March 27th, 2011
…yet made me a better person.
I went to a small Lutheran school for 4th-8th grade. Every year I was there, I was in a combined classroom. My 7th-grade class spent mornings with 8th grade and afternoons with 6th grade. I didn’t really have any particular friends in my class of nine people, but I had good friends in the grades above and below me so I was pretty happy about that arrangement.
Then, for reasons that have become hazy with time, a girl named Mallory decided she didn’t like me. I think it was because I refused to make fun of the people she made fun of, and possibly even defended them a time or two. So Mallory set out to make my life miserable. She made snide remarks about me every chance she got, which the other kids would laugh at. The kids in her class who had been my good friends up till that year either joined her in making fun of me, or just avoided talking to me altogether. I understand now, and even understood then to some extent, that they were just acting out of self-preservation when they dropped me like a hot coal and laughed at me with Mallory. They didn’t want what she was doing to me to happen to them…but it was still incredibly hurtful. Two of my best friends from that class came to me a couple of years later and apologized to me for not taking my side that year. I was glad to hear that they felt remorse and I forgave them, but our friendships had been irreparably damaged.
I don’t really understand why Mallory held such sway over the other kids. She was averagely pretty, a bit overweight, and wore the latest fashions (Esprit sweatshirts, perfectly-pegged Guess jeans, bangs curled and sprayed just so). She wasn’t the most intelligent or the funniest or the most athletic. What she was, though, was vicious. I guess that was the source of her power. She was really good at finding a weak spot and then poking it viciously and sneakily until you wanted to beg for mercy.
That’s probably why she hated me so much, actually: I refused to give in. I was stubborn enough to not engage her, and I refused to do what she wanted me to do if it went against my morals or principles. Mostly I just ignored her as best I could, went to the 6th-grade class in the afternoons and breathed a sigh of relief that my friends there mostly weren’t touched by the whole Mallory thing (they knew about it and thought it was awful, but they rarely crossed paths with the 8th-graders) so I could pretend it didn’t exist. Then I went home and cried. I cried a lot that year.
My mom talked to the 8th-grade teacher and tried to get her to help with the situation, but she basically just shrugged and said she didn’t know what she could do. It frustrated my mom, but she also knew that she was dealing with a heartbreaking situation in her own life. (Her youngest daughter, who was several years older than I, was sick with leukemia for years, and had died in the past year or so.) So my mom didn’t push too hard for her to intervene. And since I was only in that classroom half the day, I persuaded my mom that I could deal with it.
My mom had her own heartbreak that year, too: her mom passed away suddenly and very unexpectedly in October of that year. My mom was just about to turn 36 when that happened (the same age I am now, whoa) and it hit her very hard.
Also, that Christmas I was very sick with a sinus infection. I remember going to the Christmas Eve children’s program at my church and kind of being in a daze the whole time because of my fever. I spent the days following Christmas mostly sleeping in my parents’ bed, getting up for a half-hour to listlessly open presents on Christmas morning, only wanting to crawl back into bed and pass out. My mom made Chex Mix that year and the whole house filled with the smell. For years afterward I couldn’t eat Chex Mix because it made me feel sick.
The sinus infection went away with meds, but I didn’t really seem to recover. I remained rather listless and just plain tired for weeks. My mom told our doctor that if I were older she’d think I had mono. Dr. Murphy said he doubted it, but it wouldn’t hurt to draw blood and test for it.
Surprise! I had mono. Mallory and her crew expressed their concern for my health by laughing at me and leaving “anonymous” notes in my desk informing me that I wouldn’t get mono if I stopped kissing Jimmy so much. (Jimmy was an 8th-grader who was another constant target of Mallory’s mockery. He was a perfectly nice kid whose crimes were being poor, not wearing fashionable clothes, and not always having the best personal hygiene.)
The mono was far-enough advanced when I was diagnosed that I wasn’t allowed to participate in P.E. or sports for the rest of the school year. I ended up missing a third of that whole school year. Often I’d feel fine in the morning, and by lunchtime I’d be so exhausted that I’d call my mom to come get me. I slept probably 14 hours a day on average for a month or two.
Self-portrait, January 1988. On the back I wrote, “a picture I took of me (12 5/6) badly taken.”
Seventh grade was also the year I took the ACT test as part of a program through Duke University for gifted 7th-graders. The 8th-grade teacher, proud of me and not realizing it would give the haters (a boy in my class was also ruthlessly picking on me by this point) more ammo, shared with the whole class that I’d scored a 26 overall and a 32 in reading. (The national average ACT overall score is usually about 21.) So the number 26 figured in a lot of taunting I got the rest of the school year.
So, yeah, my 7th-grade year sucked royally for a lot of reasons. Once it was all over though, I realized it had made me a stronger person. I gained a clear understanding of what it felt like to be an outsider, and a lifelong resolve to side with the underdog whenever I possibly could, and those are good things. I don’t really know what Mallory’s life was like outside school, but I can only assume from the way she treated others that she was a pretty unhappy person. I hope she grew up and got therapy at some point.
Plus, I always hated P.E., and I got to skip it for half a school year.
I wrote this as a note for a private group on Facebook a few weeks ago. I had mentioned my hellish 7th-grade year in passing in a comment, and got a couple of requests to elaborate. I decided to post it here as well, after changing some names and details to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent.