It hasn't changed. The boys still won't dance, and the girls still won't ask them. Friends become best friends and then unbest friends with little prompting or explanation. You never really know when you're "going out" with someone, and then suddenly you're breaking up because someone spread a rumor. Age 12 can become 16 in a flurry of makeup and hair spray, then drop down to 10 in a temper tantrum.

Middle school is still the same.

In a country on the brink of war and in the midst of economic uncertainty, there is something reassuring about this. If middle school is still middle school, in all its gossip-mongering, back-stabbing, identity-questioning, love-discovering, thrilling, traumatizing glory, then perhaps that proves something about the stability of the universe.

In which case, two seventh-graders going to a Friday night dance is -- in its ordinariness -- a small bit of heroism.

Monica Augustenborg and Claire Garbak are best friends. They met in September. They are both 12, both go to Longfellow Middle School, both play basketball, both have two sisters and a brother. They live so close to each other in McLean, it is faster to walk. Monica is blond and vivacious and Claire is strawberry blond and quieter with an impish smile. Monica wears a "Best" necklace and Claire wears the "Friends."

"Well," says Claire, chewing on a ham sandwich as they are preparing for their dance.

"Your mouth is full," says Monica.

She heads into the bedroom, Claire following.

"We did the little sticker thing," says Monica, showing off the miniature photos. There's Monica and Claire with a caption that says "Wanted," and another with the words "Naughty but nice."

Monica's bedroom is painted yellow, decorated with an Eminem poster, and filled with maybe 100 stuffed animals and dolls.

"I don't play with them anymore, but I don't want to throw them away," Monica says. "I don't know why."

And there, in its simplest terms, is the seesaw that is middle school. Stand in the middle of the plank and it's tough to balance without one end hitting the ground. Shift your weight a little this way and you're tilting toward young adulthood. Shift your weight back and presto, you're plunged back into childhood.

Easier to balance when there's two. Monica can sit at one end and Claire the other. Best friends, after all, are the staple of middle school. Who else can truly be trusted with gossip and secrets? Who else will always go with you to the bathroom? At a time of great confusion, it is terribly reassuring to have a person to whom you can hold fast.

On the other hand, the nature of middle school is such that even the state of best-friendship is tumultuous.

Just as Monica is saying that Claire is the only person "I can call, like, my best friend," Claire is pointing out that you can have more than one. She herself has two: Monica, plus another girl.

This prompts Monica to say that she also has one other best friend.

"Who?" asks Claire.

"Michelle," says Monica.

"Oh," says Claire.

Then: "Do you have a watch?" Monica asks, tugging on her best friend's arm. She bounds over to her alarm clock.

"Seven o'clock! We have to go!"

The seventh- and eighth-grade dance every Friday night at Old Firehouse Teen Center, part of the Fairfax County-run McLean Community Center, is, as Monica puts it, "like, the only thing we can do."

After all, they can't drive. They aren't yet 13, which means many movies are out of the question. The well-staffed teen center offers a three-hour social extravaganza, by middle school standards: There's a dance floor with DJ, video screen and smoke machine(!), a pool table, snack machines and a TV room, which this night is tuned to the Fiesta Bowl game between Ohio State and Miami.

So, most every Friday, Monica and Claire go together, wearing jeans and nothing much fancy, getting rides with one parent or another. On this day, Monica has crimped her hair and is wearing a light sheen of blue eye shadow, and Claire wears a blue fleece and her hair in a messy ponytail. When they arrive, they dump their coats in the bathroom like the rest of the girls and head toward the dance floor. Some girls dance like they're in music videos: hands up, hands in hair, torsos twisting. Monica dances more tamely. Claire hardly dances at all, until someone grabs her hands and shakes her around.

Monica's other best friend, Michelle Matar, is also here. She seems a magnet for other girls. All night they hug, they sneak their arms through hers. They commiserate over the couple that once kissed right in front of them and made them nearly barf.

Soon the night looks like this: Monica follows Michelle the way Claire follows Monica. "We have to go dance with Michelle!" Monica says.

Claire watches as Monica and Michelle gossip. She visits the bathroom without Monica. She walks off with Monica only to realize Monica has sat down with Michelle. Claire returns and sits, too, taps Monica on the shoulder.

Such is middle school.

Meanwhile, the boys mostly play pool and sit on couches beside the dance floor.

In this developmental purgatory many of the boys look barely older than Dennis the Menace and many of the girls look barely younger than Christina Aguilera. At 5 feet 10, Michelle is a colossus. Meanwhile, a five-foot boy, who has spiked his hair into twin peaks with "Dep 4 and Elmer's Glue," spends the evening running up to people and squeaking "Ohio!"

Monica twists her eyebrows in disdain.

But if the girls have the height advantage, they lack something else.

"The girls do not ask the guys" to dance, Monica explains. "They just kind of stand, hoping." Though, she says, "I know this girl, she goes up and asks guys. . . . She doesn't care what everyone else thinks about her."

Monica produces this brave renegade: Rose Tobiassen. She is a small girl with tomboyish red hair that curls around her neck. She's the one who asks on behalf of other girls.

"I don't know, I've never really been too scared," Rose explains with a what's-the-big-deal? manner.

Tonight, neither Monica nor Claire will ask Rose for that favor. Monica's crush isn't here and Claire says she doesn't have a crush. Still, Monica recalls fondly the night that three guys -- three! -- asked her to dance.

Later, Monica's 20-year-old sister will ask, "Did you dance with anyone?" And then: "You should just ask them! You're too scared!"

This is the wisdom of age.

For now, though, this is the lesson that Rose imparts: there are rules about everything, but at the same time there are no rules. There are those who seem destined to follow convention, then there are those who charge ahead, dismissing social strictures, making everything look easy.

Soon enough, the tall, theatrical Michelle is having a crisis.

"This guy wants to ask me out but I have a boyfriend," she says, looking so disgusted you can't help but wonder if she's pleased.

"She doesn't like him at all," Monica says.

"He was like this," says Michelle, and does an imitation for Claire and Monica: an open-mouthed stare, with her head tipped up, as if the would-be suitor comes up to her knees.

A slow song comes on.

"That guy's gonna ask her!" says Monica. "That guy's gonna ask her!"

Ah, the thrill of middle school: sympathetic revulsion, collective excitement, best friends traveling in packs.

A short boy nearby remarks, "Seventh grade is so dramic." Then he gets embarrassed, knowing he didn't say the word right. "Or whatever," he adds.

Michael Kalish, 13, and Michelle Matar, 12, at a seventh- and eighth-grade Friday night gathering, where height isn't an issue on the dance floor.

From left, D'Arcy Steiner, 13, Claire Garbak, 12, and Monica Augustenborg, 12, take a break from the dance floor. Middle school girls tend to travel in groups, even to the vending machines. Monica Augustenborg, right, and Claire Garbak play a game at the McLean Community Center's weekly dance for middle school students.