Ninth grade. I was not popular. In fact, I was the opposite of popular. I was the butt of many school jokes. Popular kids plugged their noses when I walked by. They “sprayed” themselves with their finger if I accidentally touched them. I know I didn’t stink, but that didn’t matter. Mostly I walked through the halls of junior high invisibly, and I cultivated this. I went out of my way to avoid detection. I had enough of a temper that if pushed I would strike back, quick and mean, then retreat and hide. Mostly though, I just tried to avoid being noticed. I read books constantly, pretended I was riding my horse through the halls, and tried to operate under their radar. Sometimes though, I failed utterly and completely, in spite of my best efforts.
We all had to take Sex Ed in ninth grade. Good god, what the fuck were the administrators thinking? They so underestimate teenagers. I had a crush on Mike Darby. 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 thirteen, 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 MD” 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 teenage, hormone-addled state, reading something from 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, which I still have, actually. I think they knew that I would win since I spent every free moment in the library.
Anyway, I digress. Back to my lusting after Mike Darby 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 shorn closely like in the military. Unlike some teachers, he was actually pretty kind to me. The head cheerleading coach 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 Dee, who sat behind me, leaned forward in her chair and peered over at me.
An aside about Kelly Dee. 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 Dee 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 Dee 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 Dee 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. Essentially, Kelly Dee had all the makings of a cool person while I had zero. By the end of ninth grade when this incident took place, we were in junior high and I did not exist. Kelly Dee 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 not noticed in the library where I spent all of my time.
I was not happy to have Kelly Dee peering over my shoulder. Kelly Dee 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 MD?” 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 Darby was in that class. If he found out. Oh crap.
“What’s his name? MD. MD. Is it Mike Darby?” 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 Darby. It is not. No.” I stammered, obviously flustered. I must have seemed like a giant bullseye for her pointy cobra fangs.
“It’s Mike Darby isn’t it.” It wasn’t even a question. “You like Mike Darby. 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 Darby. 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 Dee did the unthinkable. She called out to Mike Darby, “Hey Mike. Lara likes you.” Oh my 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 those damn initials on my hand. Mike Darby 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 Dee, Mike Darby 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 Dee 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 Darby 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 of them 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.
I must have lacked some serious capacity to foretell possibilities because it had not been long enough for Mike Darby to clear out of the hallway. He was the only one left, digging through his locker that was just 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.
Junior high is certainly 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 helicopter. I think we all assume that as adults this crap goes away. Unfortunately, that’s wishful thinking. Even if you grow into a swan and develop inner strength and confidence, there are those people who never move past being mean to you.
Lucky for me we moved away from that school after ninth grade, so Kelly and her friends were only able to harass me during those three years of junior high. 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 (not that this is a bad thing). 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 a lot of weight and have lots of kids by the time she was 23. 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 Dee,” like I was retarded or something. Funny. I realize now what she said sounded like Forrest, Forrest Gump. I said hello and turned to continue walking with my mom.
This happened decades ago, but it still follows me around. There is a man I’m interested in. In a recent conversation, after he said something about himself that impressed me to no end, I let my interest be known (at least I think I did). I then began to babble. When I get nervous, I babble, and nothing makes me more nervous than liking someone and thinking I let him know. For hours after being around him, I felt horribly humiliated and embarrassed. What the hell was I thinking? Why did I say that? Why didn’t I just shut up!?!? I berated myself. Random pieces of the conversation kept coming back to me and I wanted to go hide under a rock. I still kinda do…
Today I told my best friend Debbie about this man I like, this conversation, what I said, and how I felt. I told her how utterly and completely stupid I feel every time I think about it, wishing and hoping I had just kept it all to myself, worrying about what he must think of me. She couldn’t believe this was my reaction. I always have this reaction when I am interested in someone and let them know, I told her. She couldn’t understand it. It led me back to remembering Mike Darby and Kelly Dee in Sex Ed class in ninth grade. Oh, the pure, devilish humiliation. It must be the origin stories for the feelings I have experienced for as long as I can remember when liking someone. I know there was a brief period during my sophomoric twenties when it wasn’t like this, but I’m pretty sure that in my twenties I was much cuter than I am now and boys were usually chasing me rather than the other way around. Since I have gotten older and less nubile, I don’t have hoards of men interested in me. Not just no hoards, I have none at all, so it’s usually me lusting in secret hoping to hell I don’t give myself away. I have no fear of public speaking. I can speak in front of crowds of people. Yet let me give it away to a man I might be interested and I’m 13 again, dying inside and praying he didn’t notice.