The summer before sixth grade, we moved to a small town in southwest Minnesota. My parents rented a large mustard-colored house on the outskirts of town. It was the first real house I had lived in since I was two years old, having recently moved from a mobile home in Texas. The house had a basement where we could wait out tornados and an attic where the bats lived. We each had our own room; it was downright palatial.
The house sat in the middle of the block, flanked on one end by the grain elevators, a predictable feature in any small midwestern town, and on the other end by the public swimming pool. The closer one walked towards the grain elevators, the nicer the houses became. The last house on the end near the pool was arguably the most neglected in town.
On the other side of the grain elevators, the town sat. If one continued to walk towards the center of town, the grass became lush green and the houses, newer. The city blocks became organized and eventually, you would arrive at my new school, the school where I would attend sixth grade and where my father was the new principal. The school was contained in a low, long building like every other elementary school and was connected to the Catholic church. The school would be the location of my first “typical” schooling experience, having been in a homeschool setting up to this point.
I started school optimistically, turning twelve that fall. My class consisted of fourteen students, seven girls – four of which were named Amy, and seven boys – three of which were named Brian. Immediately it became abundantly clear that I was an outsider in a land where everyone else was somehow intimately related to each other. I had moved from a place that geographically sat in Texas, but for all intents and purposes, was its own country. Its language was different, the customs strange and even the clothing was seemingly light-years behind this new place. I found myself looking up the word “boner” in the dictionary and feeling dismayed when I found no entry. My name was not Amy.
And yet, I persisted. I tried to “kill them with kindness.” I smiled and showed off how well I could read and with how much detail I could recite prayers. I spoke loudly and clearly, enunciating my words when it was time to perform. I helped the teacher as much as I could. I did my best. I was the principal’s daughter.
The others seemed to quickly clue into my naiveté. One morning I was passed a note. One of the Brians was asking me to be his girlfriend. “Check yes or no.” I stuffed the note into the pocket of my denim jumper, heart pounding, hot red blotches already creeping up my face from my chest. I snuck a look around and the Amy who had passed me the note looked at me, nodding and smiling expectantly. I tried to look nonplussed. Finally I took the note out and checked “yes.” Instantly, elation filled me. I couldn’t believe someone would like me enough for this. I was filled with the drama and anticipation of it all. At lunchtime, I nearly skipped to the cafeteria.
After lunch, I walked back to the classroom by myself to grab my jacket when I noticed that Brian had followed me. I stammered, not sure what one says to their boyfriend, but before I could say anything, he muttered something. I wasn’t sure what he had said so I asked him to repeat himself. Again, he muttered and as he did, the whole class ascended upon the room, presumably to get their jackets, but pausing as they witnessed the scene before them. And suddenly I realized with terrible clarity the reality of the situation. He was trying to clue me in; to have me realize the sick truth before it hit me with the full force of shame that had been planned. The whole thing was a joke; a test to see how oblivious I really was, a trick created by an Amy high on her place in life. Why would he want to go out with me? How could I have fallen for this? I felt sick.
Time sped up. I tried to gravitate towards teachers and other adults but free times such as recess were terrifying. I didn’t know playground games and began to suspect everyone of malice. I saw danger in everyone and was always on guard. I felt unprotected and vulnerable at all times.
Paradoxically, the grass was always green. I don’t remember a winter in this town, only a graduation from sixth grade in the spring and a tentative plan to homeschool in the fall. I holed up in the town library that summer and read everything they had that was appropriate for the pre-teen set and then beyond that. I bought penny candies at the local five and dime. I kept to myself. And then it was time to move again.