I found every last part of seventh grade bewildering. The hundreds of new students, the maze-like new campus, the rows and rows of lockers, having to choose classes and then needing to switch between those classes six times each day, the concept of "popularity" and its blatant yet slippery links to student government elections, and the hundreds of new students.
My classmates and I had been plucked from our isolated, comforting, elementary school nerdling pod, and dropped into a massive social cage match. I found myself on the sidelines, confused and lost, in a holding pen with the geekiest geeks from five other elementaries.
I might have been at a social disadvantage, but I was also not a nice kid. And I quickly compensated for my social disorientation by picking on the weaker and geekier. Morgan Van Grundy and his bolo ties? Fair game. A friendly, gangly new kid with the then-rare name Cameron? In my sights. I quickly had them both squirming. Both asking me why I couldn't be nicer to them. Asking what they had ever done to me.
I remained unrepentant. Besides, I lacked the self-awareness to explain that I preyed on them so I wouldn't feel like fair game to the kids outside our fast-track classrooms.
After a few weeks as a free agent, I found an equally callous partner. Lara was a transplant from New York and had the accent to prove it. She was creative and vivacious and interesting, and told me secrets about life outside Southern California, about things like boroughs and fashion models. I started to spend afternoons at her house. I would moon over her designer jeans. She would tell me what it was like to have a single mom. We would talk in hushed tones about S-E-X even though no one else was home.
Lara was no more bone-evil than I was, but she shared my fondness for easy targets. So, when we weren't gossiping, watching TV, dressing up, or laying waste to her family's stash of Jello pudding pops, we were tormenting her neighbors and our classmates Deanna and Adele.
Deanna lived next door to Lara, and Adele lived a few houses down the street. They were good friends, and were cut from the same quiet, good-natured, studious cloth. I got the sense that Lara had been friends with them both in elementary school, but that they'd since had had a falling out. I never even bothered to ask what happened. I had no reason to target Deanna and Adele, not one -- except that Lara wanted to pick on them, and I liked to pick on people. Because I was not a nice kid. Because it was easy. Because I felt powerless, and so craved power, no matter how tainted or piddling.
This is what Lara and I would do:
- We would walk behind Adele and Deanna and snicker.
- We would follow them onto the volleyball court during P.E. and demand to know what "that thing" on Adele's face was (it was a beauty mark).
- We would "oink" at Deanna and her perky upturned nose when the teachers weren't listening.
- We would call them at home, several times a day, and then hang up when they answered.
One day, a voice that wasn't Deanna's answered the phone at her house. It was a teenage girl's voice, but a thick voice, a slow voice. I hung up and told Lara what I'd heard.
"Oh, that's Deanna's sister. She's retarded. She wears maxi pads in the swimming pool!"
And, inexcusably, I laughed and called right back. The sister picked up the phone. I wondered again at her voice's tone and texture, and then I asked for Deanna. Deanna picked up the phone, said "Hi?" and of course I hung up, because Deanna's sister and our need to harass Deanna were two entirely separate issues.
But I thought about Deanna's sister a lot, even as Lara and I kept up the harassment. What did the sister do all day? Did she go to school? Did she ever go out of her house?
Our own classes were small enough that after a few months we knew baseline biography information on just about everyone, so while I knew that Deanna had older parents, she never once mentioned her sister. Nor did anyone else. Not through five more years of classes together.
I still wonder if Deanna's sister was a source of pain, strength, peace, or all three. If Deanna's silence was to protect her sister, herself, or both of them. If her silence was even a conscious effort.
Lara and I eventually gave up on Deanna and Adele because, to their credit, they ignored us. They didn't have their parents or teachers intervene, they didn't confront us, and they never retaliated in any way. They didn't even acknowledge that we'd said or done anything to them. We stopped bothering them, because without reactions to fuel our actions, we lost our motivation.
We never succeeded in taking away even an ounce of their power.
Not that I didn't find other victims to needle. After all, I wasn't very nice.
On Wednesday: What kind of environment creates children with such little experience with and sympathy towards people with special needs? In which siblings of special needs children never talk about their brothers or sisters?
For those who now need something with which to wash their eyes, here is Susan Etlinger's latest hero, slamming the foulness of the word "retard":