by James B. Nicola

If you have a son or know a boy who is twelve years old then you are on the verge of witnessing one of the great unsung mysteries of human existence.

Recall the age of ten. Visit a sixth-grade classroom and you may see rows of little angels sitting as angels are wont; if they are horsing around, shoving, or name-calling, it is with the (relatively) expert harmlessness of a little kid.

By the time the kid turns twelve, that angel is gone.

You can see this if you walk from the sixth-grade section to the seventh-grade section of Tenafly Middle School which, quite wisely, separates the sixth grade class rooms from the seventh and eighth-grade class rooms. It is also probably why, in the old days, Grammar School went through grade six and Junior High started at grade seven, just when things start to get peculiar the way I am talking about.

This seems eminently sensible when you are that age. At twelve, name-calling starts getting serious, and boys utter inventive yet meaningless phrases like “Ah, your mother’s vomit.” In a flash, they know everything about everything, regardless of whether they have any way of knowing, heaven forfend actually finding out; and whatever they say, whether true or not, is so.

The age of twelve is a turbulent time for a boy.

At age thirteen, an even stranger thing happens. A boy still knows everything but is suddenly damned if he is going to let anyone know he knows.

He is now to be treated as a supercilious house cat. Just nod when you enter a room he happens to be in. If he nods back and leaves you alone, consider yourself lucky. But say his name out loud, or hello, or try to shake his hand, or hug him goodbye when you leave, and you will not know what hit you. If he’s outathere in a flash, again, consider yourself lucky.

This is because at age thirteen, the American boy is invaded by an alien spirit. Probably from just past Saturn or thereabouts. The most diligent, industrious, studious, or kindest boy is now in the thrall of the Master Alien of Coolness and would rather die than have attention called to him—other than his suddenly acquired black and red, generally angular, wall postings. Not that this invasion and possession happens precisely on his thirteenth birthday; the phenomenon may occur a week or two before or after.

If you are his mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, or uncle, you must have patience. Fasten your safety belt and hope that Billy or Jimmy gets through the next several years alive and without a serious police record. But be comforted with the knowledge that when he turns twenty (again, give or take a week or two), he shall return. That alien now has to find its way back through the astral plane to wherever the bloody heck it came from, but you have your boy back. Do not ask where he’s been, he won’t acknowledge that he was gone, even to himself.

By the way, the Jewish Boy, when he turns thirteen, is surrounded by his entire extended family to remind him (and warn the alien spirit), “We’re watching!” The Bar Mitzvah may be the most effective ritual ever devised, religious or otherwise.

Now you may think this whole talk is silly. It is your right to do so. But I have heard from more mothers, fathers, sisters, aunts, uncles, neighbors, friends, and occasionally brothers (though mostly brothers don’t notice anything), and an inordinately high percentage have come up to me seven years later and said, My God, you were right! Their words. So if this model is not necessarily true, it may nonetheless be useful, if you don’t want your teenager stomping, screaming, slamming, and hitting things for no apparent reason. Or at least, if he is going to carry on stomping, screaming, slamming, and hitting things, rest assured you are not insane. At least, not yet.

You think that being a caring person can be helpful to a thirteen-year-old boy? Well, if you can’t help yourself, go ahead and care—but for god’s sake don’t let him catch you at it. And pray for him if you must—silently. Again, DO NOT let him know what you are doing. Double-check your safety belt, wait seven years, he’ll be fine. Most likely.

Meanwhile, be complacent, if not content, in the certain knowledge that there is nothing else you or anyone else can do for him.

James B. Nicola is the author of eight full-length poetry collections. In Australia, his poetry and prose have appeared in Pure Slush, Science Now, and The Antonym. A graduate of Yale, he hosts the Hell’s Kitchen International Writers’ Round Table at his local library branch in New York City.

3 thoughts on “Thirteen”

  1. Brings back memories of teaching in a middle school. The popular insult at that time was, “You look like a naked grandma!”

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