I remember seventh grade like a car wreck. I remember being thrown around, trapped, in shock. Eventually, I tumbled onto the gravel shoulder, charred and unrecognizable. I left part of myself in that middle school, like a tooth in a dashboard.
The summer I turned twelve, my family moved from rural Michigan to Southern California; part of the early-eighties exodus. Today we’d be called, “casualties of the economic downturn”. My brother and I bunked in my aunt’s garage. I didn’t want a ‘fresh start’ but I’d make the best of it for my parents.
I became a social leper the first day of school, before home room. It happened inside a ten-foot-high chain link, bike cage. I was short and poor, sporting a Midwest accent and a bike cobbled together from spare parts. I loved that bike. It had a mid-seventies banana seat, ape-hanger handlebars and mismatched tires. I thought it was cool. I’d quickly learn to hate it.
I parked my albatross in a sea of cooler birds and a wave of laughter pushed out of the bike cage. A large boy leaned against the gate, Master lock dangling from a chain in his hand. I smiled stupidly up at him as I passed. A second later, he swung the padlock down on top of my skull. I collapsed amid widespread laughter.
Thus chronicles my first minute-and-a-half of seventh grade. Things got progressively worse.
I attracted bullies like gravity. Ordinary events became occasions for torture. I’d alternate my routes between classes, eat lunch in out-of-the-way places, and hold my urine to avoid being caught alone in the bathroom. The bike cage was a thing of nightmares.
The loneliness was crippling. I became obsessed with belonging. I had entered that school an excellent student, well behaved and considerate. That year I brought home D’s and F’s. I clowned for attention, mouthed off to teachers and did anything on a dare. When I had a chance to befriend the English kid, the one boy who stuck out more than me, I chose instead to join in his torment. Anybody but me.
I’d become ugly, self-centered and vicious.
I hated myself but I never blamed my parents. They got steamrolled. Nobody willingly leaves the house he built with his own hands. They didn’t go west to wreck their marriage. Inflicting California on me just wasn’t part of their plan. My folks were desperate to rebuild a life and, instead of helping, I worried them sick.
It’s weird the things we remember from adolescence. I don’t remember if vandals killed that bike or if I personally demolished it. I do remember moving to California because that’s where the jobs were in eighty-two. My dad can only shake his head to imagine families in that situation today.
This I believe: adversity builds character but there’s got to be a better way.
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