Ask a group of seventh-graders how to conduct relationships, and much of their advice could apply just as well to adults: "Don't dance with another girl if your girlfriend isn't at the dance." "Don't hold hands with your best friend's boyfriend." "Tell your parents as little as possible." But middle school is generally when a person first tries the romance thing, and, as with most experiences, novice attempts little resemble the veteran versions. A grown man is unlikely to say to a grown woman, "You're my backup if Jessica says no." It's socially acceptable for adults to go without a crush for a week, a month, a year. And when they finally do go out with someone, they actually, well, go out.
The grown world is dying to know what it means for a middle schooler to have a girlfriend or boyfriend in today's News-at-11 era of supposed oral sex parties and sluttier-than-thou dating shows. Kids from Howard, Fairfax and Montgomery counties agreed to explain, and one of them, sixth-grader Kimiya Memarzaden, gives an answer that is charmingly coy.
"Going out," Kimiya explains, "is being more than friends and less than actually going somewhere." Kimiya herself has never gone out with anyone at Hammond Middle School in Laurel; she is more animated talking about ponies than about boys. Still, like anyone in middle school, she can thoroughly explain relationship etiquette, name all the couples in her grade (seven at press time) and capture in one brief sentence all that seems strange about middle school romance: "They ask you out, then they don't talk to you. There's no point."
Oh, but there is a point. Of course there's a point. If we didn't ever have these fumbling attempts, how would we learn?
Certainly a small minority of middle schoolers are having sex, and another small group pays no attention to the whole crush thing. Not every kid is experiencing romance in the same way. But for the bulk of children from sixth through eighth grade, the customs are similar, and surprisingly enduring. There are the folded-up notes, the embarrassed exchanges, the hearts scrawled on sneakers, the loves-of-one's-life that according to kids and the best guesses of scholars last an average of two to four weeks (one-sixth the duration of the typical high school liaison).
Relationships sometimes only involve two clumsy conversations: the asking out and the breaking up.
These maladroit transactions are the training wheels of love, explains Bradford Brown, a human development professor at the University of Wisconsin, and one of the few people on earth over the age of 13 who pays serious attention to the childhood crush. If you think of it that way, what could be more important?
* Use your friends to find out if someone likes you. This is the No. 1 rule of middle school romance, as explained by those in the throes of it.
"You can't really tell if a guy likes you, so you don't want to get your feelings hurt" by asking him out, or even letting him know you want to be asked out, explains sixth-grader Bridgette Snyder, who hasn't acted on any of her crushes at Hammond Middle, but has found time, in between soccer games and horse-riding, to become thoroughly versed in the rules. This saves face for the askees, too, many of whom say "yes" when directly asked by a boy simply because it's too uncomfortable to say no.
"So spur-of-the-moment things are bad," explains eighth- grader Rachel Collins, a lacrosse player with wrists covered with cause bracelets and three relationships behind her at Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton, not far from Laurel. She doesn't count her first two, "because it was, like, in sixth grade."
The kids themselves are almost always the only ones keeping track of their relationships. Social scientists have long dismissed teen romance as frivolous, irrelevant and too fickle and logistically difficult to track, Brown explains in The Development of Romantic Relationships in Adolescence. The 1999 book is one of the few pieces of child development scholarship dwelling more on courtship than on sex. From the title of one chapter -- "You're Going Out With Who?" -- it's evident that Brown understands that romance is just as important in the preteen mind as it is (obviously to anyone who's ever turned on the WB) in preteen culture.
At this age, Brown says, "romance is a very public institution played out in front of a peanut gallery of peers." While this may seem unusual to a 40-year-old, it makes all the sense in the world to a kid. Smoothing the way for someone to be asked out "is a wonderfully protective device," he explains, "because if the emissary gets laughed out of the ballpark, the person can deny ever having sent the person. It's a great way to protect one's self-esteem at a time when self-esteem is pretty fragile anyway. If you find the right friend who knows what to say, things are likely to go a lot more smoothly."
At Sidwell Friends School in the District, that right friend is often Bryan Stabbe, an eighth-grader who went out with three girls in seventh grade but seems to spend more time as the liaison, because of his ease around both boys and girls. According to Bryan, it's not always clear whom to send as an emissary to determine who likes whom. "The girls, they talk a lot more about who's going out, so it's easier for them to slip it into a conversation," he says, whereas "when a guy does it, it's a little more obvious. But guys can keep secrets better than girls, and they can think a little bit faster when asked, 'Were you sent by someone?'"
* The person himself, and he alone, should do the actual asking out. This is an important corollary to the first rule and, yes, it's still usually the boy who does the asking out -- in person, preferably. Otherwise, "it's just kind of like you're hiding behind something," says Josh Furnary, an eighth-grader at Thoreau Middle School in Vienna who has some experience in the matter (one girlfriend in sixth grade, three in seventh and two in eighth). "You want to be face to face with someone, because it's more sincere."