Lori Greene was needlessly cruel and we were afraid of her.
“Please don’t slice and dice other students with your sharp tongue, Lori,” scolded Ms. Attaway, our 7th grade drama teacher. “Everyone deserves your respect.”
When Ryan Wiggins laughed at her rebuke, Lori Greene decided to cancel him on the spot.
“You’re a pervert, Ryan,” she loudly announced to the class. “I’ve seen what’s on your camera roll, and you are a creeper.” The entire first period class, except for Ms. Attaway and Ryan, burst out into laughter.
Of course Lori Greene hadn’t been anywhere near Ryan Wiggins’ iPhone to see what pictures he had secreted there, but being middle schoolers, all of our camera rolls were highly suspect. Ryan turned bright red and didn’t say another word for the rest of the semester.
Being impossibly beautiful didn’t help Lori Greene’s overweening narcissism or increase her tolerance of others. While the rest of us had no clue how to coif our frizzy tresses, Lori Greene quickly mastered the flat iron, turning her dark hair into smooth waves that perfectly framed her face. While the rest of us drowned in a sea of acne, her peaches-and-cream complexion glowed all the more luminously. While the rest of us crossed our arms over our stubbornly flat chests, Lori Greene wore tight t-shirts to show off how well she’d successfully navigated puberty.
In the amoral abyss that is middle school, Lori Greene was popular simply because she was pretty. No one in our grade held any illusion that she was particularly intelligent or kind or good. We curried her favor and idolized her because—in some magical way—perhaps her popularity might transfer onto us. It was a risk worth taking, even if Lori Greene was as charming as an injured honey badger.
“Okay, everyone. Settle down. I have the scripts for our next in-class performance. Form into groups of five,” Ms. Attaway instructed, shuffling papers while the class looked at its collective self in silent horror.
Even though she was my favorite teacher, I immediately questioned Ms. Attaway’s pedagogy. Asking self-conscious adolescents to form themselves into groups is Darwinian at its worst. Nothing reveals one’s place in the social order like attempting to join a temporary tribe.
The boys melted into the walls, wondering for the millionth time why they picked drama as an elective. The girls milled about like war orphans, hoping someone would offer them shelter from the embarrassment of not being wanted.
“Lori! Lori! Lori!” called Sandy Brooker from across the room, scurrying over like the jabbering sycophant she was. “Omigod Lori, who should we get in our group?”
“I don’t care,” Lori Greene said, looking around, a smear of disgust on her pretty mouth.
“Dawn? Let’s get Dawn!” Sandy Brooker waved frantically. “Dawn! Dawn! Dawn!”
I blithely watched Sandy scuttle away to greet the delighted Dawn.
“What about you?” Lori Greene turned to me.
“What about me,” I replied, a little on edge, wondering what her angle was. Lori Greene had never talked to me before.
“You got a group?”
“I guess I do now,” I said, puzzled at the cosmic turn of events. How did I get invited into the popular group? Dawn and Sandy rejoined us. Before I could luxuriate in my inexplicable rise in social status, a smiling Ms. Attaway appeared, with one of our peers in tow.
“Excuse me ladies, do you have room in your group for Melanie?”
Melanie? I groaned inwardly. This was my one chance to climb up the popularity totem pole. The presence of Melanie in our group threatened my good fortune.
Lori, Dawn, and Sandy sat down, stone silent. Ms. Attaway continued to smile. I reluctantly nodded and Melanie joined our group.
Melanie lived in my neighborhood. I had known her since preschool, and she was nice but—odd. Just pure wackadoo. In kindergarten, we called Melanie the “Booger-Miner” for obvious reasons. In 2nd grade, Melanie wore a ponytail and trotted like a horse on the asphalt playground. In 4th grade, Melanie licked the frosting out of her Oreos and threw the chocolate cookies away. That’s when I quit talking to her.
“All right everyone!” Ms. Attaway clapped her hands. “Now collectively decide who in your group will play the hero, the villain, the damsel in distress, the train conductor, or the bystander. I will give you five minutes!” She set the timer and started to write something on the whiteboard in squeaky dry erase markers.
Lori Greene looked at each of us, taking inventory. “I am the hero. Sandy is the train conductor. Dawn is the bystander. And you are the damsel in distress.”
I’m the damsel in distress? I was heartily pleased with her decision. Sandy and Dawn giggled.
“What about me?” asked Melanie.
“You are the villain,” Lori Greene decided.
“Oh,” Melanie replied, looking down at her untied shoes. Casting the odd but effervescent Melanie as the villain seemed wrong.
“I'll be the villain,” I suggested. “Melanie can be the damsel in distress.”
“No. Melanie is the villain." Lori Greene seemed angry and I felt chastened.
“It’s all right,” Melanie grinned good-naturedly. “I’ll be the villain. I think it will be fun!”
Lori Greene rummaged in her purse. She quickly pulled out a Sharpie, a thick black permanent marker. “As the villain, we are going to draw you a big twirly mustache.”
“A mustache? Oh,” Melanie said, her eyes big at what that implied.
Our drama class was 1st period. Melanie suffered enough throughout the school day as it was. I couldn’t imagine how she’d survive six more class periods with a large hand drawn mustache on her plain face. The teasing. The bullying. There were no good options for her.
Could she really tell Lori Greene no?
Lori Greene took her black marker and began to draw a thick curling mustache on Melanie’s face. Melanie bit her lower lip. When it was done, Lori Greene leaned back to appraise her handiwork with unfettered glee.
“There!” Lori said, holding up a small hand mirror for Melanie to see. Permanent black marker covered Melanie's face from side to side.
Melanie’s lower lip quivered.
And at that moment, I hated Lori Greene with all the loathing in my teenage girl’s heart.
“Now it’s my turn,” I said, grabbing the Sharpie and taking the hand mirror from Melanie. “I’m going to be a damsel in distress about missing her electrolysis appointment.”
While I drew a big thick mustache on my own face, Sandy and Dawn predictably giggled.
But more importantly, Melanie and I laughed.