When I was in middle school, we didn’t text, chat with our classmates on Xbox, or look up cute boys online. We couldn’t. It was the Mesozoic era, and the technology didn’t exist. So what did we do without the huge cornucopia of Apple-inspired abundance at our fingertips?
We hung out. Together. As in, a congregation of people in the same place at the same time talking, laughing, relaxing and having fun.
At first we were just a neighborhood group of 6th graders playing kickball in the cul-de-sac every day after the bus dropped us off from school. We were small. Like, short and super-pasty until we acquired our first sunburns of the season, blistered, peeled, slathered Noxema on our faces, burned again, and painfully prepped our oozing skin for baby oil and the long, tan, sunny days to come.
By the following summer, various groups morphed into an actual circle, stationed shoulder-to-shoulder by the high dive from the moment the gates opened at the pool until the lifeguards kicked us out.
A year later, our circle doubled on top of itself and became a two-tiered figure eight that included just about the entire school. We’d graduated to non-parent supervised activities, and everyone wanted to be a part of that.
As the venues got bigger, my friendships grew. Not in a six degrees of Facebook, “OMG! We went to the same driver’s ed school but graduated six years apart and never even crossed paths (literally! ha ha ha!) but somehow share 62 connections, so will you be my friend or at least like my macramé page?” kind of way. Back then, “friendship” had a clear definition, and was something much more organic and real.
By 8th grade, I was a little person on the edge of a big world, and my growing independence meant I was more than ready to wean myself from drive-in movie night with Mom and Dad. For me, it was beyond a big deal to be dropped off by my parents (but not where anyone could actually see me being dropped off by my parents), skates dangling from my shoulder, with a $5.00 bill in-hand. I was always a little early so I could get the best cubby to store my stuff, and save a place for my friends at the front of the line.
The line to get into Skate World, that is.
With feathered bangs shellacked to my head and a plastic comb sticking out of the back pocket of my Jordache jeans, I was ready to roll. Literally. Like, all night long and right into adolescence.
Every Friday night, me and a few hundred of my peers propped ourselves against the shag carpet-walls, laced up, and hit the floor. Nothing could keep us away. It was our chance to talk, laugh, roller dance, and venture out into life in a safe place, without anyone who cared about good posture or whether or not we’d written our science fair hypothesis looking over our shoulders.
There was no danger of drugs or alcohol, and barely even a cigarette back then. I’ve heard about the temptations middle school offers today, and to be honest, I’m more than a little scared for my kids. The only hazards at Skate World were the threat of too much craziness during the Need for Speed contest, a huge face-plant because some stupid 7th grader dropped his gum, or sweaty palms in the middle of a backwards couples skate to Journey’s Open Arms. We were allowed to roll toward preteendom under a cloak of innocence, drifting away from Mom and Dad with some bruises and falls, but nothing you could really call broken.
The more I skated, the better I got, and in a way, my prowess in the rink mirrored my growth in life. At first, I stuck to the middle of the floor, close to the guards and skate-standing a lot more than moving in any preplanned direction. I was trying to stay up without falling down, and with strobe lights flashing in my eyes and a ginormous disco balls orbiting overhead, I was a little spooked. Unsure of myself, I didn’t venture very far.
But soon, all of my friends moved further out, and they looked like they were having a lot more fun than me.
So after school, I’d log hours of practice in the creepy basement, learning to balance, turn, and increase my speed, forever trying to catch up to girls who seemed to be born with wheels instead of feet. They were so much better than me, but as I skated from pole to pole, trying not to trip on the drain or kill myself jumping the random pipes sticking out of the ground, I got better.
In time I moved from the center to the middle of the rink, better known as the chill zone, a fairly risk-free area where the majority of the kids hung out, flipping around backwards to talk, or test a new move.
As I shifted spots, my closest friends were now stationed on the outside: Roller Derby central. This part of the rink both awed and scared the crap out of me, because it was where the best skaters held court, sailing around with a dizzying array of twists, speed, precision-cut turns, and an uncanny ability to somehow stay ahead of the beat.
Just watching them made me want to stop, glide quietly toward the nearest exit, and play Galaga in the arcade for the rest of my life.
But there they were, talking, laughing, dancing, speed-skating, and motioning for me to join in. It was positive peer pressure, the kind that tempts you to be better, not worse.
So one night I closed my eyes, stepped out, pushed forward, and let myself fly (albeit at the back of the pack so I could immediately abort if a rabid 7th grader tried to cut me or rip off my face).
I felt like I had arrived. Where? I wasn’t sure, but I didn’t really care because the beauty was in the journey itself.
Even though we eventually outgrew our skates, we never left the lessons we learned behind. Skating, like life, is about balance. Make the wrong move and you’ll end up flat on your face, but work hard enough and you’ll have the chance to fly. Every Friday night, my friends and I learned from each other while we taught our own lessons at the same time. And we didn’t even know it. Now that my skates are packed away in Mom’s and Dad’s creepy basement, and my son, Taylor, begs to play Call of Duty instead of seeking out the boys next door, I realize what we had.
When I look at the canvas of Taylor’s pending middle school life, I can’t find Skate World or anything close to its equivalent in his line of sight. Sure, there’s a roller rink in town, but nobody goes. All I see are schedules and seminars, too many meaningless distractions, and not enough time. Time to fly, that is. And it makes me sad. I’m not sure where he’ll find his place to grow, safe from my prying eyes and all of the scary things in the world. But I’m looking, and I hope he is too.
Skate World Playlist
- Rapper’s Delight – The Sugarhill Gang
- The Stroke – Billy Squire
- Double Dutch Bus – Frankie Smith
- Hold the Line – Toto
- The Freaks Come Out at Night – Whodini
- Eye of the Tiger – Survivor
- Celebration – Kool and the Gang
- Another One Bites the Dust – Queen
- Super Freak – Rick James
- Jack & Diane – John Cougar
- The Message – Grandmaster Flash
- Heart of Glass – Blondie
- Genius of Love – Tom Tom Club
- You Shook Me All Night Long – AC/DC
- Funkytown – Lipps Inc.
- I Want You to Want Me – Cheap Trick
- Let it Whip – Dazz Band
- Open Arms – Journey
- Freak-A-Zoid – Midnight Star
- Jessie’s Girl – Rick Springfield
- Le Freak – Chic
- 867-5309/Jenny – Tommy Tutone
- Jam On It – Newcleus
- Waiting for a Girl Like You – Foreigner
- All Night Long – Lionel Richie
- Freeze Frame – J. Geils Band
- September – Earth Wind & Fire
- Urgent – Foreigner
*Thanks to Susan Klosterman Francke, Laura Badorek Hasler, Tiffany Calvert Diehl, and Michelle Clasby Depoy for their contributions to this playlist!