I started writing this story a while ago, and I think it might be time for me to get back to it. Here is an excerpt from the very beginning of this very unpolished writing fragment. To explain: I tend to write stories from the middle out. That habit makes for a terrible editing process, but I generally find it easier to write whatever I feel like writing at a given time. You may have noticed in reading this blog that I skip around a fair amount and don’t ascribe to any coherent theme. Anyway, that disorganization is inherent in me and in everything that I do. So get ready for an extremely abrupt beginning (and the ending is quite abrupt, too, because I didn’t feel like posting the entire thing today).
In fifth grade, I switched from private to public school. It was September of 1990, and my world completely changed. At the private school, we had uniforms and there were a lot of rules governing our behavior. To enforce those rules, our teachers were permitted to use corporal punishment. I had gotten in trouble a few times and was considered something of a trouble maker—in third grade, a boy who sat next to me got upset and said, “Shit!” The teacher took him outside to spank him, and those of the class who hadn’t witnessed the drama first-hand surrounded me to find out what was going on. I said, “Kenny said a bad word,” just as the teacher was coming in. She hauled me right outside and I got spanked for gossiping. Also in third grade, I got in trouble (by the same teacher, although this time I deserved it) for starting up a business with my best friend; this business consisted of us purchasing large quantities of pixie stix at a very low price from the drive-through dairy by her house and selling them at a considerable markup to the other students in our class. At any rate, if it’s true that we learn to view ourselves through the perspective of the adults around us, I really thought I was a hard-core trouble maker… until I went to public school.
At the public school, it was ok to use curse words. It was ok to talk back to the teachers. It was ok to terrorize your fellow students. It was awful. As an adult, now, I can look back on it with a chuckle and tell myself dispassionately that it really was quite a paradigm shift. But if I stretch my memory back and try to recall my feelings at the time, I become swamped by the terror that accompanies an individual being thrown into a completely new set of circumstances without the least bit of warning. Every single rule had changed, and I didn’t know what the new ones were. At the private school, which was associated with a large church, the coolest kids were the PKs, the ministers’ sons and daughters. The hierarchy went down from there based on the relative position of one’s parents—my dad was a deacon in the church, so I ranked below the ministers’ kids and above the kids whose dads were merely church members. At the public school, the hierarchy of relative coolness was based first on the socioeconomic status of one’s parents and second on how adept one was at making other children feel small and worthless.
My parents weren’t poor, but they didn’t think about status or the communication of relative wealth when we did back to school shopping. I remember that pre-fifth grade shopping trip, because we had never done back-to-school shopping before. My mother and my aunt talked strategy weeks in advance—jeans and t-shirts were cool as were tennis shoes (never called sneakers). Then we went to Target or K-Mart and bought a few pairs of jeans, a few pairs of shorts, and a bunch of solid-color t-shirts and got some white tennis shoes from Payless. To my mind then (and now, frankly) jeans are jeans—if they fit properly and are comfortable, what does it matter what brand they are?—but it did matter whether you wore Jordache or Guess vs. Wrangler, Lee, or Chic (Target’s brand). Those kids could tell at a glance whether or not your clothes had the right label, and mine did not. To make matters worse, I had the habit of wearing the clothes I liked regardless of how many times I had worn any particular item in that week or in that month. I had this neon-green zip-up sweat shirt with a screen-printed stegosaurus on it that I loved immoderately, and my insistence on wearing it nearly every day did not help my social status.
There were other, behind-the-scenes factors that contributed to my total uncoolness that I didn’t discover until it was far too late to do anything about it. The public school had a program for its smart kids called Gifted and Talented Education (GATE). Students had to test to qualify to participate in GATE, and, at the public school, there were budget limits on the number of students from each grade who could participate in the program. Before I attended my first day of class at the public school, I had already alienated a rather large contingent of kids; my test scores forced out one of the more popular girls from participating in the GATE program. Being ten years old, she vowed a vendetta against me and all her friends followed her lead. I started my first day of school with fifteen female enemies I had never met before, and not a one of them would tell me why I was so uniformly hated. It was very confusing.
I had better luck than I deserved, and I was able to make the acquaintance of three very friendly girls who walked the same route I did to and from school. They couldn’t make me cool, but at least they helped me to avoid getting beat up every day.
My private school offered a much more advanced education than was available at the public school. In fifth grade, I didn’t learn new math skills; I didn’t, as a result of the curriculum, increase my reading level (it was already at the high school level anyway). In fifth grade, I learned the meaning of the words asshole, fuck, and the completely confusing mother-fucker. I learned that people make assumptions about you based on your appearance, and there is nothing you can do to change their minds. I learned that friends don’t keep your secrets if your secrets are funny. I learned that money, the smell of money, the façade of money, is more important to other people than the genuine intentions of your heart. In short, I learned that you usually can’t trust other people and that most of them aren’t worth knowing. I am extremely glad that I learned these lessons before I got to junior high, but sometimes I wish I could unlearn them.