Can I Sit with You?

All’s Fair In Love and Mucus
October 31, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: crush, junior high school, math, middle school, mucus

by SJ Alexander
Age 12 at the time

I grew up in a small town outside of Chicago where the summers were so hot it felt like your skin was about to melt off and you would be happy because you suspected you would be cooler that way, and the winters were so cold your freshly-washed hair would freeze solid at the bus stop.

This was the end of the eighties, during the last gasp of the big poodle hair craze. In the eighth grade I had my crazy tangle out front teased up until it could ensnare low-flying bats. I was so proud of it! This, combined with my tendency to carelessly leave the house with the back of my hair still wet, and my fetching gigantic hoop earrings that could double as a belt in a pinch, meant I wasn’t one to wear a wooly hat. So, I was sick all the time, all winter long, and I tend to think that there was a relationship between my constant sickness and my habits.

Despite being smart overall (other than the hat thing), I was in the Math Facts for Complete Morons that year, which felt like torture to me. There was not a bone in my body or a dusty, forgotten corner of my brain that could make me retain math, I’m sorry to say. Even in college when I was required to take algebra and I did every extra assignment, studied hard, and stayed after to get help from the teacher, I barely squeaked by with a B. Now I’m pretty good with “practical” math, such as grocery store deals and restaurant tipping, but I was hopeless in those days. So there I was for the 4,000th time, studying basic math facts again.

Fact: I was deeply, deeply bored.

Fortunately, I had something else to focus on: I was completely in love with the boy who was across the room from me. I could stare at him for the whole hour, because our desks were broken up into two groups of rows that faced each other, with a big aisle down the middle. I was almost right across from him, but one row over, so lucky for me no one was blocking the view of his utter handsomeness.

Rather than fussing with fractions, I studied this boy. I noticed how many times in a week he wore his favorite sweater (orange with a snowflake pattern) and if he had gotten is hair cut (bowl cut to shorter bowl cut). Once he was out sick for three days, leaving me alone to twist and fidget in my seat as if I was being burned at the math stake.

Yearly, usually in January, the whole school would be hit by that coughy-phlegmy plague that lingers for weeks. I had an unsympathetic mother who would pretty much only let me stay home if there was good, solid evidence I was currently bleeding from a major artery or nonstop rocket-style vomiting. So there I was in my math class, at that stage of the cold where you feel like you need to sneeze constantly.

Fact: Middle school girls often find normal bodily functions embarrassing.

The whole class sat quietly, working on some math problems that were assigned in-class. I had the most tortuous tickle — it was as if the entire contents of my head were trying to escape. If only I was at home and could sneeze and blow until I felt better. But no. If I did that in class that would mean my classmates would know I was human, and did disgusting things like sneeze. If I couldn’t even sneeze, then noseblowing was ABSOLUTELY out of the question.

I kept holding my sneezes in, making pathetic little “Eep! Eep!” noises as I held them back, feeling more and more as if my head would pop. I would not be caught dead carrying something as practical and grandma-like as tissues, so even as I began to wish I had some, I continued suffering in squeaky near-silence. Some people, bored to death of their basic math facts, leaned over to whisper, “Bless you.” My math teacher had even thoughtfully provided a box of tissues on the corner of his desk for student use, but there was no way I was going to parade across the room in front of the boy I liked and fire up the schnozz trumpet.

Desperately, I began to consider my options. Could I make it up to the front and whisper for permission to go to the bathroom? I didn’t think so. My eyes were so watery that the math problems on the paper in front of me were beginning to blur and swim. I was going to … OH NO.

Fact: I was totally hosed.

“WHAA-CHOOOOO!” I lost it, breaking the heavy mathy silence that blanketed the classroom. I clapped my hand, covered with the too-long sleeve of my sweatshirt, over my upper lip, mouth, and chin which were all now densely covered with a shiny snot goatee.

I froze where I was, and glanced around furtively. A couple more “Bless yous” were tossed my way. No one seemed to be paying attention. Even the teacher was busy marking our pop quizzes from that morning. With trepidation, I looked across the room. There was the object of my secret love, brows knitted, working away at his math problem. Whew. Sleeve still in place, I hunched down over my work and tried to figure out what to do next as my face burned. At least I could see my paper again.

I scraped off a little bit of the snot goatee at a time. To this day, I think it was probably the most fluid that has come out of my head, ever. I thought, could I hide under my hands and ask for permission to go to the bathroom now? No. Even more embarrassing now that my face had exploded. I kept working away at it a little bit at a time. To my horror and deepening panic, the part of the sleeve I was working on became totally saturated and I had to roll the snot up inside my sleeve. I turned to the other sleeve, lamenting the fact that it was my favorite sweatshirt (I thought it was hilarious: “I think, therefore, I party,” plus it was big, warm, and comfortable). Would this ruin it? I still kept glancing up at the boy I was crushed out on across the way, who, as usual, did not notice I existed.

Finally, my face was dry again and my sleeves were rolled up almost all the way to my elbows. I was saved! I didn’t think there was anything left on my face, but I touched it repeatedly to make sure. I congratulated myself on my cleverness.

Then, setting his pencil down, my crush nonchalantly slid his chair back and stood up from his desk. He strolled across the room and took a tissue out of the box on the teacher’s desk and quietly blew his nose with his back to the class.

Oh, DISGUSTING. How could he get up and blow his nose in front of the whole room like that? It was at that moment that I noticed he had kind of a funny-shaped head and … was that a boil next to his nose? I, the girl with her own snot ensconced inside not one but both sleeves, discovered that I did not love this boy as much as I thought. Love is fickle that way, I guess.

The Sound of Musicals

By Michael Procopio
Age 6 to the present

The men in my family loved show tunes. My grandfather, being of Italian stock, listened to opera. My father preferred Broadway musicals. Original cast albums like Cinderella, Camelot, A Chorus Line, and Annie followed us wherever we traveled in his car. My older brother loved big movie musicals, specifically those produced by Arthur Freed and his friends at Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios. Most directly influenced by him, I learned to converse in a language liberally peppered with musical references. We compared the events of our own lives to those which occurred in the movies, usually unfavorably, since it is often difficult to make homework and cleaning up after dogs more interesting than dancing around pirate ships or singing with Munchkins.

In my family, a boy singing songs from The Sound of Music was nothing extraordinary– in fact, it was encouraged. The subtle changing of lyrics to suit any occasion was applauded by my elder brother. Sadly, singing “I Am Six, Going on Seven” in a voice approximating that of the eldest Von Trapp girl did not translate well to the playground of my elementary school. Worse, my impression of Ann-Margret’s frenzied “Smash the Mirror” number from Tommy was not received with applause but with baffled silence, then derisive laughter, which I found confusing since my brother and sister had both loved the impression as I performed it the day before. Upon review some thirty years later, it seems reasonable that a six-year-old boy writhing on the on the grass and pulling at his hair while singing in an exaggerated vibrato might make other little boys uncomfortable. It was clear to them that I was different. It was clear to me that they simply did not speak my language.

By the second grade, my performances were much more subtle; intended for more intimate audiences. To offset the boredom of a long bus ride to Olvera Street in Los Angeles, I decided to entertain my field trip seat mate with what I thought was a subdued interpretation of Esther Williams’ playful version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The boy sitting next to me had always been kind and therefore, I thought, deserving of my talents. Far from being entertained, he squirmed and moved as far away as he could from me without physically hurling himself from the bus. I thought he’d get it. I thought he’d understand. In a way, I think he did. I don’t think he spoke to me again until the third grade. I rode the rest of the way to Los Angeles in silence; my status as a resident alien confirmed.

There were few opportunities to further humiliate myself since I did not sit with other boys at lunch or get invited to their houses after school or even play with them unless compelled to in group sports like dodgeball wherein they sharpened their throwing skills and I perfected my dodging abilities.

If a boy admits to liking show tunes, he invites trouble. If a boy who likes show tunes also admits to dreaming about taking bubble baths with Michael Landon, he invites danger. To my mind, liking musicals seemed a perfectly normal, masculine thing. Blowing kisses to the shadow I saw in the shape of Mr. Landon cast by my night light every evening did not. I’d never heard of another boy doing that, so I kept my mouth shut, which felt unnecessary, since everyone seemed to know anyway.

Names like “girl” and “sissy” were first muttered and then shouted at me. As we got a little older, the words “fag” and “homo” entered the vocabulary. I objected to “girl” since I had no desire to be one, Ann-Margret impression aside. “Sissy” I wasn’t so sure about– I was bigger and faster than most of my taunters, but I was mildly obsessed with people like Charo and activities such as watching Days of Our Lives. By the time fifth grade came and the abandoned fantasies of Michael Landon were replaced by thoughts of holding hands with a tall Brazilian-Swedish boy, I knew my taunters were speaking the truth when they called me a homo; I don’t think they meant as a compliment.

The name-calling eventually lead to physical threats. The occasional sock in the arm or leg stuck out to trip graduated to stomach-punching and being shoved against walls. Once cornered in the library by one of the meanest boys I knew, I pleaded with him to leave me alone and warned him of the nearby presence of our school librarian. He laughed and suggested I cry to her as he punched me in the stomach. I weighed my options and decided the best course of action
was to bury my fist in his eye. I was surprised by how much my hand hurt. That never seemed to happen to people in the movies. The following year, the boy was placed in a classroom for children with learning disabilities. I briefly worried that I had caused his brain damage. At least, I thought, he wouldn’t be bothering me again. For the most part, no one else did either.

The rest of my elementary school career was spent rather quietly. When forced to play soccer with my classmates, my attention turned to the nearby boundary fence covered in honeysuckle vines. Whenever the vines were in bloom, the class broke from play to swarm the flowers. I’d hum Lena Horne’s version of “Honeysuckle Rose” from Thousands Cheer quietly and to myself, since I didn’t think anyone would appreciate the fact that I had a song for nearly every occasion. Or understand. Except my brother. I’d tell him, since he was the only person I knew who spoke ‘Musical’ better than I did. As long as I had him to talk to when I got home from school, I remained relatively untroubled by my scholastic isolation.

When I was 12, three major events occurred that altered the course of my social life: I started middle school, entered into an aggressive attack of puberty and my brother moved to France, where he could watch musicals in French, thus combining two of his greatest passions. Though the news he sent of Gene Kelly dancing and singing with Catherine Deneuve made me nearly faint from excitement, our conversations were few, given the physical distance between us. The combination of being in a new school environment with a rapidly changing body and no brother to confide in made the issue of my own social awkwardness more acute. Since my body and voice had decided change without first consulting me, I decided I might as well go for broke, and change my personality too. Twelve-year-olds are famous for that.

I watched the other puberty-stricken people around me, noting what they wore and what they listened to and eventually learned how to be more like them, to blend in. Never entirely, but enough to be accepted, be invited to parties, and allowed to sit with others at lunch. Instead of humming Cole Porter tunes in public, I started tapping my feet to Adam and the Ants, the Go-Go’s, and other musicians favored by ‘tweens in 1982. I learned to speak the language of the people around me, to enter their world and shed some of my former reputation as an alien. I succeeded to some degree– gaining friends and higher social status, but I never felt that I could be completely myself around anyone. On the outside, I could appear as normal– whatever that was– as I wanted to be. Inwardly, I felt like an alien passing for human. The names Judy Garland and Fred Astaire never passed my lips in public, no matter how much I wanted them to.

As I got older and entered college, I found what I had secretly given up hope of ever finding– people my age who spoke openly of Leslie Caron, Alice Faye and Donald O’Conner. People who spoke my language. People like me. And they didn’t look like aliens, but rather attractive human beings who were proud of being different from 90% of the general population. Eventually, I learned to look upon my show tune-loving tendencies as a source of pride. Now, I sometimes sing them out loud specifically to annoy people. In fact, if you happen to walk through my neighborhood today and you listen very carefully, you might hear a bit of Mary Poppins, Meet Me in St. Louis, or the sound of other musicals coming from the open window of my home and me singing right along with them. I don’t really care who hears it. Unless it’s playing too loudly during my downstairs neighbor’s nap time. It’s one thing to have fun annoying people from time to time, but it’s an entirely other thing to be rude to one’s neighbors.

The Real Meaning of Might

by Amanda Jones
Age 8 at the time

I had a pedestrian, mildly tortured school experience learning to sort between what mattered and what didn’t, with just the typical betrayals and embarrassments. It was my brother who suffered the brunt of pre-teen flailing, and watching what he went through taught me more than all the bullying I endured.

Marco was (and still is) my sweet older brother. As a child he was scrawny, friendly, funny, affectionate, and energetic. And he had Williams Syndrome, which meant he was a special needs kid. Only in those days no one had yet thought up political correctness, so my brother was just “retarded.”

Williams Syndrome is a genetic disorder with a long, scary list of symptoms. When I look up the most common of them, it says: “Unusual facial structure, developmental retardation, short stature, heart problems, and puffiness around the eyes. Personality traits include being overtly friendly, trusting strangers, and an affinity for music.” My brother had all of these. He still does.

For most of elementary school other children were kind to Marco. They included him in games and they’d even willingly invite him to their birthday parties. But at age 12 this swiftly changed. As hormones began their insidious creep, many friendships turned into outright cruelty.

My brother and I did not go to school together. He went to an all-boys school, and I went to an all-girls. But we lived opposite a park and would go there together almost daily. I was three years younger. He was my only sibling, my big brother, my friend, and often my rival and archenemy. I loved him. I didn’t know to be embarrassed of him, even when he laughed inappropriately loudly or let fly with the animal noises he was prone to making when overexcited. But as he got older he would embarrass the other kids, as if just knowing him made them uncool.

One awful day my mother was called to school early, bringing Marco home with red eyes even puffier than normal. Two former friends had cornered him and beaten him up in the bathroom, calling him Mongol, circus freak, animal. He could not understand what had happened, and his face registered only confusion and disorientation. And for the first time in my life I felt real, adult rage. It sped through me like fire, closing my throat and making me break out in sweat. I was eight years old and I had just felt the shock of injustice.

Marco stayed home for a week to recover. There were hushed phone calls and the low hum of my mother’s fury venting into the mouthpiece. Marco and I lived alone with our mother. Our father had hit the road with a younger woman when I was five. He couldn’t handle raising a “retard.” At the time I didn’t think much about what it must have taken for my mother to raise the two of us alone for so many years. Now I do, and I am staggered.

A month after the “incident,” Marco and I encountered the perpetrators at our park. My brother flinched when he saw them, his “overt friendliness” damaged. He wanted to go home. He started making noises. His hands came up over his head. The boys, angry that the “retard” had caused them innumerable hours of detention, strode towards him, their fists balling, mouths ugly grimaces. At first fear turned my legs and stomach soft. And then, like some sort of miraculous intervention, the rage hit me again and I became possessed. I raced towards the boys yelling words that had never dared cross my lips before.

“You bastards.” (I’d heard my mother call my absent father that often and suspected it was a terrible slight.)

“You stupid, mean little bastards. You assholes. You keep away from my brother!”

And my God, it worked. It actually worked. The boys didn’t know what to do next. They stopped, their faces froze and they stood there looking just like stupid little assholes.

The best part of all is that my brother started to laugh. He laughed his inappropriately loud laugh with a few animal noises thrown in for good measure. The boys sloped off, vanquished, with that sound at their backs. It was wonderful. Admittedly I was an eight-year-old girl and even mean boys probably knew better than to beat up on a small female child, but it was the first genuinely empowering moment of my life. And I guess I learned that it was actually possible to stand up against injustice.

Many years later, I used my brother shamelessly as an acid test for the men I dated. If they were embarrassed of my brother or they were mean or ignored him (and most did), they didn’t last long. They were filed in the “stupid asshole” category and dispatched. And then I met a guy who was different. He didn’t deal with Marco like he was retarded. He wasn’t overly condescending or patronizing or even sickly solicitous. He treated him like an adult who liked to laugh loudly, hug people, and dance erratically. He called him Big Man, which made Marco’s skeletal chest swell with pride. Greg was doing an MBA at an elite business school filled with future captains of industry who wore button-down shirts. One night, he invited Marco and me to a party with his fellow students. I was edgy, thinking that my brother’s unbridled enthusiasm for singing and dancing, or even the animal noises, might cause a scene, and I really liked Greg and didn’t want to have to dispatch him quite so quickly.

When we got there, Greg casually took Marco around, introducing him not as his girlfriend’s brother, but as his “buddy.” He gave Marco a beer and let him loose. Hours later, from across the room, I noticed a circle forming on the dance floor. With rising dread, I broke through the crowd to face what was happening. Marco and Greg were both lying on their backs, spinning in circles, breakdancing to “Red, Red Wine” by UB40. The crowd cheered and clapped and my brother hooted and glowed. Marco had found a hero, and I had found a husband.

I guess the moral to this story is that in the end, it’s much cooler not to be a stupid, mean bastard.


Here is an excerpt from Amanda’s reading of this story, from our Can I Sit With You Event at Book Passage in Corte Madera in August 2008:

Sunday Short: Fish Face

by elswhere
Age 13 at the time

I was a nerd in junior high school, but my friend A. was even worse off. She was new in town, she wore weird clothes, and her family didn’t have any money. She looked funny, too; all the kids called her “fish face.”

In spite of these strikes against her, A. was mysteriously self-confident. In 8th grade, she decided to run for Student Council vice-president. I was aghast: everyone knew Student Council was just a popularity contest, and A. was anything but popular. What was she thinking?!

But A. didn’t seem worried. She made posters, campaigned, did everything a Student Council candidate was supposed to do. Just as if she had a chance.

On the morning of the election, the whole school gathered in the auditorium to hear the candidates’ speeches. One after another, the candidates for treasurer and secretary stood at the podium and read carefully rehearsed banalities about how they would dedicate themselves to improving the school.

Finally, it was A.’s turn. My stomach clenched. I was mortified for her already. She was sure to say something weird, and even if she didn’t, just her being who she was and standing up in front of everyone was sure to be social suicide. It was bad enough that she got teased and harassed in the halls and at lunch: how much worse could it be to see her humiliate herself in front of the entire school?

A. stood up and approached the podium. The room rang out with hoots and whistles and cries of “Fish Face!” until the principal made everyone be quiet. A. waited patiently for silence, then began her to read her speech.

“Some of you call me Fish Face,” she said.

Pandemonium erupted! Once again the principal called for silence. When it was quiet enough for her to be heard, A. calmly continued her speech. She talked about how regardless of names people called her, the important thing was whether she would get things done on the Student Council. She talked about changes that needed to be made, and about her ideas for making them. She talked about how everyone said that Student Council was just a popularity contest, but that this was our chance to prove them wrong.

Everywhere in the halls that day, you heard the words, “Fish Face.” “Fish Face!” Nobody could believe it. Nobody could believe she’d had the guts. Nobody could stop talking about it.

A. won the election.

The Survey
October 26, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: bully, junior high school, middle school, name-calling, new kid, self esteem

by Alison Weiss
Age 12 at the time

It’s 1975 in Southern California, and I have entered junior high. “Love Will Keep Us Together” blasts from every car stereo, and it never really gets cold enough to wear a coat. I begin to understand what the Beach Boys mean by endless summer, even though I’m not the kind of beach babe the Beach Boys sing about. At age twelve, I’m thin with pale skin, straight black hair, and wire-framed glasses that are perpetually bent and sliding down my nose.

My family and I have landed in this beach town after stunning bad luck. My parents’ dream to run an alcoholism treatment center has failed utterly after less than a year. In short order, they have lost everything they own and are living in a rental house with me and my four sisters. My father is gone every weekend to make money. My mother works full time as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital. During our first six weeks in L.A., my youngest sister gets hit by a car and spends all summer in a body cast and then a wheel chair.

There is no money for clothes. My grandmother has learned to sew and specializes in quick-and-easy polyester. Each girl is given a huge bag of my grandmother’s creations. I start 7th grade in a powder blue polyester pantsuit. People ask me so many times that first day who made my outfit that by the time the last bell rings, I’ve taken to lying that I bought it at Orbach’s department store.

It’s hard enough to learn to navigate through Oceanview Junior High’s long halls, but I’m doing it alone. I want something that is out of my reach: a friend. Not a group of friends, that’s way beyond hope, but I’ll take a friend. It doesn’t even have to be a best friend, just a friend to save me a seat in class. I can’t impress people with my athletic skills because I’m terrible at sports, and I’m already out of the running with my homemade wardrobe. The only thing I think I have is that I’m smart. So, I do the unthinkable, I actually show my intelligence. I write ten-page reports for Science class. In English, the teacher chooses my poem to read out loud. For a while, my academic success carries me — and then it takes me straight to hell.

It starts out as an ordinary day. In social studies, I raise my hand too often, answering a question correctly that Christy gets wrong — Christy, who is the leader of a gaggle of girls, and who doesn’t like to be embarrassed. She gets perky, sporty Jax, her second lieutenant, to take me down. Without catching the attention of our teacher (who has tired hair and always reeks of cigarettes) Jax starts passing around a note, some kind of survey. It makes its surreptitious way around the classroom, and there is lots of giggling. It doesn’t reach me before the bell rings.

The next period is math. I slide into my seat, and Jax walks by, casually slipping the survey onto my desk. It’s my turn, I think, to see what everyone was laughing about. There is only one question on the survey: Who thinks Alison is a geek? My eyes slide down the paper, and I see that all my classmates have signed it with cruel embellishments, “She’s the geekiest.” “She stinks.” “She’s greasy.” My stomach drops and I almost stop breathing. I dig my nails into my palm to stop from crying, but it doesn’t work. I have never felt more alone. There is not one safe person in the room.

And the worst part of this story? I will keep that survey rolled up in my nightstand drawer to take out and re-read. I will not lose my sense of utter loneliness for years.

October 25, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: elementary school, lisp, speech therapy

By Aruni Wijesinghe
Elementary School

Every other Thursday afternoon
The year I am in third grade
William O. Schaeffer Elementary
I go to speech therapy to have my lisp corrected

Small cinderblock room no bigger than a closet
Across the hall from the library
Wendy, Andrew Mallon and I meet with the school speech therapist
A middle-aged woman with thick calves and
Perfect elocution
We spend forty minutes reciting words
Full of serpentine “s” sounds
Brows knitted in concentration above pursed child-mouths
Soft susurration accompanies the sound of
Rubber-soled Keds squeaking against industrial gray linoleum

Brightly colored placards glare down at us
Cartoon mouths grimace
Illustrate the proper shapes of vowels
Bite off bits of consonants

The speech therapist is well intentioned
She wills my unruly tongue to repent
Coaxes unwilling s’s from behind
Bared baby teeth

She never realizes
She has been mispronouncing my name since the beginning of the school year
Elongating vowels, misplacing accents
Anglifying the music of my ancient Sanskrit name

I am too ashamed to correct her.

October 24, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: bully, elementary school, popular crowd

by Meredith Lom
Age 6 – 12 at the time

When I was little, one girl in my grade school class was the boss of all the other little girls. There was nothing special about her, really, save for being the youngest daughter in a big Mormon family; but in my town, even that wasn’t exceptional.

Her parents had even given her the most boring name in the book — they’d named her Khaki. She was one of those impossibly tiny creatures whose hair and skin were all the same translucent color. She was the pied piper of the playground, and since all the little girls had “friend crushes” on her, she was always successful in getting them to do her bidding.

One time, I invited her over to play on a Saturday, and she accepted, and the parental dance had been done, and she came over to my house. She and her mother pulled up in their yellow convertible (which was roughly the same color as her hair and skin). They found me playing in the yard. I was probably a mess like I was most Saturdays, being something of a tomboy. My father, then a dark-haired thirty-something with a preference for short red running shorts with white piping (which, come to think of it, were actually in fashion at that point), had been cursing and sweating and clipping the lawn.

Khaki and her mother took one look at the mess of us out there and climbed back into their hideous car. Her mother said, loudly, “Come along, Khaki, we don’t play with these kind of people.” And they left.

For the rest of grade school, Khaki was the master of my social demise — of my not getting invited to birthday parties; of my not being included; of my not being asked to wear the same outfit as the other little girls on the same day. Khaki was vicious. The little girls would all do musicals together, under Khaki’s direction, and I would not be included. I would watch, in quiet horror, as she would distribute invitations to come to her parties, and events, and shows, in our classes — and deliberately skip past my desk. I was paralyzed by the exclusion.

I would say to the teacher, “Don’t you think it’s unfair that she doesn’t invite everyone?” And year after year, the teachers would look at me blankly, as if to tell me that unfairness was just part of growing up. Maybe that was true, and it was a painful lesson that we all had to learn. But that didn’t make it any easier when Khaki passed my desk, handing out candy hearts to the rest of the class. She would smile at me as she passed, polite as ever, but never once stopped to place a Valentine in my heart-shaped holiday folder. Being left out of her circle was heartbreaking.

Khaki’s family moved away to Utah by sixth grade. The other little girls threw her a lavish going away party at someone’s backyard pool. They handed out invitations on the last day of fifth grade. By that time, our public school had instituted a rule that if students were going to distribute invitations in the classroom, they would have to invite the whole class. So the girls handed out the coveted envelopes on the playground. I was grateful that I didn’t get one. I never remembered being quite so relieved to see someone go.

Years later, after I’d forgotten about Khaki entirely, I bumped into her by chance. I was a college student, and she was working at the local convenience store. “My parents said I could come out here for a year and try to make it as a backup dancer!” she exclaimed, happy to see me. But seeing her, I felt like I had been cheated. I had expected her to go on and do something fabulous and breathtaking. I had expected her to be the boss of all of Los Angeles. In reality, she was a store clerk, just trying to make a living.

She was tall, no longer impossibly tiny, and her hair was no longer yellow, rather a colorless grey. She had bumpy, red skin, a bad haircut, and a round face. She was not an attractive grownup. I smiled, and nodded, and paid for my granola bars and cheese, then ran back to my dorm room to join my friends for a party. Khaki was not invited.

The Sex Change of Zyax II
October 23, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: ass-kickery, elementary school, name-calling, sexuality, tether ball, Texas

By Liz Henry
Age 10 at the time

Almost every day in 4th grade my best friend Laurie Arminia and I would run outside to play under the geodesic dome monkeybars at recess. We’d comb through the sand with our fingers and explain to each other where everything was in our space city, and where the farms were, and the roads. I’d look up to see Laurie lost in thought with sand in her hands, her thick black hair flying around like a Shetland pony’s mane. The grey steel monkeybar dome overhead saved our space colony people from the poison atmosphere of Planet Zyax, which we had named after a book called “The Humans of Zyax II”. Other people ran around whacking tether balls or playing four-square. Laurie and I were little kids. No one paid any attention to us. We’d climb to the top of the dome and survey our planet like twin gods. Twice a week, instead of going to recess, she and I would stay inside being “library aides”, shelving books and helping kindergarteners learn to read. Doesn’t it sound like a fairy tale? Too good to be true!

The next year everything changed horribly. My family moved to Houston, Texas, which I had pictured as a sepia-toned dusty Western movie. Perhaps I’d ride my horse to school, tying it up to the hitching post!

That really was too good to be true. Texas was a brutal suburban landscape of malls and golf courses. The 5th grade girls wore 3-inch heels. I was as short as most kindergarteners, still wearing Garanimals, midget-sized Wranglers, and (horrors, for piano recitals) dresses with smocking across the chest. Middle class 5th grade Texas girls in 1980 wore Jordache jeans and couple-skated with boys at the roller rink. I
was in deep trouble.

Luckily, before school started, I met Jennifer, who lived around the block. Though Jennifer was a year younger than me, she became my friend. I’d dial her phone number over and over; I can still hear the song of it in the beeps, 444-6784, 444-6784; a busy signal. Jennifer had a makeup mirror that flipped over and lit up to show what you looked like in night and day lighting, far away or magnified. She had enormous makeup kits. I’d lie on her waterbed (?!) to watch her smear on base, foundation, powder, eyeliner, lip liner, lip stick, mascara, and 5 kinds of eyeshadow while we listened to Prince albums as loud as possible and Jennifer insulted me in ways I didn’t understand. “Quit watching me with your beady little roach eyes!” or “I think you’re a Mexican, you have squinty eyes like a Mexican.” It was as unlike Laurie Arminia as you could get. Jennifer was completely alien. I learned all the words to the Prince songs. Jennifer was like Prince, and David Bowie, with their makeup and thick eyeliner, screaming and posing, dancing on the rim of the bed, all the gleaming album covers and posters and magazines.

One day at recess a horrible girl followed me outside from the “cafetorium”. She had been making fun of how I ate my sandwich while reading a book. Cheryl wore suede ankle boots. Her mom’s boyfriend took them on ski vacations. Cheryl said that reading was gay, and that I should be named Liz the Lez. To escape her, I went out into the blazing sun of the sidewalk and the heat-shimmered parking lot. Other kids followed us out, hooting. I saw Jennifer’s face laughing at me in the crowd. She was chanting with them, “Liz the Lez, Liz the Lez.” Someone pointed out that I was about to cry. People were crowding around me, too close, like stampeding animals. I felt sweaty and scared and a little dizzy. Sounds all started to blend together, babbling nonsense sounds, waves or wind or a waterfall over rocks.

Cheryl — with her blond, feathered hair and her disco metallic shirt — came right up into my face really close and went, “Is it true? I heard it was. I heard you used to be a boy, and you got a sex change. That’s why you’re so flat. You don’t wear a bra. And you’re like a boy and like boy things. Cause you’re really a boy. LEZZIE.” I realized then that “Lez” meant lesbian. All the advice my mom and dad had ever given to me, like Just walk away and Just ignore it, flew out of my head. I felt like my body disappeared, and I was like a cloud of light and air. And I said this… in a voice that could rule the world… I’m not making it up:

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve EVERY HEARD IN MY ENTIRE LIFE. How could I have a sex change when I’m only in 5th grade. I’m not even hitting puberty yet. And even if I had a sex change, SO WHAT IF I DID. And if I was a boy, I wouldn’t be a lesbian, don’t you know anything? And we’re little kids, you dumbass, we don’t have sex anyway, which is what it means, it’s about who you have sex with, I have read about it, and people have the right to do whatever they want because it’s a free country, and I believe in free love and I have constitutional rights, and I’m not a lesbian I’m BISEXUAL.”

Then my body came back into sweaty existence, and my head came back down onto my body, and I ran into the school and hid in the bathroom and cried so hard that snot ran down the back of my throat and I sort of choked and threw up. I went to the nurse and my mom came to get me. They asked me what happened, so I just said that I threw up after lunch. I spent the rest of the day in bed with an ice-cold towel on my head,
sipping ginger ale, reading science fiction, and feeling very confused.

I was still friends with Jennifer until 9th grade. My mom said that Jennifer was a bad person to be friends with. She wasn’t nice. My mom was right, but there was something my mom didn’t get. I needed to understand what was the deal with Jennifer.

My life has been something of a variation on that theme ever since.

Dodgeball Saves Lives
October 22, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: cancer, dodgeball, elementary school, new kid

by Jason Kovacs
Age 10 and 11 at the time

When I was nine years old my dad and I moved to a blue collar Seattle neighborhood called Ballard. We were always moving. The elementary school in Ballard, Benjamin Franklin Day Elementary, was just like the other five elementary schools I’d been to up to that point except that the building was kind of old. It had cloak rooms with banks of hooks at kid-level and a lot of dark wood trim. It had hardwood floors and big windows. The building was a hold-over from the Roosevelt era and so were most of its teachers: old white guys in short sleeve shirts and polyester slacks who sported thick glasses and bad tempers.

The most popular kid in my 4th Grade class, my first class at B.F. Day, was John Hoffman. John was one of those kids who was just good at everything: good at sports, liked all the right music, always knew the answer, perfect handwriting, perfect grades, perfect hair. I didn’t really have an opinion bout John per se. There’d been one like him at every school I’d attended and he was as expected, in his way, as the drinking fountain next to the bathrooms. I was busy being the new kid for the sixth time in three years and John was just another kid who didn’t want to talk to me. His indifference was more welcome than the taunting of the bullies, but he never said two words to me and what I realized, at some instinctive level, was that whatever else John might have going for him, compassion wasn’t on the list.

When the school year ended all us single-parent kids headed for our “off season” parents’ places in far away lands and, when I came back the next year, I ended up getting moved to a mixed 5th and 6th grade class that was created three weeks into the school year. Kids were pulled from overcrowded classrooms to make the roster: two kids from each 5th grade class, two kids from each 6th grade class. And three weeks was long enough for teachers to decide who they didn’t like, so I ended up in a class full of kids teachers hated.

It was kind of like The Breakfast Club meets The Dirty Dozen. We drove two teachers to quit in less than two weeks. We set one fire that resulted in the entire school being evacuated. And then we got Mr. Cash, a doctrinaire Jim Henson disciple and all around cool guy. We made a tacit decision to keep Mr. Cash, and so my year progressed.

And while I hung out in my class full of reprobates and morons, John Hoffman was in some other class being perfect. Sometimes I’d see the light of his perfection bursting down the hall, like explosions from an Advanced Placement chemistry class. He’d win the spelling bee, or publish an article in the Seattle Times Junior Journalist Program. The teachers talked about him in the hall. He was the superstar.

And me? I learned to make a bomb out of match heads that year.

The only place John and I had anything to do with each other was on the dodgeball court. B.F. Day had a dodgeball tradition that was unique in my public school experience: on the dodgeball court, kids tried to hurt each other. It wasn’t just that we threw the balls as hard as we could, or aimed for each other’s heads. I think all kids do that. But at B.F. Day we didn’t use the standard red rubber dodge ball. At B.F. Day we used soccer balls, basketballs, and what I can only describe as pain balls: a kind of hard plastic ball that stayed spherical through rigidity rather than air pressure. B.F. Day dodgeball was all about the pain, and I was better at it than almost anyone, even John. However, in spite of my aptitude and my love of the game, I was away from the court the day someone broke John’s leg with a soccer ball.

Of course I heard about it after the fact, but there wasn’t much to the story: someone threw a soccer ball and it hit John in the knee. The whole joint went at once; the knee bent completely backwards and John went down screaming. We talked about it in hushed tones for the rest of the day and the principal said we couldn’t play dodgeball with anything harder than a kickball from now. There was some grousing about that but otherwise we were all just amazed that it was possible: how could you break someone’s leg with a ball?

The kid who’d done it, Adam Mitchell, was the temporary superstar and undisputed badass of the court for five whole days. Even with kickballs, kids scattered out of the way of his throws like they were dodging freight trains.

John he was out of school for a week before we heard that dodgeball had apparently saved his life. John had cancer and the tumor had weakened the bone in his knee. If it hadn’t been for a fast-moving soccer ball the doctors might not have found it in time and he could have died. He was going to lose his leg above the knee, but he would live, and it was dodgeball that had saved him. And this was another kind of notoriety for Adam Mitchell, but he still wasn’t too happy about going back to getting picked last for team-ups.

When Mr. Cash related the story of John’s knee to us, Gordy raised his hand.

“Yes, Gordy?”

“Does this mean we can play dodgeball with soccer balls again?” Gordy wanted to know.

And Mr. Cash said, “No.”

* * *

After the initial cancer revelation, Mr. Cash gave us a little tutorial about what cancer is and why we never had to worry about catching anything from John. And while he was telling us this he also told us about chemotherapy and radiation therapy and said that John would lose his hair and get sick and lose weight. And the thing Mr. Cash kept emphasizing was that we all needed to support John. That he might feel weird and that we needed to let him know that he still had friends. And Mr. Cash didn’t ever come out and say, “John’s going to feel like a freak because he’s gonna be bald and one-legged in a class full of healthy kids,” but that was the message we took away from it. He gave us a phone number at the hospital where we could call and an address we could send cards.

And I thought about that for the rest of the day.

And when I got home that night, I called John.

A kid picked up in the oncology ward — which I think might actually still have been called a cancer ward back then. I asked if John was there and the kid said yeah, hold on. There was some talking in the background. Then he came back and asked who is it?

“Jason,” I said. “Jason Kovacs. From B.F. Day.”

“Okay, hold on,” said the kid.

More talking in the background. The kid came back.

“He’s in the bathroom,” the kid said.

“Oh,” I said. “Okay. Should I hold?”

“If you want.” I could hear the shrug through the phone.

“Um,” I said. “Okay.”

So he put the phone down and I spent a little while listening to kids talking and laughing in the background. Then the kid came back.

“You still here?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“He’s still in the bathroom. Chemo, you know.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said.

And he put the phone down. More talking and laughing in the background. Much longer wait. The kid picked up the phone again.

“You still there?” he asked.

“Yup,” I said.

And I heard the distinctive sound of someone putting their hand over the receiver.

“Oh my god,” said the kid. “He’s still there!”

And then there was a lot of laughing.

The kid came on again a minute later and he almost had it together, but not quite.

“He’s still in the bathroom,” the kid said through a grin that distorted his words, even through the phone.

“Mm-hm,” I said. “Okay. Thanks. Just. Uh. Tell him I called I guess.”

“Sure thing,” said the kid, and I could hear more laughter in the background; full on belly-laughing this time, and the kid was barely keeping his voice even.

And that was that.

I hung up the phone and stared at it for a while, thinking things over.

I tried it three more times later in the week, just to make sure I understood what was happening, and it was the same routine every time.

* * *

A few weeks later we heard that John had his surgery and everything went well. We heard he was doing wheelchair races in the halls and that the doctors were amazed at his progress. A month or two later he came back to school on crutches, with a fake aluminum leg.

The leg was on a catch, so John could make it fall off by pushing a button on his thigh. This was a big hit with the other kids and John was a superstar again in no time. As it happened, this was right about the same time Terry Fox, the famous one-legged cancer amputee, was making his epic run across Canada and so, of course, John started training for that right away and everyone knew he was going to make it.

As far as I know, he did.

He was still improving like a superhero two months into the next year, our sixth grade year, when a custody dispute took me out of town for four months. And by the time I got back to Seattle the school year was mostly over with.

I dropped out for my seventh grade year and my dad took me with him to Los Angeles.

I still think about John a lot.

I guess it’s a good thing that he didn’t … I don’t know — lower his standards to talk to a guy like me just because of a little cancer?

I don’t know.

But that’s the story of John Hoffman. Or at least it’s my story of it.

Sunday Short: The Joker’s Wild
October 21, 2007, 4:27 pm
Filed under: early reader, geek, Joker's Wild

by Shannon Des Roches Rosa
Age 9 at the time

By the time I got out of first grade, I had figured out that I must be special, because teachers always told me I was Fantastic! and Amazing! just because I was a good reader. This was like telling me I was good at breathing, because, duh, of course I was good at reading. It was my favorite thing to do; it was just what I did. However, these adult reactions made me suspect that I had other super special secret traits that only certain adults could see, and most importantly, that I didn’t have to put any effort into.

Other kids didn’t appreciate my specialness. I knew I was supposed to be interested in them, though, so I did silly things to make them pay attention to me. In second grade, I would curl up and pretend to cry in front of the big, cool, fifth grade girls, so that they would come over to coo and offer comfort. In third grade, I would chase boys around the playground, pin them down, and kiss them in front of a crowd of giggling girls who didn’t have the nerve to give chase themselves.

I still didn’t understand how to play with the other kids in any sort of natural way, but that was okay — they were rarely as interesting as my books, anyhow. In fact most kids who came over to play would, after about an hour, hunt down my mom and complain that they wanted to go home because I was just sitting in my room, reading.

When I was in fourth grade, my mom took me to try out for a kids’ trivia TV game show called The Joker’s Wild. I thought this was a great idea; if I was on TV, then the other kids would have to acknowledge my supremacy!

My brothers coached me on TV and cartoon trivia for the entire week before my try out: “What does Foghorn Leghorn always say?” “Where does Yogi Bear live?” Since I spent as much time in front of the tube as I did reading, the TV-centric written screening was no problem. I was asked back for a second round, including an interview with the show’s staff.

I remember walking into a big office suite, with an oval table surrounded by leather executive chairs, each one containing a person in a fancy suit. I had never seen people like them before, except, of course, on TV. But I knew that if any adults could sense my secret special talents, it would be them.

The first question they asked me was, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

My answer: “A singer!” (I didn’t even know if I could sing, but I loved Olivia Newton John so very, very much.)

They then asked, “Can you sing for us right now?”

Me, aghast: “NO!” (Couldn’t they just sense that I would be a great singer?)

I was so embarrassed and perturbed by the failure of their specialness detecting powers that I slumped under the table. Somehow I exited the room.

Somehow they never called me to be on the show.

And somehow the other kids at my school continued to ignore my secret specialness. But that was okay; I still had my books.

In fifth grade I hooked up with my missing pieces: Michael and Miho. They weren’t interested in how I was special and different; they were interested in how much I was like them. Which was, to my surprise, the way to form an intense, volatile, yet wonderful friendship.

(And I would be remiss if I didn’t add that that same Michael introduced me to my husband, and is my oldest child’s godfather.)