On her eleventh birthday, Sabrina's friend Joyce gave a surprise party, but Sabrina appeared somber during the celebration. Although Sabrina and Joyce had been close friends since third grade, their relationship was faltering. Sabrina was a head taller and some twenty pounds heavier than most of the other girls in her sixth-grade class. Her breasts were well developed, her hips and thighs had broadened, and she had begun to menstruate. In contrast, Joyce still had the short, lean, flat-chested body of a school-age child.
Ducking into the bathroom while Joyce and the other girls set the table for cake and ice cream, Sabrina looked herself over in the mirror and whispered, "Gosh, I feel so big and heavy. I've got to take off some pounds! Maybe I can open the presents and find a way to skip the cake."
Sabrina's parents, Franca and Antonio, worried about Sabrina's desire to lose weight, explained that she was really quite average in build for an adolescent girl, and reminded Sabrina that her Italian ancestors thought a plump female body was more beautiful than a thin one. But Sabrina was preoccupied with what her peers and the rest of the world thought—or what she imagined they thought—not just about her physical size but other aspects of her appearance as well. For example, one Sunday morning she woke up with a large pimple on her chin. "I can't possibly go to church!" she cried. "Everyone will notice how ugly I look."
As Sabrina's body changed, she closed her bedroom door, resisted spending time with the family, and became more argumentative. Within a two-day period, Sabrina and her mother squabbled over Sabrina's messy room ("Mom, it's my room. You don't have to live in it!") and her clothing purchases ("Sabrina, if you buy it, then wear it. Otherwise, you're wasting money!"). And Sabrina resisted the family's regular weekend visit to Aunt Gina's ("Why do I have to go every week?"). At church youth group on Sunday evenings, Sabrina broke away from Joyce and spent time with the eighth-grade girls, around whom she didn't feel so large and awkward.
Shortly after Sabrina turned 12, her older brother Louis had some friends over for a party. Sabrina joined the gathering as Louis put on a CD and dimmed the lights. Fifteen-year-old Fred took Sabrina's hand and led her to the middle of the room, where couples were dancing. He put his arm around her waist, drew her close, and began to sway to the slow beat of a romantic tune. Sabrina, exhilarated by Fred's attentions, didn't know quite what to say to him. In between songs, she simply responded to his questions about her favorite music and movies and accepted yet another invitation to dance. At the end of the evening, Fred bent over, kissed Sabrina, and whispered, "Thanks, it was fun." Sabrina looked away coyly, blushing in response to her first kiss.
The following week, Louis bounded into the house after school to find Sabrina sitting at the kitchen table in front of her math book, writing Fred's name over and over on a notepad and looking dreamily out the window. "Hey, Sabrina, Fred mentioned he was gonna call and ask you to the movies, so I broke the news. I told him you're only 12. He said, 'She sure doesn't look that young, but no way I'm going out with a kid!"
"Louis, why'd you tell him? You just ruined my first date!" Sabrina cried, running out of the kitchen, flinging herself on the livingroom sofa, and burying her head in a pillow. Franca heard the commotion and came in. Sabrina lifted her head and looked at her mother, tears filling her eyes.
"Sabrina, you know we wouldn't have allowed you to go out with an older boy," Franca explained gently. "After you start junior high next month, there'll be plenty of dances where you can meet boys your own age."
"Mom, you don't understand. You don't know what its like to be in love!" Sabrina snapped as she got up from the sofa, ran to her room, and slammed the door behind her.
Once every 2 weeks, parents gathered at Sabrina's school for discussions about child-rearing concerns. Franca and Antonio came whenever they could. "All our children were early developers," Franca said to the group one evening. "The three boys, too, were tall by age 12 or 13, but it was easier for them. They felt big and important. Sabrina is moody and doesn't want to be with her old friends. She was skinny as a little girl, but now she says she's too fat and wants to diet. She thinks about boys and doesn't concentrate on her studies. I try to be patient and listen to her," reflected Franca sympathetically. "It's not so easy for her to adjust."
As Sabrina entered seventh grade, she encountered additional challenges. She left a small, intimate, self-contained sixth-grade classroom for a much larger, impersonal school. "I don't know most of the kids in my classes," Sabrina complained to her mother at the end of the first week. "Besides, there's just too much homework. I get assignments in all my classes at once. I can't do all this!" she shouted, bursting into tears.
"Sabrina, let's see if we can think of some ways to make it easier," Franca offered. "How about a schedule book so you know what to organize for each class the night before?" When the first entries in the book had been made, Sabrina began to relax. She saw that homework in her classes alternated, with three teachers making assignments on one day and three on the next. The school had made this concession to help seventh graders adapt to new academic demands.
But in other ways, Sabrina felt distanced from her new school environment; her sense of self-confidence as a student and her grades declined. In sixth grade, she'd been able to sit where she wanted in class and in the cafeteria—next to her friends. In junior high, her teachers told her where to sit, and she had to pick a cafeteria seat by the end of the second week, which would be her assigned place for the remainder of the year. There were lots of teacher-set rules, but—as Sabrina said to Joyce one day—"We've got no say in them. And they're unfair! I have to get my books after P.E. and go all the way to the other end of the school for math in 7 minutes. If I'm 2 seconds late, I get a detention!"
In social studies class, Sabrina's teacher lectured, showed films, and gave the pupils frequent quizzes to make sure they had memorized important names, dates, and events. Sabrina daydreamed through much of the hour and did mediocre work. In contrast, Mr. Bean, her science teacher, instituted a self-paced, cooperative learning system in which groups of students chose from an array of experiments, carried them out under the teacher's guidance, wrote up lab reports, and presented their findings to the class. Sabrina was attentive, involved, and felt a special sense of rapport with Mr. Bean, which motivated her to do her best work.
Still, overall Sabrina seemed less enthusiastic about school than she had been during her elementary school years. As she sought out older peers who were similar to herself in physical maturity, Franca and Antonio worried that her new friends might influence her in unfavorable ways, so they imposed firm restrictions on where she went and when she had to be home.
"No one else has to come home by 10 on weekends. Why do I have to?" Sabrina complained bitterly to Franca.
"Because you are 12 and they are 13 and 14. When you show me you can take care of your responsibilities and keep up your grades, then we'll talk about the privilege of staying out with friends."
Four years later, Franca and Antonio sat down in the livingroom after Sabrina left with her date for the high school prom. "Antonio, Sabrina has a nice boyfriend," said Franca. "He's a good student, very polite and responsible. And Sabrina is doing better in her classes. Remember how tough it was when she was in junior high? I thought I'd never have a warm and loving relationship with my daughter again!"