My daughter’s kindergarten is part of a small school that does not yet have its own building. Their classrooms are wedged into one section of a junior high. This provides an interesting contrast every morning as I walk her to school. My daughter is still very excited about the idea of Big Kid School. She’s learning to read and making new friends and bringing books home from the library and even jazzed about cafeteria food.
And as she tells me about all the wonderful new things she loves and wants to shout out to the world, I must wade through a sea of junior high kids who hate life. They loiter in the schoolyard, the nearby sidewalks, the local delis, they give off a pungent scent of man, fuck this. And also hairspray.
Junior high was the absolute, rock-bottom worst. I have never met a single person who did not feel this way. (If you do, please, tell me about your magical native land of unicorns and leprechauns.) I don’t know how it was in your neck of the woods, but for me, the worst thing about junior high was how brutally different it was from elementary school, how there was absolutely no transition between the two. One day I was quoting Monty Python with impunity, the next…well, the next day I was still doing it, but now I was made fully aware of just how weird this was.
Seeing these junior high kids every morning is a painful reminder of this time and how awful it is for everyone. I feel immensely sorry for them, when I don’t want to throttle them for standing eight across right in front of the school’s only entrance, or running into traffic because they think it’s funny.
I feel like my junior high years were worse than most. Not really because of anything horrible that happened to me–on the continuum of junior high experiences, mine were at average horror levels–but because of the institutional gloom that hung over me then. The building I had to go to every day was my district’s huge, ancient schoolhouse, built in days of yore when my town was tiny and it only took one brick manse to house every single grade, K-12. As the district grew over the decades, new elementary and high school buildings were erected, leaving behind this funhouse to function as the junior high. You could not have picked a better place to emphasize just how awful this time is in everyone’s life.
It was constructed during an era where light and joy were considered luxuries. The hallways–particularly the ones where all the lockers were located–were incredibly dark. Decrepit lightbulbs hung from too-high ceilings, but when they were turned on they somehow managed to make the corridors darker, as if the photons they emitted were encrusted with soot. And the less said about the bathrooms, the better. It was soil fertile for mischief, where those inclined to evil could emerge from nowhere as you shuttled between classes, ruin your day, and quickly disappear into the shadows.
I caught onto to this very quickly, around the time some douche attempted to dump a Ziploc bag of pencil shavings on my head as I committed the crime of retrieving books from my locker. (I saw my would-be assailant coming from a mile away. In a ninja move I’m still proud of, I waited until he was extremely close and just about to tip the bag over, then reached up and tilted it back in his face.) So I made it my mission to spend as little time in the hallways as possible. I would carry as many books with me as I could stand, leave a class the nanosecond the bell rang, and speed to the next one. My friends called me Matt-Man, because they’d turn to talk to me when class was over and I’d be gone like The Dark Knight.
Old habits die hard. While walking with my daughter in the morning, once I neared the school’s block, the one with a million loitering newly-minted teens, I would begin to speed up. I’d find any tiny crevice between two kids, even if I had to turn sideways to fit. Anything that would to get me to my destination a little faster, just like I did in my junior high days. Only instead of lugging six classes’ worth of books, this time I was towing a four-year-old who wants to know why I’m running.
It took me a few weeks to notice I was doing this, and understand why I was doing it. One morning, I stopped myself and made a conscious effort to take it slow. In doing so, I realized most of these junior high kids were tiny and, although almost uniformly annoying, not in the least bit terrifying. It made me mad at my young self. Was I afraid of kids like these? If so, what was wrong with me? I bet I could pick up any of them by the scruffs of their necks. Hell, I could pick up two, one in each hand. It took every ounce of willpower I had to not do just that.
I have a habit of walking way faster than I need to in general. When strolling with others, I will constantly find myself half a block ahead of my companions. A few weeks ago, I was visiting New Orleans for the first time in years, and me and a friend took a stroll through the French Quarter. “Why are you rushing?” my friend asked. I had no conscious idea I was doing this, but something within me says that walking too slow is a dangerous move.
It’s partially due to years of urban living, but I have to think that the junior high experience is a factor as well. My innate impulse to get places faster goes back to the days when I was convinced that I was a shark who had to keep moving forward or perish, or at least get a head full of pencil shavings. In the post-junior high years, friends would say I stomped. I wanted to protest otherwise, but the frequency with which I wear through shoes backs them up. I also blame this on the days when I felt I had to scale the stairs of this horrible building as quickly as possibly, two steps at a time, three if I could manage it. Since then, I haven’t been able to step lightly, even if I try.
Of course, if someone had told me Don’t be afraid of these wimps; they’re just as fucked up as you right now when I was in junior high, that would’ve done me no bit of good. No amount of reasoning would have changed my idea of what was VERY IMPORTANT when I was 13. Just like when I tell my daughter that it’s not worth throwing a fit because I told her she can’t have candy for breakfast, or because the cable On Demand is broken and won’t allow her to watch Adventure Time. Some things you can’t be talked out of; you simply have to live through them and laugh them off later.
Or keep running for the rest of your life. You know, whichever.