Monday, May 19, 2014

The Junior High Dance

Note: none of these kids are my former classmates; it's just a random photo I grabbed.
It's prom season, and I've seen a few bloggers waxing nostalgia about their big high school night. I actually don't remember too much about my own high school prom, because it was so normal. I went with my clique of equally dateless (and awesome) girlfriends, and from what I do remember, everyone was nice to each other. No, the prom that is still a hangnail in my memory is my junior high school prom, because it was one of the worst and humiliating nights of my life. 


Or maybe technically it wasn't a prom, since this was the 9th grade we're talking about, but the unjustified hype surrounding it made it feel like a prom. When I was going to school, junior high consisted of grades 7-9 (today 9th graders in my town attend the high school, like they do in most school systems.) The school made a huge honking deal about sending us off to play with the big kids, and the last few weeks revolved around a series of events to celebrate our "graduation." One of these was the dance in question. 

To say that junior high was a really rough time for me is like saying Jon Hamm isn't a bad looking guy. Bullies were to me what zombies are to The Walking Dead. There was no escaping them. Every hour of my average school day--from the bus stop to classes and recess--was full of bullies galore. And the girls were worse than the boys. Three of the girls at my bus stop lived across the street from me, and were all part of the "popular" crowd. They constantly took shots at my designer label-free wardrobe and nothing was off limits, even my Sears and Roebucks shoes that they referred to as the color of "shit brown" one particularly bad morning. Responding to them with the simple phrase of "F*ck you" backfired. They spent the rest of the week mocking me in my voice wherever I went. It didn't stop until I broke down in tears in front of my mother, who made visits to each girl's house to talk to their mothers. 

Granted, I'll be the first to admit that if they handed out class awards for The Unsexiest Girl, I'd have won hands down, just squeezing out the Jehovah's Witness classmate who dressed like the women in the Warren Jeffs compound. I had short, layered hair that had been permed, big framed and thick lensed 1980s glasses, and I rarely wore makeup. I was also tall and skinny, which for some reason worked against me during this time. 

So maybe it was very naive and not very wise of me to develop a crush on one of the popular guys in my grade, but we can't control our hormones. Looking back now, I don't know what I ever saw in Kevin Murphy. He really wasn't all that good looking (big nose, dark beady eyes in retrospect), more of a jock, and the one big thing I remember about him was when his mother died suddenly during the 8th grade. He came from an Irish Catholic family and had something like 10 or 11 brothers and sisters. As harsh as it sounds, I can only surmise that his mother's body simply gave out from having so many damn children.

At the time of the 9th grade dance, Kevin was dating Stacy Gold--a popular girl with a loud, rude voice whose outward appearance matched her personality: she was butt ugly. She always had acne, which is ironic since I'm sure that if anyone else less worthy than her in our class had the same skin condition, she wouldn't have hesitated calling them pizza face and a variety of other nasty names. No amount of Aqua Net, teased hair, and supposedly trendy clothing could distract from her bad complexion. I'll never forget the time she played beauty expert and declared to our sex ed class that she rinsed her face with cold water because it closed her pores, preventing zits. I wish I had the courage to quip at the time about the lot of good it did her. 

In my mind, however, I was determined to ask Kevin to dance with me during the junior high prom. Why? Because I had never danced with a boy before and I knew I wouldn't get another chance to dance with my crush. 

At the dance, despite my flat chest, I wore a strapless cotton spring dress, feeling very grown up and yes, sexy. I'm sure I did wear makeup as I wanted to put my best foot forward. I hung out with my group of friends and decided that I couldn't ask Kevin to dance right away. Besides, I had to wait for the right moment when he wasn't dancing with Stacy. So first I asked another guy, Eric, whose last name escapes me.

The reason I chose Eric is because he was a bit of a nerd. I figured he wouldn't turn me down; after all, he kind of acted like Monroe from Too Close for Comfort. But when the dance ended, Eric quickly stepped away from me and said not-too-subtly, "Well, that was nice. I'm glad it's over. Bye."

His rudeness didn't deter me, though. I wanted to dance with Kevin. Ah, he was so handsome in his tux. So when my moment came--Starship's hit "Nothing's Going to Stop Us" started playing and Kevin wasn't dancing with Stacy, I made my move. 

I was so nervous...I'm sure anyone who came within close enough proximity could hear my heart banging away against my ribcage. I'm sure my palms were getting damp and I'm sure my approach came out in a squeaky, shy, little girl voice: "Hi Kevin. Would you like to dance with me?" 

Kevin hesitated and said "Uh...what?" but did proceed to dance with me once my request sunk in. 

It should have been a private moment that lasted a couple of minutes, and just for the two of us--even if Kevin didn't speak to me during that time I didn't care; I just wanted to relish touching him and swaying to Starship and be left with a nice memory for the rest of my life. The first boy I ever danced with! 

Instead, Stacy Gold pointed and laughed at me the entire time I danced with her date. She wouldn't stop pointing and laughing. Her friends noticed, and began to laugh. 

Like someone who is awakening from a traumatic event, I don't remember what happened next. I'm pretty sure Kevin broke away from me before the song ended, disgusted by having to endure my presence so close to his and Stacy's taunts, and I doubt he said thank you or much else. I must have made my way back to the table. And then it actually got worse...

The person who I had considered my best friend at that time, Heidi, came running up excitingly to me a few moments later. I thought she was going to support me, to say it was alright, that Kevin and his date are dicks and who needs him, anyway. Instead she bobbled up and down like Kelly Ripa after having 5 cups of coffee and excitingly blurted out, "You won't believe who I just danced with! Kevin Murphy!"

This was someone that I had been friends with since kindergarten. We had pretty much spent every weekend, every school vacation, and every summer together for the past 9 years--sleepovers, pizza parties, movies, rollerskating, arcade visits, you name it. Lately, though, she had taken to saying odd things to me such as, "I dreamed that Don Johnson picked me up in a convertible for a date and we drove past you and waved and laughed." She knew about my crush for months--and apparently didn't give a snot. I do not remember what my response was to her, but I do know it was the end of the friendship. Being betrayed by a friend in this way felt far worse than the rejection of the object of my affection. 

As it turned out, entering high school after that summer was the best thing to happen to me at that time. I was worried that people would continue to taunt me, but the merging of our class with members of the other junior high across town seemed to make everyone more accepting. I met the most wonderful group of friends, and many of us have connected on Facebook and are still friends today. I grew out the perm and gradually learned how to dress and present myself (something which I feel I didn't completely grasp until the past few years.) All of the "popular" kids just kind of did their thing and left me alone. I didn't date anyone until college, but the scars of what happened to me that night have reappeared a couple of times to let me know I still had some releasing to do--and now that the incident has been written and published, I feel like that releasing is now complete. 

Why write about this incident in my life at all, more than 25 years after it happened? Because 1. it needed closure and final forgiveness like I said (yes, despite my jabs I do forgive all of these dolts, since I know the past can't be changed) and 2. I feel for kids that are being bullied, because it was a big part of my life for many of my school years. It's even worse today now that most kids are using social media, and teasing and bullying is prevalent online. It was bad enough in the 1980s; today I can't even imagine. 

There's a third reason. I'm really proud of the woman that the 15 year-old socially awkward, shy girl grew up to be. The 42 year-old in me now would put those 9th grade snots in their place and make them polish my shoes with their corsages. I'm pretty sure (with the exception of my former best friend) that if any of them passed me on the street today they wouldn't recognize me. (As it turned out, I did see Kevin Murphy in a local town video store about 7 years after high school graduation...with a verrrry bratty, unruly child in tow that he could not control. Like mother, like son with the early start on big family breeding? Good luck with that. And no, he didn't notice me.)

There was a campaign launched a few years ago called It Gets Better. The project was aimed at gay teens who are enduring bullying, but I really think the message extends to anyone who is being teased or tormented. It may not happen right away, but it does get better. I'm proof of that. 

3 comments:

  1. Oh I remember very well. I'm a guy, 49 and personally, the luckiest man alive. I have the smartest, most caring, most beautiful woman I could hope to be with. But at 10-11 years, pure searing hell. It was the bus ride for me. Picked on every single day by high school kids. I remember during the xmas 2 week holiday, I counted how long I had until I had to be back on the bus, in hours. I looked at the clock over and over, counting, dreading that so many hours were already gone. Once I started to grow (I'm 6'1") it slowly faded. But I can remember the pure hell of 3rd to 6th grade like yesterday. You never feel so alone. The funny thing is, the same happened to my girl. Except once she showed me her picture from high school, almost in embarrassment, I was blown away on how beautiful she was. I told her I would have been totally smitten with her. She honestly thinks she was unattractive. She would have, and does now, take my breath away.

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  2. Pam, I am sincerely happy for you, writing this, taking the steps to purging this from your psyche. Kids are mean, no doubt about that. If it means anything, I now have two teens, and I have always made sure they know that being receptive, kind, and inclusive to all people is one of the single most important things you can do in your life. Being human, I fail this test at times. But as a reward my children are respected, even loved, by others; and I am very lucky as I know that it could turn out so very different. But more importantly is that other teens seem to have this vibe going as well - maybe social technology has the ability to create very extended peer groups, and enhanced peer pressure, with a much larger reach - Moms and Dads, and their peers being able to check each other's behaviors? I certainly hope social technology has some redeeming values. Best Wishes.
    s-a-h-d

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  3. Wow, you're such a pretty lady now, I wouldn't have ever guessed that it would have been a problem in your younger days. Guess you never know. Anyhoo, my dad moved us around quite a bit when we were young; high school was the first time we stuck for more than a couple of years. That was good and bad, one being the new kid in town (think Eagles song) and the other was you had to prove yourself at every new school. Bullying is nature, human and otherwise. Once you stood up to him (or them sometimes), they generally leave you alone. I was also one to try to be friends with everyone; jock, nerd, cowboy, geek and freak, and would attempt to defend those who were too meek to do so on their own, even if it meant I was going to get pounded. Most bullies are cowards even when they're much bigger than you. In my experience they will lay off if they think you'll fight back. I'm with you, forgiven and mostly forgotten. Life is good.

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