By Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons
Three months before my niece started sixth grade, we were walking to the local commuter trains station near my house. I was taking her to the symphony for her birthday. “I can’t believe you’re starting middle school,” I said. “Are you excited or scared?”
She thought for a moment. “Both.”
Out of the blue I said this: “Lizzie, if anything happens you don’t feel comfortable about, I want you to tell me. Or your mom. Promise?”
She looked at me as if she wanted to say what could happen to me? It’s just sixth grade. Part of it was I’ve been writing about a cold case about a girl who was killed years before. But it was something else, something more personal. In sixth grade I experienced something that was so awful, so shameful that I never wrote about it, nor did I ever talk about it. I wanted my niece to skip middle and high schools and go directly to college. I didn’t want her to be bullied. I wanted to protect her from the world.
It was two weeks before Christmas. Eighth grade girls were choreographing a dance set to Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” while others were singing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in the hallway. All the girls were wearing Guess jeans. I wore Gitanos. One came up to me and said in all seriousness: “Oh my God, are you poor?” Not only did she have Guess jeans, they were stonewashed.
I hated sixth grade with a full passion. I hated my core teacher, who had a thing about making sure we knew about prepositional phrases, making us diagram sentence after sentence. One time I forgot my reading book in my locker. She threatened to give me detention. She changed her mind, saying that she would write it on my progress report instead. When my mother read it, she looked at me and said “Well, stop making mistakes in that class. She wants a robot, not a student.”
The school was painted an ugly mint green. Graffiti often appeared on the walls, along with wet paper towels hanging on the awnings. It was an “academics plus” school which was a return to the basics: reading, writing and math. Parents used to camp out near the school to make sure their kids got in. Doing well there meant doing well in high school and college. The rules were strict. No public displays of affection. No miniskirts. Shorts had to be a certain length. The latter two rules were not fun during early fall and springtime. The only things I loved about the school were its big green field and there were trees everywhere. Every weekday I was called ugly. Now I look at pictures at that time and think wait, I was cute. At twelve I had bad skin, small breasts. That was ugly in middle school land. Madonna was just becoming popular. She had decent sized breasts. And good skin. Me? Not so much. I tried Clearasil, cleansing lotions, nothing worked.
Somehow I managed to get inside a bubble. I tried to visualize Glinda’s pink bubble from The Wizard of Oz. In the bubble, they could say awful things to me. They could call me ugly, or put gum in my hair. They could throw Garbage Pail Kids cards at me, but they couldn’t break me.
One Monday I opened my locker to find a waddled up piece of notebook paper. I opened it up. Someone had written a note asking if I wanted to go with him. It was written in pencil. He didn’t sign his name. I looked around. I didn’t see any boys looking at me. Is this a joke? Or is it real? I threw the note away.
Later that day, another waddled up piece of paper was in the locker. “I really want to go with you. I want to have sex with you.” This made me turn many shades of pink. Sex with me? I was twelve years old. There was no way, no absolute way I wanted to have sex yet. I couldn’t. I threw that note away too. I was repeating a habit I learned when I was very young: if I didn’t want to deal with something, hide it. Don’t face it. Don’t talk about it. Just hide it and pretend everything is peachy keen.
The next day another waddled up piece of paper was in the locker. This one said “I want to fuck you. I want to see if you have pubic hair. If you do, I want to clip it off. I want my friends to fuck you. I want to watch.” I felt nauseous. If this was an After School Special or a Very Special Episode of a sitcom, I would’ve marched to the principal’s office. Showed him the notes. Or I would’ve gone to a counselor. I didn’t. Again, I pretended that everything was okay. I threw the note away.
The next couple of days I continued to get notes that were incredibly graphic. I’ve blocked what they said. All I know is I kept throwing them away. My mother just got a job that required her to go on a business trip to Georgia that week. I was staying with my father. No way was I going to tell him. I didn’t tell anyone in school. Why did I keep it a secret? Was it because the notes were so graphic? Was I embarrassed? Or was it more likely that I was scared I was going to get into trouble for telling? All of the above. Also I remembered how frustrated the adults at my school were because I was having problems with the combination on my locker. Maybe somehow they would’ve thought I caused this as well.
After four days, I knew enough was enough. That Thursday I went to the library. On a notebook piece of paper, I wrote this: I don’t want to go with you. I want you to leave me alone. I tried to make my writing as neat as possible, even though I was shaky. I taped the note on the locker before I left for home that day. The next day there was another waddled up notebook paper. I opened it up. It said he understood and he wouldn’t bother me anymore. He didn’t. The bullying never really stopped, I never got a note from the boy again. I essentially blocked the incident from my head.
When Don Draper told Peggy on Mad Men “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” I got it. I understood what he said. Those notes? Never happened. What notes? I have no idea what you are talking about. Sure, I went through a terrible time in middle school. Everyone did. What was it Anne Lamott said about seventh and eighth grades? “Seventh and eighth grades were a place into which one descended…. One was no longer just some kid. One was suddenly a Diane Arbus character. It was springtime, for Hitler, and Germany.” By eighth grade though, I thought I was okay. My skin wasn’t so bad, plus I became active in an operetta my drama class was putting together.
However, it made me incredibly mistrustful of boys, and later, men. If a man seemed interested in me I thought oh God, what if he wants to get closer than I want to? I dated, I still date, but I always joke I’m bad at it. It’s taken me a long time to realize I always feel like I have to be polite, but keep the guy at a distance. Don’t get too close to me, pal. I don’t know what you’re thinking or where you’ve been.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized what I’ve done. When people said “Why didn’t they say anything before?” about the rape allegations about Bill Cosby, I knew why they kept quiet. Accuse Cliff Huxtable of rape? Hey, why don’t you just shoot yourself in the foot? He’s such a good father, a family man. I was positive if I said something back then, I would be told I must’ve caused it somehow. The sad thing is I’ll never know how adults would’ve reacted.
It wasn’t until recently I realized how I interact with men. I was with one of my best friends and her husband. We were going to the local movie theater to see an UFC fight onscreen. I watched them get involved in the fight. My teeth ached because the guys kept on getting hit. And I saw how friendly my friend was with her husband, how she was herself. She didn’t have to pretend or be polite.
I do wish I told someone. My life might’ve been different if I had. All I know is I’m trying to forgive myself for pretending nothing happened. I was simply trying to survive.
My niece is thriving in middle school. She has good friends and gets straight A’s. She is wiser than I was back then. I envy her.
Years ago, I went to see my old middle school. It was nearby my doctor’s office, so I walked through the familiar green field. The trees were bare. I walked towards the office, wanting to see if an English teacher I had was there. I then noticed the lockers. They were boarded up. “Do you need help?” A campus supervisor came up to me.
“I went to school here twenty years ago. I wanted to check if a teacher I had was here today.” I gave her my teacher’s name.
“Oh, you had her? She’s off this week.”
I pointed to the boards. “What happened to the lockers?”
“Kids were leaving things in them. It was just awful. Caused a lot of damage.”
Oh, lady. You have no idea.