What Happens When You’re Twelve

Recently, the radio program This American Life aired a program on middle school – that extraordinary time of life between around 9 and around 14 years old. I tuned in because a) I love the program (and yes Ira, I have given) and b) I have a middle schooler and one on the way.

This era of childhood strikes fear in the hearts of many teachers. Part of the reason why is that we change so fast and at such different speeds then, that a room full of sixth graders can be composed equally of big babies and small teenagers. Most, in fact, alternate between the two extremes, in one moment asking for a snuggle and in the next asking metaphysical questions about the nature of good and evil.

I love this age, and I love my middle schooler. I mean, of course I do, he’s my son. But I love watching the way his babyness lingers like a piano chord a few rooms away, and at the same time, I love how he is growing fully into my buddy, my nickname for him for years. I love how he debates me furiously about matters of ethics and fairness, and then, minutes later, lies on my bed, pulls up his shirt, and asks for a tickly-scratch. Some might say it’s the worst of both worlds. No. It’s the best. And I navigate my own sorrow at his growing up, knowing that there are only a limited number of tickly-scratches remaining.

Perhaps the most striking factoid from the TAL program was the declaration by one expert that the brain at this age is setting the foundation for the adult to come. It is stripping away the baby parts and replacing them, at rapid speed, with adult parts. And so the things that happen to us at this age are immensely consequential for the remainder of our lives.

My life was transformed by two events as I turned twelve. The first and most important is that I was adopted by the new family growing up around me: father, step-mother and, one every three years, half sister, half-brother and half-sister. After having had an unconventional childhood, characterized by sudden changes of terrain both actual and emotional, I was given a stable and secure family life. Had this not happened, I would be a different person today.

 

The second most important thing that happened to me in middle school was that I discovered acting. As I listened to the TAL program, I recalled a short article my middle school had asked me to write last summer for their fall bulletin, about the theater program there. I had been identified as a notable alum who had made the theater his profession. I had always known that those plays during those four years were foundational, but it wasn’t until I heard the expert on the TAL show that I grasped the neurological component of what was happening to me.

With my family, and my vocation, I have been blessed. Here is what I wrote for the Park School Alumni Bulliten:

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She took me aside after a rehearsal — I don’t remember which play it was — and said, “I love watching my student actors blossom. And you just went ‘POP!’ ” With this, Alice Mamarchev sealed her place in my heart as the person most responsible for my love of acting.

My first play with her was I Remember Mama. I played Uncle Chris. I don’t remember much except that I had a melodramatic deathbed scene. And I remember the sensation that I didn’t want to make fun of it, or of myself, as I was doing it — very unusual for a seventh grader. I remember watching Mrs. Mamarchev out of the corner of my eye when I was on stage, working the giant rack of huge resistance dimmers: eight or so large levers which dimmed or raised the stage lights. She seemed like some angelic version of Igor from the Frankenstein movies, bringing to birth a different kind of borrowed life. Much later I saw the movie of I Remember Mama and was alarmed to discern a physical resemblance between the actor playing Uncle Chris and me.

We would get made up on stage, as I recall, there being no dressing rooms to speak of. So in addition to the usual giddiness that accompanied opening night, we got to hear the audience filing in. It was almost too much, and the combination of the adrenaline and the high from the hair spray made me literally dizzy. To this day, there are two smells which put directly back on that stage before a Park School show: Aqua-Net hair spray and grease paint sticks.

I was a child desperate to find a place to fit in and be more than accepted — to be celebrated and loved. Alice Mamarchev gave me that place. It was a place where I got to explore parts of myself I didn’t know existed, and then discover that people thought it was really cool when I explored them. My greatest experience as an actor at Park was as Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank. To this day, 30 years into a professional acting career, I still regard it as a great honor that she entrusted that role and his devastating final monologue, to me. And I remember the dumbfounded shock I felt to see adults in the audience standing at the curtain call, their cheeks wet with tears. What an awesome power I had discovered, a power she led me to.

In 2006 I wrote a book about a young actor and his elderly acting teacher, called The Actor’s Way. It’s a thinly veiled memoir of my early adulthood creative torment. And as I contemplated what to name the silver-haired elder the fictional version of myself reaches out to, the answer was clear. She is named Alice. And while she is not Alice Mamarchev exactly, she represents the passing on of a magic, wisdom and creativity that Alice Mamarchev passed to me.

And now I pass it on to others.