Our most enduring memories are forged during our middle school years. I was very saddened by the passing this year of former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. I feel like I grew up with Ali. I was ten when The Fight of the Century was fought between Ali and Joe Frazier, the reigning heavyweight champ of the world. It was the first time that two undefeated boxers fought each other for the heavyweight title. An undefeated Ali had won the title from Sonny Liston in 1964, and defended his title successfully until he had it stripped by boxing authorities for rejecting induction into the armed forces in 1967. Ali was protesting the Vietnam War and asserting his new-found Muslim faith. There was civil rights significance to Ali’s stand as well. In many of his remarks at this time, Ali clearly linked his refusal to go to Vietnam to the black civil rights movement.Most of the kids in my class were rooting for Frazier. It was natural that you would do that in my neighborhood at this time. All of our parents had served in the Armed Forces. My father had been in the Army, his two brothers served in the Navy, my mother’s brothers were in the Navy and the Army. So our parents took a dim view of Mohammed Ali’s refusal to serve his country in the armed forces. They called him a traitor. Joe Frazier was never in the military because he had a wife and kids but he said that he would have served if he’d been drafted. Frazier represented a hard-hitting, working-class sort of individual from Philadelphia with whom our parents felt an affinity. But I decided I was going to root for Mohammed Ali.
I wish I could say I backed Ali because of civil rights ideals or opposition to the Vietnam war, but this would not be true. At 11 years old I was not a civil rights activist. I was however, perhaps for the first time in my life, willing to assert myself against adults and against other kids. I even bet another kid in my class a dollar that Ali would win.
This is what middle school kids do. They find ways to assert their independence. It is perfectly natural for them to do so. In fact, this is one of the defining characteristics of adolescence. If your children don’t try to test boundaries, establish interests and relationships of their own, that is when you should worry that maybe you’re doing something wrong as a parent. The middle school years are when kids begin to rebel in their style, their music, and their interests. Everything is open to critique because young adolescents need to put some space between themselves and us!
As it turns out, Ali lost that fight to Frazier. I still owe that kid the dollar I bet but…. I felt good that I’d asserted my independence. In fact, I think even my dad was proud of me. One of my brothers tattled on me to him, “He’s not for Frazier, what do you think of that?” My dad replied, “What does it matter, Donald can root for anybody he wants.” He understood something about adolescence. There are perfectly acceptable ways for our children to assert their independence and as adults we should encourage this. Most grownups can distinguish between reasonable rebellion and dangerous decision-making in their kids. Let your kids make mistakes and choose their own paths so that they can grow up to become successful independent adults.