Thursday, August 20, 2009


August 20, 2009

Count me among the thousands for whom junior high was pure, unadulterated torture. Well, okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration--it wasn’t two years of complete torture, but pretty close. Seeing my son off to his junior high days have made me not nostalgic, but certainly reflective of my own middle school years.

Too begin with, I was painfully shy, not just in school but anywhere. I couldn’t make phone calls, couldn’t talk to a cashier at the store, found it unbearable to have people look at me. I was hyper-sensitive to what people might think of me, terrified that I would be judged and found lacking. I’m not sure how I came by this particular personality trait, and I don’t think that any event earlier in my childhood might have traumatized me into it. All I could do was attempt to learn to live with it. I spent a great deal of time trying to become invisible, and in a lot of ways became fairly successful at it.

When I made the transition from 6th to 7th grade, I was contending with not only my shyness, but also the fact that I was being thrust into a new school in a new district. My parents were divorcing, and we moved, so I started my 7th grade year at a school where I didn’t know a soul, not even my siblings, who were at the high school and elementary school, respectively. The school I transferred to was a small school in a small town where nearly all the kids had gone to school with one another since kindergarten. It was an outsider, an interloper.

I didn’t make friends. I was too afraid to talk to my classmates, and I was paralyzed by the idea of striking up a conversation with a stranger during lunch or breaks, and I marveled at the ease with which my classmates moved among each other, falling in and out of conversations seamlessly. I, on the other hand, spent all of my time studying or reading. Most days I spent lunchtime in the library, where the librarians learned my name very quickly. They often saved new books that came in to recommend to me first, asking for my opinions and reviews of the seven or eight books I read each week. It was the only time I felt at ease at the school, and the only time I truly enjoyed myself at school. The library was my safe haven.

I was always a good student, and all the time I spent studying certainly helped me maintain straight As. As I made my ways through the days, head down and nose stuck perpetually in a book, I didn’t realize that though I perceived myself to be invisible, I was in fact drawing attention I wasn’t trying to draw. The first was from the teachers, a few of whom had good intentions, but misguided concerns. I was sent to the school psychologist and held after class by one or two teachers who felt I was using books to ‘escape from the reality’ of some childhood trauma. The reality was there was no trauma; I just had no idea how to break into the circles I saw formed all about me.

While I was causing concern for my teachers, I was simultaneously gaining some unwanted attention from a gang of girls who were quite a fixture at our school. There were about fifteen of them, girls who reigned through intimidation. One of the smallest girls, even smaller than I was, ended up in one of my classes in 8th grade, and she instantly took a disliking to me. She started out with small jabs and quiet verbal attacks, which I simply tried to ignore. Strategically, this was not a good move. She was not accustomed to being ignored, and it infuriated her. She progressed to light shoves in the locker room and ‘accidental’ bumps in the hallways . I didn’t tell anyone and tried not to react, but that didn’t give her the satisfaction she was looking for, so she enlisted her friends to escalate her attack.

Everyday I’d run into at least one of them. I lingered longer in classes to avoid the crowds in the halls and stayed near teachers whenever possible, though I never told anyone I was being bullied or harassed. Near the end of the year as I was walking to the P.E. class she and I shared, she grabbed my shoulder and whirled me around to face her. She was flanked by two girls on each side. As they glared, she called me names and demanded to know why I would not respond to her barbs. Having had enough, I simply yelled, “I am not afraid of you,” (though it’s possible the shakiness in my voice belied my true fear). Without awaiting her response, I turned and stormed off. A few seconds later, I was kicked hard in the rear, and I went flying forward to land on my hands, knees, and face. As I got up and brushed myself off, she and her friends threatened to jump me after school. They had already beaten up a few kids after school, so I knew it was no idle threat. I just didn’t know how I had managed to find myself in their line of fire.

This last threat was the impetus I needed to finally confide in someone. I told my mom that there was a gang of girls who had been threatening me, and told her I really believed that walking home from school was going to turn ugly for me. She went to a neighbor, whose son also went to my school. She asked him to have his son walk me home for the rest of the year, which was only another couple of weeks. Although I was mortified that one of the most popular boys was compelled by his father to babysit me, I was more frightened of the possibility of running into these girls on my own. And, to his credit, the boy was incredibly sweet and gracious about walking me home. Since we walked home together each day, we talked and got to know each other a little bit. He even invited me to the 8th grade graduation party his parents threw for him.

It was at this party where I had one of the most powerful epiphanies I’ve ever had. One of the other girls who happened to be at the party came over and introduced herself and made an effort to get to know me. After spending quite a bit of time with me, she said, “You know, you are really very sweet. I never talked to you before because everyone thinks you are so stuck up and full of yourself. Everyone says that you never talk to anyone because you think you’re so much better and smarter than everyone else, but you don’t seem like that at all to me!” I was speechless, honestly. It had never occurred to me that people’s perceptions of me could be so completely different than my own. Here I was absolutely mired in my own self-consciousness, and all of these kids, including presumably the gang of girls who had made my life difficult for the past several months, assumed that my reluctance to talk to anyone was the result of arrogance. Not only was I devastated by this perceived assessment of my personality, but I was crushed that this realization was so long in coming--too late, as a matter of fact. I had just found out that I was changing school districts again and would be starting at a brand new high school in the fall. Any opportunity I might have had to make friends with my school mates was gone.

This epiphany resulted in a resolve that remains with me to this day. I resolved that I would never again make it that easy for someone to have such a profoundly incorrect perception of who I am. I wanted to know other people and I wanted to have friends, but it was so much easier to back away from the potential rejection than it was to take a chance. When I started my new school, I knew that I could not let fear keep me outside the circle any longer. I forced myself to learn the names of everyone around me, and to make eye contact and smile, and to have something to say in every conversation. The study skills I had developed over the years had a new focus--my purpose was to learn how to successfully interact socially. It felt incredibly forced a lot of the time at first, and I was always scared that someone would turn on me and say, “Why are you talking to me?” But of course what I found was that the more people I was friendly with, the more people would respond to me positively. I pretended to be outgoing at first, and it became easier and easier--it became second nature. By the time I reached my final year, I was nominated “Friendliest Senior” in our class awards.

In my adult life, and particularly as a teacher, I continue to remind myself that putting myself in uncomfortable social situations can often yield fruitful and positive results. I still consider myself shy, but most of my colleagues today would probably be surprised to hear me describe myself as such, because I force myself to be much more outgoing than I feel. In reflecting on that time in my life, I also realize with a little distance that the extreme self-consciousness I felt consumed by was really another side of self-absorption. My classmates saw me as conceited, and really, I was so consumed by the fear that people would think badly of me for some reason that I was incapable of focusing on other people. It wasn’t conceit in the way that we often think of it, but it is certainly its sister, and I realized that when I focused on other people instead of myself, I was a much happier person. Finally, my own junior high experience made it abundantly clear that we never really know what is going on in the mind and heart of another person. We all make snap judgments and decisions about the people we encounter in our lives, but what we see, or what we think we see, can be deceptive, and it’s my job to see behind the snapshot image people (my students, for example) present, and to get to know the reality that shapes that image.


  1. Jeez our similiarites just keep going! (Even though I have a new name)

    I would still describe myself as shy even though most people would say otherwise. Although I didn't go through what you did in school, I've always been an unsure person. I need to push myself harder to pretend to be outgoing. I know I shrink back into that person whenever I am faced with a new situation. I hate that feeling.

  2. I also hate realizing I misspelled something right when I hit publish! Similarities - ahem.