Filed under: coming of age, cruelty, crush, disappointment, forbidden, going steady, junior high school, menstruation, middle school, sexuality
Age 12 at the time
Jorge strummed his blonde wood guitar in the hotel patio. He swaggered right up to the table where I sat crunching a taquito de pollo drizzled with cream, flanked by my parents. I leaned toward him, his tight silver-spangled pants and mustard-colored mariachi suit bright in the Mexican sun. He looked me straight in the face, and launched into a song that seemed to be breaking his heart. Yo soy un hombre sincero…
I was twelve, and enchanted. It was Holy Week in Puerta Vallarta. California was still groggy from winter, but Mexico was wide awake, fragrant and rioting in color. Scarlet and magenta bougainvillea comingled, dripping over gleaming black balconies of twisted iron. Thick white-washed walls hid interior courtyards, filled with cooing birds and cooling palms.
I watched bright parachutes soar over the Pacific. I ate clams for the first time and crunchy curls of fried cheese dipped in smoky salsa. I devoured Gone With The Wind, perched poolside in a black bikini, legs slick with baby oil.
Back home, the foxiest boy in the 6th grade was Tim Morelli. If I did the right thing, acted the right way, maybe he would invite me to his fort, clasp his St. Christopher medal around my throat, ask me to go steady. A couple of weeks before our trip, Tim invited me to meet him after school at the bluffs, a hideout under the eucalyptus trees. I pushed my bike up the craggy, crusty hill and waited in the shade under tangy leaves, my heart thumping. When he arrived, Tim jammed his grimy hand into my underpants and wormed it around. I squeezed my eyes shut, lips pressed together. The going steady would come next. A ring, maybe. I waited. Footsteps crunched through the leaves and he pulled out his hand. His two friends, Wally and Dave elbowed each other, and Tim grinned.
I pedaled my lime green Schwinn home as fast as I could, thighs on fire, tears streaming into my ears. No medal, no gentle kiss. After that, Wally and Dave regularly ambushed me in the janitor’s closet. They wrestled me to the ground, then groped and grabbed at me. “Gusto,” they shrieked, mimicking a popular beer ad, and twisted the tender tips of my breasts. “Go for the gusto!” Each time, my nipples were purple for days.
But in Mexico, there were wide grins, low bows, a door swept open. And what does the señorita desire this evening? While Jorge strummed, I sipped my virgin strawberry daiquiri and imagined his mouth clamped over mine, what it might feel like to have that black mustache prickle my lips.
I was safe, high on my vacationer pedestal, a moat of chlorinated water, Hawaiian Tropic Cocoa Butter and my mother’s close eye keeping me from harm.
At home, though, the border between child and woman was dangerous. On weekends at my dad’s house, my older step-brother regularly terrorized me in the middle of the night, fondling my breasts with his dry hands, jacking off in the dark while I scrunched into a ball. Another guy started out as a babysitter, and we jumped Parcheesi pieces around a board, but after dark, the game changed; a slobbery kiss, a teenage hand cold on my belly, reaching, pushing.
“Don’t tell,” they all said, and I was ashamed, so I kept quiet. I figured I deserved it; that’s what happens to girls with breasts already as big as their mother’s, who dream of kissing mustached mouths, who are desperate to wear Tim Morelli’s cheap ring.
The lipglossy clear-eyed girls in magazines, the Susan Deys and Marsha Bradys swung their hair and grinned. They didn’t look scared. They wore gleaming white swim suits, slim bodies just right; no scraggly wiry hairs sprouting, no purple stretch marks, no Oxy 10 in their medicine cabinets, no worn copies of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret under their pillows. They were cool, possessed, sure, un-slouching, un-needing. Unlike me.
A couple of months before our trip to Mexico, I discovered a saddle-colored stain in my underwear. I was the first girl in the class to get my period, but I had seen the film strips, I knew that it was just men-stroo-ay-shun. I snuck into my mom’s bathroom and pushed in a tampon. It felt foreign inside me, uncomfortable; I didn’t feel like horseback riding or swimming, like the smiling Kathy Rigby had promised in the TV ads.
That afternoon, I hid in my room, record player blaring, furious at my body’s betrayal. I knew what was lurking across the border; more bruised nipples and slimy tongues, more grabbing and jerking.
My mom came in, asked how my day was, and the tears dripped off my jawline.
“Oh, honey, whatever it is, we can fix it,” she kept saying, stroking my hair.
“You can’t,” I cried, hanging my head. “Nobody can.”
After a few minutes, she spied my balled-up underpants in the corner and understood. She straightened me up, looked into my face, gently. “You’re becoming a woman.”
On our last day in Mexico, Jorge again came to our table. He sang a lovely lilting song, closing his eyes, chin tilted skyward during the best parts. “In your mouth, you will carry the flavor of me…” Then he took off his hat, and asked my parents’ permission to leave a small gift. “So that you have warm memories of my country,” he said in perfect English. It was a cheap, too-big necklace, a slab of marbled stone hanging from a cord. I was awed. It was the same mustard color of his mariachi uniform.
A tiny ballerina danced every time I cracked my jewelry box open to look at Jorge’s gift. I fingered the cool stone cradled in red velvet. But I never wore the necklace, didn’t want to feel the weight of it around my neck, the press of stone between my breasts. I just liked knowing it was there, waiting for me.
Filed under: cheerleading, cliques, college, cruelty, friendship, junior high school, making friends, middle school, teasing
Age 12 at the time
The summer before the seventh grade, I received an unexpected phone call.
“Kari! It is Trisha! You remember me, right?”
The voice was friendly but the name was not familiar. I probably uttered a noncommittal, “Um… hi!”
“You mean you don’t remember me?” she asked, her voice a bit sharper. She didn’t wait for an answer, “We were, like, best friends in the third grade.” Her voice sweetened, “You remember… right?”
I refused to say “yes.” My best friend in the second grade had taught me not to lie. And in the third grade she told me music was of the Devil and as third-graders we had to be “mature.” Of course, we also had the Crazy Club in the third grade, and that wasn’t particularly “mature,” nor was being crazy particularly God-approved. I didn’t remember a “Trisha” in that mix.
I couldn’t say “yes,” but I also didn’t want to admit not remembering her if she could be a potential friend.
That best friend from the second grade moved on to a Christian junior high while I went through several public junior high rites-of-passage such as having a seagull take a shit on my head during lunch, being accused of stuffing my bra, and having my locker broken into: the shelves my dad had built for me were doused with graffiti and the cheerful pink striped wrapping paper I used as wallpaper now had, “Kari is a Pig-Nose” written between the lines.
(The Pig-Nose thing was pretty unoriginal, but that didn’t stop me from crying when a group of teenagers with their noses taped up high entered the frozen yogurt place where I worked a few years later. They specifically asked for me to serve their yogurt.)
In the sixth grade I ate lunch with a Chinese woman who wore her old school uniform, a shy Polish immigrant, a girl whose mullet stuck up in the front revealing heavy forehead acne, and a fickle, spacey seventh-grader who repeated the seventh grade. Eventually, Mullet Girl decided she was too cool for me, so I stuck with the folks who didn’t speak English.
If “Trisha” was real, maybe I would have a shot at a friend who was cooler than those others.
“Um, well, we must have been in different classes,” I finally said to the voice on the phone.
“Nope!” Again, the voice was super-cheery and expectant. “Look… I am moving back into the area, and I wanted to see if you would show me around.”
“Um, sure!” Finally I could answer in the affirmative. I could be bouncy, helpful, and friendly.
“Why don’t you meet me on the steps on the first day of school!”
“You better remember me by then,” she cautioned, and then laughed, “Bye!” Was that a giggle and snort I heard in the background?
I was skeptical and worried. If “Trisha” was pretty, she’d be snapped up by the “popular kids.” And if she wasn’t… well, then she’d be yet another person that I ate with because nobody else would.
The first day of seventh grade, I waited on the steps close to the location where eight months later I would overhear the football team telling their coach that if I made cheerleader they would all quit the team. I had made finals; they were panicking. I didn’t make cheerleader.
I waited for Trisha.
Perhaps there were giggles. Perhaps there were people hiding alongside a building, peeking out. But I didn’t notice them.
After the second bell, I ran to class. Of course I was late, but I hadn’t wanted to miss a potential friend. I didn’t want her to think I had stood her up.
That evening, she called, “Um, sorry. I couldn’t make it this morning.”
I promised to wait for her again the next morning.
Of course, nobody came.
The call that evening was, “Where were you? I waited for you!”
I knew she hadn’t arrived, had she?
I half-apologized, half-accused, “Well, sorry if you are real, but if you aren’t, stop bugging me.” I hung up without waiting for her response.
Fed up with public school life, I ended up at a private high school. But “Trisha” hadn’t forgotten me the way I had apparently forgotten her. That familiar voice phoned me shortly after my sixteenth birthday to inform me of a new dating service in the area. She didn’t identify herself as “Trisha,” but I am pretty sure it was the same person.
“No thanks, I have a boyfriend,” I shrugged.
The shock in her voice was noticeable, “Well keep us in mind for when he dumps you!” I heard plenty of snickers in the background.
Two years later, the phone rang. “We are from the premier dance academy in the country. We saw your most recent performance and are interested in having you apply to our school. To where should we send the admissions materials?”
This was a joke, right? Still, I couldn’t be sure, and I wanted to be polite, even if I had no intention of attending their school. I gave the voice my postal address.
A few minutes later, the phone rang again, “Oh, so sorry…” and then I heard a huge guffaw. The voice composed herself and shushed the peanut gallery, “It turns out that you are not the dancer we are interested in. There are many better than you. Best of luck with your college applications.”
“Actually, I’ve already been admitted to Brown University. But thanks for your well-wishes,” I responded. I knew their call was a joke, but my statement wasn’t a lie.
They called during the holiday break after my first semester of college to taunt me again with the fictional dating service. Fortunately, I was able to respond that their services were not necessary.
The next holiday break, the only calls were from my boyfriend.
I met a real “Trisha” years later. She is a gorgeous, thin, multi-talented woman. But she is also someone with a heart.
Mullet Girl is now quite beautiful and holds degrees in law and genetics. We are long-distance friends via holiday cards with occasional phone calls where I know the voice comes from a real person.
Christian Girl returned to the fold of our Crazy Club and we are now Crazy Mothers together.
Filed under: cruelty, elementary school, fitting in, race, self esteem, yearbook
by Mariann Vlacilek
Back in grade school, in Huntington Beach, California (in the 1940s), I felt so out of place, plain and unnoticed. I was very thin, and olive complected with long, straight, dark hair plus I felt like I was all arms and legs. I was born in Panama and my mother was Castilian and French, ergo the complexion that is now called “Mediterranean.” I grew to envy all the girls at school with light skin and blue or green eyes. One girl in particular had red hair and green eyes, and I though she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Sometimes, I was mistaken for another race and even called by a racial slur. At one point, this actually led to an altercation in the nurse’s office. I am a very laid-back person but enough was enough! This was so very hurtful and damaging to me and I became even more self-conscious, and suffered a great loss of self-confidence.
It was a custom at my school that members of the graduating class would compile a list of underclassmen’s traits that they admired and would like to have, and then publish it in the yearbook. Imagine my utter amazement and disbelief when my name appeared on their list not once but twice — it had been unanimously voted that I had the most beautiful eyes and hands! Me … the fifth grader with the long dark hair and olive skin. ME!
This was somewhat of a turning point for me. It made me realize that I wasn’t an unnoticed nobody, and that there was something of me that was admirable. I should have learned from this, but the previous hurts were so deeply embedded that I bottled them up inside me, for years.
I didn’t fully realize the lesson of being listed in the yearbook at the time. It didn’t hit me until some thirty years later, when I looked in the mirror one day, and that little girl seemed to reflect back at me. At that moment I learned from her that, although thought of as pretty, I was also someone of value. That changed my life.
Every so often, I think back and am once again thankful and amazed that these “older” girls actually wanted something of mine that they didn’t and couldn’t have!
Filed under: bully, cruelty, Jesus, popular crowd, religion, self esteem, sunday school, supportive parents
by Victoria Davis
Age 11 at the time
The little girl sat at the edge of the classroom — sensing the excitement but knowing her only form of participation could be observation. Squeals of delight came from the popular corner as white and pink tissue paper flew from the gift boxes wrapped in lots of curly ribbon.
Oh, she would get a gift too. But if she squealed it would be met with ridicule and various mimicking of whatever sound she made.
No, life was better for her if she was invisible. Teachers were oblivious or chose to tune out her peer-enforced solitude.
She loved people. She loved to tell jokes and laugh. But right now in this classroom — she was the only joke. What would she do wrong today? Oh, it would be something.
And she’d see these girls at church again on Sunday with their curls, angelic smiles, and stockings, looking like the apples of their moms’ eyes. Not saying anything, they would steal glances at one another as she spoke up in Sunday School — oh, what fun they’d have tomorrow about this lesson!
And yet, there was one place she could go with complete acceptance. Her mother and father adored her and enveloped her in their respect, love, and care the moment she came home.
And — in her room at night — she’d open her Bible and read of her Saviour. He was a “man of sorrows.” Enemies hung on his every word looking for their next point of contention with him. This man — this Jesus — knew what it felt like to be alone, to be made fun of even in church. To be left out and not fit in. He understands. He knows.
And snuggled under her covers beside a small lamp in the darkness, they met in conversation, talked about their day, and became best friends.