I’ll admit that leading middle school fellowship was not the most glamorous of choices for my volunteerism, compared to, say, planting sustainable organic gardens in the church yard, or delivering freshly baked bread to new visitors. But there was a deeper motivation at work here: I felt sorry for those kids. There you have it. I sympathized with them for having to be that age. It’s not their fault! Someone has got to help see them through!
I know first-hand how bad it can be. Eighth grade was an especially traumatic year for me. Whenever I hear the kids complaining about school, or bullies, or some other puberty-related issue, I tell them stories of my own oppressive experiences when I was in eighth grade, in 1972. They soon begin to realize just how charmed their own lives are by comparison.
At that time, our nomadic family was going through a phase where we moved to a different state and school system for each year of my sixth, eighth and ninth grades. Eighth grade was by far the worst of them all. I was not the most athletic boy, so that immediately placed me firmly at the lowest ranking of the middle school echelon. Add to that my greasy hair, braces, and oversized, thick-lens eyeglasses, and you start to get a very sorry picture. To say that I was awkward-looking at thirteen years old is to be very generous. And here’s the saddest part: by the end of eighth grade, I had made only three friends: one was severely learning-disabled; one was a freak of nature; and the third was the most effeminate boy in the school. Honest. That was the best I could do.
“Tell us more!” The youth group kids say, hanging on every word. They eat it up, imagining me as the dork that they could have pounded on today in the hallways of their school. “What was wrong with the freak? Did you get beat up? Did you ever find out what happened to them?”
As I entered my eighth grade homeroom class for the first time as the new kid from out of town, I was introduced to Mr. Hanson, the math teacher. Mr. Hanson was a short, slight man with a head like a bird. He took one look at me and did some quick calculations in his head: braces + thick glasses – self-confidence = Loser.
Once the situation was summed up firmly in his mind, he knew immediately what to do. Mr. Hanson called over the Freak of Nature and asked him to shepherd me through my first few days of school. This boy, if I can even call him that, was about seven feet tall and was already developed, like a full-grown man. However, his face was covered with a severe case of acne, which reminded you of his unfortunate state of puberty. He was like a thirteen-year old boy crammed into a thirty-five-year old man’s body. This meant, of course, that no other normal thirteen-year old in their right mind would want to be caught dead with him.
Freak of Nature promptly escorted me over to his table, where he kindly offered me the seat next to him (I attended a very progressive school where the students sat at large tables in groups rather than at individual desks). I couldn’t help but notice that, while all the other tables in the classroom seated six or seven pupils, this table of eight had only two other students stationed there: a boy with an obviously severe learning disability; and an effeminate young man, who was, dare I say, flaming.
Without a moment’s hesitation from Mr. Hanson, I had been taken directly to the Table of Outcasts. That pretty much set the tone for how the rest of the year was going to be.
Once I was seated, The Flaming One immediately launched into an animated tale of his weekend festivities, which was dominated by the intricate re-telling of a musical theatre performance that he had attended, a show that I had never heard of before, called “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I pretended to organize my notebook and pencils as he described in vivid detail, using a variety of flowing hand movements, the highlights of this fabulous theatrical production. It was the dream of his life come true, he gushed. By the time he sashayed through Act 3, a cold, harsh realization set in regarding the fate of my eighth grade school-year: once I had taken that fourth seat at the Table of Outcasts, there was no turning back.
If Jesus had ever shown up at our school, he would have definitely made a bee line over to our table first. He would have brushed hastily past the other tables filled with good-looking, socially-confident and well-adjusted young teens, and rushed to our aid, filled with compassion. Throughout that year, I endured my fair share of eighth-grade cruelty, but survived well enough with my little band of misfits. The Flaming One proved to be a very entertaining table-mate. He was good-natured, full of dramatic tales, and, against all odds, had a much higher self-esteem than I could ever seem to muster. The Freak of Nature was extremely kind to me, the entire year. And the boy with the learning disability showed a great sense of humor. We stuck together, and stuck it out.
Thank God my family moved to another state again, and in ninth grade I totally reinvented myself. I filled out, I started washing my hair, got more stylish glasses, and embarked on the one sport that I was really good at – the swim team. That was the year I learned about resilience.
Image by Pixabay