When I started seventh grade, I had moved from my comfortable elementary school into the big Jr. High, where I was combined in the halls with all the other kids coming from 5 different elementary schools and all the 8th graders.
I didn’t have really any friends at that point. The friends that I did have from 6th grade were either in other classes, or we had drifted apart. But in my classrroms that didn’t matter. I was a good student. I excelled at reading and writing, I loved learning new things, and depending on where I was sitting in class, I could usually be overlooked by most of my classmates.
I also had a habit of getting to school in the morning, quickly grabbing my books for the first couple of classes for the day, and then heading to the library. I would check out several books to last me a couple of days, and then head to class. Before and after each class, I would sit with my nose buried in a book and try to ignore the other kids around me as played the games. Games to get social status and popularity, or to maintain it.
We lived just outside of a major city, and had what was called the 2/20 program. Essentially, the school system bussed in kids from the inner city to the suburbs for a better chance at a good education. These kids were tough. They lived hard lives. Some of them adjusted very well. Others didn’t and felt they had to prove themselves by beating down other people.
You guessed it. I was one of those beaten down. I could usually avoid the ones I knew were tougher, by the classes I chose, because I kept to the more advanced track courses, and they tended to stay in the general track.
But there were two classes I couldn’t avoid them in. Gym and General Music. Because Music was pretty well controlled and there was a smaller group of kids there, it wasn’t too bad. Gym and Music rotated through the first semester. It was 5 days of Gym, and then 5 days of Music. It just kept rotating through that the whole semester.
In Gym, we entered the volleyball unit. The Gym teacher had us in groups of about 10 or so students. It was our job to stand in a circle and practice volleying a ball back and forth, without missing for 25 repetitions. Once she tested us and saw that all the groups had passed this, she would allow all of us to start playing real games. If a couple of groups couldn’t do it, it held the whole class back. I think after a while she would have eventually let up on those groups and allowed the whole class to play, but honestly, I don’t remember.
I was in a group that had two of the toughest girls from the inner city. I didn’t realize it until I was in that group.
They were very competitive, aggressive, and vocal.
All things that I wasn’t.
They knew it.
They turned on me. It didn’t matter if I successfully managed to volley every ball that came at me. It didn’t matter if I missed. It didn’t matter if I cleanly set up the ball for someone else to hit, or if it went wild. If we didn’t get to 25, it was my fault. We would practice for about 20 minutes or so, then the whistle would blow. We all sat down in our assigned circles, and one by one the groups stood up and tried to make their 25 volleys in front of the whole class.
I don’t remember how long we were at it, but several of the groups had already passed. On our 4th day in the Gym rotation, one of the girls started in on me, worse than usual. She was egged on by a couple of other girls, and the rest either laughed or were extremely quiet, afraid they would be turned on next.
After taunting me for a while, she finally told me that they wanted to practice without me to see if they could at least try for the 25 volleys without me screwing them up. So, I sat out, to the side of the circle, and let them practice without me. When the whistle blew we all sat down, but I was the only person sitting against the bleachers near my group.
The Gym teacher noticed right away. She asked why I was out of my group.
And to my horror and shame, I started to cry.
In front of a class of 80 some other students.
I managed to communicate that one of the girls wanted me to sit out, and the teacher told me to get back in my group. Within a few minutes we had to stand up and get tested. Even though the other girls kept the ball away from me, we still failed.
At the end of the class, I just wanted to sink into the floor and disappear. But as she dismissed the class, she called me over, along with the other girl. She made me explain more fully why I was sitting out. The other girl tried to defend herself by back talking. The teacher made her apologize to me, and sulked away to the locker room to change.
I cried through the whole ordeal.
I took my time going to the locker room to change back to my street clothes. I waited until the bell had rung, and the other kids were leaving the locker room. I had to push through them to get to my locker. Bumped and kicked and jostled all the way, I finally got to my locker and changed. I was given a hall pass by the teacher, so I wouldn’t be docked by being late to my next class without an excuse.
The rest of the day was a blur. I don’t even remember getting home. I just remember getting up for school the next day, knowing I was going to have to face that Gym class again. My stomach rolled at the thought. My mom had to get to work before I left for school. I was the last person to leave the house. As I started the five minute walk to the bus stop, my stomach got worse and worse. I finally got sick to my stomach along the way, and turned around and ran for home.
I talked to my mom at work, and she called me in sick for school. I went back to school the following day, knowing that we would be in Music for 5 days, and I wouldn’t have to face the Gym class until then. Still, I dreaded going back to school. I was sure that everyone in the entire school knew I was the girl who cried in front of the Gym class.
In Music that day, I remember asking someone next to me the numbers of the groups that had passed the volley test.
My heart sank when she mentioned the number of my group. They had passed without me there.
More Names, given and reinforced:
I had only been in the way after all.
I quietly went back to my work. I went back to my normal routine. I read to escape. I tried to hide, to be invisible, to walk along the walls of the hallways, and not touch anyone. I had to be on guard. I never knew when I was going to be hit, tripped, or pushed down stairs.
And I tried to prove to myself, by getting straight A’s in all my classes (except Gym), that I wasn’t a failure.
I wasn’t convinced.