Sunday, February 7, 2010
Junior High Language Class
"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 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.
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.