The girl has started seventh grade. This was to be expected. Nevertheless, her mother is of the confirmed opinion -- based on experience -- that seventh grade shouldn't happen to a dog.

If she were in charge, seventh grade would be eliminated like the 13th floor in hotels. Kids would go immediately from sixth to eighth grade, passing Go, without stopping to collect a set of teachers' scalps, or social wounds.

The girl is not, praise the Lord and the local school board, going to something called junior high school. Just the name gives her mother hives. "Junior" high schools are the training bras of the educational world.

Once upon a time someone -- probably the same person who invented "adolescence" -- decided to isolate all the children between 12 and 14 in one institution, as if they had a social disease. Instead of finding a cure, they created an epidemic of precociousness, a generation of Jodie Fosters and Tatum O'Neals.

The mother remembers her own seventh grade, complete with terminal awkwardness, a math teacher who had deadly aim with erasers and an English teacher who committed the ultimate mistake: she allowed herself to be vulnerable. Seventh graders go for vulnerability like a ground-to-air missile.

The funny part is that the mother loves this age, always has; loves the energy and wit and the devastating eye and appetites of the seventh graders who graze through her house.

But what is seen as energy in the world is often seen as unruliness in school. What is wit in twos or threes is often insolence in groups of 20. What is clarity to a parent or friend could be rebelliousness to a teacher.

Again the mother thought of the tension between family and school, between the two systems in which children live out their days. It was as loaded a relationship as any joint custody.

More often than not, families and schools, like divorced parents, hold different sets of expectations and goals, different views of one child, and of childhood.

When kids are young, families are the world they live in. Our power as parents is largely unshared. We are their environment, their standard, their reality, their value-tenders and the people who interpret the outside to them.

If families work right, they are the place in which love is unconditional. If they work right, there is an assumption of love, even under discipline or anger. Good families don't flunk their children.

But on the first day of school -- nursery school, first grade, seventh grade, college -- we give our children over to a system that doesn't love them. gGive them over to be judged, to see if they can "measure up" to another standard. They enter a world in which they are only rewarded for how they perform.

I don't mean to present the schools as cold, and teachers as uncaring. But parents see kids as special individuals; the school inevitably sees them as part of a group. School is the essential but scary halfway house between the home and the world.

I suppose we also give up our own teaching monopoly when we send them to school. There is nothing new in that. Since the beginning, schools were the melting pots of a complex society. They taught immigrant children English and order, taught country people urban skills, taught everyone the "American" ways. We can only guess at how those lessons were to odds with family tutoring.

Even today the hottest issues at school are not about new math or phonetics, but about conflicting values. A parent may encourage questioning, while the school has a bias toward passivity. A parent may believe literally in the Bible, while the children are told that Jonah and the Whale is a story. A parent may abhor violence and the school enforces corporal punishment. A parent may praise order, while a school allows chaos. If sex education is the flash point, it is no surprise.

I don't know a single parent who has not been aghast at some attitude or information lugged home with the school books. I don't know a teacher who hasn't felt that same flash of horror at some family opinion. We compete (as much as we cooperate) for influence, for space in the children's heads.

Eventually, I suppose it's the kids who make a kind of truce, even an uneasy one, by becoming their own people. Gradually they would pick and choose, find their own way through a thicket of teachers and parents and media. c

Even now, in this miserable school year, they were becoming skeptical but dogmatic, unsure but stubborn, difficult but fascinating . . . self-made people. With any luck they would survive even seventh grade.