Friday, March 16, 2012

These Were Our Wonder Years

Sixth grade was the year I moved from elementary school to intermediate school (Not junior high; junior high was for babies. I was more sophisticated than that). I was so excited to be an official grown-up! I’d have a locker and change classes every period and have SIX (!) different teachers and subjects! If growing up meant organizing a Trapper Keeper with six Lisa Frank folders, timing the between-class hallway breaks to coincide with locker and bathroom visits, and being allowed to check out three library books at a time, THEN SIGN ME UP. 

In order to best embrace my new status as a mature, sixth grade adult, I carefully chose a floor-length floral skirt, matching v-neck blouse, acid washed jean vest, brilliant white Keds with ruffled socks, and a gigantic gold and pearl necklace to wear on my first day at V.W. Miller Intermediate School. Yes, really. My mom stopped me from carrying my books in my dad’s old leather briefcase. After a very tense discussion, it was decided that my Jansport purple backpack would do just fine, and maybe I should learn to be a little more appreciative of the school supplies my mom picked out for me, especially considering I had all but threatened my imminent death if I didn’t have said Jansport backpack not even three weeks before.  Imagine my surprise when I got to school and saw that my stylish Sunday-Go-To-Meeting outfit, carefully selected after hours of deep consideration, was in fact, not stylish at all.  All the girls wore flared-leg jeans with Mary Jane shoes and ribbed fitted turtlenecks. Also, as it turns out, mom was completely right about the briefcase.

This was the year I fell madly, deeply in love with Derek Pomeroy. Derek was in eighth grade and was, of course, impossibly cool. He was on the basketball team, football team, baseball team, and ran track. He won first place in everything he showed up for and had the affection of every schoolgirl, and some of the younger teachers. He was blonde with milky blue eyes, and a perfect tan. He was the Edward Cullen of V.W. Miller, minus the immortality sentence and thinly veiled anger issues. His skin did sparkle though, I swear it did. He wore muted Hawaiian shirts tucked into pleated khaki trousers with braided leather belts while the other boys wore band t-shirts and dark-washed jeans. Clearly, Derek was going places (Middle management, but still! Places!)  Alas, I never became Mrs. Pomeroy, despite the elaborate and frighteningly detailed marital history I plotted on the back of my spiral notebooks.  Once, when passing in the hallway, he turned to me and said, “Hey. It’s Michelle, right?” Did I casually respond in a nonchalant, cool manner? No. No, I did not. But, I DID scream directly into his face, a mixture of horror and jubilation clearly rendering me speechless. So, there’s that.  Amazingly enough, this meaningful exchange did not end with an invitation to the Spring Formal. 

In gym, the girl’s uniforms were black track shorts with gray t-shirts. Because we were Pentecostal, I wasn’t allowed to wear shorts, so my dad spoke with the principal for permission to dress me in sweats. Permission was granted, and he bought me a cherry red cotton sweat suit, not knowing that the school uniform was gray and black. I very nearly died of embarrassment when he told me the suit was purchased on clearance and couldn’t be returned. I spent the rest of the school year trying to convince my P.E. teacher that I had some variation of Typhoid Fever/Dysentery/SARS and couldn’t possibly don my red suit and participate. The excuses worked a grand total of one time. I’ve forgiven Daddy for this. Mostly.

I was convinced my pre-algebra teacher, Mrs. Britton, hated me because she kept (unfairly, of course) giving me low A’s on my homework. After weeks of telling my parents how much she loathed me, they met with her, without my knowledge. I remember walking to the bathroom, glancing into the open cafeteria and seeing my parents seated at a teeny dining table with Mrs. Britton. I immediately burst into tears, certain she was telling my parents what a horrid kid I was or, even worse, how much time I wasted drawing hearts around Derek’s name in my notebook. After their conference, the principal excused me from fourth period to meet with my parents. Terrified, I sprinted, full speed to the office. Once there, Daddy told me that earning a 94 on an assignment was not a sign of singling a kid out, of hatred, or anything sordid at all. In the ensuing discussion, I would learn that having your parents use a vacation day to meet with a teacher to discuss a non-existent problem was a much bigger deal to Daddy.  For the remainder of the year, I was too embarrassed to look Mrs. Britton in the eyes, but she did make a point of gently squeezing my shoulder as she passed by my desk. She also worked out, in full detail, every problem I missed on my homework as a tutoring guide for the tests. At the end of the year, I passed her class with a 100%. 

Her daughter, Mrs. Braxton, taught reading across the breezeway from Mrs. Britton’s classroom. She had a massive head of spiral-permed hair, light pink skin, a permanent frown, a gigantic diamond wedding band, and a very precise way of speaking. She was not overly nice, but not overly mean either. Instead, she was very, very serious. She would never refer to her subject as “Reading Class” as our period schedules read. In her lofty, persnickety voice she called it “Intermediate English Comprehension.” She read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn aloud to my class without any censorship. I remember being shocked that she used the word “nigger” because my mom would edit it out by saying “a very ugly word that makes Jesus sad” when helping  with my homework. It was the first time I heard an adult use that word without attaching a personal view to it.

Halfway through the year, Mrs. Braxton’s water broke during second period. I remember her eyes going wide, her face flushing dark pink, and her urgently saying, “Someone get my mom. My water broke!” It was the first time I remember her sounding normal and not perfectly measured. Mrs. Britton came rushing in soon after. She wrapped her own sweater around her daughter’s shoulders and rushed her out of the classroom yelling, “Finish your chapter questions” over her shoulder. None of us really understood what was going on, but we knew it was BIG NEWS because Mrs. Braxton NEVER only assigned chapter questions. When she came back to class six weeks later, she was very pudgy, appeared sleepy all the time and surprisingly (to all of us), smiled constantly. She was more lenient with late homework, didn’t get so angry about messy margins, and laughed at our kiddie jokes with ease. Her husband brought their baby boy in a few weeks after her return for show and tell, and we saw a completely different side of Mrs. Braxton that day. She giggled, nervously batted her eyelashes at her husband, cooed and tickled her son, and held hands with Mr. Braxton. They stood whispering in the back of the classroom, her hand on his chest, his arm around her waist while Mrs. Britton held the baby in her lap so we could all file past him and get a good look.

Dates are a bit fuzzy, but I believe this marked the year that I became BEST.FRIENDS.FOREVER. with Sherly, Emily, Kim, and Lori; if not this year, certainly soon after. We were inseparable and often spent weekends huddled under huge blanket forts in our parents’ living rooms eating Pizza Hut pepperoni slices, talking about boys, hot rolling Sherly’s waist-length hair, and putting make-up on so thick that our faces took on an opaque, shellacked look.

Sherly’s family was from India, so she was a huge novelty to us. In the heavy darkness of our childhood bedrooms, we asked her ridiculously white, middle class, American questions about India and begged her to speak to us in Hindi. She wore thick, gold anklets that were jammed full of tiny bells that tinkled as she walked. She was exotically beautiful, compassionately sensitive, painfully shy, ferociously studious, and the most even-keeled, sweet-tempered of us all. She embarrassed easily, hated being the center of attention, and would blush at the mere thought of a boy looking her way. Always ready to hug us, she would calmly tell us everything would be ok when we were having a spat with another member of our group and run interference when two (or more) of us were embroiled in some pointless argument. She was our age, but behaved infinitely older. Sherly was perhaps the first peer I’d ever met who was through-and-through kind for the sake of being kind. We all kept in distant touch with Sherly in the years after graduation, popping in and out of the periphery of her life.  Today, she’s a pharmacist, as gorgeous as ever, as kind as one person should ever rightfully be, and is recently engaged to be married. As far as I know, she still refuses to hot roll her hair.

Emily was the outspoken one. She was brash, tough as any boy (in fact, tougher), wickedly funny, deeply intellectual, and always up for anything, especially if it involved boys or bands. She could talk about football like a boy, biology like a college student, and cuss like a grown-up (out of our parents’ earshot, of course). Emily’s parents were rich in the way sixth graders view wealth, and often dropped us off at the mall or movies and ordered huge take-out meals for us to scarf down while we snooped through her big sister Natalie’s bedroom, looking for her diary and trying on her old prom dresses and Homecoming sashes. We collectively thought Emily was the epitome of cool because her big sister let us borrow her Mary Kay make-up, Bath and Body Works Sun Ripened Raspberry lotion, and listen to her Celine Dion cds. Emily wasn’t at all like blonde, popular Natalie, but to us, she was a demigod by association. Natalie and Emily had their own wing of the house, so our little gaggle could close the connecting door and sing at the top of our lungs, privately discuss “serious” things without her parents’ interruption, and create complicated handshakes in secrecy. Through the years, Emily and I would keep in touch and grow to be the closest of our little group. Fifteen years later, we would have a horrible, heartbreaking fight that ended our friendship. But in sixth grade, we were soul sisters and the best of the best.

Kim was our token rebel. She listened to wild music, dated boys, and had enormous breasts, even back then. Naturally, we were all insanely jealous and curious at the same time. She was athletic, tanned, and a whirlwind of energy.  She was a firecracker, the outgoing one who never met anyone but soon-to-be best friends, the one to suggest all the silly, adventurous escapades we attempted, and the girl who kept us laughing so hard that we’d clutch our sides and tell her to stop, in mock anger. She was also the one who would ask us, in the dead of night after everyone stopped chattering and we were all slowly drifting into sleep, if we really believed in God and if we thought her aunt could see her from heaven. Kim could go from exuberant to reflective in a heartbeat. She would have us all contemplating the philosophy of life and death, as best we could understand in our infinite sixth grade wisdom. Then, five minutes later, the wind would change; she’d turn this beaming, colossal smile on us and dare us to play M.A.S.H. without choosing any “goody-goody” options. Life was never too serious for too long with Kim. She had a huge heart, loved everyone, and was always the one behind the camera urging us to smile. She was so bright, her personality burned intensely; she was irresistible. Kim had an addictive passion for life. Her excitement for everything was contagious; you simply could not be around Kim without having a blast. She’s now married with a beautiful daughter, another baby on the way, and teaches school. She’s as brilliantly energetic as ever and probably the master of M.A.S.H. by now.

Lori was our comedic relief and the exact opposite of a drama queen. While the rest of us took ourselves, our religions, our grades, and our so-called love lives too seriously, she was just out to enjoy life. Her grades were good, she was Christian, and of course she had crushes too; but ultimately, Lori wanted to have fun. She had this big, chortling belly laugh that could almost knock you down with its vigor. If any of us tickled her or made hideous faces in the midst of her laughing, it would get higher and higher, turning from a chuckle into a bird-like screech, until there was no sound at all. She would vibrate from this silent laughter until her eyes watered and her face turned dark, brick red. We loved this reaction, so we spent the better part of every slumber party doing our best to evoke it.

She told complicated jokes with sarcastic, hilarious punch-lines, read books that were far too advanced for our age, smiled constantly, and was an all-around great friend. Needed help with your math homework? Lori was your go-to gal. Wanted someone to tell you if your hair looked weird? Call Lori! Had a secret you wanted to discuss without it getting around the school? Lori was your confidant! She was fiercely loyal and was amazingly balanced and fair. While the rest of us would make and break secret friendship alliances, she remained loving and gracious to us all. She never got in the middle of our squabbles, refused to pick sides, and typically got us to see the humor in whatever ridiculous argument was THE.WORST.THING.EVER. in our eyes. She didn’t take herself too seriously, wasn’t in a hurry to grow up, and loved being a kid. She was quick to hug, unfailingly fun, saccharinely sweet to her core, and deeply caring. Lori was the first one we all called when something Serious happened because she’d cut right to the center of the issue. She and I lost and regained touch several times over the years, always picking up where we last left off. She’s now a school teacher, still as funny and fun as ever, but is, I’m sad to say, an ardent Texas Longhorns fan.

In my office, I have a framed picture of the five of us taken in high school, a few years after we first met. Kim is, of course, in the center with her beacon smile.  Sherly and Lori are on either side of her with their heads leaning on her shoulders, and Emily and I have our arms slung around one another’s waists. We’re all looking to the right, laughing at something just outside the distance of the frame. Probably Derek Pomeroy’s pleated pants.

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