I had been mostly okay with my last couple years of elementary school, though I got through it by being more of a trained seal than a real learner. I particularly remember working my way through the color-coded SRA reading program, reading there level-rated prose pieces and taking the comprehension test after, before moving on the next piece and eventually up to the next color level. What I was reading was not particularly interesting to me, the whole point was to try to “level up” which had some self-esteem boost for me.
I got to my Junior High, there with a thousand other kids, and I really felt all the pressures of peer pressure, alienation, anonymity, and low self-esteem. I now had seven different classes and academic subjects that were more rigorous but no more interesting than what I had encountered in elementary school. Having skipped kindergarten, I was a year younger than most of my seventh grade comrades, and was particularly self-conscious about the whole boy/girl/puberty thing. That said, I did have a crush on a girl in seventh grade, and longed to just be able to talk to her, but was too shy to even attempt to or share my feelings with anyone, let alone her.
By eighth grade, after practically stalking the girl I liked for an hour at the school “sock hop” dance, I finally screwed up my courage, facing absolute desolation and despair if I did not, and asked her to dance. We danced to rock and roll music for maybe 20 minutes and then went to the cafeteria and sat and had a coke together. For that 30 minutes I was in heaven. Just she and I hanging out, liking each other and enjoying each others company with no one else taking notice.
But the next day in homeroom (she and I shared the same homeroom) my fellow male and female classmates had taken notice. The guys teased me that she was my “girlfriend” and I was so uncomfortable with that whole concept and all the baggage that went with it that I was uncomfortable even talking to her there in homeroom with the others watching and listening. And that led to me being uncomfortable with how she must be feeling about me not talking to her…and you can see the vicious circle continuing.
There was a general feeling among the guys in my homeroom and that I had fallen in with that being cool was all about your exploits with girls and not about your academic prowess. Picking up on this, and not wanting to draw any attention to myself, I made every effort to downplay any intelligence I might have otherwise demonstrated, either in class or in outside of class interactions. I so wanted to be cool, to be viewed highly by particularly my male classmates.
By eighth grade, struggling with my self-esteem, feeling the daily stress of situations like the one above, and feeling like there was no value to appearing smart, there were school days when I woke in the morning and looked for some reason not to go to school. I think my immune system tried its best to help me here, and lowered its defenses to let me acquire all sorts of cold and flu viruses to keep me home from school. My mom was okay with me staying home for a week at a time, sometimes even two. After an ankle injury put my leg in a cast for six weeks, rather than limp back to school on crutches (a perceived self-esteem hit I could not even fathom enduring) I gratefully stayed home for the last six weeks of eighth grade. Given my spotty attendance I still managed to pass my classes and get mostly B’s.
These issues escalated in ninth grade to the point where I recall being out for literally three weeks in a row. At this point my school counselor had called my mom and had set up a meeting to in essence negotiate with me and my mom to get me back in school. I don’t remember the details of the discussion we had. I do recall that I did not feel my reasons for staying home were legit, so I was not comfortable sharing them with either my mom or my counselor. Finally it was decided, with my feeling I should reluctantly agree, that I return to school, and I finished my ninth grade year with passing grades and was gratefully done, with good riddance, with junior high.
I started tenth grade, my first year of high school, with the same trepidations, anxieties and self-esteem issues I had struggled with through junior high. I fell in with a group of true “jocks”, who were in no way my intellectual equals, but accepted me. If you are using the metaphor precisely, a “jock” is not necessarily an athlete but an “athletic supporter”, a denizen of the world of groupies and fans surrounding athletes and athletic events. We went to all the high school football and other games and watched pro and college games on the weekends. We drove around in one of the group members old Volkswagen Bug and made late night raids on our friends houses to throw roles of toilet paper into the trees of their yard. I guess in this circle it was a badge of honor to wake up in the morning to find your yard thus decorated.
Three things helped me turn the corner and begin to develop self-esteem and begin a more purposeful approach to life through my high school years…
1. Getting involved in theater
2. Participating in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations
3. Beginning to embrace feminism
More about each item in later posts…