Remember how in middle school all you wanted was to not stick out?
All you wanted was to not be the guy with acne so severe that his face was purple and pitted; to not only be the first guy to start puberty and sprout pit hairs but also not be the last, the 5’1” shrimp with a hairless body and picolo voice; to not only be the first girl to grow boobs and catch the eye of every hormone-crazed male in a two-mile radius but also to not be ignored—in the middle; interesting without being weird; smart without being nerdy; a nice house in the neighborhood of Average; a respectable B and occasional quiet A.
All you wanted was the camouflage of normal.
Standing out on the baseball diamond, basketball court, or gridiron, however, came with a welcome, positive attention, as long as you weren’t too cocky about it. No age group tolerates a smug winner for any length of time.
Amongst boys, the caste system of athletic prowess emerged in gym class in the form of “choosing teams.” I was rarely chosen first and never chosen last, which was fine. We played a game called battle ball, which was dodge ball with a few different rules. You had your Justin Chunns, who threw the ball hard enough to leave a welt on exposed flesh, or worse, give the slow kid on the opposite team a concussion. You also had your James McCarthys, who had to be on somebody’s team but just not yours, you hoped. Even if he could sometimes hustle his bulk out of the way of Justin Chunn’s screamers, he had arms of putty. One morning, he was the only member of his team left. His teammates knew they were done for, but unperturbed, or insolent at least, he was giving my team “the retard,” smacking his hand, bent at the wrist, against his chest and baring his upper gums at us.
My best friend Hunter hit him mid-insult, right in the sternum. The impact sat James right down on his fat butt while his face opened in a look of surprise. We laughed about it for days, James McCarthy talking trash and eating it in front of everybody. Funny as it was, I knew the incident also came with a warning. That’s not the kind of story you want circulating about you. If we ostracized him for that, then my friends would ostracize me, if not for less than certainly for not much more. The average middle school kid will seize any opportunity to push the weaker member of the herd under the bus.
For gym class at David Lipscomb Middle School, we changed into uniforms—purple cotton shorts without pockets and gray heather t-shirts with “LIPSCOMB” across the chest. After soaking these clothes with sweat during furious, argument-ridden matches of badminton, battle ball, war, volleyball, basketball, or the dreaded physical fitness tests, we were never given adequate time to clean up. Without time to use the communal showers in the basketball locker room—which probably would have embarassed us even if we’d been allowed—we threw on our jeans or khakis and polos, and in an effort to mask that I’m-pubescent-and-I’ve-been-perspiring odor, similar to the smell of rusty swingset chains, we doused ourselves with Brut cologne or Right Guard aerosol deoderant.
The caste system of athletic prowess bled out into broader social circle. We took up again the daily gauntlet of trying to be cool.
In retrospect I know middle school would probably have meant a tough four years no matter where my parents had chosen to send me, David Lipscomb Middle was wretched. I got made fun of all the time. I yearned for acceptance while looking for ways to keep a low profile. An invisibility cloak would have been a godsend. What was expected of us and what was assumed about the content of our character because we attended a private Christian school was a far cry from what actually happened in the trenches. Christian school or not, kids are kids, and they can orchestrate and survive acts of subtle and shocking cruelty.
Outside the gym, running from one corner of the brick façade to the trunk of a magnolia was a chain. Its ran through three short metal posts and sagged almost to the ground. To hop over it required the barest minimum of athleticism.
I’m pretty sure that I saw squirrels doing backflips over the it. Why wouldn’t they?
On this particular day, I was walking with two or three friends, most likely the guys who I liked 75% of the time and loathed the rest. I decided to get a running start and leap over the chain. What concern should I have? I jumped over it every day. The negligible danger made it a tad bit more exciting than walking around, and you don’t want to be the guy who walks around the chain.
As I came down on my left foot preparing for my big jump, I managed to plant it on a round stick hidden in the grass. The stick was big enough to roll, and with my forward momentum, roll it did. My leap was over before it began: I slid forward, and off balance now and unable to catch myself on anything, the chain caught me at my shins.
I fell face first on the sidewalk. Fifteen or twenty of my classmates watched it happen.
Though, nothing had happened to my face, my wrists were torn up and sore for days. Worse than the superficial scratches was the notoriety. I was now the guy who had tried to jump over the chain and busted.
Though I doubt that tripping over the chain had any long-term negative impact on me, I do remember it. Perhaps that should tell me something. Those memories of humiliation can shape us more than an A on a difficult test or a kind word from a teacher or even the acceptance of one’s peers when it finally comes. They can morph into handcuffs, shackles, bags of stones that we carry everywhere. We forget how to jump. We forget the taste of freedom.
Telling those stories about our weakness or awkwardness, exclusion or rejection, fear or failure breaks their power over us. Writing has always provided this kind of purgation for me. I follow the bread crumb trail back to the witch’s house where I was afraid and isolated. Back at that place of pain, I discover that the witch is dead. I can see myself splatting on the concrete and laugh. Why? Because it’s funny, and laughter heals wounds.
At one time in our lives, we all had the courage to leap over chains, it’s time we remembered how to take risks and laugh at our failures.