Monday, October 09, 2006

Junior Low

The last time I went with my kids to the roller-skating rink, I saw something that gave me such a severe flashback to my Junior High days that I could practically smell the Polo cologne and hear “The Tide is High” echo in my brain. This is what I saw.

Three girls walked past me – I would guess they were 12 or 13 years old but trying to look much older – and then they paused for no reason other than to look around and be looked at. The first one was wearing: heavy makeup, a choppy-straight hair cut, a halter top that wrapped around the slightest hint of a developing chest and exposed the rest of her shoulders and belly, acid-washed low-rider jeans, and 2-inch high heels. With slight variations in color scheme, the other two were wearing identical ensembles. The matching hair and outfits made me laugh. Then I noticed their matching postures and I just felt sad. They all stood with their arms tightly hugging their waists and one leg crossed in front of the other. They oozed insecurity with every little tilt of their heads and awkward tug on their skimpy clothes. Ah, puberty. I remember it well.

I have conducted a very scientific survey of family, friends, vague acquaintances, and total strangers in line at Target, and am convinced that no one on the planet actually enjoyed Junior High School. At best there may be a few who survived it, like someone survives a case of herpes I suppose. But at worst, most say – with a slight facial tic – it was a traumatic wasteland of emotional fallout from which it has taken them years and extensive therapy to recover. Why is this? I promise not to spew my own pitiful teen angst onto the screen for all to see because I’m saving that for my first novel, but I am going to wonder aloud at the causes of this phenomenon.

First of all, I am puzzled by the fact that for all the stories I’ve told heard of poor teens being tormented by bullies or by the clique of POPULAR girls, I have yet to find one story from the other side – meaning the bullies’ or clique’s point of view. My theories for this include: a) Despite the fact that the events loom large in the memories of the oppressed, the oppressors have entirely forgotten these incidents ever happened, b) The bullies still have yet to discover there was actually anything wrong with duct taping scrawny 7th graders to flagpoles, and c) I have simply never heard the stories because I am still not invited to the frankfurter roasts where the star-bellied Sneetches sit around and wax nostalgic about their glorious Junior High days.

“Weren’t we just so cool when we put a wet sponge on Julie's that one girl’s chair before she sat down in Mr. Hone’s Algebra class? Oh, and who can forget the way we were so popular when we filled up the back seats in the bus and glared at anyone who even thought about sitting near us. Good times.”

When I think about Junior High, the thing that causes me the most pain is not the fact that I was on the receiving end of a few mean tricks, but that I cared. With pitiful desperation, I wanted to be accepted by the very group of girls who were being mean to me. Today, from my lofty adult perch, I look down on my 13 year old self and I want to shake her and tell her that in the end it makes absolutely no difference who she sat by in the cafeteria and it makes even less difference whether or not the cute boys left her standing there while they threw every other girl, protesting but not too much, into the snow. I look around at my life now – my beautiful kids, my awesome husband, my amazing teaching job – and I know that the Jr. High stuff totally doesn’t matter.

But the maddening thing is that it mattered at the time. I was unsure of who I was and so uncomfortable with finding out that I just wanted to be like everyone else. More to the point, I wanted to be liked by everyone else. For the price of an Izod and a pair of Levi courds, I could even look like everyone else. Why should I stand out when I could blend, blend, blend….

So here’s my tribute to Junior High: Andy Warhol’s 100 Soup Cans. In the 1960s Warhol made quite a few different versions of Campbell’s soup cans – single soup cans, soup cans with their wrappers coming off, stacks of cans, dresses made out of cans – but this one is my favorite. To Warhol, the image said something about the aspects of popular culture that had made Campbell’s soup an American icon, namely post-war consumerism, mass production, and the success of the advertising industry. To me, it says more about teen crowd mentality. It’s a metaphor for the two embarrassing years of my life when I aspired to a uniformity of packaging that devalued the unique in favor of the popular. . . and common.

Tags: Junior High, art, peer pressure, Warhol


The Lazy Organizer said...

Oh the painful memories! Thanks for making me relive them!

Radioactive Jam said...

Our school was K-8, which might have helped in some respects. Maybe there weren't as many alliances and exclusions in constant flux. Although I think some fairly momentous things did happen in sixth grade; that was the year "girls" suddenly started registering as-- well, interesting.

Or was that fifth grade? Either way, incredibly sheltered and/or naive lives I know.

Loralee Choate said...

Jr. High is a dark hole of a time I wish to never think about. So was high school for that matter.


It never fails to amaze me how mean kids can be.

TARA said...

Proof positive that I made the right decision in the last few weeks to make my way back to a family ward at church. Sad as it may seem, those of us still hanging out in the "middle singles" ward are still reliving those "middle school" days - at least on a social level. Ugh.

elasticwaistbandlady said...

I just had a flash that you must be older than me because cool Junior High gear for me meant Guess overalls, Swatch watches, and mismatched Converse high tops.

Did you hear that, Raj? You would have been coolness personified at my middle school.

I'm still not cool, never have been, never will be. Although, blogging is becoming a sort of equalizer as I found people who don't generally speak to me at church actually read my blog. Maybe I'm only tolerable in print form?

Anonymous said...

Along these lines - I think there is a special place in heaven reserved for Junior-High teachers.
I actually loved 9th grade - (I loathed, detested and despised 7th and 8th) Maybe that's one of the problems Jules - You never got to be a 9th grader at the Junior High - so you went from middle-of-the-school picked on to bottom-of-the-school.