The 6th grade was a bad year for me.
I hated middle school in general. Even though I went to a public elementary school, my arrival at a private Christian middle school in the 5th grade signified my miseducation in matters pertaining to sex, girls, profanity, cruelty, ostracism, tribalism, sarcasm, and all the other -isms and social spasms you can imagine.
The school itself was fine. The vast majority of teachers were kind and truly cared about the students. The problem had more to do with the age group than the particular setting. If William Golding had chosen a Christian island for Lord of the Flies, then he would have had no less material. All the brutality and moral depravity gains more subtlety.
Left to our own devices, we use our creativity to invent ways to consume one another.
We may never have killed a wild boar and smeared its blood on our faces, but we did orchestrate a lie so that one of the boys in our grade would be led to believe that both boys and girls have menstrual cycles. For boys, this was called “shooting your dot.”
“Billy, have you shot your dot?”
“Hmm. Guess that means we’ll have to kick you out of our cliques and pretend like you don’t exist. Sorry about that. Check back in with us in a few months. After a few more gauntlets of hazing, public humiliation, and paperwork, we’ll consider letting you back in. To be one of us, you have to be a real jerk, and you’re too kind, compassionate, and gullible. We really need to stamp out your trust in other people.”
I got made fun of all the time. Admittedly, some of my comebacks were less than clever. That time I changed the lyrics to Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I love your way” and sang it to Adam trying to deliver the death blow? Yikes. If I had been a spectator listening in on this playground altercation in front of Harding Hall, I would have used the words of the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade after Donovan drinks from the wrong cup and his skin melts off like cheese and his skeleton explodes. In a dry, British accent, Robert Eddison says, “He chose…poorly.” Indeed, I did. I had one foot in high school before I lived down that lameduck comeback.
Don’t let me forget puberty. Thanks to mandatory chapel services every day, there was always a chance to read scripture, lead singing, or pray in front of an audience of my peers. Without fail, my voice would crack. I’d be reading a passage in Luke and reveling in my rich, new baritone and then KAPLOWEY! My voice would jump an octave.
[“Who was it? Which one of you just kicked me in the groin? I wanna know who it was! God, I thought you loved me, and then this? Again?”]
Sixth grade got off to a decent start. I got Mrs. Bornstein for homeroom, which, I was told, was best-case scenario. We went to church with her. She lived in our neighborhood. I already had an in. Great. “Maybe this year will be better than the last.” [Counting Crows, “Long December,” Thank you, Adam Duritz, for your optimism. I wish it had been true for me.]
Foolish little boy with my naive belief in people’s goodness.
I brought some of it on myself. For example, when Mrs. Bornstein went out of the room one day and left us to work quietly on our homework, I took the opportunity to climb up on my desk and shake it, shake it. I figured that I had a good 5 minutes of tomfoolery. In the words of my dad, “Wrong-ola.” Mrs. Bornstein had forgotten something she needed for her errand and walked back into the room right as I was settling into my groove.
She jerked me right down from my glory, and from that day forward, I had to go with her whenever she left the room. To copy papers in the main building, to visit other teachers, to grab something from her car, I was the ignoble one who had gotten caught. The pariah of shortsighted choreography.
Mrs. Bornstein told my mother who later told me that these were some of her favorite times during the day, when the two of us left the classroom to take care of the endless procession of details and administrative task that make up the life of a teacher. Apparently, when you separated me from my peers, I was a sweet, polite, precocious youngster who talked to Mrs. Bornstein like an adult.
Talking was something I was good at. I finished up the 6th grade with 27 conduct marks, meaning that over the course of ten months, a teacher recognized my exceptional gifts for disrupting class and ignoring directions. If conduct marks were grades, I was the Salutatorian, bested only by Lauren, who broke 30.
I came in 2nd in the spelling bee because I misspelled “Leviticus.” I added an extra “c”: “Levicticus.” That “c” stands for “C’mon, you idiot” or “cad.” I’ve never entered a spelling bee since.
I was always in a pickle, but sometimes, it wasn’t my fault. Out on the playground one day, I found a tomato hornworm moth caterpillar that resembled a bright green hotdog with white stripes. I was carrying this prize around on a stick and showing it to people. Making the girls say, “Oooh, gross,” was passion of mine then, and still is, really. The whistle blew, and recess was over. What to do? Mrs. Bornstein was walking in front of me on our way back into the portable. I was in the middle of scheming how to smuggle the caterpillar inside the classroom when she turned, saw what I was carrying, and said, “Put it down, Austin.”
I should have just dropped the stick and the caterpillar along with it. That was have been the shortcut. Instead, I held onto the stick and tried to sling the caterpillar off of it. That little booger had a good grip. I shook the stick a little harder. Then, as in all those moments that don’t go according to plan, time snapped into slow motion. The caterpillar finally flew off the stick doing somersaults in the air. Higher, higher, forward, forward—it landed on Mrs. Bornstein’s shoulder. She felt it and looked at her shoulder. She then let out a scream that chilled my blood. I never heard a dying horse, but I think it would sound like my 6th grade teacher with a green striped hotdog on her shoulder.
How did this happen? I was trying to do exactly what she’d asked. Naturally, she didn’t believe a word of it.
O Cold Silence of the Heavens!
My younger sister started at David Lipscomb Middle School that year. One of the bullies in my grade, Carter, started picking on her, nothing mean, just a little flirtation. Guess who got to tell him to stop? This guy. My mom told me that I needed to stick up for my sister and protect her, so the next day at school, I walked up to Carter and said, “Stop talking to my sister. She doesn’t like it.” He was so surprised that he just stared at me for a few seconds before he responded, with a touch of sheepishness, “Okay.” That was the end of it. Phew.
I wasn’t a bully, but I also wasn’t a poster child. On the one hand, I made high enough scores on the standardized tests that my teachers told my parents how special I was. On the other hand, when David refused to let me borrow a pencil during Mrs. Anderson’s Geography class, I grabbed a handful of his shirt and yanked him out of his desk.
Of course, Mrs. Anderson came back in the room right as he was getting up off the floor.
“What’s going on here?” she demanded.
And I was in trouble. Again.
It was in Mrs. Anderson’s class that I cheated the second and last time of my academic career. We took a short quiz on our homework, some pages from Island of the Blue Dolphins. I couldn’t remember the dimensions of the island, so I took out my paperback book, found the answer, and wrote it on my paper.
When I got my quiz back, I’d made a perfect score. Then, I started to feel guilty. I erased the answer I’d looked up then wrote in my first answer. I walked up to Mrs. Anderson’s desk and showed her my quiz.
“You counted this one right, but I think it’s wrong.”
She smiled and replied, “My mistake is your gain.”
This made me feel even worse, but I was a coward. I never told her the truth. Maybe I should give her a call today and let her know.
Dancing on my desk, lame comebacks, Conduct Marks, puberty, caterpillars, bullies, my moral decay—none of these was as bad as betrayal—getting pushed under the bus by one of my closest friends. Let’s call him Andy.
On an ordinary day, after taking a test, Andy and I walked to Harding Hall to use the restroom. We’re standing side-by-side at two urinals, and I turn to ask him how he thought he did. He said that he thought he did okay.
We finished up, washed our hands, and went back to class.
Over the next few days Andy spread a rumor that he caught me looking at his penis while we were peeing. This, of course, was ridiculous. All I had done is ask a run-of-the-mill question about the test we’d both taken.
I became the new scapegoat. If I had a dollar for every time one of my former friends walked up and with a sneer called me “gay” or “faggot” or “homo,” I would be rich right now. I could have started a college fund for myself and gone to school anywhere in the country. I don’t remember getting my feelings hurt by the names themselves. Middle school kids are unoriginal and predictable with their villification. They have small vocabularies, and after the first few skirmishes, you know what to expect. I think I just got sick of trying to ignore them. Even insults lacking cleverness will wear down your patience and poise after while.
I confronted Andy about the whole situation. At first, he denied any involvement. Idiot. We were the only two people in the bathroom. Later, he admitted that he’d told some people.
“But that’s ridiculous, Andy. You know very well that nothing of the sort happened. All I did was ask you about the test.”
The amazing thing? He agreed. His justification for what he’d done was that he needed to take some of the heat off himself. In a truth-or-dare game a few weekends before, he’d admitted to masturbating. Our two friends who were also present lost no time in violating his confidence and telling everybody. Their motivation? A smoke screen. Both of them had also discovered autoeroticism, but kept this fact from Andy. They diverted attention from themselves by betraying him. He made up a story about me to give our classmates something else to talk about.
Knowing why did little to make me feel better. After awhile, people found something else to talk about, and I was never able to monetize all the jabs about homosexuality. Too bad. I hated urinals for years, especially those troughs you sometimes come across in stadiums and locker rooms. Stare straight ahead. Focus on the boogers people have wiped on the tiles. What do they resemble? A hippo? Pamela Anderson?
I suppose 6th grade settled into a routine. I got a mild concession in gym class. I had a cute girlfriend named Christina who I’d met at the pool the previous summer. She was in the fifth grade and froze up every time I talked to her. Our infrequent phone conversations were filled with awkward pauses, so I made a list of questions to ask her. My older sister found this list and thought this was the funniest, dorkiest thing she’d ever seen. Whatever.
I want to gather every middle schooler in the world in a giant arena and give a speech:
“I’m sorry. I hated middle school too. Let me give you some advice. 1) Trying to be cool is the biggest waste of time imaginable. I wish you’d take that to heart and just be yourselves, but you won’t. 2) Don’t spread rumors about people. They’re rarely true. Don’t be cruel. I don’t care if people have been cruel to you, don’t be cruel. 3) Only girls have menstrual cycles. 4) If you must insult someone, do it with style. Never, never, never sing an insult, especially not one based on a cover song by Big Mountain. 5) Stand up to bullies. 6) Don’t cheat. Cheating makes you stupid. 7) Puberty does end. 8) Ask your parents about sex, not your classmates. 9) Violence is self-perpetuating. It accomplishes nothing. People hurt you because they themselves are hurting, but that’s no excuse. 10) Middle school is like a snapshot of the world in all its messiness, ugliness, hurt, and beauty. Without Jesus, we are hopeless. Thank you.”
[I exit the stage, shiver, and offer up a prayer of thanks for making it out of the arena without being killed and roasted on a spit by middle schoolers.]