Caveat: I originally posted this with the actual names intact. Turns out enough people find these posts that a person who knew one of the players contacted me, so I have changed the names to make them anonymous. All other facets of the story are my memories and true to the best of my recollection.
I have been thinking a lot today about mean people and the opossum approach and all that and I have concluded that a large bit of preparation for being mean is cultivated during junior high. I certainly got a great deal of practice being victimized by mean people in junior high. I was a target ripe for the pickings. And I most definitely mastered the opossum approach. I could walk through the halls invisibly and when necessary, play dead. I’m not here. Do not notice me. Avoid paying any attention at all costs. Sometimes though, I failed utterly and completely at avoiding notice, in spite of my best efforts.
I remember an incident that took place on one particularly memorable afternoon. It occurred in Sex Ed class, which on some level makes the whole thing much more vivid. I had a crush on Mike Jones. Mike was lanky and horse-faced, with tousley brown hair, but I thought he was adorable. Mike was popular. He was on the football team. Everyone knew who he was. He did not know who I was. I would fantasize that he would say hello to me. That was how silly and naive I was. I did not even consider hand-holding or kissing. At age twelve, such conjectures were well without my realm of possibility. No. Saying hello was about as brave as I could get. Because of my crush, I wrote “I like MJ” on my palm. Why did I do that? Did some little part of me hope he would notice and fall instantly in love with me at the sight of his initials inscribed on my hand? Was I a fool? Come to think of it, I doubt I thought much of anything. I probably sat there in my preteen, hormone-addled state, reading something in the library. I read a lot in the library. In fact, I took pride in the fact that I had read every book in the junior high library by the end of eighth grade. I also won the library’s “Ghastly Riddle Contest” at Halloween. It was a sort of treasure hunt through haunted books whereby clues were given in the form of quotes. You went to the quote and it would lead you to another clue. It required some knowledge of the books involved to locate the original quotes. A weekly clue would be handed out to help you when you were stumped. I won a nice set of horse books. I think they knew that I would win since I doubt anyone else tried. Few people would have been geeky enough to play at a contest like that and I was too clueless to know it was geeky.
Anyway, I digress. Back to my lusting after Mike Jones by hoping he would say hello. I had taken the liberty of professing my love via ball point pen. I sat, hiding, in the far row of Sex Ed class. I do not recall the name of the teacher, but I remember what he looked like. He was one of the coaches. He was tall and stocky, with blonde hair cut in a bowl style. Unlike some teachers, he was actually pretty kind to me. The head cheerleading coach, for instance, acted like I was a virus she might catch if I asked her something about the pre-algebra that she taught. But Mr. Sex Ed was pleasant enough.
There I sat in Mr. Sex Ed’s class. It was a sunny afternoon and I remember sitting and staring lazily into the sunbeams. I had done the reading. Mr. Sex Ed was dozing up front. Most of the class was chatting and passing notes back and forth. Suddenly, Kelly Smith, who sat behind me, leaned forward in her chair and asked me a question.
An aside about Kelly Smith. When my parents chose to move our family to “the country” because that is where I thought I wanted to live in order to have a horse, I was in the sixth grade. The little school in our town had one grade per class and each class had about twelve students. Kelly Smith was in my class. She immediately befriended me and nearly as immediately dumped me when she discovered that I did not smoke, drink, or swear, and that I rode horses and read books. She had perfectly feathered blonde hair. I did not have perfectly feathered blonde hair. Mine curled in all the wrong places and my mom cut it for me. How humiliating. Kelly Smith wore San Franciscos and Sticky Fingers and had several colors of Nike swish shoes. I had one pair of Sticky Fingers, no San Franciscos, and no Nike swish shoes. I wore Keds and Keds were not popular. Kelly Smith knew that one was supposed to carry a large comb in one’s back pocket. Until meeting her, I was not privy to such inside information. In short, Kelly Smith had all the makings of a cool person while I had zero. By the end of seventh grade, when this incident took place, we were in junior high and I was a persona non grata. Kelly Smith was a cheerleader. She still had perfectly feathered hair. Mine still curled in the wrong places. I think I may have finally acquired a pair of Nike swish shoes and a comb, but they were clearly out of place in the library.
I was not happy to have Kelly Smith peering over my shoulder. Kelly Smith did not involve herself with me except to make my life miserable. She had completely mastered the pretend to be friendly and suck me in while simultaneously concocting some nasty evil plot approach. She would say something that seemed kind. Weaving back and forth, back and forth, hypnotizing me, I would respond to the false kindness, believing for a moment that she might actually be friendly, whereupon she would suddenly expose her true nature, losing the lovely exterior, spitting in my eyes and becoming the cobra she truly was. Once she put gum in my hair without my notice. Usually she would say something really ugly and make her friends laugh. “Do you use butter grease to style your hair?” she would sneer. Her friends would erupt in laughter. Ha ha. Real funny. You’re so clever, why don’t you hit the comedy circuit?
Back in Sex Ed, she wanted to know, “Who is MJ?” Uh oh. Uh oh. Uh oh. Fuck.
“Nobody you know.” My heart was pounding. Why couldn’t she just go away? Why did she have to torture me? Was I really such an obvious target? Apparently so because she did not go away. “So who is it?”
“No one you know. Someone from another school.” God, please don’t let her know. Mike Jones was in that class. If he found out. Oh crap.
“What’s his name? Is it Mike Jones?” What the….? How in the hell had she nailed that on the first try? Maybe she saw my hand and worked it out before saying anything.
“No. No, it’s not Mike Jones. It is not. No.” I stammered, obviously flustered. I must have seemed like a giant bullseye for her pointy cobra fangs.
“It’s Mike Jones, isn’t it.” It wasn’t even a question. “You like Mike Jones. Wow.” She turned and told her friend, another Kelly who must not have been so evil because I do not remember her last name. “She likes Mike Jones. Can you believe it?” Kelly could not believe it. In fact, she was so shocked that she had to share it with the girl next to her.
Then Kelly Smith did the unthinkable. She called out to Mike Jones, “Hey Mike. Lara likes you.” Oh dear God. Please kill me now. I should be punished for having written those damn initials on my hand. Actually, I was being punished for having written them on my hand. Mike turned and looked over in our direction. He may have been looking at me. I don’t know. I was staring at my desk and begging the gods to reach down and suck me from my chair. Anything, anything but this.
“Is this bad news true?” he asked. All the kids who had been paying attention laughed.
My pain was complete. Not only had I been fully humiliated by darling Kelly Smith, Mike Jones saw my liking him as bad news and he wasn’t afraid to say so. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I suffered through the remainder of the class, wishing I could disappear. Having ensured she had gotten a good and deep bite right into the side of my head, Kelly Smith was no longer interested in torturing me. She moved on to discussions of cheerleading routines and hairdos. My face burned and the room swam. I pretended to read my Sex Ed book. At least I could say the bad news was no longer true. I no longer liked Mike Jones and could not wait for class to end so I could go and wash my hand.
Once the bell rang, I shuffled through my belongings to take as long as possible to leave class and ensure I did not have to rise and move with the other students. After every one was gone I sat for a few more seconds. Alone in the room, I took a deep breath. It seemed like it had been long enough for the lot of them to clear out of the hallway.
You know, I must have lacked some serious capacity to foretell possibilities because it had not been long enough for Mike Jones to clear out of the hallway. He was the only one left, digging through his locker that was nearly across the hall from the Sex Ed classroom. Mine was down past his, requiring that I pass him, completely humiliated. Thankfully, he did not look up as I shuffled quickly by. Perhaps part of his dismay at my liking him had been for show. Certainly his reaction had been. At least he left me alone. I went to my locker, deposited my books, and took the long way around to P.E. class because the direct route would have taken me past his locker again, and there was no way I was going there.
Yes, junior high is definitely a breeding ground for mean people. Volumes have been written on the subject. Millions have been made in movies about the outcasts being tortured. Pleasure is taken in the geek who grows up and shows up to the high school reunion in a heliocopter. I think we all assume that as adults this crap goes away. Unfortunately, that’s wishful thinking. Even when you grow into a swan and develop inner strength and confidence, there are those people who never move past being mean to you.
Luckily for me, we had moved away from that school after ninth grade, so Kelly and her friends were only able to harass me for three years. I heard that she got pregnant her senior year in high school. A few years after graduation, I saw her at a discount store. She was extremely heavy and was dragging around four ruffian-looking children. A friend of mine who had finished school with her said they all had different fathers. I remembered her bragging in eighth grade about drinking and having sex. Maybe whatever made her so damn mean was also what made her gain weight and have lots of kids by different dads by the time she was 25. She’d clearly hit her prime in junior high. She was still mean though. At the store, she came up to me and sneered, “You think you’re really hot now, don’t you, Lara?”
I remember looking at her, not knowing who she was because she looked so wretched and different. When it was obvious I hadn’t a clue about her identity, she said, “I’m Kelly, Kelly Smith,” like I was retarded or something. Funny. I realize now she sounded something like Forrest, Forrest Gump. I said hello and turned to continue walking with my mom. Thankfully, when it came to girls from junior high, I didn’t have to pretend I was dead any more.
What a poignant and accurate recall of junior high years. I’ve always thought that junior high and high school students are some of the most vicious creatures in the human race. Though lately, I’m thinking it is starting even earlier. My Kelly Smith was a sweaty boy named Sean Powell, his friends called him “Spanky.” He sat right behind me in Driver’s Ed and on one occasion he said something particularly hurtful, loud so everyone could hear. I still remember the exact words and the peals of laughter that rolled through the class, but the thing that disturbs me more than anything to this day, is the instructor heard it all and looked right at me as this occured and he did nothing. Nothing. Talk about feeling alone. I didn’t get to have the delicious closure that you did with Kelly (Karma, isn’t it?) – that was so rich! But I did develop that opposum approach as you call it. Look preoccupied, don’t look at anyone in the eyes, walk fast. It’s pretty effective and is my number one defensive strategy. I wonder if Karma has dealt Spanky what he was due? Many thanks for your words of wisdom!