Someone asked me not too long ago – “What is your worst middle school moment?”
They had spoken two trigger words: Middle. School.
Whenever I hear them, my entire soul shrivels up inside of me and I want to crawl inside of my own skin and hide there and just watch Harry Potter on repeat and cuddle with a kitten. I shudder to even think of them now and to think of all the emotional pre-teen turmoil they churn up. Ugh.
Middle school was the absolute worst. I’m not talking “I’m gonna run home and write in my diary and cry because Billy Joe Bob John doesn’t like me!!!” worst. I’m talking “Holy SHIT that girl just tried to set my hair on fire but she also says she’s my friend?” kind of worst. SIDENOTE: That really happened. A girl who was my “friend” tried to set my hair on fire when we were hanging out. For those who care we are totally NOT Facebook friends!!!
When I was in middle school I was fresh out of 5th grade and fresh out of being the chubby, curly-haired bookworm. I will never forget in fifth grade, Ronnie, the boy who I had a crush on, literally looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re chubby.” That doesn’t just LEAVE you right away, so I carried that into sixth grade. I had shed my baby fat, but I was still shy, full of anxiety, and counting down the minutes until I could go home and read.
I remember middle school was so bad my mom used to literally call it the “Asylum.” She understood. She got it. My mom 100% knew how terrible it was, so much so that she literally used to say “I’m sorry you have to go to the Asylum today.” Every morning she’d look at me and see the anxiety in my eyes – the anxiety of going to a place with mean kids and scary, inappropriate teachers and loud noises and she’d say, “Nina. Remember. Your mom loves you. Your dad loves you. It’s going to be okay.”
This became my mantra every single day in school when things got bad. I’d sit there, enduring the teasing from the big kid named Demetrius who sat next to me in just about EVERY SINGLE FREAKING CLASS and picked on me. He called me ugly, made fun of my arms and was basically the worst. I would write in my notebook, “MMLM, MDLM, IGBOK” which stood for my mother’s mantra “My mom loves me, my dad loves me, it’s going to be OK.”
The anxiety started as early as the morning when I got on the school bus. I was the very last bus stop and the only person at my bus stop. Each morning I’d pray and pray that there was a single seat in the very front of the bus for me. The back of the bus terrified me and rightly so seeing as that’s where all the burn-outs and tough kids sat and I just wanted to find my solace with the nerds in the very front who wouldn’t harass me.
The thing is, it wasn’t just the kids who were little Voldemorts in the making. It was the teachers as well. Between my creepster teacher who favored the popular girls and that stupid substitute teacher who told me I didn’t need to eat that Snickers because I was fat enough, middle school was basically No Man’s Land. You weren’t safe anywhere! What was a neurotic twelve year old to do?
Well, I’ll tell you this. Middle school made me brave. One day I couldn’t take it anymore and I stood up to Demetrius. I stood up for myself and I remember the moment so clearly. We were in science and my ears were burning pink as he teased me and I remember snapping back at him, telling him he didn’t have any room to talk or something like that. Of course I’m not endorsing knocking down other people as a means to justice, but for a 12 year old who cried in the bathroom alone, I finally stood up to my bully and it felt amazing. And you know what? He left me alone from that day forward and actually, became pretty okay to me.
Middle school gave me an equally shy, little red-haired girl named Jeane who is still, to this day, one of my best friends. Eighth grade came and I remember looking at Jeane in math and thinking, “She looks nice. I bet she likes Harry Potter.” So I invited her to see the new Harry Potter movie with me and that was that. Jeane made my eighth grade year amazing.
Middle school gave me the first time a boy ever told me I was pretty and years later, as seniors in high school, he became my first serious boyfriend. He later turned out to be a huge asshole BUT all those assholes we date just pave the way for when we meet someone who we’re like YES. You. You’re what I’ve been looking for this whole time and I didn’t even know it! So I’m grateful for all those dumb speedbumps along the way.
Middle school gave me the first beginning of having a real sense of myself. Of learning what I loved; that more than anything I loved reading and writing and laughing and that somehow, those passions would lead me to where I am right now – drowning in student loans but living in Los Angeles and trying to figure my shit out! But I’m here, and that means something.
Middle school was horrible and the worst and scary, but it was also so important. I see middle school kids now and I genuinely love them. I see the kids I would have been friends with and I just want to stop them and tell them it’s going to get better and it’s going to be okay. That all the stuff that makes them feel different and awkward and lonely, all that stuff is so special and one day it won’t feel that alienating and that one day everyone will want to be different anyway and we’ll call them hipsters and they’ll suddenly be the cool ones and then everyone will make fun of them anyway so then everyone still makes fun of everyone so really, just don’t even stress kid.
* * *
We all answered the question my friend had asked, each with our own embarrassing story, I realized that we all go through it. Everyone goes through middle school and we all come out on the other end and our lives lead us to one another, to people and you create connections and a life and it’s fucking dope.
So in the end, I guess answering that question wasn’t so bad after all.