I picked up the dirty, wet rag. It had originally been white at the beginning of the year, but now it was a graying, tattered thing. I was shaking inside, but I tried to avoid eye contact with the table full of boys. They were obnoxious. They sensed fear. They went for it.
"The rag! That rag! The rag!"
They turned it into a song and had a three-part harmony going.
On the outside, I looked like a girl robotically cleaning a table while about five boys lost their minds trying to get my attention with a ridiculous musical taunt. To viewers, I would have had a
blank look on my face, with no eye contact with anyone, as if I were not experiencing what was happening to me. Inside, I had a giant knot in my throat that was threatening to choke me to death while they laughed so hard that they were falling off the lunch benches. I took a deep breath and assembled my coat of armor. They were throwing rocks and spears at me, but I could not be reached. I was safe inside my armor. But, if you want to understand how we got here, read on.
Two months before...
The band room was quiet during lunch. There was no supervision. There were just practice rooms, and occasionally other students practiced in booths. This was in stark contrast to band when it was in session; it was one of the most contentious places in the junior high, with Mr. Kobe successfully scaring the band students into excellence. The Troy symphonic band was known to be one of the best bands in the state - not junior high bands - just one of the best bands compared to any level.
Kobe had a Chicago gangster accent:like the wise guys in old movies. He had curly brown hair and piercing brown eyes. Kobe would come into the room with a wild look in his eyes and survey students. In my time in the band, I had seen Kobe taunt his favorite and best clarinet player for an hour. He favored 1st chair clarinet players. They always had to be blond girl, and there was a love/hate dynamic between the chosen girl and Kobe. He was also fond of berating the entire drum section, which tended to be full of boys who regularly got in trouble everywhere in the school. Kobe was a thrower of chairs, music stands, and pieces of the stage we were sitting on. He regularly broke his conductor's baton on his music stand to emphasize that we were trash. Sometimes he got his partner in crime involved, assistant band director Mr. Slabozoski, otherwise known, as Slabo. The kids said that Slabo picked in his nose and wore a toupee. While no student dared to speak against Kobe, Slabo was a target and was regularly disrespected by the drum section to his face.
"Look at your Mr. Barkley over there--grinning. Why is he grinning when the trombones sound like garbage--not a ones of youse in that brass section are worth a thing," Kobe said, sneering.
Todd Barkley, first chair trombone,unbelievable was over in the trombone section grinning and snickering too, actually enjoying the attention. Some of the students allowed harsh words to roll right off them. I sat in the corner, putting my cloak of invisibility on because I would not have been a cheerful-amused-Todd-type had I been the target of Kobe.
I had been in Mr. Kobe's band since I was in 4th grade. By 7th grade, I already knew the drill. Once you were selected to be part of symphonic band, usually in 6th grade, the year starts in the summer with the band marching around the school for several hours each morning to learn how to march in straight lines and hold instruments up perfectly while playing the Troy Trojan fight song from memory. Kobe also insisted that everyone had private lessons, and we had instrumental sectional practice a couple of times a week.
Kobe was not a nice teacher, but I realized that he wrote passes for lunchtime practice because, as far as Kobe was concerned, a band student's life should revolve around a band student's instrument. I took advantage of that to solve my problem. I depended on him to write me a pass to practice my instrument during lunch because he saw nothing wrong with giving someone a pass to practice their instrument during lunchtime– every single day. I enjoyed going into the soundproof rooms and playing my clarinet— away from my classmates.
There, the problems of the lunchroom and the rag did not exist.
One day during lunch, while in the band room, I was sent for. I do not know how they found out I was in the band room, but they did, and so there I was sitting with Ms. Ganzert after being found out. She was one of those teachers who everyone said was mean. That was incorrect. She was not mean, rather she was one of the most malevolent teachers I had ever had. She taught math, and she was my homeroom teacher. She was extremely thin and tall and had short, brown hair - curling into a mushroom shape around her angular face.
"Why are you skipping lunch everyday?" she said in a shrill, hysterical voice. Then, without taking a break, or waiting for an answer, she said, "Most people want to go to lunch to talk to their friends and be with other kids," she spat out.
Ouch. She hit her target. I was bleeding inside. Breathe, breathe, breathe…I told myself. By the time a few seconds had passed, I had put my armor on. There, I was blissfully numb. Good. I was not going to feel the rest of this.
"Why don't you want to be with the other students?"
"You have to eat."
She had not stopped talking, and she was
now glaring at me.
"Why don't you say something?" she was yelling.
I realized I was scaring her, just staring at her dry-eyed, but I did not see any other option. I could not talk behind a coat of armor. Perhaps, if I had not already erected the armor, we could have talked, but her sharp, piercing, unrestrained yelling...
I suppose from the adult who-thinks-she's-doing-her-job perspective, I looked completely composed and unaffected or maybe, offensive because I just seemed nonplused by her tirade, so
I made her lose her mind and rip me to shreds. Many times, when confronted by adults in any situation, they said I was overconfident or arrogant and the following had been done to me by adults to fix that:
1. My mother tried to punch my head into the wall and then had just repeatedly slapped me in the face for saying nothing while she then keep yelling, "Are you staring me down?"
2. The clarinet teacher said I thought I knew too much and dropped me because I was too quiet and made him feel uncomfortable.
3. The black clarinet teacher said I did not like him because he was black, even though I was black too.
My affect was unusual and unexpected coming from an adolescent girl, apparently.
So, understandably, Ms. Ganzert had, gotten completely carried away and was screaming that either I was a snot who dared to reject everyone or that I was a reject – take your pick - and she expected some type of reaction for that. Unfortunately, I disappointed her; she got nothing.
I had attended school in the Troy system since kindergarten. At first, I felt ok there, but there were clues that I was not fitting in. In the 4th grade Slam Book some students wrote that I was stuck up. I remember someone said they did not like me because they said I stared. It seemed like I did not have the right reactions to other people. I did not know how to join in at school. I did not know when to smile or not smile. But, I did not focus on it in those days because I had my best friend Tammy, to whom I was a normal girl. She made my days more than bearable. We laughed and giggled. We played. We wrote notes. We told secrets. We got in trouble in math together for talking too much. She invited me to her slumber party, and her mother made pancakes with powdered sugar. However, I remember one day in the 5th
grade, on one of the last days of school, Tammy was absent, and there was a set of my classmates lying on the ground together. They were talking about junior high. I remember thinking, "There they are -- everyone."
As I approached them and tried to join, I felt a cold wall go up. They stopped talking. I got up and wandered away. I never felt the same at Troy again. As I entered junior high the next year, Tammy moved to Colorado, and my fate as a pariah was sealed for at least a couple of years.
So, getting caught by Ganzert was a disaster. I was not going to be allowed to sneak off, even with permission, to the band room again that year.
That brings us back to situation of "The rag!"
But now you must understand my valid reason for abandoning lunch.
But if that is not enough, check this out. At the beginning of the school year, we had been assigned lunch tables. This was how that went. You were assigned a seat at a lunch table
randomly. At the beginning, everyone just sits at their assigned table. Then, kids begin to ask to be reassigned to a table with a good friend. One by one, the cool, preppy girls get themselves moved. Then, the semi-popular girls move. This happened at my table until all that was left at my table were boys and the most disgusting reject in the seventh grade: Theresa Drummond. She had her only mildly disgusting sidekick, Bobbie Jo Drees as company. They both lived in the trailer park in town: a town known for its auspicious subdivisions or decent stand-alone homes.
Thus, Theresa and Bobbie Jo' 's status was sealed, and they were downgraded to what the upper class, upper-middle class, and middle-class Troy students called scum, due to them being poor.
On the one hand, I did not hate them or buy into the idea of any person being scum, but I realized who they were in our Troy-universe, and being abandoned by all the girls at the table and left with these two rejects was a humiliation that was hard to bear. After all, I was not poor. I was just a weirdo; I had come to understand. I put off weirdo vibes that made everyone uncomfortable, but I did that because I too was uncomfortable and could not figure out what was happening. But...I looked perfectly normal: well groomed, petite, athletic, with a baby face cuteness. I thought I had everything in common with my classmates.
Bobbie Jo was nice and had been in my kindergarten class; I had fond memories of her, but Theresa, a girl who had turned up at some point recently, was gross. Meaning, she was already
promiscuous, constantly harassing the boys, which was odd in a school when students had not even started talking about girlfriends and boyfriends. I can remember being picked on by
Theresa. She liked to resort to race and found ways of negatively describing my
coarse, black, long-press n' curl hair and brown skin as often as she could. As much as I wanted to defend myself, to disparage whiteness in a school that was nearly 100% white, would not have served me well.
"You greasy-headed black weirdo," Theresa said.
"Well your hair looks greasy and permed…" I said, in reference to her moussed, tight curly perm. It looked just as greasy as mine with mousse adding extra shine to what amounted to a man-made curly afro. All I had to use against her were weak, overly logical comebacks when forced: I resented her. I hated suffering the indignity of being trapped at the lunch table with two outcasts who at least had each other --while I had nobody.
Then, to add insult to injury, at some point, Theresa Drummond and Bobbie Jo were gone too, and just like that, I was just oddly sitting at the lunch table close to the wall, as far away from the boys as I could get, quickly eating, and then reading my book: hiding in my brain; not a good look for a seventh grader.
However, sitting at a table reading is nowhere as bizarre as sitting at a table desperate and looking around like there is no set of girls who will have you at their table.
One day the rowdy boys at the end of the table somehow realized that I had not had my turn wiping the table. I did not want to get near them, though. The idea of weaving in and out of their tightly packed clique to clean the table flummoxed me. I could not figure out how I was going to do it. So, there I was, being serenaded by a set of innocent bullies who probably could not stop harassing me to save their lives.
I had had so much lunch table trauma by that time that neither my heart nor my brain could not take any more lunchtime stress. I felt like there was a weight in my chest and that there was a dam of emotion behind my eyes that nobody could see, no matter how they looked. They kept attacking as if they did not understand that I needed to stay safe.
That is when I had got the bright idea to escape to the band room. I had enjoyed that for that couple of months until Ms. Ganzert found out and probably thought she had put another rich Shorewood brat in her place and deserved applause. After being barred from the band room, I returned to lunch and sat at the table.
And that is how I ended up sitting at the lunch table being yelled at by my tablemates.
"The rag! The rag! The rag!"
At first, I just put my head down listening to the mantra helplessly. They kept at it, and after what seemed like an eternity it started to sound rather musical again. They were not getting tired. I tried to start wiping the table and they would not let up.
It was then I felt like I was separating from myself. I looked at my pathetic self from a distance:
I was a little, brown, greasy-looking girl, stiff and self-conscious, shaking with a dirty rag in her hand.
I sighed and walked up to myself.
"Hey you," I whispered. "What the heck are you doing losing your mind over five boys acting like morons? Look around you. This is ridiculous! Stand up for yourself you mousy weirdo!
My mousy, weird-self took a deep breath, dropped the rag, and walked to the principal's office, finally.
I sat in a chair in office, practically invisible. The bright office was quiet and cool, the air-condition humming softly. The wall of windows was bringing light in, illuminating nearly everything in the room. It was relaxing.
"Yes dear?" a secretary said, in what seemed like a whisper compared to the cacophony of voices in the cafeteria.
Immediately, my relaxation ceased, and I hoarsely pushed out, "I need to talk to the principal!"
I wanted to sound sweet and sane, but it did not come out like that. Suddenly, there was the principal and the vice principal standing there, and my story was rushing out in spurts with crying mixed in. They quickly hauled the handful of boys in the office.
"But she doesn't want to wash the table!" they tried excusing their behavior.
"Correction, I don't want to wash the table if you are taunting me and acting like I must do it at your command because that is rude, and I don't deserve that!"
There was silence. They weren't expecting my voice and it even sounded foreign to me, but it sounded strong.
It was like a switched turned on and I felt different-- confident. I took my leave of the office, straightened my shoulders, walked to the table, took the tattered rag, and swabbed the dirty table, as the boys watched from the office.
I felt like I was shaking off all of the fear, all of confusion, and rejection: Rag, Smag! It was the first time I felt normal in that school, and that feeling lasted. I walked bolder down the hall everyday, and I spent the rest of the year owning the table in my head.
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Good for her. I love to see people overcoming maltreatment and personal fears/challenges. It’s not easy and speaks to the persons strength to fight their battles alone- and win!
Thank you Ashley.
So glad this had a happy ending because you really took us down the road of middle school oppression with taunts from the cool kids. It is truly heartbreaking what some kids have to suffer through and this story really captures that well. Loved that the MC put on their wings at the end and transformed into the superhero they were meant to be
Thank you Wally!
This was stellar. I am super late to the party but better late than never. Her problems were so real, and you made it super easy to identify with her. I love that she found he courage to stand up for herself at the end!