This may surprise you (it definitely shouldn’t), but popularity eluded me as a youth, especially in those obscure middle school years.
If I’m being fair, I got along with many people. I’ve always been able to talk to just about anyone. Mostly the senior citizen Walmart greeters who would hand out smiley face stickers to passersby.
I always got LOTS of stickers.
Yet, as is the case today, in every school are the kids who have inward demons of their own and take out their frustrations on awkward, clique-less kids.
I fit in as a misfit — a bit socially inept, eclectically dressed with rerun hand-me-downs, ashamed of my place on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder. I had greenbeaned my way through grade school, hitting 5’10” by 6th grade, and my physical abilities were awkward and subpar. I tried out for the volleyball team and was given the position of secondhand team manager — a polite way of saying “thanks but no thanks.” I wasn’t sure how to move my flailing, disjointed limbs in a way that didn’t resemble a panicked Woody from Toy Story.
Wishy-washy with my integrity, I made friends and sometimes lost them as I waffled between goodness and dishonesty. I felt alone much of the time, sometimes of my choosing and sometimes because I wasn’t sure how to break the barrier of preestablished, tight-knit friend groups.
I relied on relationships with teachers because I knew they’d accept me, love me, and find the best in me. Sidebar: Maybe that’s why I chose to teach.
Regardless, I was a bullseye for bullying.
One cold January morning in 8th grade, my class ventured out of the classroom for an outdoor winter project. Dressed in oversized khaki flares and strappy black dress shoes, I hid my burning cheeks as classmates whispered and tittered about my frozen red toes in the freezing January air. I found a bench to sit on, my frozen feet numb from having lost any circulation.
Behind me, I heard boys giggling in their prepubescent guffaws. I rolled my eyes. That sort of behavior always annoyed me. While I inevitably thought it was okay to disrespect my mom every day (you can ask her — I was a pro), I could never disrespect a teacher’s authority in the classroom. To me, teaching was a type of social standing that demanded extremely high regard.
I felt movement behind me as the stupid, chortling boys approached the forest green bench.
Moments later, I felt an egg-like liquid pour down my long, untidy hair. The scent of acetone and alcohol permeated the air around me. I reached up instinctively and touched the sticky, viscous liquid that had leeched into my scalp and drowned my roots.
Rubber cement. They had poured rubber cement over the top of my head.
The boys ran off, laughing derisively.
There’s this moment, you know? An infinitely long pause when our amygdalas decide how we will respond to fear and stress.
Some people fight.
Some people flee.
I always freeze.
I looked at my hands covered in rubbery glue. The cold air attacked the cement quickly, causing the less saturated sections to dry immediately around individual strands. The more curious but perhaps more compassionate students gathered around and picked out rubbery remnants from my scalp.
I didn’t have much to say.
I couldn’t decide if I was grateful or mortified.
I’ll fast-forward the rest of the story. The teacher saw what happened (I hold that gratitude very close to my chest), the boys got in trouble, and I got an apology the next day.
But that eternal moment — I’ll never forget feeling the delayed shift inside my brain, heavy cogs reversing, the clunks and clinks of switching gears. Twenty-five years later, I still freeze. I still sit and stare at the ground as I process the unexpected and wait for the cognitive mechanics to recalibrate.
Maybe one day, I’ll deliver a hefty series of superhero sucker punches or run away until the pressure in my lungs dissipates.
Most likely, however, you’ll find me sitting right here, waiting for the drenching cold in my chest to drain away.
You can sit with me if you’d like.