Sunday, February 7, 2010

Junior High Language Class

Me, 1961

Junior High was a new low. It was like being thrown into the deep end without a floatie. Everyone there seemed able to swim—I was the only kid doing the puppy-paddle.

"Martha? Martha Ann?" my homeroom teacher said. Mortified, I let it go. "Here," I answered quietly. I heard a boy whisper, "I didn't know her real name was Martha."

Mr. Stucki called the roll in 2nd period science. "Linda B, Linda C, Linda D, Linda E . . . " eight Lindas. What was my mother thinking naming me Martha? Didn't she realize that my so-called friends would eventually find out and drop me? Oh the shame, the embarrassment of not being one of the cool Lindas.

History was taught in the shop building. I, of course, didn't know where the shop building was so I was late. Mr. Neff was already taking roll of the cool Lindas who had somehow found their way to class. Desk tops were propped open and behind them sat girls putting on turquoise eye-shadow and pancake make-up. Rat tails were flying, lifting bouffants to their proper heights, followed by choking clouds of Aqua Net. Pink and green tubes of mascara were passed surreptitiously from girl to girl, while others were drawing Cleopatra wings around their eyes with stubby, red Maybelline pencils. White lipstick completed the look.

The 60's Look

The girls reappeared from inside their desks, closing them on hidden mirrors. Rosy-lipped and flat-headed, I looked like an alien. And I didn't yet know the worst. I was also hairy. Sheri got out her bottle of Jergens and lathered up her smooth legs. Looking down at my furry shins I cursed my mother again. Why hadn't she told me 7th graders shave their legs?

The 9th grader at the Candy Counter told me he'd never heard of Neccos, as he sold stacks of Boston Baked Beans and ropes of red licorice. Come on! Even my choice of candy was nerdy? At lunch I hid my new plaid lunch box. (In Junior High brown-baggers embraced the brown bag.) How did everybody know these rules? Was there a secret handbook somewhere? Sitting shyly by myself, I listened and learned. The words were foreign . . . oh my gosh, they were swear words! No wonder I was such a dweeb. I didn't swear. It was all becoming clear.

Over the next few months I ditched the plaid lunchbox, learned to rat my hair, "inherited" an old Maybelline eyeliner from my mom's wastebasket, and bloodied my legs with a razor I found while babysitting across the street. But most importantly I incorporated a few swear words into my vocabulary.

"But Mom, Linda said . . ."

Forty-seven years later I still remember the day my mom found out. The Mixed Chorus had its first performance and Mom was making my uniform—a blue corduroy jumper. I came home from school, excited to get ready, and looked in my closet for the jumper. Not there. It wasn't in the sewing room either. Where was it? Oh my gosh, I had to have it! WHERE WAS IT?

Just then I heard the garage go up and I threw open the back door and yelled rudely at my mom. Accidentally my new "expressions" slipped out. Mom stood there, my jumper in hand, with her mouth open. (She'd taken it to the dentist to finish the hem while she numbed up for her root canal. Yeh.)

My subsequent punishment is long forgotten, but the hurt, disappointment and shock on her face is vivid in my memory. It dawned on me for the first time that my words could break her heart.

Junior High changed me. I went in without the confidence to tell people I went by Marty. Next, I snatched enough nerve to swear at my mom. In the end, I came to the certainty that I needed to grow up.

Cleopatra eyes and rat-tail combs are long gone. I'm even back to Neccos. Swear words are the only souvenirs I've kept from those years. I don't toss them around to sound cool anymore, and I'm embarrassed if they ever cross my lips, but they still pop into my head uninvited. Every time, I remember my mom's face at that low point in life and decide I need to aim high.

Martha Ann and family, 1962


Kay Dennison said...

Oh my!!!!!! You were racy. I didn't wear makeup or swear until I was a junior in high school. We won't talk about how I raised the latter to an art form in college.

Tiffany said...

My oldest daughter is in seventh grade. Thank you for helping me remember what it was like. It's a jungle out there!

Heffalump said...

I started swearing around 6th grade and by the end of high school, there wasn't a swear word I wasn't accustomed to saying regularly.
In my early 20s I decided to quit swearing. It was a horrible struggle and my friends would tell me to just swear instead of using an alternative. I am happy to report that swearing is not part of my regular language anymore. Boy you are right though, it does stick with you! I swear in my head without even meaning to, and sometimes one even slips out when I am really upset, thankfully usually only when I am alone. I wish it had never become a habit!

Miranda said...

Marty, I love your stories. You are such a great writer.

Hannah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hannah said...

I went to junior high a few years after you, but I remember having those same feelings. Teenagers will be teenagers. :) Love your writing.

I can't believe how much you look like Marta in that picture!

Diane said...

Junior high was the black hole of my life. I have only about 3 vivid memories of that time - I think my brain kicked in to protect my sanity and made me forget the misery.

My mom wouldn't let me shave my legs until I was older, wouldn't let me wear pants on the few occasions we were allowed to, and no nylons with dresses. Talk about a class A geek! Add bad glasses a big silver capped front tooth, and I think you can picture it for yourself.

Christie said...

You create such vivid detail. I could picture this story exactly in my head as I read your words. Well done, Omes.

Tiffany said...

Oh how I love your stories!

kenju said...

I remember with no fondness whatsoever, my years in junior high school. The lack of confidence almost killed me. It didn't get much better in high

BTW, I had a good friend named Martha in the 7th and 8th grades, and my birth mother was Martha, too.

That's a great family photo!

Jake said...

I inherited my favorite swear from you. Wouldn't Gramma be proud?!!

Jake said...

p.s. I think this should be mandatory reading for all cousins club members (and their parents!) before starting middle school.

Junior high is excruciating in every generation.

Jake said...

p.p.s. I think that is the best family photo ever. The weird thing to think about is that I am probably the same age (or older) as Gramma in that photo!!

The Grandmother Here said...

I went to a one room school through 8th grade. The big shock came when we rode the bus into the city for high school. Life was cushioned by a year in an all girl class. Having skipped a grade and being born late in the year, I was younger than everyone in every way. But I lived to tell the tale. And I believe I've managed to be a functioning member of society in spite of it all.

Sheri said...

Martha, Martha, Martha--(or was that Marsha, Marsha, Marsha?)
The only thing I remember about the 7th grade at OJH was wearing a Circle pin on the first day (thinking it was very cool), then having boys laugh at me saying, "Look she's a virgin!" I had no idea what virgin meant, but I was humiliated. In tears, I shouted back, "I AM NOT!" It was all a giant learning curve and I assure you I was one of the biggest nerds in the school.

I got sent to the principal's office for saying "Fudge" when a teacher heard me wrong and thought I said the real thing.

Those were the days. . .

The Grandmother Here said...

Through junior high and high school our son dressed in all black. Years later we learned that some kid had told him that his shirt and pants didn't match so he picked black and black so he matched. Life is rough.

Misty said...

Is there anyone out there who had a good experience in Jr. High?

Anonymous said...

that should a scene in one of your novels.

It reminds me of when Emma insults Miss Bates. I could feel your pain.

OMA= Jane Austen