A couple of weeks ago, I got together with a few of the people who were most significant to me in a positive way when I was in junior high. Our lives had their way with us and we forged our own paths until it was literally decades since some of us had seen each other. How does this happen? I remember not being able to get through a 45-minute class without passing a note to Susan or Aruna then afterschool talking for hours on the phone. For the life of me, I can’t remember a single word scribbled in those notes or in those phone conversations but I do remember how they made me feel. I felt like “me” and it was good. During those awkward junior high school years where you are not a little kid but still goofy. It’s when your body and emotions have their own plans for you. You are constantly conflicted between your need for acceptance and your need to find out who you are. Your greatest need is for someone to go through it with you and not laugh too hard when you make an ass of yourself and to help you feel like you’re something special. That’s what I remember about all those notes and phone calls. That’s what I remember about Susan, Aruna, George and Bill. And yet we allowed so much time to pass between visits, phone calls and letters…
My mother and step-father married during the summer between sixth and seventh grades and we moved from Flushing to Glen Oaks. That’s about a 20-minute car ride but to me at the time, it might as well have been halfway around the world. I started junior high not knowing a solitary person and it seemed like everyone else there knew everyone else since birth.
I made what turned out to be a terrible judgment call on the first day of school when I wore a white mini-skirt with red polka dots on it and a red top. I wanted to look nice for my first day at the new school and when I walked out the door, I felt pretty and red always made me feel confident. That feeling didn’t last very long.
There was a kid named Bart Todd who on that first day of school made it his personal mission to make my every moment at this new school a living Hell for me. Maybe it was the red shirt that got his hostility pumping, maybe the polka dots on my skirt reminded him of an embarrassing outfit his mother put him in when he was three and stirred up anger that was buried deep inside him or maybe he was just a creep that saw me as the vulnerable, wide-eyed kid that was all alone in a strange place and figured I was easy prey. The “why” doesn’t really matter at this point. It didn’t really matter then either. His relentless, daily torture (which others chimed in on, too) wouldn’t have stopped if I knew why he chose me to pick on. That first day of school, I went home feeling like an ugly freak. I went home feeling that way for the entire year.
Things at home weren’t much better as I was trying to get used to my entirely changed life. It turned out to be for the best but when you are a displaced, tormented 12-year-old, you don’t see it that way. Even now as I am writing this, these wounds I received 27 years ago (Holy cow! Has it really been that long?!?!?) seem as fresh as the day I received them. That was the worst year of my entire life. I will never forget Bart Todd or his Dallas Cowboys jersey that he seemed to wear every day and his pin straight brown hair framing his extremely freckled face and I especially won’t ever forget the way that he made me feel.
Thankfully, Bart moved away during the summer between seventh and eighth grade. I remember hoping that there was a “Bart Todd” at his new school who would give him the same welcome that that this Bart Todd gave me. God forgive me, as I sit here as a nearly 40-year old woman (WOW! I’m getting old…), I still hope that he had that experience when he was the new kid at school. But you know what the kicker is here? I bet that if by some chance he was reading this blog, he would be stunned to find out what an impact he had on my life and my fragile 12-year-old ego. Bart Todd would hardly be alone. Most people have little to no idea of the kind of impact they’ve had on other people’s lives – positive or negative — and when those most significant moments occur.
Enough about Bart Todd. I’ve spewed enough negative energy here. I’m done with that now. Let’s move on to eighth grade, an infinitely better year. The year I met Susan, Aruna, George and Bill. That was when they helped me find my smile again.
Susan, Aruna and I were in the same class. In seventh grade there were three SP classes but there were enough students that didn’t make the cut that there were only two SP classes in eighth grade. There were only two other kids along with me from my seventh grade class that made it to SP in eighth grade. That was a relief off the bat. I felt I had a real shot of having a school yea that was manageable.
I remember being in classes with Susan and instantly liking her but she intimidated me a little. She was everything that I was not. She was blonde, had an incredibly infectious smile and was just the kind of person you wanted to have around. I remember wanting to be her friend. Maybe some of that would rub off on me (well, not the blonde hair part but you know what I mean). I don’t know how it happened but Susan and I did become friends. Soon we became inseparable and stayed that way through junior high and high school. We were so opposite, me with my jet black hair, dark sarcasm and pessimistic view of the world and Susan blonde, beautiful and always seeing the good in people. I guess we complemented each other. I know that I have never laughed so hard, so often with anyone else in my life. I told Susan about all of my frustrations in my home life and while hers was very different than mine, she never made me feel like a freak and was always there to listen. I pretty much lived in her house (especially the back room). Hers was the family I wished I had and I kind of did for a few years – including the coolest big brother in the world, Bobby, oooh, I mean “Rob.” All of that saved my life. I know it. If not for Susan being Ying to my Yang and the Zahner family putting up with me as practically a border in their home, I know that I would have headed on a path to no-good paved with self-loathing. Susan, you were the best friend I ever had in my nearly 40-years. You will never know what an impact you’ve had on me. Adequate words do not exist.
Susan introduced me to Aruna. They knew each other since grade school. Aruna was so much fun. She was quirky and funny and I always felt comfortable being silly with her. I remember being at her house with Susan (when we should have been some place else…) and watching Eddie Murphy’s Delirious for the first (second, third…tenth) time. You know until our recent reunion dinner, I had no idea that Mrs. Subramanian was working at the bank a couple of blocks away while we were hanging at the house? I think that was something I was better off not knowing at the time because I would have been freaked out and that would’ve gotten in the way of our collective good time. Aruna, thanks for showing me that you can cut loose without being a bad-ass.
And George and Bill…what can I say about those guys. I was so sorry that Bill couldn’t join us at the dinner. The flu has its way of tearing through on its schedule which is generally in direct opposition of our personal schedules. While Bill wasn’t there in body, he certainly was there in spirit. “George and Bill” were kind of a Ying Yang pair of their own. I really don’t remember how I met them. I know that Susan and Aruna knew them first from grade school and it was a big coincidence when we found out that I knew them, too. I know that I met Bill first. He was the first normal guy to “like-like” me in junior high. I never told him this but after a year of feeling like an ugly freak, Bill made me feel pretty and worthy of good attention. That was huge and I am forever grateful that I was able to turn his eye. Unfortunately, George was the second normal guy to “like-like” me. At first this seemed like a disaster but fortunately, Bill was a great friend and didn’t stand in the way of my and George’s “adolescent romance.” It was a great lesson to be part of. George made me feel beautiful and special. And even though he completely forgot that on our first date he took me to see Dune, he was the perfect first boyfriend and someone I am proud to call “friend” today.
My daughter is now about the age I was when I met Susan, Aruna, George and Bill I see her playing out the teen melodrama, having “private jokes” and creating bonds with her peers. I am thankful that her seventh grade experience is so different than mine was. I love that she is a natural leader, compassionate and naturally self-assured to the point where she will not only stand up for herself when she feels there was in injustice perpetrated against her, but will stand-up for others when she feels that they are being unjustly picked on. It took the support of my core friends to give me the strength to feel comfortable in who I was. Susan, Aruna, George and Bill, I am so thankful to each of you for that. I only hope that Catalina is fortunate enough to have friends as good as these as she travels on her journey to her Self.
If any of you are reading this, I don’t know if any of you are surprised by the impact you had on my life and in what ways you affected me. If it took 26 years for me to let you know, shame on me. I promise, I’ll be quicker to let you know from now on.
Dinner that night was fantastic. While each of us looked a little older – but not as much as we should have I must say we are all pretty hot for people closing in on the Big 4-0! – when we got to talking, it was as if no time had passed. That is the true sign of a great, old friendship; it is timeless. Next time we get together, I hope that Bill will be there to swap old stories and dust the cobwebs from these old stories we have in our vaults. I also hope that Cindy will be there, too. The others knew Cindy from grade school but she moved away before I had a chance to meet her. It was great making a “new old friend.”
Thank you, Facebook, for facilitating our reunion and not allowing these friendships to become merely fading memories.