Justin Ricklefs


As Our Oldest Enters Middle School

On one hand it really did feel like yesterday. On the other, an eternity. Days that sometimes can’t end fast enough that bleed into years that disappear into thin air. Almost 12 of them to be exact.

We were babies ourselves, 23 and 22 when we took you home in the backseat of our used Mitsubishi Montero. Half-excited, half-what the crap are we doing.

You were the best kind of a surprise but a surprise nonetheless. We weren’t ready. At least not yet. Not until there was more money in savings, more travel under our belt, more time, more I’m not sure what.

But not yet.

One year and four days after our wedding day, here you came. A surprisingly warm winter day on the day our surprise entered the world.

Since that backseat car ride home almost 12 years ago, we’ve buckled you in a million times. To five different homes in four different cities. To countless practices, recitals, and lessons. To sleepovers that ended the next morning and ones that ended at midnight when you were scared. To early morning donut and late night ice cream runs.

You’ve seen a lot from that backseat. Things we’re super proud of and many we’re not. The extremes of parenting are just that, extreme. The highs make you forget everything else in the world. And the lows hit you between the eyes and remind you what a fight this is. Parenting is gritty, messy, confusing but the best kind of rewarding.

You don’t need us to buckle you in anymore. You haven’t for a few years.

As your mom and I looked over you one last time for bed tonight, I thought about that backseat all those years ago. We didn’t know what the heck we were doing, but you made us ready.


Tomorrow morning you’ll climb the huge steps to your first day of middle school. You’re half-excited, half-what the crap am I doing.

But you’re ready. In the same way that we were ready to be your parents. Your entire life has prepared you for this.

As you enter those halls, can I give you five strong ropes to hold onto this year?

1. Magnets Attract or Repel. This gift was given to you, it’s been in you since day one. You have this ability and I doubt you even see it or think about it. But it’s real. You are magnetic. Everything about you. Your kindness, generosity, smile, compassion. It’s baked down deep into your core. Most people are attracted to that force, but it pushes some away. Because you care deeply about people, you are more concerned with the few that repel than the hundreds who stick. It sounds harsh, but you have to trust me. Your chase to please everyone will end up destroying you. I’ve played that game. Don’t fall for it. Let the ones that repel go, and let the ones that are attracted stay close.

2. Bravery Isn’t the Absence of Fear. Middle school is a big deal. You’re worried about bullies, boys and boobs. OK, maybe it’s just me that’s worried about the boob thing. But you’re worried, and we understand. It’s easy to tell you to be brave, have courage, and other simple sayings. What’s harder is telling you that it’s OK to be scared. It’s normal to be anxious. But everything you want is on the other side of the fear, so go do it anyway. Your knees may knock as you walk up those stairs tomorrow, but only you can climb them. We can’t do it for you.. Bravery doesn’t mean that the fear is gone. It means that you kept moving forward even when it was staring you in the face.

3. Keep Marble Jar Friends Close. Your 5th grade year was tough. We moved again. You started a new school again. We’ve done a lot wrong, you’re the firstborn after all, but we got this part right. Your mom sent you to a friend who did some light counseling with you. You learned a lot those few weeks, but we’re most grateful for one lesson that sunk in deep for you. Marble jar friends. Those friends that you can hold close, the ones that have your back, the ones that won’t leave. There aren’t tons of those, but there are enough. You’ve done an amazing job of picking out marble jar friends. We’re proud to know those girls and are excited to see them blossom as well.


4. Grades Don’t Define You. Of course, we want you to work hard, study and get good grades. But we’re much more concerned about who you’re becoming than we are about a letter on a paper. We would rather see you explore, be curious, problem solve, and create than simply memorize facts. Work to be a learner not simply a good test taker. If you keep learning, you have no idea the fun that is ahead. The world is yours for the taking.

5. Pray More, Worry Less. I wish I could take credit for this one. But you wrote it. Right on the inside of your locker. Not because someone told you to, but because you know it will anchor you each day. When you are worried about that test score. Or when you’re stressed about that friend’s reaction. Or when that teacher was a little too harsh. More prayers, less worries. So simple. Would you write it down for me too?


Those backseat days were nostalgic for sure. I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.

But these days, the ones where you jump in the front seat, do your own buckle, ask if we’ll turn the music up, and drive you to the bottom of the middle school hill, are the best kinds of days.

Give me this season all day long.

Gone is the cute but helpless baby. Here is the young woman ready to climb those stairs, even if your knees wobble.

You are ready.

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