As the library empties for two of our slowest months, I can’t help but reflect on my own childhood excitement as the school year approached. I suppose it’s no surprise that this present day librarian was unceasingly enthusiastic, kindergarten through senior year, about the first day of school. Even as a kid, I loved the fresh start of the new year, which when you’re eight, happens sometime toward the end of August, not the beginning of January. A new school year meant a new backpack and new crayons and new folders and notebooks. Just as neurotic as a child, I loved how clean everything was. All the crayons were freshly sharpened and there were no graphite smears on my kitten folders or tears in my new backpack. My new classroom was freshly decorated with fun themes that hadn’t yet faded into the background. I had a room full of potential friends awaiting me and I couldn’t wait to meet them and my new teacher.
In the early years, when my mother put me in cute Disney-themed princess clothes, did my hair in pigtails, and helped me navigate the waters of childhood friendships, I imagine the feeling was mutual and that I blended in quite well with the rest of the class. I was too energetic and talkative to be the class pet, but I was well-liked and fit in with the other kids… until about halfway through the second grade. Indeed, it is a bittersweet realization, that as excited as I was to meet these new people every August, for the majority of my school years, they weren’t very excited to meet me.
I was eight when the shift occurred and you can actually see it in family photos. At the beginning of the school year, I was just an average kid. My clothes were never overly stylish, but no one’s were in the 90’s. I got in trouble on occasion, probably sitting out recess once a week or so, but I wasn’t a problem child. My parents weren’t helicopter parents, but they were involved and had me in after-school activities. As the year progressed, however, I gained weight, stopped bathing and brushing my teeth regularly, started wearing dirty clothes to school, and acting out. I once snapped at my teacher to stop calling our workbook by that name, because it was just a book and we weren’t babies. I made her so angry that she went to the classroom next door, grabbed a textbook, shoved it under my nose and told me that this was a textbook and that it was much harder… to which I rolled my eyes.
That was the year I began picking on other children, ruling my friendships through fear of being on my bad side. I continued to do so in third grade and by fourth, when the district transferred me to a new school, I don’t imagine I had any friends who would miss me. I wore a dress on my first day of fourth grade, because I wanted to look nice and fit in, but had no concept or understanding of how to do so. Overweight and the victim of unfortunate genetics, I should have been wearing both deodorant and a bra, but wore neither. I made my teacher a present, because I just really wanted her to like me and I thought that a pickle jar full of Easter grass with her name on it was the key. It was not. She didn’t like me. I smelled. I was bossy. I was a bully. I made good grades and always turned in my work, but I was absolutely the kid in the class that every teacher seems to have, who keeps the year from being perfect. I was a hall kid, sent out for interrupting and mouthing off, for picking on other children and bossing them around. By fifth grade, I was no better.
I ate fast food every night and put on more and more weight. My fifth grade teacher blanched when she bought KFC for everyone as a reward and I asked for my usual of two breasts and a leg, something I wouldn’t order now. I was fat and I was mean. By middle school, I had few friends and anyone who rejected me was the recipient of my own cruel bullying, like the boy who didn’t like me back… who I threw soda on at a school dance, or the girl he did like, about whom I spread rumors. It wasn’t just one teacher who dreaded having me in their class, anymore. It was seven.
What none of those teachers knew, of course, was that second grade was the year my parents began spending every evening fighting in the garage. There were no more family dinners at the table and my Gramma brought us fast food nearly every night, in an attempt to bring some happiness and normalcy back into our world. That was the year my mother stopped washing my clothes on the regular and checking to make sure I was bathing myself and brushing my teeth, because I was eight and incapable of taking care of myself.
Third grade was the year my dad snapped at me that I stank and was disgusting for not wearing deodorant, the first time anyone had mentioned I should and still, neither parent helped me to remember consistent and proper hygiene. It was the year I got lice on Thanksgiving and my aunt bought me my first training bra for Christmas, because my mother hadn’t thought of it.
Fourth grade was the year I decided to sleep in my clothes each night, so I wouldn’t have to get up early to get dressed and went to school sweaty, rumpled and tired. It was the year my mother took us to Disney World alone, because my father refused to go. I hit puberty that year, before the other girls, and was embarrassed that I needed to shave my legs and confused about why I had hair in other places that only grownups did. No one had told me it was normal, so I shaved it with a secret shame. I still have the scar from where I shaved my arms, because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. That was the year that the golden boy everyone liked began to bully me relentlessly when no one was watching. When I told the school counselor, she didn’t believe me.
I’m sure my teacher knew about my mother’s brain surgery in the 5th grade, followed closely by her grand mal seizure, during which I called the ambulance, myself. I doubt she knew my father left a month later and that my mother got me up at midnight every night to pray over a statue of Saint Thomas Moore that she buried in the flower bed, as if it were a magic spell that would bring my father home. She was convinced it had worked, when he returned a week later… and devastated when it didn’t after he moved out for good and took my brother with him, leaving me alone with her. That Christmas break, I broke my arm and my father refused to take me to the ER, dragged me to see Patch Adams in theaters and yelled at me for falling asleep. Despite being a nurse, my mother didn’t stand up to him. It wasn’t until two days later that my Gramma told her they could take me to the hospital or she could take me… and they discovered my arm was broken in two places. That was the year the other girls told me it was gross that my tongue was completely white, because I didn’t brush my teeth. I got my Gramma to buy me a new toothbrush, chose medium bristles instead of soft, and went home and brushed until my tongue and gums bled.
When middle school started, I couldn’t understand why my old friends, no longer forced to include me, had chosen not to do so. After a boy told me my shirt was too tight, early in the year, I wore a jacket every single day to cover my disgustingly fat arms. The boy down the street, who had chased me and kissed me on the playground in the first grade, now threw rocks at me when I took my dog for a walk. When the popular boys at school were over at his house, they joined in… even the ones who were usually nice to me. It was in the 6th grade that I started cutting myself. In the 7th, my mother told my father that she’d only get back together with him if I agreed. When I didn’t, he refused to come to my birthday party and we didn’t speak for several months. That was the year my mother started hitting me. That was the year I started sucking my thumb again. It wasn’t until the next year that my mother told me unspeakable lies about my father molesting me, to keep me from leaving her abuse for him. I wouldn’t speak to him again until my senior year of high school.
For most of my formative years, when my crushes, my friends, and even my teachers didn’t like me back, there was no one around to teach me how to handle the disappointment, the rejection, because my parents were too busy with their own drama… and it wasn’t until 8th grade that I was able to somewhat navigate these interactions for myself. Until then, no one liked me at school. No one liked me at home… except, perhaps, for my Gramma. No matter how angry and hateful I was, no matter how badly I smelled, no matter how dirty and mismatched and unstylish, I always had a warm hug from Gramma and that was my saving grace.
In the next month, as I’m introduced to my new after school crowd at the library, I’m going to remember the angry, smelly bully I once was. I’m going to recall how much it hurt to be so disliked by everyone, how devastating it was to try to face it all alone… and I’ll remind myself that not all of those kids are going to be blessed with a saintly Gramma… to insist someone take them to the ER, to hold them when the bullies make them cry, to buy them toothbrushes and new bras. This fall, I’m going to try to remember that these aren’t the kids who keep my year from being perfect, but the ones who give my professional life the most meaning… because the smelly kid, the bully, the girl in the ill-fitting dress… they look to us, their teachers and librarians and school counselors, to be the few people who want them. I’m going to remember that it is so hard to be unwanted. We are their safe haven. We give them hope that things will be better, when no one else does.