When I was thirteen, I had a huge crush on the boy who lived across the street.
He had dreamy brown eyes, and he totally rocked a short-sleeved plaid shirt.
Our little brothers were friends, and our little sisters were friends, and we were friends, as much as boys and girls could be friends in eighth grade. We would battle each other with rubber-band guns, or we would play basketball on the weatherbeaten court in the field behind his house. We didn’t have any classes together, but we sometimes exchanged notes in the halls (he wasn’t nearly as interesting a note-writer as my writer-friends were).
All of the blood left my head every time I saw him, but I didn’t really have any particular desire to have a junior-high romance with him. “Going with” someone didn’t make much sense to me, but that didn’t stop me from writing his name on my grocery bag book covers and asking the Ouija board if he “liked” me, too. My friends were very patient with me, and all of their ribbing of me was good-natured.
But then a girl in my Girl Scout troop started “going with” across-the-street boy. She was a cheerleader, and he played football, so it was a natural match, but for some reason, she decided we were rivals and acted accordingly. She was with him, and she missed no opportunity to rub it in. If she saw me when she was with him, she would quickly hug him and stick her tongue out at me behind his back. It was incredibly annoying.
So I did what any nerdy, literary-minded junior high schooler would do: I wrote a story about her.
It was called “Death of a Cheerleader.” In it, the Nameless Wonder—a character the cheerleader never saw—lured the cheerleader to the empty school where a series of tortures awaited her.
In one of the tortures, the cheerleader was forced to sit in a classroom with the PA system blaring grammar lectures. In another, she had to make a choice between two cans of Pepsi, one that was just cola and one that had in it some really smelly chemical we used in art class to tarnish copper.
Despite the title, the cheerleader (spoiler alert!) didn’t die at the end. The story was very PG, but if I were in junior high school today and a teacher saw something like it, I’d almost certainly have my locker searched and might even find myself being interviewed by the police. Of course, if I were in junior high today, I would be a thirty-seven-year-old eighth grader with two kids, so I’m guessing I would have a different set of problems.
I wrote “Death of a Cheerleader” in pencil on eight pages of college-ruled notebook paper. I wrote blurbs and reviews for it on the front page of the story (things like, “A life-affirming tour de force!”), and brought it to school to show my friends for a laugh. One of my friends asked if she could borrow it to read during class. I said, “Sure!”
And she took it directly to the cheerleader.
Later she told me she did it because she thought the cheerleader “deserved to see it,” but I think she did it because it seemed like a chance to climb a rung or two higher on the junior high social ladder.
Whatever the reason, I found out about it before I left school that day, and I spent that night terrified. I knew I would be in for it next time I went to school.
The next morning I dressed in the outfit my godmother had sent for my birthday and which made me feel very grown-up—a button-down shirt in earth-stone stripes, a pair of khaki slacks pinch-rolled over my flesh-tone knee-highs, and my pretty shoes with the teensy heel on them. I feathered my bangs and slung my acid-wash denim backpack over my shoulder, and left the house feeling unreal. I stood at the bus stop, unable to believe I was actually going to school to face whatever was in store for me.
Before homeroom, a phalanx of very athletic girls approached me in the hall. These were the Big Girls, the ones known for starting—and finishing—fights in the halls. Even the boys were afraid of these girls, but I tried to act casual as the front ranks parted and there stood the cheerleader.
“You spelled ‘receive’ wrong,” she said as she handed the story to me. The group gave me one more collective sneer, turned on their heels, and sauntered away.
Throughout first and second period, the rumors whispered around me: “They’re going to jump you at lunch today!”
I’d heard these types of rumors many times before, but this was the first time they were about me. My most frequent desire in junior high was to be invisible, and this notoriety was unwelcome. Plus, I had only the vaguest notion of how to be in a fight. My dad, whose uncle and cousins were amateur boxers, had shown me a couple of boxing moves, but all I could remember was that I was supposed to keep my thumb on the outside of my fist. He’d never told me what to do if five or six girls grabbed me by the hair or kicked me in the shins.
Third period, I tried to tell my literature teacher what was going on, and I broke down crying in front of the whole class. She took me to the vice prinicipal’s office, and he called the cheerleader in so the two of us could talk. She cried her crocodile tears and insisted that she’d never planned anything like that. I was not convinced, and sought asylum from the school administration, but the vice principal gave us both a nebulous warning and sent us back to class.
My literature teacher let me eat lunch in her classroom that day so I didn’t have to run the gauntlet in the lunchroom, and when the rumors picked up again after lunch (“They’re going to jump you after school!”), she gave me a ride home so I wouldn’t have to navigate the asphalt no man’s land to the bus. In the passenger seat of her car, I stared at the glove box and felt small and silly. I was glad that I’d avoided being pummeled, but I felt lame that I’d escaped instead of standing up for myself.
That evening in the orange glow of sunset, the boy across the street and I met on the court to shoot baskets and talk about the day.
“I was looking out for you on the bus this afternoon,” he said. “I was watching for a bunch of big girls surrounding a little tiny girl, and I was going to take them out.”
“Thanks,” I said, trying not to feel offended about being called a “little tiny girl.” I threw the ball at the basketball hoop and tried to just enjoy being with my friend.
Soon after that, he and the girl broke up, but I found it really didn’t matter to me. A few months later, I published a story in the literary magazine for the school district. During the end-of-year awards ceremony, I sat behind three of the Big Girls who’d planned to beat me up that day. One of them turned around to me.
“Hey,” she said, “that story you wrote about your brother was great. It was really touching. I just wanted to let you know.” Her friends nodded in agreement.
The pen was indeed mightier than the sword. Or at least mightier than a retinue of battle-ready thirteen-year-olds.
Written as part of the Remember the Time Blog Hop.