After I wrote my adoption post a couple of weeks ago I started thinking over my other memories on the subject. I came up with one that’s more about bullying than adoption. It was the culminating event in a long series of incidents. Looking back I can see that many of my beliefs about what people thought of me in high school spring from this encounter. That sad thing is, so much of what I assumed to be true wasn’t, but after experiences like this, I wasn’t willing to take the risks necessary to learn that. I believed I was hated and shunned by most of my classmates, so that became my reality, even though many kids had no more malice for me than I had for them, and some of the bullies were only trying to avoid being singled out themselves. When you’re 14 you don’t have the perspective to see outside of your own experience.
I wrestled over changing the names and ultimately decided to do it. Not because these people could sue me, or because they deserve the anonymity, but because it felt wrong, almost like a form of revenge, to include them.
8th Grade Hell
I sit at the back of my 8th grade Language Arts class hearing laughter up front where a big knot of kids pulls in tight to discuss A Separate Peace. I don’t join them. I’m not welcome, so I huddle out of the way in my Goodwill clothes and my glasses that have the earpieces held on with black electrical tape.
Lexi Smith is up there. My best friend and worst enemy. On our “friend” days we sneak money out of her dad’s 5-gallon bottle of coins, which is so heavy it takes both of us to tip it. We ride to Dave’s Country Market on her motorcycle, keeping mostly to the fields, except for one quarter-mile stretch where we brave the Scenic Highway. Though we stick to the edge of the road, outside the white line, somehow that never fools cops into thinking we’re obeying the law.
On “enemy” days Lexi calls me Space Freak because ever since I saw Star Wars I’ve been crazy about science fiction and astronomy.
Up by the white board the laughter gets rowdier. There’s something malignant in it, and I strain to hear, eyes locked on the book I’m supposed to be reading. I know from experience that this kind of snickering means its time to hide or run. Lexi’s voice weaves in and out of the laughter. I catch a snippet of words that sound familiar, and then a whole sentence. Shame and outrage flare up, bigger than a supernova. My journal!
I leap up, charge to the front of the room, snatch the pages from Lexi’s hands. Her face is one big, nasty grin. Laughter swells around me, raucous now, because I’m making a scene. Kids like this feed off the energy of an emotional reaction the way a star feeds off hydrogen and helium. I attack Lexi, wanting to slap that mocking look off her face, and then the teacher is there, pulling us apart. Where has he been all this time? He’s supposed to be my friend! How could he let them do this?
* * *
We’re in the conference room in the library seated around a long table. Me, my teacher, the principal, and the whole Language Arts class. I feel hopeful, because someone’s finally doing something, and humiliated, because everyone’s staring at me. Deep down I know that this is only going to make things worse.
“She asks for it!” Tony Davis says, and it a way it’s true. I call him Tony “Davidson”, because he’s wigged out about Harleys. But the difference between my insults and theirs is that I never start it. I only fight back, and I tell the principal so.
Tony knows he messed up. He goes for a distraction. “Back in first grade my mom told me I had to be nice to her because she’s adopted.”
My skin flashes cold and my gut crumples on itself like a wad of paper. No one’s made a secret of my adoption, but I didn’t know people were talking about it, making me into some pathetic Orphan Annie.
“But I’m tired of it,” Tony rages. “She’s a freak!”
That’s true, too. I make up little astronomy quizzes for our Language Arts teacher, who’s a grown-up, closet space freak, or maybe just pretends to be because he feels sorry for me. Every night I pray that God will let me see a UFO, because I want aliens to abduct me, and I’d go willingly, no matter how weird they looked.
The principal talks, the teacher talks, the kids mostly sit there wishing they were someplace else, except a few like Tony, who keep blaming it on me.
In the end, nothing is resolved. The bell rings. We get up to go. I walk out of the room, head down, wishing I was dead, and knowing that nothing will ever change.