How Junior High Almost Crushed Me

You can survive growing up different in a small town, but you have to find your tribe. This was something I didn’t know until I was grown up.  It would have changed everything about my junior high school years.

Instead I did it all alone. At home, even when my mom implored me to share why I dreaded school so much, at my most honest moment, I could only say, “The kids all call me fag.”  What I would say now is, “I’m gay and the kids are hateful about it.”

But the reason I couldn’t say it the honest way was because I had already picked up on the fact that being gay was undesirable at home and at school. Everywhere. When I told my mom what the kids were saying, she said, “Well, you aren’t, are you?”

I knew the answer she wanted and I said it. “Of course not.”

I’m sure I looked at the floor when I said it because I’ve never been comfortable lying.

In sixth grade I ditched school by hiding in the pines halfway down our driveway on the way to the bus. I would stay in the woods all day and come out when the bus returned to drop off the neighbor kids. Instead my brother-in-law spotted me sneaking across the lawn to another part of the farm and he and my mom slowly hounded me through the woods, cutting me off eventually like prey, and they drove me into school.

I was absent from school so often, eventually my mom and the principal had an understanding: he would drive out and pick me up himself.  She used to threaten that social services would take me away from her for being an unfit mother.  I had played sick so much the last year or two, she knew all my tricks, even the one about putting soap in my eye to pretend I had an infection.

In the car ride with my principal, he’d ask me if I didn’t like learning. I could only fixate on the fear of being teased and ridiculed; learning was somehow secondary to feeling safe.

So by seventh grade I knew I had no more passes left. The principal of the junior high was a different person altogether; not only did she not have Dr. Blanton’s worry-creased brow and pitying southern drawl, she was too busy herding the monsters that are middle schoolers to make car trips for one kid who refused to get on the bus.

If I were to survive seventh grade, I would have to be as invisible as possible, avoiding anyone who might hurt me.  That meant not going into the cafeteria, where I feared that the gathered masses would introduce me to a replay of what I experienced each morning when we assembled in the gym after getting off the buses and before homeroom. Every day as I walked along the bleachers, a silence would fall among just enough of my peers that I noticed it. It was followed by whispers and snickers. Sometimes one word would rise above the murmurs: “Queer.”

I couldn’t avoid morning assembly, but I had found a way to dodge the repeat airing of it at lunchtime. As we left Mrs. Bardwell’s class each day to head to the cafeteria, I would let myself fall to the back of the line.  When we rounded the first corner, I ducked into the bathroom and waited until the halls grew silent again. Then I pushed through the outside door and squat-walked along the side of the building to the windows of our class room. I always made sure one was unlocked before we went to lunch.  I would push it open and climb in, waiting in the silent comfort of the classroom where only moments before I had dreaded being called on by the teacher. If I was called on, it meant hearing the giggles, the ones that meant at least two people were sharing the joke about me. The same joke about me that brought the chatter of morning assembly to a halt.

So I kept my head down in class, avoided raising my hand even when I knew the answer. If I could make myself invisible, I could avoid the pain of being ridiculed.

In the half hour that I spent alone in the classroom, I felt at peace and I wished it could go on and on forever. Hearing the lunch bell brought a knot of pain to my stomach because I knew my sanctuary time was up. So in reverse I repeated the steps that had brought me there: shimmied out the window, slithered along the side of the building, pushed back into the hall, ducked into the bathroom, fell back into line as my classmates dashed past.

I hid in the bathroom in fourth period. The kids in that class seemed especially hard around the edges.  And despite the attempts of a few sympathetic family members to convince me that most of it was in my head, I knew that I wasn’t imagining how much contempt my classmates had for me.

It was confirmed one Monday morning when the whispering about me didn’t end with morning assembly, but followed me down the hall to my locker, which it normally did not, since the other kids started thinking about homework to be turned in and finding their buddies before classes. This day the whispering was still going on after first and second and third period. Finally I found out why.

Someone had dedicated a song to me the night before on the local radio station. It was Aerosmith’s Dude Looks Like A Lady.  At fourteen I was plump, wore my hair in a luxuriant brunette mullet, and had porcelain skin that I would kill for now. Maybe I did look more like a girl than a boy, but I knew the song was about more than that. Someone in my class wanted to put it out there so their friends could hear it and laugh in appreciation.  The joke about what a fag I was should be shared with the world outside of school.

Now I realize a different kind of kid would put a pithy, Rupaul-inspired spin on the whole situation. They would decide their foe had instead made them famous. Maybe what I needed more than anything was more fearless drag queens on TV.  I think my whole generation would have benefited.

I can almost relive the rise in my blood pressure that happened when I was told about the song on the radio.  It wasn’t anger. It was fear. Whether it was genetic or just a learned response, by this age I was strictly a flight strategist. Fighting was not my norm. So I hid the rest of the day in the bathrooms, roaming from one to another only when classes were in session. I ducked as I went past each door so I wouldn’t be spotted.

I luckily didn’t learn to loathe myself because of how I was treated, but it did make me loathe society for many years.  It took a long time to learn how to move through the world with an open mind toward others. One thing that I am always thankful for is that I have a lot of compassion for underdogs, for people who are misrepresented or even ignored. It is part of why I care so much about how our society treats people based on ethnicity, cultural and religious origin, gender, sexuality, age, size, income.  I know how feeling unsafe turns everyday life into a precarious obstacle course. How it twists you up inside.

If I could parent myself through the whole thing now, I would make sure it turned out differently. No one should be made to feel like hiding is the option, like being invisible is preferable to finding your light and place. And perhaps I could have gotten to myself at the perfect moment when my future empathy would be assured, but before I learned to be quite as cynical as I became. Probably I would even leave that alone, because I grew out of it eventually.

The one thing I know I would do to help myself is that I wouldn’t try to convince myself not to worry about what was happening to me. Every grown up tried to take that course, from my parents to the shrinks they sent me to. “Don’t worry about what other people think of you.”

That would be the saddest coffee mug quote in the world and it didn’t do much to comfort me.

What I would say is, “You’re right to let this bother you so much. You want to be liked and instead you feel loathed.” Then I would explain that having the whole world love you is impossible and not even the goal.  You just need a small but meaningful tribe.

It starts with taking the time to notice the other kids being picked on. I know I wasn’t alone.  There were kids who were teased because their clothes were ragged. There were kids who were tripped and knocked down because they had a speech impediment.  I would tell my fourteen year old self to give the other beaten up and spit on kids a smile when I got to assembly in the morning. Eventually, I would say, you can choose to sit next to one of them and ask them their name. Then you might find them in the cafeteria and sit with them.

Friends matter because there is safety in numbers.  A group that is made up of people who have been shaped by rejection may be the strongest, because they value what it means to find inclusion after feeling adrift and alone.  If the world had more tribes made of people who were vastly different except that they shared only the desire to protect and encourage each other to personal happiness, we would perhaps divide ourselves less by race and creed and more by the contents of our hearts.  It would have saved me a lot of pain in junior high and it would certainly heal so much of what ails the world today.

 

The May Day Knot

Tiger walked home from school, a knot in his gut he hoped a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would ease.  The knot had nothing to do with hunger, but he’d found that almost anything between two pieces of white bread made the worry a bit smaller.  In the slanting light, his shadow trudged beside him, long and thin when they walked beside parking lots; short, fat, and folded when they passed in front of stores and houses.  He could see lots of things in his shadow: the bulging wood buttons on his coat; the fuzzy edge of his boots where they met his pants; the fringes of his scarf that fluttered with the breeze and his movement.  He tried to see the outline of his face in profile – the shape of his nose, the full lips the girls all envied – but when he turned to try to catch it, the shadow turned, too.  He was left staring at the outline of his ear, with the bulky fold of his cap just above it.

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It was too warm for the coat and the hat, he’d argued that morning with Grangie, but his granny always got her way.  If she planted her feet and reared back her head, it didn’t matter what came out of her mouth after that.  She was the boss.  As he went back to his room to grab the coat, he’d mumbled something about the flowers in the yard.

“I hear you, smart ass,” Grangie said.  “But it’s gonna rain today and bring in a cold front, the weather man say.  First of May don’t mean jack.”

“It means May Day,” he said, tucking a grin into the coat.

She shook her head at him, but smiling.  “Well, it won’t kill you to carry it over your arm if I’m wrong, Tiger man.”

“Other kids don’t have to wear coats now.”

“Right. Cause other kids come from trash.  They’ll be out at the emergency room or whatever, waiting three hours to have someone tell them they got pneumonia.”

He thought about what Grangie said as he came to the community center.  She’d been right about the rain and the chill.  The pavement was dry now, but only on account of the cold breeze.  He dug his hands into the pockets of the coat and the left one found the shape of something in a wrapper.  He pulled it out with a smile, a pack of Reese cups from Easter time.  He wondered if Grangie put it there for him.  She might have done.

Looking over his shoulder, he decided to sit for a minute and eat the candy by himself.  He climbed the steps of the old community center and found a dry spot at the front door.  There was a cover over head, a kind of porch roof, but it didn’t have any posts.  It just sort of reached up heavenward, like it was always looking for bad weather.  It was like Grangie, never letting the other shoe fall, always holding out a hand to catch it by the laces in the nick of time.

The paint on the center was new and old ladies like his grandma were proud of how it looked.  They always brought it up in the line at the grocery store.  Didn’t the green on the windows come out nice?  Made the place look kind of summery.  Thank you, Mr. Kennedy, they said, leaning in to share a laugh that Tiger didn’t understand.  Grangie and her friends seemed to know another language.  It used most of the words he already knew, but they put them together differently.  Sometimes they stopped talking all together when a kid came into the room.  Or else they started down one road with their words, then paused, giving each other a look.  Whatever else they were going to say was routed to their eyes.  The others would press their lips together and nod.

“Mmm-hmm,” they’d say.  Or, “Well, I told her that would happen.”

Sometimes, “But ain’t that always the way it goes?”

He liked being with Grangie’s ladies sometimes.  They didn’t seem to mind him lingering in the room.  Without missing a beat, they switched to the language of their eyes and half sentences.  Some of them had such big round eyes, when they rolled them, it made Tiger want to laugh.  The biggest, roundest, darkest eyes must have all kinds of funny things to say, he supposed, because the other ladies laughed, too.  He’d stand at Grangie’s side, resting his cheek against her shoulder and listening and not listening.  She might reach across the table, take the lid off the cookie jar and hold one out for him, all without looking at him or breaking the chatter.

If the ladies started to talk about him, it made him happy and worried all at once.

“Angie, ain’t he got your Joe-Joe’s eyes?”

“Little boys are sometimes prettier than the little girls, you know what I’m saying?”

“Look at them lips.  Ruby red.”

“Oh, girl. Now he’s blushing.”

“Preening more like,” Grangie would say. “Now stop fluttering your lashes like a you know what.  Get on out of here, Tiger man. Go play with Teeny’s girls.  They’re out on the porch.  But play nice or I’ll get you.”

Then she’d add a look that sealed the promise.  He’d leave them with heavy feet, dreading playing with the other kids.  He wasn’t like anyone else, he felt too keenly, and it made it hard for him to warm up.  Kids at school said he was a snob.  Or else a sissy.  Two older boys had taken to taunting him in the halls.

“Queer,” they’d whisper as he approached his locker.

They were tall boys, handsome already, dressed better than most.  If there was a new kind of shoes, they were the first to wear them.  Had they lived just one street over, he understood, they’d be going to the big school out near the library.  Instead they went to his school like a handful of other white kids.

One of the boys already had a shadow over his lip where a mustache would want to grow one day.  The other had large hands with broad knuckles that could make a hateful fist, but still they fascinated Tiger.  He didn’t know why yet, but he always noticed those hands, how the fingers were long, how the knuckles were dusted with golden brown hair like a man’s hand.  When he saw the pair of boys coming along the hall toward him, he had two thoughts, one chasing the other: first he thought how good-looking they were, like boys on album covers at the record store; then he remembered anew who they were and what was to come.  Each of the two thoughts left him with the knot in his stomach.  He lowered his eyes and tried to think of other things, hoping they would not notice him.  He longed to be invisible until they parted like the Red Sea and moved around and past him.

Lots of things left him with a knot in his stomach.  He was used to the feeling of one gathering and thickening there, not long after the last one had slipped loose.  His face, one of Grangie’s ladies once said, was a worried face.  “Some children do more than others,” she said, her own old face looking sad and heavy.  She tucked her chin close to her neck, her jowls making her into a kind of hound dog for a moment.

Grangie had given him a long look, then frowned into her coffee.  She slid her flask out from her apron pocket, gave the mug a little pinch of encouragement, and sipped the brew again.  “Well, I try to keep things together, girl, but you know…”

“Mmm-hmm.”

The Reese cups were good.  He pushed out the center with the tip of his finger and ate that first.  It was best to save the thick, chocolate edges for last.  “It’s like they’re little peanut butter pies with chocolate crusts. I love them,” he said softly to himself.  The breeze made the little baby leaves on the trees whisper even as he noticed the sound of a train rumbling through town in the distance.

In a month, they’d be out of school, he thought, letting the chocolate melt between his tongue and the roof of his mouth.  The summer would begin for kids.  Grangie would take him to the community pool, then make him wash with lots of soap when they got back.

“I don’t care what anybody says,” she’d say. “Chlorine or whatever it is don’t make a bit of difference if people be peeing in the water. Don’t you ever let that shit in your mouth, Tiger-man, you hear me?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He liked the water but he always got the knot when he thought about all those other kids there.

“Go find your friends,” Grangie would say, rifling through her bag for something or other.

Tiger didn’t know how to tell her he didn’t really have any.  She’d give him that sad look of hers and it would make him cry.  Before long, she’d be crying, too, and they’d both be what she called a mess. So he’d sidle up near kids he sort of knew from school, standing just to the outside of their circle, miming a quiet laughter as they laughed.  Silent so they wouldn’t mind his intrusion too much; but the look of laughing with them, in case Grangie glanced up from her novel and noticed.

It was hard to imagine the pool days coming so soon, sitting there outside the community center in his coat, the tip of his nose going cold in the chilly wind.  He ate the second Reese cup a little slower, the sugar cheery like sunshine.  When he lifted his hand to take a bite, his shadow did the same, the two of them tucking away the last bites of Easter.