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SANDY BANKS

The Preteen Glow . . . of Purple Hair, Glittery Rouge

February 18, 2001|SANDY BANKS

My daughter left the house for school on Friday with her mouth glistening pink and a hint of glitter on her cheeks. She came home with a purple streak running through her ponytail.

"It's just Vanessa's hair spray," she assured me. "I tried it in the bathroom after class. It's cool, don't you think? Maybe you can buy me some." She dropped her backpack at my feet and ran upstairs to check herself in the mirror, where she seems to spend hours primping these days.

When she comes back down to begin her homework, she's sporting a new hairstyle, purple eye shadow, a fresh swatch of glitter on her cheeks. All this, and she's not even going anyplace.

Could this really be the same child who used to roll out of bed, grab a wrinkled shirt from the laundry basket, head down for breakfast and out the door. I had to remind her then to brush her teeth, wear clean socks and comb her hair.

Now her hygiene regimen requires that she rise before dawn. There is a shower, deodorant, hair gel, lotion, a smear of eye shadow faint enough to escape her teachers' notice but bright enough for her friends to see. She might forget her history book, but she would never leave her lip gloss behind.

Welcome to middle school, home to 12-year-old girls going on 16.

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It is seldom an easy transition from elementary to middle school. There is so much to keep track of--locker combinations and class schedules and who is going out with whom. Well, not technically going out. They don't actually date in sixth grade, but you can tell a couple is "going out" when they dare to sit together at lunch or pass notes to each other in science class.

The girls tend to be more aggressive, parents and teachers say. "I've got girls calling my house every night," says a friend who teaches sixth-grade English and has a seventh-grade son. "The boys are a couple years behind. They still tend to flirt by teasing. You know they like a girl if you see them picking on her."

But boys are certainly not immune. My boyfriend has a middle-school son who showers until the hot water is gone, the bathroom mirror permanently fogged. He spends as much time on his hair each morning as he did on his homework the night before, and must be driven to school with the windows down lest his father suffocate from the smell of cologne.

Middle school is when peers begin to matter more than parents, when children become acutely aware of their changing bodies and struggle to figure out where they fit in.

They are like hormones with legs, a middle-school principal once told me--self-centered, awkward, easily embarrassed, unpredictable.

"They're still very naive about a lot of things, but the world is opening up to them, and they're trying to spread their wings," says Paula Mang, who has spent 22 years as a teacher, counselor and vice principal at Washington Irving Middle School in the Glassell Park area of Los Angeles. "They're trying to find an identity, experimenting with feelings that they can't yet keep under control."

That can make the middle-school years a heady ride for parents, children and teachers. Discipline problems spike, as kids begin to challenge authority and grow sensitive to the tiniest slight. Academic achievement tends to drop; there is so much more than homework to worry about.

"Their motors run faster, especially in sixth grade," says South Gate Middle School principal Robert Hinjosa, who runs what is probably the nation's largest middle school, with 4,400 students. "It's a challenge to keep up with them, but it's also a lot of fun. It's a very special age, because they're basically real eager about school, even if it is mostly [for] the social aspects.

"They still have a lot of wonder, a lot of questions. And you can still get inside their heads."

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That's what I've learned to love best about this age--their willingness to let you inside their heads, to share the journey that is taking them away from you.

So I take seriously my daughter's questions: Should you let a boy carry your books to class, even if you don't like him "that way"? Is it cheating if someone asks you what's on the science test, because you took it in first period and they don't have it until third? Should you tell your friend the boys say she's a flirt because she wears her skirts a little too tight?

I don't always know the right answers, but I am grateful that what I think still matters enough for her to ask. I know from experience that won't last.

Already, she watches wistfully as her older sister spins through her high school world of formal dances and movie dates and basketball games. I can feel the day coming when her earnest questions and funny stories will be replaced by the silence of distance. When I will be the one asking the questions, and she will tell me only that school is "fine," her classes "boring," her friends "OK."

And I am grateful that purple hair spray and glitter eye shadow suit my little girl just fine, for now.

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Sandy Banks' column runs on Sundays and Tuesdays. She's at sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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