Thinking About Our Younger Years
The night before my daughter’s first day of middle school, she and I went up there after dinner to make sure she could open her locker. She also brought her three-ring binders and stuff so she wouldn’t have to haul it all on the bus the next morning.
We found her locker, and I looked at the piece of paper with the combination typed on it, then closed my fingers and thumb over the tumbler to give it a twirl.
I didn’t even have to think: My fingers just knew the rhythm, even though the numbers were different, and as I pinched the metal grip to lift the latch, I anticipated the small ka-chunk from inside the door of the mechanism sliding into place and then the memories of middle school started coming down like rain.
The locker didn’t open, though, and we had to ask a passing custodian for a little help – you have to kind of jiggle the handle a couple times, it turns out – but this whole middle school thing wound up engulfing me for a few days.
See, we live in the same neighborhood where I grew up, so ever since preschool ended, my daughter has been going through the same halls, classrooms, playgrounds, gymnasiums and cafeterias that I did. When I was a kid, we moved to this school district the summer before I started first grade, so I got the whole 12-year experience here. By the time my daughter graduates, she’ll actually have a year’s edge on me, since she went to kindergarten here, too.
Point is, I’d gotten used to visiting the elementary school and being in those rooms and halls again. Even though there were still some weird, sudden flashbacks from time to time – “See that cupboard door with the hinges that look different from the rest? I broke those when I was in first grade, swinging on it.” – I was comfortable with going back and seeing my kid in those surroundings while still remembering what it was like when the locker tops were above my head.
This year, though, is sixth grade, and talking with people this summer about it, I found myself thinking that the middle school years probably represent the extremes of the social atmosphere.
By the time you’re in high school, I figure, you pretty much know who your friends are and who to steer clear of, and there’s a general looking-ahead attitude since graduation’s on the horizon and you’ve got that whole landscape beyond to think about.
Middle school, though, things were back-and-forth seemingly by the hour. On the one hand, these were the years when I think my friends really started becoming my friends. When we started talking about stuff we could never imagine saying to our parents, pondering actions we’d never have considered just a year before, riding the elementary school bus.
On the other – man, people can be total dickwads in middle school. These were the ear-flicking years; the years of getting shoved for no good reason by someone you barely know; the years when God forbid, you tell someone about a girl you like and sonofabitch suddenly you feel like you’re wearing a big “I (heart) D.B.” sandwich board walking between classes.
The subtle differences between elementary and middle school showed themselves in small places: When my daughter and I sat in the orchestra room, one of the old music stands next to us had the words “dick” and “peckerhead” scratched into the black paint.
Oh, I am NOT, notnotNOT ready for this.
When I was in sixth grade, a friend of mine told me the hottest girl in the school was this eighth-grader I’d never heard of. Toward the end of the year, I think on a dare from this guy, I went to her table in the cafeteria and asked her to sign my yearbook. “To a really sexy guy,” she wrote.
Oh, dear God, that’s not embarrassing, at all, is it? Dad got a kick out of that one, finding my yearbook at home after school. He and mom were also especially interested in my friend Larry’s inscription: “To John, a nice kid who loves insults, D&D and dirty jokes.”
Man, we did know some foul-mouth material, didn’t we? Crap.
When I was in seventh grade – and still in the youngest class of the three-grade building, thanks to a summer shift that brought the freshmen over and bumped the sixth-graders back to the elementary building – I had another encounter with the girl who’d mocked me with “sexy.” This one was total chance happening – I was older and wiser now, naturally, a cool seventh-grader who’d gotten over thinking she was hot – as I passed her in the cafeteria and had to duck her purse as she swung it crazily over her shoulder in a wide arc without even looking around.
“Shit!” I heard myself say, “What the fuck are you doing?” (’Cause swearing’s cool, dammit.)
“Awww, don’t swear, little boy,” she mocked as she walked away with her friends.
“HEY.” Oh shit. “COME HERE.”
Voice of doom; tell my parents I loved them: Mr. Fetters was on cafeteria duty, sitting at his little table a few yards away, now beckoning me with his booming voice. I heard in later years that Fetters was a fantastic guy and a great coach, but since I never played sports and never had him as a teacher, this would be my only meeting with him, and at this point, he was still one scary motherfucker, stocky and red-faced and intense and with this shock of long, curly rockstar hair.
“What did you say?” Ohshitohshitohshit…
“Um, that girl, she almost hit me with her purse and –”
“What did you say?
“I, uh, said some words –”
“What. Did. You. Say?”
“Think your mom would want to hear you talking like that?”
“I don’t want to hear it either.”
And that was that.
The rest of the day, I found myself thinking that I should go home and tell my mom that I’d almost gotten hit in the head with a purse and that I said the F-Word in response, but I thought she’d understand, given the situation, and then I could take her approval verbally back to Mr. Fetters the next day… of course, I did no such thing.
Last week, after the third day of the school year, there was an open house night to meet the teachers that started with everyone gathering in the gym that the school also uses for band concerts and dances.
Those are the bleachers where I sat at one Halloween dance talking with a girl I think might have liked me even if we were both too freaked out to actually dance. And through that door is the hall where there used to be a pay phone, and during another dance, I called this girl who was a friend of my neighbor. She went to a different school, and we’d had kind of a moment the previous summer and I asked her if she wanted to come up to the dance. She didn’t. And over there, in front of the stage…
When I was in seventh grade, a new girl came to our school. Long, dark hair, freckles and serious brains. I admired her from afar that year, mostly across the three rows of desks in science class.
Spring Dance, last big social event of the school year, and they’re announcing the winners of the annual Class Poll. You know the drill: We spent two minutes in homeroom one morning writing down which boys and girls were Best Dressed, Class Clown, stuff like that.
Suddenly, I’m stunned to hear my name called.
Oh. Freaking. Joy. This is an “award” only in the sense that I was “sexy” the year before. Honestly, it’s like handing me a Big Giant Nerd shirt. I tried to be nonchalant, failing miserably, I’m sure, threading my way to the stage to receive my purple-inked, mimeographed award with my name written in blue ballpoint. So wrapped up am I in getting this humiliation over with that I hear nothing for the next few minutes while I grab the sheet of paper, fake a smile, then slink back to my spot along the bleachers with Most Studious folded and crammed into my back pocket.
Almost 25 years later, I can remember that exact spot on the floor where I was standing when my science-class crush well, just appeared out of nowhere, clutching her own “Most Studious” award.
And then she said, in an almost-squeaky but still cute-and-kind-of-assertive voice, “So, would Mr. Studious like to dance?”
You know that shot from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when the perpetual loser is asked to direct the Christmas play, and his eyes go all googly and he just goes, “Me!?!?” I may have responded in a more collected manner than that, but just barely, because that’s
how I felt inside.
We slow danced to “Heaven,” by Bryan Adams.
The song still gives me faint flip-flops in my stomach, and there’s an echo of strange calm from a long-gone afternoon when the world stopped around me for one dance with a dark-haired girl voted Most Studious in her seventh-grade class.
Then my daughter and I are walking around some more.
There’s the industrial arts room where we built gumball machines out of wood and Mason jars and where I tried to make a ceramic chess set for dad but the shelves inside the kiln collapsed, leaving me with just two pieces that he kept in the den for years anyway. I also slept through an earthquake in there one year during study hall.
Here’s the rust-orange sixth grade hallway where Mike and I used to play our two-man abridged version of Dungeons & Dragons when we could wheedle passes from teachers to get out of study hall.
And there’s my kid, walking ahead with one of her friends, laughing, their heads tilted close together, down a hall that once seemed a lot longer.