Little known fact: I almost flunked out of eighth grade.
Mind you, this was not like the time I deliberately flunked Music Appreciation in college. That was a matter of principal. I refused to have my musical comprehension assessed by someone who disputed the impact of The Beatles. So I attended every inane lecture and when it came time for exams, stared at my instructor for one hour before handing in a completely blank sheet of paper. Sure, that resulting F made the difference between graduating Summa and Magna Cum Laude, but I wore it with pride.
Of course, graduating with honors means about as much as a high Better Business Bureau rating. It looks nice, but does anyone really care? Missing the GPA required to matriculate to high school has far more significant consequences.
Which I knew, even then. Half of my eighth grade career was spent in terror of being forced to relive the nightmare of middle school, and I’d all but blocked the memory until recently.
Memory recall is an interesting side effect of step-parenthood. My step daughter will discuss her life and I’ll have to choke back four hours-worth of “When I was your age,” anecdotes that would instantly annul my standing as “cool” and reduce me to “lame.” I get it; lord knows the only stories I wanted to hear from my parents as a kid were the ones that involved larceny, pyromania, or general mayhem. The empathetic, “I was there, too,” stories only induced eye rolling. How in the world could someone that old know understand my plight?
What I didn’t realize then, and what most teens still don’t appreciate is that despite age and beyond all technology, some things don’t change.
Like smells. Schools retain scent much the same way as hospitals. Fear, sweat, disinfectant, and, in the case of high school, cherry flavored lip gloss, meld into a noxious sort of soup that lasts indefinitely. It wrapped itself around me the first time I walked into my step daughter’s high school, a scent so familiar my guard instantly went up.
With the nondescript hallways, rows of lockers lining the walls, and trophies gleaming behind glass cases, I may as well have been back in my own middle school. The one distinction: A group of student-made posters to raise awareness of National Bullying Prevention Month.
The fact that teens need to be reminded to not be jerks seems like a losing battle, although the sentiment is nice. “Bully,” to my knowledge, is a word that has only recently been redefined to mean more than a boy stealing someone’s lunch on the playground. There are fancy terms used in relation to it now, “imbalance of power” among the more absurd. Still, the newfound attention to bullying is reassuring, partly because it is a wide spread issue, but mostly because it was bullying that nearly caused me to flunk eighth grade.
Her oily, cherry gloss-stained lips always caught the light as she walked the hallway. If she’d get close enough, you’d swear you could see your reflection. But she rarely stopped, she only paused long enough to lean over and say one word to me, loudly.
Was I? Not really. I was more Molly Ringwald and less Tawny Kittean then, a deceptively reserved 14 year-old who still hadn’t quite made the swap for Aerosmith over Huey Lewis. Not that it mattered. My preference was to hang out with boys, several of whom were already freshman. And even if all I ever did with those boys was watch horror movies and ride bikes to the local Baker’s Square, in the unjust world of girls, that’s more than enough to stand out in a crowd of burgeoning hormones.
Jealously was the explanation my parents gave when I complained at the start of the name-calling. And it could have been correct, at least in that my cherry-lipped nemesis had a crush on a boy I was friends with. Judy Blume’s book Blubber offered little better insight, other than the hint that girls are inexplicably vicious, and that I’d already figured out.
They work swiftly and with an odd glee that borders on sociopathic. Some doctors theorize that the chemical imbalance of hormones quite literally makes teenagers crazy. This rings more true to me than the suggestion that teens can be reasoned with via logic and discussion.
No amount of discussion would have swayed my mob. As their numbers increased, so did the amount of name calling. And when they got bored with that, they crammed nasty notes in my locker, crafted outrageous rumors, and destroyed my friendships.
Gym class always seemed to be when their shrieking cruelty would reach a crescendo. True, I was an utter spaz when it came to athletics. This made little sense to me: In ballet I could coordinate pirouettes and arabesques en pointe, but put me in a volleyball match and even the special ed kids snickered at my folly.
So many volleyballs were hurled at my face that year it’s astounding my nose is still intact. And in a weird sort of way, I understood. I didn’t like ruining games any more than the girls did losing them. What I didn’t understand was why it didn’t matter when I did well.
One game, I dove for the ball and surprisingly made the shot, leading my team to a win. It was a rare move for me, one fuelled by a sudden overwhelming desire to prove myself. Too many games had gone by where I ducked and dodged; I needed something, anything to feel like less of an incompetent freak. But as I looked up to my team, expecting the cheering normally heard upon winning, I only heard silence.
As they filed out of the gym, cherry lips looked down at me. “I guess you’re pretty good on your knees, huh?”
I decided then that I would not go back to gym. And when my one remaining friend, a gentle boy who surprised no one three years later by coming out of the closet, told me we couldn’t be friends anymore because his mom heard I was a bad influence, I stopped going to lunch, algebra, and social studies, too.
Ditching class was easier than it should have been. I forged a note from my physician stating I tore a ligament in ballet and needed to be excused from afternoon classes indefinitely for physical therapy. For the rest of the semester I limped around the school like a troll. It sparked a great deal of speculation on how I had “really” injured myself, but by then I didn’t care. The limp gave me a way to act injured without admitting to my real hurt.
Schools were far more lax on truancy then, and had I actually completed any of my assignments, I may have avoided the letter home to inform my parents that I was in danger of being held back. As it was, I lacked any energy other than what it took to wake up in the morning. Schoolwork lost all importance in my world when it was all I could do to face my classmates every day.
My parents had suspected something was wrong for a while; the letter just brought their fears and my struggles into vivid light. One school conference and a trash can full of tear soaked tissues later and everything was in the open. It was a terrifying relief to share my five month mean girl nightmare: I was glad to not be alone in it anymore, but panicked to think of what would happen next.
It had occurred to me many times to come clean – to my parents, to a teacher, to anyone who might listen. A confused sort of pride kept me quiet. Why perpetuate my own rumors when I could contain them in a place my parents had no place in? That my life at home was so removed from school allowed me a place of peace, though it really should have made me realize that the two did not have to be so distinct.
I can still hear my loving parents laying the groundwork for future bullying prevention amendments to the school handbook. They flung allegations of “harassment” and “hostile environment” around before they were trendy and swiftly forced the school to not only allow me extensions on all my classwork – thus ensuring I would graduate on time – but also to address my tormentors.
There were enough short-term suspensions and detentions handed out to shock my entire class into silence. I never heard another horrid word uttered from anyone that year, and gradually resumed a few of my abandoned friendships.
Not long after her suspension ended, cherry lips approached me after school. I half expected her to wrench my ponytail in her fist and drag me to the ground in battle, but she only looked at me, coolly.
You know, she had said, we should really hang out some time.
Of everything she could have said, that was the last thing I expected to hear. It wasn’t an apology, not that I expected that either. It was an assumption that everything was just fine and that I actually wanted to be her friend.
I shook my head.
She persisted, preening in the sunlight, and asked why in the world I didn’t want to hook up.
I inhaled. “Because you are a creep,” I said. “Just go away.”
It wasn’t my best line, and to this day I wish I had done something more dramatic – a solid foot stomp at least, but it was a step toward regaining my sense of self, and that felt really good.
Standing in the hallway of my step daughter’s high school was the first I thought of her in more than 20 years. So many people come and go throughout life that many are easy to forget. She was one of the few who are hard to remember, but so rewarding to let go.