by Cindy M. Emch
Age 10 at the time
In fifth grade I started public school. My mom was a public school teacher in our small farm town. I marched with her on the picket line when I was in second grade. We didn’t tell the other marchers that I was enrolled in the teeny tiny Catholic School in town. I was precocious to put it kindly. I was super-geeky and couldn’t get my head out of novels heavier than I was — that’s another way to put it. After watching my brother bored, antsy, and getting into trouble in our local public school, my mom decided to give our people, the Catholics, a shot.
I got a good education in books at Catholic school, but not in socializing. It was one of those places where when I arrived somehow everyone was paired off. I paired off with a book and played with my friends after school, fascinated by their stories of what sounded like paradise: The Public School.
After four grades of begging and pleading, my parents gave in for fifth grade. I got to go school shopping for clothes that weren’t uniforms, and started Latson Road Elementary in Mr. Greate’s Fifth Grade Class. I felt so fancy and East Coast in my orange sweaters and brown jeans. I was a tiny fashionista after following my neighbors’ clothes for all those years. I was beside myself with excitement. The only trouble was that I was entering a complicated social structure with no handbook, and all of my public school pals were a couple of years older and so were already moved on to Middle School.
I found some girls that were pretty friendly and nice enough that by 9 AM on the first day of school, we were the Three Musketeers. Total Best Friends. I was always a sucker for charming girls who could hold a conversation. I have always trusted easily. What I didn’t yet know was that I was about to get a first hand education about “Best Friends.”
When lunch came we ran around the yard, climbing and swinging and testing our daring by hanging upside down on the swings as we pushed each other higher and higher. Caroline said she’d be right back and skipped out of sight. Daphne and I didn’t stop our dangerous swinging contest. We tried to see if we could twist the chains of our swings together to make the plastic and metal spin really fast and still flip upside down. It wasn’t really working since we couldn’t stop laughing long enough to wrap our legs around the chains once the swings separated.
Caroline ran back out of breath and upset. “THAT BOY! THAT BOY! THAT BOY IS MEAN! HE JUST PUSHED ME!”
My breath stopped. Someone was being mean to my New Best Friend. This wasn’t OK. This was what I heard about at home, when people talked about how men hurt women. This was sexism in action! This was like those men that were rude to my mom sometimes and talked to her like she was dumb! This was Injustice! This was someone being a Bully to my New Best Friend!
“Which one?” I asked her. I felt like my whole destiny rode on this. No one would pick on my New Best Friend. I liked to play football. My brother was a state champion wrestler. My mom was a gym teacher. No one would challenge or hurt someone under My Protection.
“Over there in the middle of the tire ring,” she said. She looked upset and yet strangely proud. “What are you going to do?” she asked me.
“Tell him that it’s wrong to bully!” I said, and stomped away. I was full of a ten-year-old’s righteous anger. I was going to Fight A Bully. I was going to Protect a Friend.
“Hey!” I yelled at this small fourth grader with sandy brown hair. “Hi!” he said, smiling and waving at me. “You shouldn’t push girls” I said, grabbing his hand. “It’s not right!” I said, louder and full of bluster. I pulled and swung on his arm, tossing him around in a curve. “Hey Stop It! What are you doing? I didn’t. I didn’t push anyone!” he said.
He sounded so confused. I pulled him up and closer to me. “Don’t LIE to me. You pushed my friend. You’re a bully!” I yelled. I started to slap him on the arms and back. Whereever my hands could reach, I was smacking him. He smacked back and tried to push me down. “You’re MEAN!” I shouted, palms still flying. He was crying and I was too mad to think. My head was fuzzy with anger, and cloudy with wondering how this had gotten out of control. I didn’t want to be hurting this kid. And why did he look familiar? There were about twenty kids gathered around at this point as we pushed each other, him falling down and getting back up. Both of us holding our ground.
“Stop it you kids! And on the first day of school!” Mrs. Elliot barked as she pulled us apart. There wasn’t enough bad in either of us to fight a teacher.
A few minutes later we were sitting outside of Principal Park’s office. “Why did you start picking on me?” Jason asked me. I recognized him now that I wasn’t Caroline’s avenging angel. He was the kid brother of my brother’s best friend. We had run farm fields together. Gotten in hay bale fights and fed pigs together, laughing at their eagerness. He always let me brush the black horse because he knew it was my favorite chore. I felt so dumb. So shamed.
“You pushed Caroline. The girl with the pink headband. You hurt her. I thought you were being a bully.” I told him.
“But I didn’t — she came over and kicked my ball away. I just chased after it.”
I was so confused. The fight was over. I could tell he wasn’t lying. Had I been completely duped by my new best friend? Had she just lied to see what would happen?
Principal Park called us in. He knew both of our families. I had known him as Greg ever since I could talk. He was always hanging out with my folks and saying hi when we were in town. “Cindy, you just started school here. I know you weren’t a problem at St. Joseph’s. Why did you beat up Jason?”
My superhero ego deflated. I couldn’t explain to him how I was fighting for the good of the downtrodden, standing up to the bully hierarchy of the schoolyard, defending the rights of all poor little girls everywhere who got hurt, trying to prove that girls weren’t weak and made to be pushed around. It all rang so false now. I had been played. Manipulated. Tested. I was duped into self righteous superhero for the amusement of a charming liar with a pink ribbon. “I thought he had bullied my friend. I was wrong. I am sorry.”
Principal Park asked me about the bullying and I told him what Caroline had told me. Knowing it wasn’t true, and saying that I knew now Jason hadn’t done it. He still lectured Jason about bullying. He lectured us both about fighting. I defended Jason. Jason defended me. If I hadn’t been crying so hard it wouldn’ve been really funny. He called our parents, who were as confused as we were at that point as to why two friends who played so well out of school had just gotten in a legendary fight in the schoolyard.
When I walked back into class and took my seat in between Daphne and Caroline, I looked at Caroline accusingly. “Wow, I didn’t think you’d start a fight. Why’d you do that?” she whispered. Her eyes sparked at me, daring me to get upset. To call her on it in the middle of class and interrupt Mr. Greate and just get in more trouble. I swallowed something bitter. “I thought he was a bully.” My words sat there on the desk. I looked to the front of the room to hear the teacher. It was going to be a very different sort of school year.
By Laura Henry
In seventh grade I was going though a major awkwardness phase (okay, who wasn’t?). I was on the brink of figuring out how to assert myself and promote my own personality, but still followed the lead of a few more obnoxious girls in my group from elementary school days. I wore big ugly thick glasses, had my hideous Oglivie home perm (thanks, Mom…) and was a short shy bookworm nerd.
A new girl, Becky, moved in to our neighborhood one street over from me. She was a year older and was huge, thuggish, and played soccer. Somehow she became friends with my best friend, yet at the same time made my life a living hell on the bus to school every day. I was no stranger to being taunted on the bus, but she was in my face, yelling and scary. She would call me a “wet dog” when I got on the bus with wet hair in the morning. My friends did not defend me. My sense of outrage that this big stupid mulleted new girl could come and completely disrupt my life grew and grew.
One day on the bus ride home I waited for Becky to get off the bus, and then screamed, “You’re a BITCH!” out the window at her. Then I sat back down and knew my life was over. I could hear her screaming, “You’re dead, I am going to kick your ass tomorrow!”
I got off the bus one stop later and ran home like the wind to barricade myself in. I was trembling, crying, and sick with dread. I was going to have to be in a fight. What would it be like? It would hurt and I would have to try to punch her back.
I can’t remember any of the next day except the end of the school day. I was at my locker getting my books and all of a sudden there was a huge crowd of people behind me, yelling. Becky was there yelling at me; another girl, Kelly, was there yelling at me to take my glasses off so that Becky could punch me. Someone grabbed my books out of my hands and threw them over the lockers. It was all a hideous confused blur. I started yelling that there was no way I was going to take off my glasses so that someone could hit me, were they idiots? I started crying and somehow managed to push my way out of the crowd to a bunch of teachers who were standing nearby.
I tried to tell a teacher what had happened. One of them grabbed my arm above the elbow hard and dragged me to where my books had been thrown. She made me pick them up and then dragged me to the vice principal’s office. I kept asking her to let go of me, and said she was hurting me. I told her I had not thrown my own books (why would I throw my own books, lady!?), that someone else had, and that they had tried to hit me. Outrage! She did not listen and she did not care and neither did the vice principal.
I got three days of in-school suspension. (Why?) Becky attempted to become my best friend, inviting me over to play Playstation (not interested!) and filling up my locker with candy and cake and balloons.
The girl picking on me, the teacher, the crowd of kids … none of their behavior made sense to me. This is one of the incidents that really helped me realize that: A) I could defend myself, B) I didn’t have to be friends with anyone I didn’t really like, and C) other people were idiots and it wasn’t my problem.
Filed under: best friends, Canada, elementary school, middle school, Ontario, school bus
by Elaine Park
For a few years, in grades five and six, I went to a small rural school a few miles out of a town that was a few hundred miles out of anywhere else. At lunch and recess we all played marbles and the girls skipped rope. I could manage single-rope skipping, but never double dutch. I was not even allowed to turn the ropes for double dutch. In the winter we played a game that involved tramping out a big circle in the snow, cut into pie-shaped pieces that we had to run around. We played dodge ball, which I was relatively good at, although to this day I am uncomfortable with things flying at my head. The kids teased me for colouring people’s hair orange when I was doing art, but I was pretty sure that “red hair” was just a figure of speech and the orange crayon was the way to go.
By seventh grade, I was discovered to be an advanced learner and got sent into town on the bus to Robert Moore Elementary, the biggest school in the area. We had French taught to us by a hip young Quebecois couple who were eventually caught smoking dope and fired. We had music taught to us by the crusty high school band teacher and learned to play recorders.
The students at Robert Moore were contemptuous of “farmers” as they called us kids who came in on the bus. Although some of the kids did live on farms, the label didn’t make sense for me. We had moved to the area from an even more remote northwestern Ontario town, but before that we had lived in England, France, and Belgium, as my dad was in the military police in the Canadian Air Force. I had seen the gondolas of Venice, walked among the row-on-row crosses in Verdun, gone shoe shopping in London, and got my first pair of glasses in Luxembourg. I had learned to say “fermez la bouche” courtesy of the rude grandchildren of the lady who lived next door to us in the village of Virton. My parents were both from Toronto, and my mother was painfully intellectual and only listened to classical music and Broadway musicals. She had a lifetime birding list. Clearly it was not I who was the hick.
When I first started going to school at Robert Moore, some of the kids tried to set me up for a prank involving a boy who was overweight. They crafted a pretend love note from him to me. It was going to be a masterful humiliation doubleheader. The girl who sat behind me, who a few years later became quite a nice person, passed me the note. I somehow picked up the wrong piece of paper and opened it up. It was blank. “That piece of paper you passed me was blank,” I earnestly told her. Much later I found the pretend love note and realized with some wonder that I had completely messed up the plan basically by confusing everyone too much to proceed.
After a while though, I developed some solid credibility by being compulsively defiant of any form of authority while pulling down some of the highest marks in the school, and also by being a little exotic from having living abroad. I was welcomed to join the bad kids in the back alley while they smoked cigarettes, even though I didn’t smoke myself. I eventually became part of a group of girls who liked me as much as I liked them, and we stuck together from then on.
I’m sure I wasn’t happy about any teasing I endured during these years, but when I look back, I don’t remember feeling that angry or bitter about it. I knew I was an outsider, but I changed school every two years until I got to high school, so I was an outsider for a legitimate reason. I also took my status as evidence of my superiority. I was proud of being different because being different for me meant being better.
Instead, when I think about it all, I feel a softly glowing gratitude for the kids who did befriend me. There was the girl who taught me how to draw a face by making a U and then filling in the details of hair and eyes and nose. The girl who came to my house to make mud pies and act out episodes of The Man From Uncle, and who joined me on a tour of all the town’s churches one day when there was no adult around to stop us. The girl who had me over to her crowded, noisy house where the only place to find solitude was on the roof of her porch. The neighbourhood gang who included me in a perpetual travelling game of football that raced from yard to yard on summer afternoons. The tangles of kids who absorbed me as a matter of course into the jumping, swinging, chasing anarchy of childhood fun.
I especially remember with satisfaction the friends who were along with me on the wild ride from grade seven dances to graduation day. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen or heard from them. I guess I could find them if I wanted to, find them graying, and matronly, and slightly disapproving of me and my habit of running for freedom whenever obligation got too close. But I prefer to keep them as they were, especially my closest and best friend, who lives forever in my mind with her long, brown hair blowing behind her in overlapping flaps as she bikes ahead of me, sensible, loyal, and kind — with friends and family intact and the whole glorious future stretching out in front of her — it’s a memory that I treasure and don’t want to redeem for the unequal reality of the present. I hold it as a sacred icon — for me and for her.
By Mary Tsao of Mom Writes (http://marytsao.blogspot.com)
Fourth grade was not a good year for me. I was in a new school in a new town. The school I went to was in a wealthy neighborhood while I lived in a poorer neighborhood, which is another way of saying my family was poor while my classmates’ families were not. Plus, I rode the bus to school, which at this school separated the kids who fit in from the kids who didn’t. If your mom or dad drove you to school you fit in; if you rode the bus to school you didn’t.
Oh, and did I mention that I had a buzz cut because the previous year I had head lice and my mom cut all my hair off? Yes, I was the new girl who had a bad haircut, wore the wrong clothes, lived in the wrong part of town, and rode the bus. All of those reasons combined with the fact that I was a shy, introverted kid who preferred reading books over playing sports or
gossiping, meant that I did not have many friends. And when I write that I did not have many friends, I mean that I had no friends at all.
But one day all of that changed. On that day, a cute little girl with short brown hair, a smattering of freckles across her nose, and a squeaky voice, decided that she wanted to be my friend, my best friend. I had a friend! I started to like going to school.
My friend and I met up in the schoolyard after the bus dropped me off. We talked about life, and she confided in me that she was trying to stop biting her nails. She showed me how she coated her chewed-up nails in a mixture of hot sauce and vinegar so that she wouldn’t be inclined to bite them. She said it hurt her fingers and that she was growing to like the taste of hot sauce, but I was impressed. She was the first person I knew who was actively trying to improve herself. She seemed so mature.
She also had the kind of family life that I dreamed of having, the kind with a mother and a father, a brother, and a dog. I lived with my single mom and my twin sister; I idolized anybody who had the things I didn’t have. she introduced me to the concept of talking on the phone, and one night we talked for hours. I ended up getting in trouble because my mom’s boyfriend kept getting a busy signal when he called our house, but it was worth it. I had a friend.
Until the day I went to school and she had a new friend. That was the day she told me that she and the other girl had discussed it, and they had decided that best friends don’t come in threes. I was the odd girl out. Literally. And with those harsh words spoken in a matter-of-fact tone and before the first bell rang, I no longer had a friend.
I don’t remember how long our friendship lasted. I don’t think it was very long. I don’t remember the girl’s name or much about her except for what I’ve told you. The thing that I remember most vividly is how she put hot sauce on her fingers. Looking back, it seems appropriate that a girl who liked hurting herself–even if it was in the name of self improvement–would think nothing of hurting me.
It was difficult, but I managed to survive fourth grade. I kept to myself, read a lot of books, and buried myself in imaginary worlds where best friends are reliable and if they’re not, justice is swiftly served.
I went to a different school for fifth grade and for various reasons, my life improved. I had several close friends and I didn’t feel as alone, different, or isolated as I did in fourth grade. I never did get another best girlfriend, though. Having one best friend in a lifetime is enough for me.
by Jennifer Byde Myers
Age 9 at the time
In third grade I was in Mr. Lennon’s class. It was a third/fourth mixed class at a segregated school for smarty-pants kids; I am quite certain we were all terrors in one way or another.
With special permission, if you were in third, you could stay later with the fourth graders to learn music. I loved to sing, and Mr. Lennon thought I had talent. I longed to perform in front of a crowd and watch people smile, so each time there was a solo, I felt compelled to audition. There were probably only three of us who could actually carry a tune: Amy Rosen, Kianna Winter and I. Amy was a sweet girl who was very shy. She accepted any role she was given, happy, it seemed, to be in or out of the spotlight. Kianna and I were best friends, and as it turns out, arch rivals.
There wasn’t a single activity I tried that Kianna wasn’t right there vying to be better or faster. Dodge ball got so competitive we ended up on opposing boys’ fifth-grade teams. During the school “jogathon” we completed an amazing 34 laps together. When I thought we were both done, Kianna ran away from me and completed another lap so she could “win.” If I had a solo in the concert, she had a solo, even asking to add songs to the program if necessary. I never thought I was competing with Kianna until the activity was over and she would tell me how she had won. I guess it never mattered to me as long as we both did well and we were still best friends.
In May, Mr. Lennon decided we would put on play for the entire school: You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. Acting and singing! Performing in front of a paying audience! What could be better? I auditioned and got the part of Lucy. To cover my very blond hair, I bought a black wig that night and made plans with my grandmother to make a blue dress. I was going to be an actress and Broadway was in my future. It was thrilling and I couldn’t wait to start rehearsals.
There was only one problem: my best friend had no role in the play. There were props to be made, sets to design, and someone needed to be the “prompter,” hovering nearby if one of us forgot our lines. Kianna didn’t sign up to do any of these other very important things because she insisted she should play the role of Lucy.
Kianna and her mom met privately with Mr. Lennon. Kianna made a petition and tried to get other kids to sign it asking that she be Lucy. She even called my house and told me to tell the teacher I wasn’t good enough at singing and should quit the play. On the playground Kianna let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I should give her the part since I “didn’t even have black hair” and she did, naturally.
She told me that I was a horrible friend because I stole her part.
She told me I was selfish.
She claimed I had somehow cheated.
She wrote notes, folding them into very small triangles: “I hate you.”
I had no response for her. I was, for one of the few times in my life, stunned into silence. I could not imagine why she wasn’t proud of me. I couldn’t understand why she was being so hateful and mean. I wrote in my diary “I’m so sad Kianna doesn’t like me. We were BFFs and now, because of this stupid play, we aren’t.”
At home, I finally talked with my parents. Sobbing, I told them all of the things Kianna had said and done. I decided, that while the idea of being in the school play was one of the most exciting things I could ever imagine, having Kianna as my best friend maybe meant more. Since she was not going to be happy, or be my friend if she wasn’t Lucy, I had only one choice: give her the role.
My dad asked me, “Jenny, what would have happened if Kianna had gotten the part and you hadn’t? Would you have been mad at her?”
My answer came right away. “No. It would have nothing to do with her. It would just mean that I wasn’t good enough to do the part. I would be sad and disappointed, but why would I be mad at her?”
And it was like a light came on in my head. There was no way I was going to give up that part, and if Kianna wasn’t going to be nice it was her own problem. None of what she was doing had much to do with me. She was sad and disappointed, just like I would have been, she just didn’t know that it wasn’t my fault.
At school the next day, I wrote Kianna a note asking her to talk with me at lunch. We sat together and shared a pomegranate. I reminded her that we were best friends, which meant that she should be proud and happy for me that I was going to be Lucy. I also told her that it meant that I was sad and disappointed for her because she wasn’t going to be on stage. I told her I wasn’t going to quit the play, because even if I did, there was a chance that she still wouldn’t be Lucy, and then neither of us would be happy.
It seemed to work. We hugged, and Kianna and I were inseparable once more. She helped me with my lines, and we decided that she would be the understudy, just in case I got a sore throat. She never said another mean thing about the play–she even brought me a daisy on opening night.
[Oh, don’t worry. Kianna got to “win” later. She was class president in 8th grade; I lost by 9 votes.]