There are many things to say about my middle school. So many factoids, experiential leavings, tragicomic anecdotes. Like my math teacher, the deaf World War II veteran who made us write lines when he saw our lips moving. Or the English teacher who sent me to the vice-principal’s office for publicly correcting her spelling of “greatful.” Or the rampaging flocks of seagulls that laid siege to the yard during lunchtime (we had no cafeteria), stealing sandwiches from unguarded six graders and shit bombing a student or two per day.
The school was located across the street from a sewage treatment plant. We once had to evacuate because of a chlorine gas leak. It was designed by the same architect who designed San Quentin. The dark tinted windows allowed us to see out, but no one could see in.
My town was a progressive one, even more so in the mid 1980s. Yet I somehow recollect that the majority of our black classmates were in the same homeroom, assigned to a husband-and-wife teaching team who were reputed to be adept at dealing with discipline cases. That nearly monochromatic classroom was flecked with some of our poorer white students and several children with learning disabilities. Presumably a nod to diversity.
I arrived a year late, in seventh grade, as a straight A student. I finished eighth grade by the skin of my teeth. My graduation present was my own phone number with a dedicated landline in my room. When I mentioned to my mother that some of my classmates had received larger remunerative acknowledgements of their matriculation, she looked at me and said incredulously, “For graduating from eighth grade? What other choice did you have?” A fair point, I had to admit even then.
As a newcomer, I had an eagle-eyed perspective on the pecking order of the schoolyard. I could see that by seventh grade, cliques had already formed. Reputations had crystallized. The pretty girls had been identified. The slutty ones had been branded. The cool boys had been crowned. The nerdy ones had been isolated like a collection of Patient Zeros. As a fresh face, I was a curiosity. The jocky guys knew me from little league, which opened the door to the in-crowd. The girls asked probing questions like What’s your name? or Are you going with anyone? I fielded the queries the aplomb of a blind trapeze artist, clinging to the bar for dear life until my audience grew tired of watching and left.
I recall the kind and comely Devon McDevitt asking me on day two, “So where did you go to school before this?”
“Why do you ask?” I answered with the grace and confidence of a possum caught in high beams.
She regarded me blankly for a moment, as if she’d offered food to a starving man only to have him pee on it. Then she rolled her powder blue eyes before turning huffily away, never to speak to me again.
Improbably, one girl decided to like me. This fact alone earns her anonymity here. She had a puppyish crush on me and routinely followed me home after school. But she had already been identified as uncool. Plain at best. Ugly at worst. Her retainer caused her to lisp painfully. What little chance I had of kissing a better girl would be lost if I so much as responded to the notes she passed me in class. I cruelly avoided her at all costs.
One day, after school, I was shooting baskets in the street with my mother’s boyfriend. The girl passed by the intersection a half a block away. She waved at us hopefully.
“Is that her?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I mumbled, looking away from both of them.
He rolled the ball down the street.
“What are you doing?” I yelled.
The ball bounced off her shapeless preteen legs and she had no choice but to walk it back up the block.
“Oh my God!” I said, running inside to avoid her stain.
Insecurity can make assholes of us all.
The two of them stood talking in the street. She was confident and friendly. She chatted calmly, seeming indifferent to my reemergence. Viewed through the window, she gained humanity. But the barrier added nothing to me. I remained inside with my twin companions; cowardice and judgment.
Eventually, she gave up or lost interest. I waited until she turned the corner before returning to the street.
“I don’t get it. She seems nice and she’s pretty,” my mother’s boyfriend said.
“Whatever. She’s lame,” I said. Accepting his opinion would mean acknowledging the arbitrary falseness of my own.
A few weeks ago, while rummaging through boxes in the garage, I unearthed my middle school yearbook. I’d forgotten that I’d saved it.
I opened it. Each page untold a lie.
Devon McDevitt was more ordinary than comely. The geeky boys were no less acne-ridden than the most popular jocks. In fact, every face that I’d once worshiped now appeared indistinguishable from the ones that I’d regarded as cursed or afflicted.
I came to the photo of the girl who’d returned the basketball. There was an X across her face. I suddenly felt nauseous with guilt. Knots of shame tightened in my stomach. For many years I’ve blamed my middle school misery on my middle school itself. As if the contaminated edifice infected all those who crossed its threshold. There’s a piece of me that holds on to that story, but it is necessarily smaller since coming across my yearbook.
I was tempted to return the yearbook to the dusty box from whence I came, to bury it in top secret storage like the arc of the covenant. But I decided against it. Instead, it now sits on a shelf next to photo albums from high school, college, my wedding, and my children’s earliest days. These albums contain my fondest memories; frozen images of the moments that built my confidence brick by brick in the years that followed my middle school nadir. They do not erase the misery of middle school any more than they absolve me of the sins of adolescence. But they are proof that life got better, and mercifully, so did I.