hicks_marybeth_2"I know what I'll say if anyone asks why I'm not wearing makeup," my daughter says as we pull up to the curb in front of school. "I'll say, 'I have a new haircut and I used whitening strips on my teeth.' "

"Hmmm. Obviously you've thought this through, but do you really think someone will ask?"

"I doubt it," Amy says. "I just want to be ready."

Such are the worries of a seventh-grade girl. Never mind that her eyes can light up a room, sans mascara. The idea that others will be in full face-paint and she will look different for lack of lip gloss obviously haunts her.

Ah, seventh grade. The year I have dubbed, "The line in the sand."

Counting three previous years as a parent and my own harrowing stint as a 12-year-old, this will be my fifth time through this torturous preteen minefield.

Seventh grade -- the year that separates the fast crowd from the late bloomers, the MTV watchers from the Nick at Nite enthusiasts, the Facebookers from the library bookers. In the seventh grade, you discover quickly, if you didn't already know, whether you are cool or uncool and once classified, it's a fact of your young life.

Child development experts say this period of early adolescence is the time when tweens start "individuating."

I haven't noticed that. I think it's the time when kids become sheep, following the flock to Abercrombie & Fitch for skimpy but expensive clothing that makes them look like Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders.

In middle school, cool is so superficial and trite as to be downright boring (ever read a preteen's text messages?). For this reason, at our house we've decided "geeky" is the new cool. This way, we're always cutting edge.

If the burning need to be cool (and thus, popular) were confined to early adolescence, this phase in the life cycle of the person might be amusing. But in America, the quest to be cool now permeates every facet of our culture, from music and art to sports and academia, even to politics and religion. And in America, there's no correlation between what's cool and what's best.

To wit: Our ubercool 44th president, who, while fly fishing last month in Montana, insisted that his river guide call him Barack. After all, he was just a regular guy, doing what regular guys do -- fishing. It was way cooler to be Barack-on-a-day-off-from-the-presidency than to demonstrate the respect for the office that prompts one and all to refer to our presidents as "Mr. President."

Reminds me of the parents who insist that their children's friends call them by their first names on the grounds that its uncool to be "Mr." or "Mrs." Invariably, these are the so-called grown-ups who turn a blind eye to teenage partying and view themselves as responsible adults just because they collect the car keys at the door.

In her seminal book, "The Death of the Grown-Up," author and columnist Diana West says this cultural quest to be cool is rooted in a startling, even dangerous, unwillingness to grow up. As a society, Miss West says, we're in a state of arrested development that already is undermining our way of life. We're a generation of perpetual children who can't say no, can't tell right from wrong, and doesn't want to be confronted with our own societal immaturity.

This may be the last year I endure the trials of the seventh grade, but sadly, the childish desire for constant affirmation and the need to conform for the sake of popularity remain guiding behavioral standards in our culture.

An uncool fact of American life, indeed.

Copyright 2009 Marybeth Hicks