asked me in 1970.
"Sometimes," I said in my little-boy, sixth-grade voice.
"Well stop wearing them," she said sternly. "You'll never make it in junior high next year if you wear white socks."
"Why?" I asked.
She explained that white socks would mark me as a -- insert the word that starts with "q" and rhymes with deer -- which in those days was an all-purpose slur and had nothing to do with sexual orientation.
Kids today think middle-school is hard. In the old days, they used to bundle grades seventh through ninth for a three-year joyride called junior high.
If memory serves, mixing 13-year-olds with 15-year-olds resulted in a near-lethal cocktail of hormones. Our chemical surges were so intense that we worked them off with Clackers, two hard-plastic balls attached to a string that you'd flap up and down until the balls fell off or, better yet, exploded into shrapnel.
Remember the old 1980s TV series "The Wonder Years"? I could have been the lead character, Kevin Arnold, who attended junior high in the early 1970s and liked girls with straight, shiny hair. I was the mild-mannered school newspaper editor and lead drummer in the marching band.
After the pre-junior high fashion tip from the family friend, I immediately went home and trashed all of my knee-high tube socks. I also acquired a Nehru jacket, a peace medallion suspended from a gold necklace and a pair of Cordovan-colored stacked heels I ordered out of the Sears catalog. As a result, I arrived in seventh grade in 1971 looking like a cross between Peter Brady and Sammy Davis Jr.
My two most vivid memories of junior high are struggling with quadratic equations and once stuffing 23 seedless grapes into my mouth to impress a girl. I thought love and marriage would follow, but there was only drool.
Now that I've started thinking about it, I'm getting a flood of sensory memories from 1971: The just-out-of-the-box smell of gold suede Converse All-Stars, the sharp taste of Zotz fizz-powder candy, the sound of Donny Osmond endlessly singing "One Bad Apple" on my transistor radio, the feeling of heat on my flushed cheeks at my first boy-girl party.
Now, fast-forward to 2013 and here comes my 11-year-old son, looking into the abyss of middle school. Actually, he has a mop of brown hair that would look right at home in 1971.
He doesn't talk about it much, but I can sense his anxiety rising a bit as the end of fifth-grade approaches and middle school beckons. He asks questions about lockers and navigating the halls between classes.
In many ways, he's much more prepared for the leap than I was. He's smarter, more physically fit and better socialized. On the other hand, I probably had an edge in life experience and toughness.
Mostly, I've been reminding myself lately that, as an adolescent, I could have benefited from a dad who was a little less stoic and a little more inclined to insert himself into my adolescent life.
As a result, I've started a whispering campaign.
I whisper to my son when he's low, or feeling his oats, or merely looking confused. I hug him more and try to carve out one-on-one time. I help him get organized for tests and projects, and sometimes we talk briefly about girls.
Mostly, I just try to remember what it felt like to be a boy just waking up to adolescence.
And I search his eyes for stress.
Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...