The Middle Passage

(These stories are in some way connected to Wingspread: Of Faith and Flying: )

I barely survived three years at Orange Middle School. I resent that I had to do puberty at the same time.

When I spread my wings, I discovered that the rest of the world was not Fundamentalist. Indeed, hardly anybody was. And furthermore, some of them were really scary.

My first day, I happened to pass Jimmy Creech in the hall. Creech wasn’t the sharpest needle in the pincushion—it would take him two hours to watch 60 minutes. To my eyes he was bereft of grace, a bellowy eighth grader who stood 6’5.” But he walked like the Fonz, and had a gaggle of admirers following him.

I must have said something like, “Hey there,” or “What’s up?”

Creech paused, turned, and addressed my person: “What’d you say?


“Come’ere kid.”

I came. He ripped a piece of paper out of my notebook and wrote on it.

“Turn around, kid.”

I turned. He scotch-taped the paper sign to my back and said, “You take that off and I’ll beat your face in.” The sign read “I AM THE SCUM OF THE EARTH.” Then he walked away.

I wore the sign the first two hours of middle school. Finally, a teacher saw it, ripped it off, and asked, “Who did this to you?”

“I dunno,” I lied. From that day on I realized that I was not the most important person on campus.


At lunchtime, the kids who had money walked across Glassell Street to the high school cafeteria. The rest of us ate our home-packed bag lunches under sheltered tables that stood near the softball field. Most kids ate Fritos, little cans of juice, and candy bars. I wanted the same, but instead, Mom packed me mayonnaise and avocado sandwiches. I would ask, “Anybody wanna trade me for Fritos?” Nobody. That day I learned that not all families are the same.

Some days, if I had money, I would throw Mom’s sandwiches in the trash, sneak through an illicit hole in the chain link fence, and buy tamales at the little Mexican restaurant across Sycamore Avenue. A green banana leaf enfolded the moist corn meal. The cook had stuffed the dough with raisins, onions, and succulent pieces of pork and potatoes. I can still taste those tamales.

One lunchtime I turned to the kid next to me and said, “Have you seen our new music teacher? He’s an old fossil.”

Turned out the “fossil” was standing right behind me. He said nothing, but beginning that day, I became his special project. He inspired me to sing my heart out in his school choir. He was a pilot, and gave me my first airplane ride. I cried the day he left our school because Jack Coleman was a Christian man. I learned from him that there are people in the world who care deeply about you, even if you’re a jerk.

The boys

After lunch, the boys sort of milled around the playground or huddled in tight little groups. Carl was squat, muscular, a football type of guy. Jerry played first base in our pickup games. Don had a crew-cut with a waxed ducktail. These were the noble ones—they drank from the Source. I always invited them to my birthday parties and miniature golfing at Shady Acres in Long Beach. They never invited me back. I learned that friendship isn’t something you can buy.

I got a crash course in fashion when I noticed these boys wearing three-button button-down shirts (you left the back button unbuttoned) and perma-pressed slacks with a little cloth belt buckle on the back. Or they wore Levis. If a kid came to school with a new pair of Levis, they would wrestle him to the ground and tear off the little red “Levi” tag on the back. My parents provided well for us, but we weren’t rich, so I didn’t wear Levis; I worn unknown-brand jeans.  My mom found a second-hand tee-shirt somewhere with “Orange Grammar School” on the front (an obsolete name for Orange Intermediate). I only wore it once.

Gary Noll had punched me in the stomach in elementary school. Now, he saw me as a tempting target and challenged me to a fight. Some of us were shooting baskets after school waiting for coach McKee to come out when Gary Noll walked up and chose me off. It was a brief fight. He put me in a crushing headlock that I thought would rip my ears off.

He said, “Say ‘uncle!’”


He let me go and walked away. I tried not to let the others see me crying.

I learned more vocabulary from the boys than I did in English class. They would say “Oh, fat,” “spas out” (a mockery of spastics, whose gestures they would expertly imitate), or we would call someone “brain” (mocking his stupidity). My linguistic education was bilingual—I learned dirty words in English and also in Spanish–even though I didn’t know what they meant.

The girls

Playground talk often shifted to the second gender, and soon my hormones began warring against my Fundamentalist morals. All the girls at Orange Intermediate wore dresses or a blouse and skirt. The boys would look at their legs when they walked up the bleacher-like stairsteps to the second floor. Sometimes when a girl leaned down at the drinking fountain, a boy would come up behind and snap her bra strap.

I noticed Sally Gould. When her father hired me to do yard work at her house, I longed to see her coming and going. But she was a princess—above my class. Besides, Mike had the pole position with her. Once when I saw Mike and Sally from a distance, Mike said, “Hey, come over here if you wanna fight.” Mike was four inches shorter than me, but what he lacked in bulk he made up in bluster. Plus he wore a button-down shirt and pants with a buckle on the back. I walked away in shame.

Dark-haired Judy Clark was the smartest girl in school—smarter than I was, and better than I was in spelling. Once I tried to stiff Miss Parker on a spelling test. She had marked the word “America” wrong because my “i” wasn’t dotted. I then embedded a tiny dot in the line above and turned it back to her. She didn’t buy it, and Judy got the higher grade.

Shirley—blonde, beautiful, burgeoning—was the daughter of the owner of a furniture store. When we were in second grade she was my first girlfriend, but I hardly dared speak to her in intermediate school. At graduation she played the piano in a strapless dress.

And there was Bunny—not a beauty queen, but chatty, approachable. When we would ride the fan bus to “away” games, Bunny would issue a general invitation to the boys—“Here, hold my hand—it’s no big deal.” I felt guilty when I reached out to grasp the moist, promiscuous hand.

The girls at Orange Intermediate were taller, more articulate, more social than the boys, and light years more mature. I assumed they all had high morals and maintained sturdy fences and boundaries. Not true—my friend Helen trafficked in trashy poetry and other girls earned the reputation of being “easy”—but my wrong beliefs protected me from seeking unwarranted liaisons.

The principal

At intermediate school I learned about the criminal justice system. The principal was the ultimate threat, the face of justice that was supposed to motivate good behavior.

Once Mr. Hardesty sent me to the principal’s office for participating in a chalk fight where pieces of chalk landed in the goldfish bowl. It was a fun time and I thought, It was totally worth it. Another time, Miss Wilson sent a few of us to the principal because, instead of listening, we were sitting in the back of her English class reading the newspaper. The principal said, “Jamie, your citizenship has really slipped.” I realized that “citizenship” wasn’t something I had ever thought about improving.

Once during lunch hour, some of us were playing handball against the building instead of participating in the required softball game. The principal told the PhyEd coach, Mr. Elmore, to deal with it. Mr. Elmore was a proud man, bronzed, muscular, and serious as a heart attack. He talked as if someone had put sand in his toothpaste. He took three of us to the woodshop where he found the wooden paddle with the holes drilled in it.

He told me, “Grab your ankles.” I upended, wondering how hard he would hit.

He hit. The single, hard whack brought tears to my eyes but I refused to sob.

A Fundamentalist in a worldly school

At Orange Intermediate, I just felt weird. Later I learned that “feeling weird” is common for pubescent males, but I was convinced it was because I was a Fundamentalist. A “Fundamentalist” is sort of an Evangelical on steroids.

The kids at school came in only three categories: Unchurched, Catholic, and mainline Modernist (read “worldly”). I didn’t fit any of these categories. As far as I knew, I was a group of one, a spiritual orphan.

I would stand mute while my friends discussed the movies they’d seen. Our church was anti-movie, so I never entered Orange Theater. Or when my history teacher talked about early hominids and evolution, I had to tell him, “I don’t believe that. The Bible doesn’t mention it.”

He told me, “I don’t believe it either, but we have to teach it.”

My Fundamentalist pastor told me I had to separate myself from the contagion of the World. And at intermediate school I saw the world all around me—worldly dress, worldly language, worldly activities. I felt compelled to “witness” about my faith, speaking Jesus-words to my unchurched classmates. I refused to participate in square dancing. At graduation, they were all doing the Bunny Hop in the auditorium while Howard and I sat in the lobby playing chess. Howard, the supreme nerd, once asked our math teacher if she knew how a right triangle is like a frozen dog? (Answer: “perp-in-di-cooler.”) I didn’t like Howard. I didn’t like myself. We were both nerd-heads.
Looking back, I see that I was a prig, a “holier than thou” person. But the kids at Orange Intermediate tried their best to squeeze that out of me.

Pushing puberty

And yet, I felt more than different—I felt insecure, with an unfulfilled passion to conform. But I failed to fit in. (Much later, I discovered that most middle schoolers felt that way.)

One place I wanted to fit in was in the locker room. Coach McKee would say, “Now you boys need to go to the locker room and shower.” My palms sweat now, thinking about it. The locker room provided a display case for flowering puberty. Or not—I don’t think I was flowering. I had spindly arms and legs, only faint traces of body hair, and a freckle-mottled face. The eighth graders would steal my towel and use it to snap my bare derriere, then make me kneel and beg to get my towel back.

I did not like my body. Looking in the mirror I would think, My eyebrows are too low! I obsessed about that for a while. In the locker room, I discovered a new athletic appliance—the jockstrap. I didn’t even know boys needed one, but I self-consciously climbed into it. Other boys were less self-conscious—once Mike pulled his on and stretched one strap over his shoulder. He looked around and asked innocently, “How do you get into this thing, anyway?”

My most vivid memory of the locker room was Billy, a bully who would steal the pennies off a dead man’s eyes. One day he turned from the adjacent urinal and peed on me. A little yellow river trickled down my leg and onto the floor.

                                                   *          *          *

Looking back, I see that most of my learning at Orange Intermediate took place outside the classroom. I learned how to deal with adversity, how to relate to “worldly” people, how to be “in the world but not of it,” how to respect women, how to share faith, and how to have compassion for all people, even Billy, and Jimmy Creech. And most important, I learned something about Christian humility. Indeed, Orange Intermediate taught me that I was not the fourth member of the Trinity.

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