The Middle Passage

I survived three years at Orange Intermediate School, but I resented that they forced me to do puberty at the same time.

The first day, l I walked past Jack Cratch in the hall—a bellowy eighth grader, bereft of grace, who stood six foot five. Cratch wasn’t the sharpest needle in the pincushion–it probably would tak him two hours to watch 60 minutes. But here he came, walking like the Fonz, with a gaggle of admirers following.

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

Cratch paused, and turned —“What’d you say?

“Nothin’”

“Come ’ere kid.”

I came.

“Turn around, kid.”

I turned.

He ripped a piece of paper out of my notebook and wrote on it, then scotch-taped the paper to my back. “You take that off and I’ll beat your face in.” Then he walked away. The paper read “I AM THE SCUM OF THE EARTH.”

I wore the sign the whole morning of my first day at intermediate 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.

After lunch, the boys would sort of mill around the playground or huddle in tight little knots. Cliff was squat, muscular, a football type of guy. John played first base in our pickup games. Dan had a crewcut and a waxed ducktail. These were the noble ones—they drank from the Source. That year I invited them to my birthday party—miniature golfing at Shady Acres in Long Beach. They never invited me back. I learned then that friendship isn’t something you can buy.

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

I learned more vocabulary on the playground than I did in the classroom. We would say “Oh, fat,” “spas out” [a mockery of spastics, whose gestures we would perfectly imitate], or we would call someone “brain” [mocking his stupidity]. My linguistic education was bilingual—I learned dirty words from the Mexicans, even though I didn’t know what they meant.

Playground talk often shifted to the second gender, and soon my hormones began warring against my Fundamentalist Christian morals. All the girls at Orange Intermediate wore dresses, or a blouse and skirt. The boys would look up their legs when they climbed the steel stair steps to the second floor, longing to pick the low-hanging fruit. Sometimes when a girl leaned down at the drinking fountain, a boy would come up behind and snap her bra strap.

But I loved Shirley—blonde, beautiful and burgeoning—the daughter of the owner of Orange Furniture Store. In second grade she was my first girlfriend, but I hardly dared speak to her now in intermediate school. At high school graduation several years later, I played clarinet in the marching band from where I watched her sitting on the stage playing the piano, flouting school clothing regulations with her low-cut, strapless dress.

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 during lunch hour, some of us were playing handball against the side of the stuccoed building instead of participating in the required softball games. The principal told the Phy Ed coach, Mr. Elmwood, to deal with it. He was a proud man, bronzed, muscular, and serious as a heart attack. 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.

At Orange Intermediate, I just felt weird. Later I learned that “feeling weird” is common for pubescent males, but at the time I was convinced it was because I was a Fundamentalist. The kids at school came in only three categories: Unchurched, Catholic, and Mainline Modernist (read liberal, “worldly”). I didn’t fit any of these categories. As far as I knew, I was a group of one, a spiritual orphan.

My Fundamentalist pastor told me I had to separate myself from the contagion of the world. 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.

I would stand mute while my friends discussed the movies they’d seen. Our church was anti-movie, so I never entered Orange Theater. And 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.”

I did not like my body. Looking in the mirror I would think, My eyebrows are too low! 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—Mike would pull his on, stretch one of the straps over his shoulder, then look around and ask innocently, “How do you get into this thing, anyway?”

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

Some days, Orange Intermediate seemed the last refuge of the damned, but looking back, I see that most of my pubescent learning took place there outside the classroom—learning 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 the Bully.

I began to realize that I was a prig, a “holier than thou” person. The kids at Orange Intermediate did their best to squeeze the prigness out of me. But I felt more than different—I felt insecure, with an unfulfilled passion to conform. I failed to fit in. (Much later, I discovered that most middle schoolers feel that way.)

But perhaps most important, Orange Intermediate taught me that I was not the fourth member of the Trinity.

5 thoughts on “The Middle Passage

  1. Jin. Your writing. Very interesting. Haven’t heard from you for a long time Walt just turned 90. Think about our trip visiting. How is Barbara?

    Like

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