Miserable Middle School

by 5:53 AM 0 comments
     I had a really happy 8th grade year: I had lots of great friends, I was really in love with ballet, I was unaware of how bad I was at clarinet and I was having a lot of fun squawking away with it. I had fallen in hard with the nerd group; we listened to a lot of Beatles and read the Wheel of Time books together. If you don't know what those are, just google it and look at the cover art. It will tell you all that you need to know. We were socially addicted to each other in the way that only teenagers can become. We talked too loud and laughed too hard, and generally really enjoyed ourselves.

Wheel of Time fan art. This picture tells you everything you need to know about the books, and the kind of people that read them. 

Lunchtime was probably the best part of the day, despite the fact that I never really ate lunch. My parents refused to pack me one and I refused to make it myself, but I was vegetarian, so I would buy the school lunch and then throw all of it out except the 'salad' (iceberg lettuce and julienned carrots), which I would gingerly dip in ranch. My friend Jean would only eat peanut butter out of a jar that she brought to school each day, so usually I had some of that, too. We would just scoop our fingers in and eat it, it was so fun. I think that jar of peanut butter was the only thing standing between me and malnutrition.

While we were eating our lunches and talking loudly over one another, I'm sure we were annoying to the other kids around us. But then we really took it to the next level with our, I swear I'm not making this up, math clapping games. It was something like, you had to count up by ones while clapping in some kind of pattern but avoiding multiples of three. So, 1,2,4,5,7... going around in a circle. 

At this point, giggling hysterically when someone would accidentally say "42" or whatever, our fellow middle schoolers were outraged to the point of action. It was like when the Assad regime started using chemical weapons, we had crossed a red line and the community had to do something about it. Much like the Obama administration, our enemies preferred passive condemnation, in the form of throwing pebbles at us when we weren't looking. It probably took us a while to notice that this was happening, and a few more days to care. But the pebbles won out, and we started eating lunch on an outdoor stage in the middle of the school grounds where no one was allowed, and no one would bother us.

Teachers and staff turned a blind eye to this, because we were a small group and obviously not up to anything nefarious. We were there for a few weeks without any trouble before some kids came to bother us. (I don't know if they were the same ones throwing the pebbles or not.)

Their verbal abuse went something like this: "How come you guys are so nerdy? You guys are nerds! What's wrong with you?" etc. I think someone might have said something like, "We like being nerds, so leave us alone." I specifically remember one girl telling us all to "just ignore them." I didn't just ignore them. I launched a vitriolic attack, which consisted of two points: 1. We're good at school, and you're not, and 2. You're going to wash our windows some day.

The inspiration for the latter point came from two places. First, there's a scene in the then-recent cheerleading movie "Bring It On" where a white football team is losing badly to a black one. The white cheerleaders chant "that's all right, that's okay, you're gonna pump our gas someday!" I switched it from pumping gas to washing windows because I was really into musical theatre at that point, and had just rented "How To Succeed In Business (Without Really Trying)" in which a young window-washer works his way up to becoming a leader in the company whose windows he used to wash. Kind of a bizarre insult, with hints of classism.

At the time, I didn't see it as classist. I knew that some poor kids didn't have the same opportunities as I did, but these kids were being obstinately anti-learning. (At the time, I equated being anti-learning with being anti-math-clapping.) And as far as I was concerned, middle school was a perfect predictor for the rest of our lives. 

A janitor saw the conflict and intervened. At first, the kids that had bothered us got in trouble for, well, bothering us. But when they repeated the window-washing comment, the janitor's face darkened. A few people were called to account for our behavior; Kyle, who had been arguing vehemently with them and Jean, who had said basically nothing, but who did have blue hair. 

Jean was called to account for our behavior, and while she said that she didn't make the window-washing comment, she didn't give me up, either. She was written up to go to ISE.

ISE stood for "Isolated Solitary Experience" or something equally horrifying. She had to spend the day alone in a room with a bunch of delinquents and nothing to do. She was only allowed her calculator because she somehow convinced the supervisor that it wasn't battery-powered. Apparently there was some kind of rule about not having battery-operated devices. At lunch, she couldn't eat anything except an orange, because nothing else was vegetarian. During sixth period, she had to pick up trash outside. It's Tucson, so that's miserable. And she had to spend the whole day without friends, which for a teenager, is the worst punishment of all. 

I knew that Jean was doing time for the crime I committed. At that time, I didn't see how what I did was wrong, especially since we had already been attacked with rocks. As I saw it, no one should be going to ISE for what I said. But I knew that if someone had to be there, it should have been me. 

I'm not sure that I was really bullying those kids, or that they were really bullying us. I think mostly we were just annoying each other aimlessly. I think that the janitor was more sensitive to the comment about window-washing then any of those kids could be, and understandably so. In fact, I may have inadvertently bullied the janitor by saying what I did. And shame on me for thinking that people who wash windows are filled with regret that they didn't work as hard as the people having their windows washed. That's what I had been taught up to that point, though, and it took my friend going to ISE for me to start thinking about why that wouldn't be an okay attitude to have. 

The thing that I feel much worse about than the 'bullying' is the cowardice. I let my friend be persecuted for having blue hair; I'm sure that's why she was chosen from among all of us. I thought that Jean was tougher than me, and that she could handle ISE, whereas I would just wither up and die like a butterfly whose wings were being crushed. After all, she intentionally failed Judaics, she's the combative type, right? She's probably used to this kind of thing. I had never gotten in trouble, except gentle reprimands from teachers to "please be quiet."

She was tough about it, and only a little bit mad at me for not speaking up. She had to live though one crappy day for no reason, and I had to live with myself 1. saying something bad enough to warrant a day of ISE, and 2. giving my friend up to save my own perfect discipline record. It wasn't like picking up trash in desert heat after not eating lunch, but it left an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach.

Anyway, suffice it to say that I'm sorry about that, and also that I'm no John McCain, so think twice before going into a war zone with me. If I have a chance, you're going down, and I'm trotting back to the base unscathed in time for dinner. 

Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.


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