Advice from Rachel Vail!
Dear Rachel Vail,
For homework, we have to write to someone famous. Well, I wrote to you.
Do you know JK Rowling? Her books are good.
You should get movies made of your books.
Well, yes you did. Thanks for writing to me.
I don’t know JK Rowling but I agree: her books are really good.
Congrats on getting your homework done and good luck in the coming year.
Thanks for the advice about movies! I’ll try.
Dear Rachel Vail,
I’m in seventh grade and I don’t have a “thing.” I’m decent at school but not great, not a genius or anything. I’m just regular. I just feel like I’m blah and my whole life is going to be blah. My mom says I should volunteer to work with homeless people or old people and get some perspective on what real problems are, but I don’t want to. I guess I am a terrible person. Should I suck it up and volunteer? Should I just randomly choose some activity and be all into it, in hopes of getting good at something? How do you keep up your interest in any one thing? Or should I just resign myself to being blah and having a boring life?
That's an awful feeling you're having. I know: I was the exact same way in seventh grade! It was horrible. I played saxophone terribly (never practiced; got bottom braces; bloody disaster). I tried After School Gymnastics; I sucked. Art classes: no talent, kept falling asleep and gluing things to my hair. Tai Kwan Do? Chess? Oh just kill me now, I told my mom. I campaigned for a woman named Erma Oppenheimer for I don’t know maybe City Council with my mom (her version of your mom’s do something for the world idea) and ended up after a few hours just shoving flyers at scared people in the shopping center, yelling Erm! Opp! Neimer! until my mom took pity on the townsfolk and dragged me away. I got onto the (no cuts!) Track Team, which was mind-bogglingly boring until I decided I would do the hurdles, at which point it became both terrifying and ridiculously damaging to my body and self-esteem.
This ^ was basically me, but while I was doing it, there was no triumphant music, no inspiring captions, no life-lesson. Just me face-planting repeatedly. Every time I did the hurdles at a track meet I knew this was going to happen, for sure – and it did! I’m not even adult-pivoting and saying but you know what? by the end of that year I won the race at the all-state whatever and that trophy still sits on my… NO! Every single time! I never improved! The only reason I wasn’t always dead last is because I was usually disqualified!
And really, even when I wasn't literally “running” (into) the hurdles, it felt like I spent all day every day in seventh grade doing basically the equivalent of flinging myself into barriers and splatting myself onto the hard ground.
Seventh grade is brutal.
Is basically my advice.
Don’t pressure yourself into finding your passion right now. Seventh grade is hard enough. Be kind to yourself. Definitely do some things if they seem at all interesting and not likely to break you in any way. Try a variety of activities. It’s fine to be terrible at them; it’s fine to not love love love any one thing yet. Try above all to be patient with yourself, even though that’s so hard.
Talk to yourself the way you’d talk to a beloved younger cousin, when you are the hottest of messes. Be game to try, be open to experiences. Maybe take your mom up on the volunteering idea – if you aren’t into the homeless shelter idea, maybe at an animal rescue or something with kids or baking or a coat drive? Instead of volunteering in order to see how bad it is for others and prove how good you have it, so there, be ASHAMED, you can actually see if doing any of those things make you feel good about yourself and happy in doing it. That's okay, not selfish. Sometimes the best way out of a funk is to find a way to help someone else in a way that makes you feel competent and positive.
You might even try doing some stuff at home: help make dinner from a recipe you find online, or do a chore that used to be beyond you like helping with younger kids, pets, or chores – sometimes being useful is just the thing to shake off a bad case of blahs. And sometimes a person just needs to read a book, write in a journal, doodle, watch a movie, stare at the ceiling a bit.
Don’t pass any verdicts on the blahness of your life yet. It’s too early for that. (It is always too early for that.)
Good luck. It gets better. I promise.
Maybe not right away. That's me, top front, with the hair, the arm. 8th grade can be rough too. But eventually it does get better.
PS If you sign up to do the hurdles, good for you being so brave but: ask someone HOW TO DO IT. I never did. Being too ashamed to ask for help when I needed it has always led to me slamming my face into the ground. Literally and otherwise.
Dear Rachel Vail,
I live in Florida and as you probably know, there’s a pretty major storm coming at us right now. We have a generator which makes us very popular. My mom can’t say no to anyone, so too many people are packed in our house right now. I know this is a looming crisis but some of these people could have gone to a shelter. It's a bit sticky balancing all the kids because they are not all in the same friend group, and some people (kids and adults, including my parents though they try to hide it) are very stressed. I’m exhausted already and the storm isn’t even here yet. Any advice?
No wonder you’re exhausted, after all the prep you and your family have already done, including having various mismatched people move in to your house. Plus, stress itself is draining. Other people’s stress is particularly tough to deal with, even more so when it’s your parents’ stress. Mixing friend groups is never easy, but this is of course even more intense because there’s no leaving, no getting a break from one another for who knows how long.
I think the key here is to be a little kinder than you feel, to everyone – and that includes yourself. When you need a break, some time alone to think, to breathe? Take it. If that means slowwwly making a snack, checking in with your parents, taking a shower, or just saying you’re going to read or nap for a while, that’s fine. You don’t have to be the party entertainer the entire time people are bunking in even though it’s your house, and you are not responsible for easing everybody’s feelings (including your parents’) or ensuring the smooth functioning of every relationship.
Sometimes doing something relaxing during a scary time, like watching a movie, can be a good break from the tension – and an easy way to hang with a mismatched group. Finding something helpful to do (like a cooking or cleaning project, nailing up storm shutters, finding flashlights and candles, or filling water bottles) can make you feel more productive and bonded with people – and also can have a calming effect. But playing card games or board games, listening to music, or doing some kind of art project can be fun and fine, too.
If you can include anyone who wants to join a group activity, without pressure, you’ll be setting a chill, welcoming tone. If some friends are into watching a movie and others want to chat or play a game, that’s okay. It could be a long night or few days ahead. The important thing is to stay safe and not make more drama for yourselves than the storm is already delivering. Lean on a trusted adult when you need to; it's okay to need comfort. If in the midst of it all you can have some fun with the mismatched gang of people, and even feel good (despite the stress) that your family welcomed others in, you may end up making some meaningful memories that will outlast any damage a hurricane can do.
Good luck. Stay dry and safe.
Dear Rachel Vail,
Yesterday I farted when a friend was over. I am sure she heard it but she didn’t say anything and neither did I. We just sat there working on our homework together in silence. And then it was too late. It was so awkward. Obviously I can never be friends with her now but what should I do next time I’m in a situation like that, other than, hopefully, not fart?
OMG the worst. You should probably ask your parents if you can move, because how will face that girl in school now?
Just kidding. I get it. Totally embarrassing. It happens. Even worse happens. Don’t think about it, but trust me. Bodies are so weird and humiliating sometimes.
Next time? Maybe just say “Wow, you just farted so loud!” to which of course she’ll say, “I did not! You did!” and you can be like, “No way!” and then you can both laugh because, really, farts are funny. Another way to deal is to say what you are actually thinking, like, “Oh, no, that can NOT just have happened I am so embarrassed GROSS. Sorry.” And then she’ll laugh and/or tell you not to worry.
Of course, you could just be mature and say, “Excuse me.” I am hoping to be mature enough to handle it this way someday. Unlikely.
I’m about to start middle school and I have a weird fear about it I hope you can help me with. I’m scared I will put my lunch and books in my locker the first day and then not be able to get it out. I’ll forget which locker is mine, or I’ll forget the combination. It’s actually kind of wrecking the end of summer for me. I’ve even had dreams (nightmares!) about standing in front of my locker sweating and crying and then I’m late for class or everybody is laughing at me. It’s horrible.
I had the same exact fear! Even as an adult, I have had stress-dreams about my locker. And I have heard from many other kids who also feel like a wreck about this exact worry. So the first thing is: it’s a totally usual, normal concern – not weird at all. It’s a practical problem, but also goes deeper (more on that in a sec).
Let’s deal with the practical first: write down your locker number and combination on a piece of paper, cover it on both sides with tape, and carry it in your pocket. Make another tapey-paper thing to put in your wallet if you have one, or on the back of your ID card, or even in your sock! Tape another paper with the numbers on it to the inside of a cabinet at home, and make another version to put inside your underwear drawer. Make another copy and give it to an adult you trust/ can call in an emergency. This way you have multiple places to find the crucial info. But more important, the act of writing the info down by hand over and over forces your brain to learn it! If you have a phone with a camera, you can also take a photo of it, but this probably won’t even be necessary once you’ve written it down so many times. Final tip, on the practical part: the faculty at your school is totally used to kids forgetting or struggling with their lockers, and they will help you. You will not be the only one asking for help, I promise. (Though if you’ve written it out so many times, you may be one of the few not needing help!)
On a deeper level, OF COURSE you are worried about getting locked out of your locker. It’s scary starting a new school, or even a new school year, and one of the big worries is what if I am locked out – of a friend group, of understanding what’s happening in class, of fitting in somewhere. Of being able to handle it all. Your brain makes that fear concrete by focusing you fully on the locker situation. But here’s the good news: the exact same techniques that will help with your locker will help with the rest of it: take a breath, prepare, write it down, ask for help. And look – you are already doing those things, just by asking me this question! Even just by thinking about it! It’s okay to worry, and to catch yourself worrying – that just means you’re thinking things through, practicing in your mind what you will do if this happens or that does. Stepping into a new situation calls on your courage. Take a breath, tell yourself, I got this, and pretend to believe it until you do. Remember if you mess up you have resources for coping! Right there in your pocket, and your underwear drawer, and your sock.
You got this.
Good luck with the start of school.
Thank you for starting this column. Maybe you are hoping to delve into deeper content but right now the advice I need is: How do I get this [adjective deleted] cardboard milk carton open without getting it all mangled and squishy?
Thanks and good luck,
Here’s one technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hko1N9sWoPQ
Otherwise just get the kind with the screw-off caps.