Oyster crackers: my entire sixth grade experience can be summed up by those two words. The food usually eaten with soup got me through my first year of middle school. It was my comfort food, just about the only food I could choke down through my constant nausea, and I carried a bag of oyster crackers with me every day, sometimes in my pocket, sometimes in a red tin can on my desk. I never went anywhere without them. Why?
My nausea-inducing anxiety increased following my graduation from elementary school. I once again found myself at the bottom rung of the social ladder in a completely foreign environment. I was dropped in a sea of mostly unfamiliar faces, faces that would turn out to be rather hostile. And the onset of puberty in me and my peers certainly didn’t make matters any better.
In addition to all of those weird changes our bodies were undergoing, some people who I had considered my friends in fifth grade turned on me completely the following August, a change I was completely unprepared for, and I did not take to change very well. I faced bullying—true bullying—for the first time. If I had thought the jabs people had made at me in elementary school were mean, then those I endured in middle school were outright sadistic. I didn’t even have a period of adjustment to this foreign environment before the onslaught began.
Early on in the year (it couldn’t have been much later than September or October) a website started circulating through my team . It was one of those websites that anyone could make—Angelfire or Geocities. Listed in heinous neon colors that people somehow thought looked cool were a number of people from my social circle. Next to each name was either a passing (i.e. cool) or failing (i.e. not cool) remark.
It turns out that my sexuality was apparently a fascinating topic among the bullies in middle school, as seventh grade would go on to prove more than amply. At the time I was not cognizant of the rampant homophobic undercurrent; I was much more concerned with why all of my “friends” had received passing grades on the website while I had clearly failed.
Even though the internet was in its infancy at the time, technology came through for me in the end. After our teachers were made aware of the website by another victim’s parents, the culprit was identified and my suspicions were confirmed: it was indeed created by a girl I had mistaken as being my friend only a few months before.
Once that issue was resolved (and by “resolved” I mean “nobody got in any trouble for it”) a new issue sprouted up in its place. It was as if all of the disparate groups of bullies participated in a bullying network to ensure that their victims were always covered. If my former friends weren’t busy isolating me from everyone else then my backpack on wheels was being kicked and I was being cursed at as I walked down the halls to class. Backpacks on wheels, though practical for scoliosis-prone backs expected to carry hefty loads, were considered the epitome of nerdiness.
One day enough was enough. I walked into first period algebra in tears.
“Is there someone I can talk to?” I asked my teacher in a wavering voice after another torturous morning waiting for the first period bell to ring.
For someone whose job is to educate pubescent children, Ms. Sherman was woefully unprepared to deal with an emotionally fragile student like myself. But she did the best she could and I eventually wound up in the guidance counselor’s office. I told her what was going on and we talked for a bit, but, as is the case with most middle school bullying issues, nothing was done about the perpetrators. It’s as if all middle school faculties are taught that victims of teasing just need to talk their issues out and the bullies will magically disappear. If only.
But I did have some respite from the nearly constant barrage of negativity hurled in my direction: language arts with Mrs. Bernard. Reading and writing were my favorite activities both inside and outside the classroom. Mrs. Bernard recognized this and worked to challenge me beyond the regular class work. One time she gave me a copy of a speech by George Washington to analyze and even though I didn’t comprehend at least half of it I felt so special knowing that someone believed in me enough to give me this task.
Mrs. Bernard was a writer herself and thus much of our class time was dedicated to writing rather than literature. She had just begun working on a novel about a girl who got sent back in time to ancient Egypt and had to use her knowledge of history to save King Tut from being murdered. I eagerly anticipated the days when she would sit us down and read sections of the draft to us. Little did I know that she would one day go on to publish her story as a young adult novel. When I discovered this during my junior year in college, a surge of pride went through me, as if I had contributed somehow to the making of this book.
* * *
Coral Springs Middle School didn’t have many choices in the way of electives, so I was stuck in shop class my first year there. Mr. Hart would bark orders at us from behind his desk as we attempted to construct birdhouses and shelves and make them look nice using the few paint options we had (neon pink, lime green, royal blue, and bright purple).
It was in this class that I met the first person that I would ever consider to be a best friend. Jen was on my team but not in my classes (except for shop, that is). I don’t remember what it was that we first bonded over (my guess is that it was a mutual dislike of shop class), but once we started talking, we became inseparable.
For the first time in my entire K-6 career, I felt almost normal in the friendship department. I had a “BFF” and together we had inside jokes, secrets, and all of those other things that are required of pubescent girls. Life would have been good if it wasn’t for the bullying and the incompetent teachers and the ill-prepared administration and pretty much everything else about my first year in middle school. Okay, perhaps my perspective would have been different had my experience thus far not been so anxiety-ridden, but at the time it seemed like no one and nothing was able to function properly.
The city I lived in was considered one of the more affluent communities in the area. But it did not have its own middle school so we were bused to Coral Springs Middle School which was in a more economically diverse part of Broward County. The school was understaffed and overcrowded, and there was a gang problem. CSMS’s solution? Uniforms. Pants, shorts, and skirts were to be of a decent length and only khaki, navy blue, or black were acceptable. Shirts had to have collars; be tucked in; and red, black, white, or navy blue in color. This was supposed to not only prevent people from wearing gang paraphernalia, but it was also to be the great socioeconomic equalizer among the variety of students who attended the school. Since everyone was wearing the same clothing, the administration reasoned, no one could be singled out as being too rich or too poor.
It did not take long for me to realize that uniforms were useless in the prevention of bullying. Even though I was wearing the same gaudy outfits as my peers, they never hesitated to point out how hideous I looked in them. My parents applied for a waiver from the uniform (for “religious” reasons) for seventh grade in the hopes that my situation would improve. Yeah, right. It’s easy to see now that opting out of the uniform was probably not the smartest move given the fact that I was willfully placing myself in the minority of students who didn’t wear the standard attire. At the time it seemed like a good idea. But hindsight is always 20/20.
 Students were divided into classes and three classes made a team. Teams consisted of three teachers that taught the core subjects to each of the classes. The members of a team sometimes did interdisciplinary assignments together. The irony was that there was an unwritten rule that within the teams each class considered itself in competition with the other classes. So much for unity.