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A User's Guide To Middle School Romance

But there's an even more crucial reason to avoid letting someone else do the asking. "They could be playing a joke on you," says Lime Kiln seventh-grader Shannon Bishoff. It's painfully common for a group of boys to pay someone to ask a girl out; $20 is the going rate.

In another prank making the rounds right now, Girl 1 writes "ZAP" and a time of day on the back of Girl 2's hand, and a boy's name on the inside of her palm. (Or Boy 1 and Boy 2 -- this is an equal-opportunity "game.") If Girl 1 is caught peeking at the name before the designated time, she has to ask the boy out.

(Chris Hartlove)

So when you hear somebody wants to go out with you, you don't automatically believe it. Even if the person himself or herself asked you out, you still might not believe it. "You would usually say 'Really?' to be sure," says Tessa Scheckelhoff, a Hammond sixth-grader who hasn't liked anyone enough to bother going out, and doubts she will before eighth grade.

Rejection need not be accompanied by a reason. If it is, kids today, having watched so much television, are well-versed in all the adult cliches -- "I don't want to go out with anyone right now," "I don't know you well enough," "I don't want to ruin the friendship." And they have one of their own: "My parents said I'm not allowed to."

* Don't go out with someone your friends don't like.

This is one of the firmest rules, though Tessa offers a way around it: "Don't tell your friends if they'd call him a dork." In high school, kids begin to go out with whom-ever they find attractive. But in middle school, relationships are a form of currency among peers, a way to jostle for position.

"In this particular phase," Brown says, "friends' opinions matter more than your own." You can, however, go out with your ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend's best friend, depending on how long that couple went out. "If it was for a day, it wouldn't really matter. If it was for a week, it wouldn't really matter," Bridgette says. But if they were going out a month, that was serious. Steer clear.

This being 2005, one should note that the asking out need not be done face to face, and, of course, the distance inherent in instant messaging, as with telephoning before it, can numb the pain for both parties -- a little bit at least, in the case of rejection. "It's not as bad," Bridgette says. "You can just say no and then sign off." The same goes for breaking up, says Josh: "It's a lot easier to just type it out and hit 'send' than actually go talk to the person."

While boys do most of the asking out, girls do most of the breaking up, Josh -- fresh off a several-month relationship -- can tell you from experience. What he can't tell you is why. If you are reading this, young lady: Why?

Which leaves us to ponder the fate of the turned-down boy, coping in a world where girls have the vocabulary for all this, but he does not, and cannot gather with his friends at his locker the next day, as a girl might, and cry on their shoulders and seek advice on whom to ask out next. On that note, a message to parents: When your son comes home and says the breakup was mutual, he was dumped. Sympathize accordingly.

* Hug, but don't kiss, in the halls at school. In a year or two, it will all change: High schools are filled with public displays of affection. Before the morning bell, a young woman is pressed against her locker receiving her man's attentions; they affirm their love with a French kiss between every class. But the middle school halls are no place to make out. There's too little comfort with what you're doing and, even more important, too much potential for teasing -- by classmates, by teachers.

"Because romance at this stage is such a public affair, you really are essentially creating headline news," Brown says. Sneaking a kiss in a little-traveled spot by the buses after school is dismissed is okay, if you're up for it, which some kids are by eighth grade. And, of course, during Spin the Bottle at boy-girl parties: Making out there is fine, because, hey, you have to. That's where the bottle landed. Nobody can question your judgment, call you a slut. You were just following the rules.

According to many social scientists, fifth grade, just before middle school starts, is when the two sexes typically spend the least amount of time socializing. So the rush of middle school romance comes accompanied with a huge awkwardness. Conversing with a boy, much less going out with him, is so unfamiliar.

Rachel recommends watching TV while on the phone with your boyfriend so that you have something to talk about, or an excuse if you don't have something to talk about. ("Sorry -- what was that? 'Degrassi' is on.")

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