Remember the horror of junior high? You involuntarily leave behind the safety of six hours of the same four walls, the same 25-30 fellow students, the same desk, the same teacher, not to mention the right to act like a child because you are a child—a secure and predictable environment with few surprises. You’re thrust into the nightmare of the teen years—nine different classrooms, nine different teachers, over a hundred different fellow students, and three minute marathons from one end of the building to another that include a pit stop at your locker for the proper books. On top of that, there are your budding hormones, acne, sprouting of hair down there just as you are forced to undress for gym in front of other members of the same sex…. junior high school is definitely the harshest transition-less period in life after dropping out of the warmth of the womb into a cold, cold world.
That’s why I so fondly recall many of the horrors of junior high. First there was the change of venue…and social situation. Growing up in one of the most sheltered, WHITE areas of Long Island, I understood that some of my favorite singers like Donna Summer and Michael Jackson were, you know, black, but I wasn’t aware I’d actually meet a black person! Okay, I exaggerate. We actually had one black girl transfer into my sixth grade class the year before, for a couple of months, and then disappear just as quickly after because, as my teacher explained to the whole class, her house burned down. Her house burned down??? I’m no conspiracy theorist, but even my pre-adolescent mind at the time was like, ‘The house of the new, only black family in town burned down???”
Anyway, the cool thing about my junior high was that it was smack dab in the middle of a notoriously ghetto town! My school district was set up so that kids would go to the elementary school and high school in their own town, but for those two middle years of junior high, kids from every school in the district were sent to the single junior high in the district. So here you have all these naïve white kids who never met a black kid before thrown into a school that actually had a slight black majority. The majority standing we took for granted was wiped away in an instant, our obsession with the Go-Go’s and A Flock of Seagulls was wicka-wicka-wicka scratched into the street beats of Grandmaster Flash, childish one-on-one fights were replaced by serious knife-wielding gang fights in the schoolyard, and a 13-year-old black girl dropped out of school after the first two weeks not because her house burned down, but so she could give birth to her baby, which she brought back to school two weeks later to show off to all her friends in the schoolyard…and you would think that would be what ignorant white pre-teens would have to worry about. Nope. You wanted to become friends with the black kids—so they could protect you from all the evil white kids in the school! Yeah, junior high was definitely a lesson in the truths about race relations.
The first real challenge with junior high was the fact that the school was over a mile from my house. The thought of not being able to run 8 short blocks home in times of trouble was terrifying. We had to get up extra early to go stand out in the cold on the corner ‘bus stop,’ which is where the bullying begins. You tried to stay hidden behind, well, the STOP sign, which never gave you full coverage, and simply hoped the bullies would target your BFF since you were both in diapers instead of you. You’d try avoiding any trouble by using the timing method—figure out about what time the school bus arrived every day, then wait until the last second and RUN all the way to the bus stop to catch it. If you didn’t, you’d have to go home and tell dad the awful news—that he had to drive a mile and a half out of his way on his commute to work.
Missing the school bus was also something you never wanted to do AFTER classes. If you missed the bus, you’d have to hang around for the ‘late’ bus, which didn’t show up until like five (and was reserved for the WORST kids in the school who were there late for detention!). As for the bus itself, well, here’s where the irony comes in. The COOL place to sit was the last three seats on either side of the aisle in the back of the bus. So…a little more than three decades before, crackers (oh sorry—we called us honkies back then) made African-Americans sit at the back of the bus, which ended up becoming the place white kids wanted to sit the most in my youth. I know, it’s obviously because that’s where you can do the most inappropriate things without the bus driver seeing. And man, did the bullies take advantage of that cover. Things could get pretty brutal back there for the geeks. The best was when an occasional geek would try to take a stand and run on the bus first and claim one of those coveted back seats defiantly—until one of the biggest bullies walked right up to him and dragged him, kicking and screaming (sometimes with bloodshed) from the seat. It was like a metaphorical Roman Empire conquest being enacted before our very eyes.
There were fun moments on the bus as well. My personal favorite memory is of the tipping attempt. See, right near the end of our bus route, the bus had to turn onto a major turnpike at a 45 degree angle. The bus driver was a pretty cute young dude who liked to speed and flirt with the tough mean girl bitches who sat in the back through his rear view mirror (I always pretended he was pouting this lips and batting those eyes at me). So the girls (and the male bullies as well), would instruct the driver each day to hit the turn at maximum speed, and then command all the other kids on the bus to run to one side of the bus to see if we could tip it. Of course, we all complied, because death was a better option than saying no to a bully. Usually, the bus driver would tease us, driving fast until right before hitting the turn. But one particular day, he must have been feeling feisty (one of the hottest mean girls actually bothered to come to school that day), and he hit the turn at what felt like 90 miles an hour. All we scared peons rushed for our lives (or deaths) to one side of the bus as instructed (with just one dirty look). The bus screeched around the turn. The two wheels on the other side of the bus lifted off the fricking ground. We all screamed in terror as the road right outside our windows came closer and closer to our faces…. Needless to say, not even the bullies were brave enough to ever try that game again.
The dependence on the bus actually caused a problem when it came time to go home sick, especially if you had a mother who didn’t drive, like me. Being a very anxiety inducing time for a pre-teen, my junior high years also found me very often getting some major stomach ‘viruses,’ to put it nicely (It didn’t help that I didn’t know back then that I was lactose intolerant and would have cereal and milk for breakfast every morning). I don’t know how I even graduated junior high, because I went home sick all the time. As for the stomach virus part, which made a bathroom a necessity, here was another catch—the stalls in the junior high boys’ room DID NOT HAVE DOORS. Yeah. No kid ever used a bowl in a school filled with cruel pre-teens. So if you ever had to take care of business, you’d go to the nurse’s office, where she had a single person bathroom. All you had to do was say you weren’t feeling well, and she would reply, “Do you need to use the bathroom?” Clearly, she KNEW what the issue was. You’d think the damn school would spring for some doors. Anyway, I was very often in the single person bathroom—I mean, nurse’s office—waiting for my mom to come pick me up. And you know what that entailed? My mom calling a cab company and waiting for them to come pick her up to then drive her to my school to get me as I sat on the nurse’s office single person bathroom bowl sweating it out. Ah, the good old days.
Gym was also an interesting experience. Naturally, dodge ball was the worst, with even the gym teacher taking pleasure in watching the bullies throw the ball like a fricking bullet at the geeks. I still don’t understand where they found the ability or coordination to throw a huge spherical object with one hand with such force. When you were lucky enough to avoid the cannonball and it instead slammed against the bleachers behind you, the sound of the contact could shatter your eardrum. But the bad boys were knocked down a notch when we played football. Talk about awkward moments—our gym teacher was obsessed with making us do it like the professionals, making sure that when we were doing that whole ‘hut, hut, hike’ thing, the back of the one kid’s hand was firmly placed up against the other kid’s perineum. He even demonstrated on one of the students. Boy, talk about a WTF moment in hindsight (literally). And of course, we had a crazy female gym teacher who found her teaching inspiration in the newly released mega hit “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John. For the ten weeks that song was at number one, she had the 45 RPM record blasting on repeat on a turntable in the gym ALL DAY, Olivia’s sweet and sexy voice echoing through every hall in the building. Do you know how hard it was for me to keep my gay ass in class for nine periods when all I wanted to do was run out in the halls in sweats and a head band and do the jumping jacks routine Olivia did in her HBO concert???
Not surprisingly, my fondest memories revolve around food—and experiences that made you want to puke from fright. All the dreadful things that occur in the lunchroom in teen movies are REAL. Junior high lunch was terrifying. First there was the greasy frozen pizza they served us with soggy French fries as the side dish EVERY DAY (One of my all-time favorite meals). But then there was the evil waiting at the end of the lunch line. See, just as you finished paying the lunch lady at the register, two of the biggest, meanest bullies in the school would be waiting for you to walk by while putting your change in your pocket. The change never made it there. You would immediately be asked the rhetorical question, “Got any change?” So you turned it over without argument (and without even a ‘thanks’) because you didn’t want to end up being held outside the school bus window on the way home when the gang was trying to make it tip over.
It being 1982 and all, I was very fond of the classic zippered, hooded sweatshirt, as was everyone that decade. The first thing you did when a food fight broke out in the cafeteria was pull the hood over your head, zip up, and pull those drawstrings so tight you looked like a jawa (which you never said out loud because that kind of geek talk is just asking for it). Of course, the food fights were one-sided, because only the bullies and mean girls threw food. The goal was simply to try and avoid it until the cafeteria monitor—a disgruntled teacher assigned the task during a free-period—decided to put a stop to it. There was one out of control food fight in particular that began when a jealous bully blew a fit because his mean girl girlfriend joined the other mean girls in catcalling when the incredibly hot sports coach walked into the cafeteria one afternoon. I was so proud of myself for surviving that one unscathed. Or so I thought. When I sat down at my desk in my next class after lunch, my friend who sat behind me very carefully tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Um, Dan. You have some food stuck to your back.” I quickly removed my hooded sweatshirt and found…an ENTIRE piece of greasy cafeteria pizza clinging to the back of my sweatshirt.
But that wasn’t the grossest experience of the lunch period. The real danger was in going outside at lunchtime. See, right outside the cafeteria was an area where you could go and hang out after you finished eating, because the disgruntled teacher covering cafeteria duty was so dedicated to actually monitoring what went on between students outside the building. You learned pretty fast that a pizza on the back was a better option than some fresh air. Right outside the cafeteria windows, all the bullies would play handball against a wall. Across from that wall was another wall lined with a fenced off stairwell leading to a maintenance room in the basement. As the bullies used the handball and bricks to practice for crushing skulls in dodge ball, they would often send the ball flying…down into the stairwell. When this happened, the bullies would send the closest unfortunate geek within reach to go get the ball. Said geek would be thrust through the gate and onto the stairs, the gate slamming closed behind him with a very final echo. As the terrified geek ran down the stairs to retrieve the ball, the words “SPIT PIT!” would ring through the schoolyard. Everyone in shouting distance would come running to the stairwell, surrounding the gate, leaning over it, and…you guessed it. Making the stairwell a spit pit. By the time the poor geek raced back up the stairs with the hand ball, he would be ‘clam’ chowder.
Fortunately, I never fell victim to the spit pit. Which is what makes it one of the fondest memories in my return to junior horror high…