In the recent past I have spent a good deal of time with two pieces of media that take place during seventh grade: Pen15, the TV show wherein the show’s two main writers — women in their early 30s — play versions of their seventh-grade selves alongside actual middle-school-aged actors; and Pedro the Lion’s Havasu, a record David Bazan wrote about the year he spent living in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., starting when he was 12.
I thought it was a funny coincidence; I don’t usually spend a lot of time thinking about that time of my life (or other people’s). To be honest, personally, I don’t look back on it too fondly. But Pen15 and Havasu paint it as a pivotal year, a time of seeds being planted, of transformation. Maybe that’s true.
“If you, like me, are a millennial and a recovering social reject” — Rachel Syme wrote in a New Yorker profile of Pen15 (and yes, I am) — then watching the writers-protagonists of that show “relive seventh grade can feel alternately wistful and triggering.” Yes. I was in seventh grade a handful of years after Pen15 is set, but it all feels familiar to me: the AOL away messages, the lip gloss, the Y2K pop music, the gel pens. And also, the parts of being a seventh-grader that are unmoored from time: the cliques, the cattiness, the crushes, the hormones, the social awkwardness. The show covers first kisses, school dances, class projects, the drama of sleepovers, the onset of puberty. It’s a very sweet show, easy to watch — but still, sprinting through both seasons of it in a couple weeks felt like a feat of strength: How much was I willing to sink back into the emotional trauma of being a pre-teen?
Havasu, meanwhile, is part of a larger project David Bazan is embarking upon: a five-album series documenting the various places he has called home. The first one, Phoenix, about his early childhood, came out in 2019. And he says he already has the three remaining installments — Santa Cruz, Paradise, Seattle — mapped out, though he’s not necessarily in a rush to finish them all. It’s exhausting, I would imagine, to excavate like that.
Havasu balances the first-person perspective of Bazan’s twelve- and thirteen-year-old narrator with the experience of the forty-something-year-old guy singing the songs. Bazan says he wanted to show some generosity to his younger self: “I wanted to be there for that kid,” he said in a press release. “That twelve year old still needs parenting, and still needs to process.” On the album, he processes crushes and little heartbreaks and the awful process of trying to make friends in a new school as a shy kid, and also some larger shifts happening beneath the surface — his conflicted relationship to religion and to authority; the early stages of depression.
In seventh grade I, like Bazan, started going to a new school. At my school I had to wear a green plaid skirt every day and pray to Saint Angela Merici. My sister was in the same grade as me, and we were best friends, and we listened to Dashboard Confessional on the way to school every day. We also tried to make new friends, which was hard. Early on, though, I befriended two girls named Maddi and Maddy. They had a Xanga together where they wrote about fashion and music and boys. I convinced them to let me write for the Xanga, too, despite not sharing their name. (The birth of a blogger.)
One day in seventh grade, we were assigned to read “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury, a short story about a group of students who live on Venus, where sun is only visible for one hour every seven years. There’s one girl in the class — a transfer student, from Earth — whom no one likes; she’s a bit of a weirdo. During the one hour where the sun is visible on Venus, everyone locks that girl in the closet and forgets about her, and she misses her chance to see the sun. Back on Earth, we talked about the story in class, and most of my fellow students agreed the girl deserved it, or at least they didn’t feel bad for her. Not me, though, and not my new friend Maddi. We were appalled, probably because — if I had to guess — we saw something of ourselves in the weird Earth girl. I still think of that story often, and of how it felt to sit in that class and meekly defend the outcast.
(Maddi and I are still friends today, for what it’s worth; a dozen or so years after reading “All Summer in a Day,” we even lived together in a big beautiful row house in DC.)
(I should also mention that the most precious relationship in my life also started at that age. Pivotal indeed.)
My friend Ben wrote an essay about Pen15 as part of the history of the body-swap device in popular fiction. He wanted to know: What draws us to stories about kids and adults switching bodies? He found that the whole body-swap thing started in the 1870s, with F. Anstey’s novel Vice Versâ; or, A Lesson to Fathers. But it’s stuck around: Freaky Friday, Big, 13 Going On 30, etc. (Pen15 is a more meta version of that narrative device, I guess; bodies are swapped, in that adult actors are playing preteen characters — but the body-swapping itself isn’t the plot. Havasu, too: an adult singing songs narrated by a child.)
Part of what gave Vice Versâ such an enduring legacy is tied up in changing ideas about childhood. “Victorians responding to the ravages of industrial growth worked to elevate the status of childhood in the nineteenth century,” Ben writes. “They thought of it as a time of rare goodness and innocence, worthy not just of protection but also of lifelong engagement.” He quotes Hugh Cunningham in The Invention of Childhood: “It became almost a duty to stay in touch with childhood, to remember as an adult what it felt like to be a child.”
Of course, for me, that calls to mind immediately Joan Didion in On Keeping A Notebook: “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be,” she writes in that essay, “whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
When I first read On Keeping a Notebook, that quote made instant sense to me: the importance of accountability, of consequence, of loyalty to a long-term bond. (Remembering what it felt like to be one of the only people defending the weird Earth girl locked in the closet, for example.) Over the years, though, it has come to mean different things to me; the desertion and betrayal and proverbial 4 a.m. knock can sound a lot of different ways. (Maybe it can sound like priorities changing, desires changing.) Anyway, lately I have been thinking: to be on nodding terms is not the same as carrying all those people around, all the time, with all their baggage.
Bazan has spoken in several interviews about the struggle to re-establish the terms of that relationship to his former self, and be honest about it, on Havasu. “It was scary,” he says, “to go back and try to picture what this kid was going through – and ask, how long has it been since I really reckoned with those experiences that I was having?” It didn’t help that, around that age, he had learned to mask his pain, to not make a big deal of what he was feeling. He didn’t even really realize how much he was doing that until he started reflecting on this time to write the album. He remembers wondering about his younger self: “What was that kid feeling? What was that kid showing? And what was the difference between those two things?”
We keep revisiting childhood via body-swap stories, Ben writes, “not because childhood is better than adulthood, but because it’s the long shadow of it: the place adults project their fears about what life demands. Kindness, empathy, imagination, hopefulness, openness—body-swapped adults re-learn these qualities by becoming children again.” These aren’t childish attributes, he says; they are instead “the qualities many people had once and lost somewhere along the way in a society that seemed not to value them.” Part of the joy of watching Pen15 is seeing adult actors embody the joy and courage and exuberance normally reserved for childhood — and part of what makes it so cringe-inducing is watching, in real time, as the world reacts to those feelings.
Recently I have been thinking: You could not pay me enough to go back to middle school. But of course here I am, retracing my steps — thinking about the same stories; loving many of the same people; trying to relearn those qualities I once knew; trying to keep on nodding terms.
Here are some other things I have been consuming lately: Asha’s Awakening by Raveena; Life on Earth by Hurray for the Riff Raff; Marchita by Silvana Estrada; Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You by Big Thief; the Laurie Anderson exhibition at the Hirshhorn; Devil House by John Darnielle; the podcast Shattering Gleam; daily games of Wordle, like everyone else; Red Dead Redemption 2 over Matt’s shoulder, which is in many ways a video game about riding horses (something I was very into in seventh grade); one bizarre compliment from a stranger (a very drunk girl telling me I look like Heather Graham; I’ll take it!); many many many loops around Prospect Park*; this Smitten Kitchen salad, made by a friend (what a gift!); one homemade vegan pizza (also made by a friend!); cherry-flavored Italian ice
*buried the lede here, a little bit — I recently moved to Brooklyn! If you live(d) here, I’d love any and all recommendations, advice, etc.