The Road to Hell (Leads through the Eighth Grade Lunchroom)

“The seventh and eighth grades were for me, and for every good and interesting person I’ve ever known, what the writers of the Bible meant when they used the words hell and the pit.” –Anne Lamott

For a long time, whenever I thought back on middle and high school, I would fixate on the wrongs that other people did to me.  Specifically, there was that first month or so of eighth grade, when my parents decided to move me to a private school about thirty miles away.  All the students there looked like they had just walked off the pages of Seventeen Magazine.  I very quickly discovered, much to my surprise, that I was weird and geeky and awkward.  Most people just avoided me altogether, which made for some lonely lunches, but one kid, let’s call him Howie, decided that I needed more explicit instruction in just how weird and uncool I was.  So I hit him.  Specifically, I think I grabbed him by the shoulder and told him to “Die!”

Oddly, I don’t really regret doing that.  It was definitely what my friend Mai would call a “not-so-shining-moment.”  But he left me alone after that.  And after a while people even started asking me to join them at lunch (years later, I found out, to my considerable horror, that my mom had talked to the P.E. coach about how miserable I was, and he had basically ordered the class to be nice to me).  In any case, I learned to try to blend in with the scenery, and in time I made some really good friends, especially Mert and Mai.

As adolescent horror stories go, mine was relatively mild, but that first month or so of eighth grade did change me.  I learned to keep my head down, and not to raise my hand in class, quite a change from the cocky know-it-all I was before.  I like to think that it also made me into a kinder person, because, while my bitterness over my treatment by a couple of bullies has faded over the years, I still cringe when I think about awful things I did to other people.  Like the time in seventh grade, when I cruelly rejected a boy who asked me to the seventh grade dance, just because I wasn’t into boys yet (Judging from my high school notebooks full of lonely, loveless, self-pitying poetry, karma really came back to haunt me for that one).

Much as I hate thinking about my “not-so-shining-moments,” I did learn from them.  And really, when I was growing up, in the days before Columbine, cyberbullying and the It Gets Better Project, there wasn’t much emphasis on bullying, the dangers of being outcast, or social skills in general. I can’t help but wonder if my son’s generation will be any different.   They have been warned and lectured about bullying and kindness since preschool.  Even the kind of psychological warfare that was part of every girl’s arsenal growing up (“I won’t be your friend unless you give me your new eraser”) has been correctly identified as bullying.  Kids my son’s age are more shocked by the word “stupid” than by any of the so-called “bad words” that I knew, but didn’t dare say, as a kid.  They’re even shocked to hear that word in reference to inanimate objects, as if calling the laptop or the toaster “stupid” might leave it with permanent self-esteem issues.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if I could meet all the kids from my middle school years for the first time, without any of the emotional baggage of the things we did to each other, intentionally or carelessly, before we knew any better.  Would I be friends with some of the people I hated?  Would I find out that we all (even Howie!) had our demons and fears that we were trying to keep in check?

What would it have been like if we could have gone through those years knowing how to treat each other more compassionately? Would someone have kindly showed me how to do something (anything really) with my impossible hair, or suggested that I might not want to wear the green suede boots with the long purple cape?


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jonathan Strickland
    Jul 27, 2011 @ 15:00:28

    This is why I consider both of us to be unbelievably fortunate in that we got to attend the Governor’s Honors Program way back when. We weren’t accepted despite our eccentricities, we were loved because of them. I don’t think it’s fair to say we were all outcasts — I never considered myself an outcast so much as just a doofus (a badge I still wear with honor) — but I think most of us had experienced feeling a bit left out and/or bullied at one time or another. We were all plunged into a program that celebrated us and encouraged us. The overwhelming majority of folks I met were full of compassion and genuine curiosity. It was so unlike the typical high school experience that it nearly seemed other worldly. And as for the awkward girl with the impossible hair, I developed such a huge crush on her that I went from doofus to major humungo doofus.

    And I still advocate for the wearing of purple capes with green suede boots.


  2. mandalaymai
    Jul 27, 2011 @ 15:17:12

    Several thoughts:
    1. I have a few ideas on what Howie’s problems and demons may have been.
    2. I think it’s ironic that kids today think “stupid” is a bad word (and kind of awesome, but ironic because) my college roommate would NEVER use the traditional four-letter words while I employed them liberally, as you know. Instead, she would call things, people and situations “stupid.” Ha!
    3. I think I told you about the cape, Ash….but we were both S.O.L. on the hair. Georgia humidity is NOT for wimps.


  3. mandalaymai
    Jul 27, 2011 @ 15:21:54

    Also? I thought when you talked about the wrongs we did to others that you were going to talk about how we were cracker-flinging hooligans who routinely left the lunchroom in a disgraced state. That’s one of those things where at the time it was like, “What is the BIG DEAL?” But, now, that sort of thing would drive me insane. What were we? Animals? Poor Prentiss and Jerome. I am also, obviously, thinking about this because Jerome Scott recently passed away. R.I.P., Jerome and sorry about the crackers.


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