I’d like to draw Junior High School Memory Week to a close with my own personal Most Humiliating Moment, or rather, when the gaping existential maw of adolescent doom opened wide and swallowed me whole.
I, too, endured beatings, beratings, and iceballs to the ear, but I figured those were to be expected. By skipping kindergarten (and being a May baby) I was almost two years younger than many of the cohorts in my grade, and they didn’t take to me kindly. Like many of you, I kept under the radar as long as possible, and when the fights came, I fucking took it like… well, like somebody who is almost two years younger than you.
However, there was one kid, whom I’ll call Bert (since I really don’t want to deal with Google’s search engine) who sat next to me in science class and regularly struck up conversation. When Dr. Gerlits left him in charge of showing the movie (an informational film shot in 1954 about How Electricity Works), it was his idea to thread it backwards, thus treating our class to its first visual freakout. He barely had any friends either, and he decided that’s what we’d be.
I pedaled my bike to his house for months, where he had old Playboys and Penthouses, and I watched him banter with his dad, the saddest broken-down creature in a wife-beater and black sock garters I’d even known. His sister, vivacious and large-breasted, was my secret fantasy.
He once thought it’d be cool to fly a kite with speaker wire during a thunderstorm, which we did, until the cops saw us. We would meet between classes just to talk shit, something I’d never done before. Suddenly, he had the bright idea to be a technical stagehand for the Junior High School Musical (an execrable production called “Doctor! Doctor!”) and that meant I was too.
When we got to our first meeting, the art teacher-cum-drama coach (i.e., a pissed-off ex-hippie) read us the riot act about defacing school property. He then unveiled a wall that had signatures of students going back to the 1950s, kids who’d worked on other shitty musicals far into the past. If we minded our p’s and q’s, he said, we’d get to put our names on that wall.
All was going well with the production until the goth kids running the light booth began to speak inner Ostrogoth to each other and became super-tight. This meant they needed someone to make fun of, and I was perfect. They threw brooms in my way so I’d trip on them, they’d send me on nonsensical errands, and they got me to sign a little block of wood with a red marker, saying there was going to be a raffle.
They even made a temporary nickname for me: The Beaver, after “Leave it to Beaver.” I have no idea why.
On opening night, they ran to the light booth with a prop I needed to start the show. They locked the door and mocked me through the holes in the grate. As the chorus grew louder, I heard Bert in there with them: “Fuck off, Beaver!” followed by a chorus of stoned guffaws. When I saw Bert through the grate, and I could see the glee he took in finally being a part of a clique, finally being able to humiliate someone else, something in me broke.
I always thought someone was more low than me, that someone was actually standing behind my place in the great line of popularity, but in that moment, I turned around and realized the end of the line was me. There was none more lower. I was the last stop before… I didn’t know. Quadriplegic kids in wheelchairs making left turns via a straw? Kids with communicable diseases?
I had never known any friends, so I’d never known that sort of betrayal. I walked away quaking with rage and sadness, and told myself: this is how things are. You are here. There is nowhere to go. I decided not to talk for a month, and damn near did it.
I was only partially awoken from my trance by the art teacher, who was screaming at me for the prop – the play couldn’t start without it, and it was still locked in the light booth. Later, he and the vice-principal called me into the front office, where I was shown the block of scrap wood where the goths had told me to write my name. I had defaced school property, and was now forbidden to sign the great wall of musicals past.
I was no longer allowed to have anything to do with the drama department, which ruined my plan to just “not show up” ever again and let them suffer shorthanded. I didn’t say anything, just left the room without looking at anybody.
Oddly, a week later, the art teacher called me into the backstage room. When I got there, they were having the wrap party, and everyone was signing the wall. With a profound smugness only perfected by abject self-hatred, he told me I’d done my penance, and he had reconsidered: I may now sign the wall.
I wanted to take the magic marker and shove it down his pee hole. I looked at the sneering party, now stopped for my benefit, and I wanted to take a sword and behead every last one of those fuckers. And I wanted Bert, who dared not look me in the eye, to swallow a bowl of M-80s and explode from the inside, so I could set fire to his entrails.
But I couldn’t say one word. Having a retort, or even an ounce of self-respect, was not in my character. I took the magic marker, and knowing everyone was staring, I signed the fucking wall. For all I know, it is still there today.
I left that place about 18 months later and moved across the country to Norfolk, Virginia, where I enrolled in a prep school. We wore ties, I went back to the grade I was supposed to be in, and I made actual friends for the first time. Nobody beat anybody up; we listened to REM, the Jesus & Mary Chain and read Tom Wolfe for class.
I said goodbye to middle school and tried to blot it all out. Of course, most things leaked through, but I have to believe that each time you remember a rotten story, it has noticeably less effect on your heart. And so, my dear readers, I’ll try to bid adieu to those years yet again, but have one last request: Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, please go fuck yourself.