All the Joys of Middle School
Notes from the tenth circle of Hell
I had a crush on one boy in the fourth and fifth grades, the son of one of our elementary school teachers, though I was never in her class. I adored him and, at the same time, learned to despise him because his family had money, according to my dad. Dad hated rich people, or anyone associated with a wealthy family, and constantly reminded me that they were our enemies, that they were somehow corrupt and thought themselves superior to us. I still had my crush, but by the age of nine, I knew that the little boy would never like me, and I did silly little-girl crush things — lots of staring, giggling, and pining away dramatically with my best friend.
In middle school, there was a different boy — a country boy with light eyes and a set to his jaw. I became obsessed with knowing everything I could about him, but I wouldn’t talk to him. I listened and remembered all the little things he said, as if that knowledge would somehow compensate for the closeness we didn’t have.
I felt ugly already — hideously, terribly ugly. Sometimes my classmates would tease me for my flat chest and for wearing glasses. My haircuts were always home jobs, and my uneven bangs reflected something unsteady in my mother’s scissors-wielding hands. I was rail thin, and god only knows where my mother got my clothes — sometimes the dollar store, sometimes secondhand stores. In my teens and early twenties, I took great pleasure in visiting those stores and wearing the most ironically uncool clothes I could find. In middle school, though, there was no irony.
I would go to our middle school dances and spend the entire time crying in the bathroom, being consoled by a friend or two, heartbroken over the boy I liked and by my loneliness, which bore a poverty of its own. It was the perfect distillation of all my fear and confusion, and this unrequited love was a way to finally make some sense of how awful I felt, at least for a while.
Throughout middle school, I took advanced classes rather than leaving for the weekly gifted program as we had done in grade school. I was in those classes with most of the same people I already knew from the fourth and fifth grades. They weren’t quite as interested in teasing me as they had been, but I was always waiting for the cruelty. Sometimes it seemed like they treated me as their equal, sometimes I seemed to have a companion who was also at the bottom of the pecking order, but mostly I just felt alone.
We had all our advanced classes in one particular classroom, and as a group, we were the most obnoxious kids a teacher could have. We had a literature and writing teacher in the sixth and seventh grades, and she let me write a longer story for one of our assignments, something I was so excited to write but terrified to read out loud to my classmates, which she insisted on. After I finished reading it, I heard one of them muttering about me just copying the Odyssey, but some quiet, defiant part of me knew that my teacher’s opinion was more important.
One other teacher was responsible for our other subjects — advanced science in sixth grade, math, and maybe something else all the way through eighth grade. That teacher was an older woman, overweight with iron-gray hair and thick calves, always clad in an old-fashioned floral dress. For some reason, we decided to give her hell all the time.
She would walk into the classroom to find that we had turned every piece of furniture upside down, including all the long tables we sat at. We couldn’t turn her desk upside down, so we carefully turned over each object that sat on it. On another day, she could walk in to find that we had the lights turned off and were all hiding — in cabinets, behind bookshelves, and even under her desk. I was under her desk once, hiding with a boy, when she sat down, apparently too unmotivated to cajole us out of our hiding places. We stayed there, studying her pantyhose and laughing silently, until she finally moved, and we scrambled out.
Sometimes we would sit on our tables and pretend to meditate, ignoring her pleas to sit in our chairs; other times, we would pretend we were asleep, and no matter how much she threatened us, no one would move or give up our positions unless she started talking about getting the principal. We often convinced her to take us to the break room during class, where we would get chips and pop and candy, which I’m sure greatly improved our classroom behavior. We had pizza parties more often than the regular students. At least once, we made her cry with our obstinance. We were quite horrible to her, yet she was terribly patient with us. I don’t know whether it was because she thought we truly were gifted children, or she thought we were acting out and needed to express ourselves, or she just didn’t know how to deal with a room full of bratty kids who didn’t appreciate how lucky they were to be in an accelerated learning environment. Whatever it was, that was a highlight of my middle school experience.
(Excerpted with permission from In the Shadow of the Valley: A Memoir)