In my last post, I wrote about the time two boys in my 5th grade class, Billy and Matt, told me that I was pretty. It was the first time I’d been called pretty by someone other than my mother, and I was pretty darn excited about it.
My excitement, however, was short-lived. Because less than a year later, something excruciating happened:
In the years since, I have asked a lot of people if they had as tough a time as I did with sixth grade. The general consensus is that it is a difficult time for most – particularly those for whom, like me, sixth grade was the first year out of the protective, nurturing shroud of Elementary School and in the big, bad, terrifying Middle School. Sixth grade is a dog-eat-dog kind of place, and many other survivors I’ve met share the sentiment that sixth grade was excruciating.
But I know that sixth grade was not excruciating for everybody. I know that because of Gia and Joy.
Gia and Joy were fraternal twins, and they were the most popular girls in my sixth grade class. Their last name was Italian and melodic; it rolled off the tongue like opera. Their parents had five children, all of whom had three letter names. I was never cool enough to be on speaking terms with any of them, but the names of these five children were somehow the stuff of sixth grade legend, and I can still to this day recite them in order: Lea, Jay, Gia, Joy, Jil. This seemed to contribute to Gia and Joy’s popularity, for reasons only sixth grade logic can explain. But there was also a very grown-up logic to Gia and Joy’s popularity: they were beautiful. In fact, they were each the quintessential example of the two kinds of beautiful you could be in sixth grade.
Joy was adorable. She was tiny and perky and bubbly and cute. She wore the tiniest of shorts, she sang like an angel, she did back flips in Show Choir, she baked cakes for her friends.
Gia was hot. Even at twelve, she had a Maxim thing going; even in braces she was sexy, and she had the high school boyfriend to prove it. She didn’t excel in much besides hair tossing and attitude, which somehow made her all the hotter.
I was a dog.
It was a very, very short, redheaded boy who first called me a dog. We’ll call him Dicky. After Dog caught on, Dicky took it one step further and christened me with what became my official nickname. As I’d walk in my homeroom in the morning with my backpack, Dicky would shout across the room in my general direction:
At night, my mother would lay with me in bed as I cried. She was helpless to do anything other than offer me grown-up wisdoms. “Sticks and stones,” she’d say, or “ Kill ‘em with kindness.”
So in response to Dicky’s morning greeting, I’d hold my head up proudly and smile. “Thank you so much,” I’d reply to Dicky loudly, so everyone could hear what a big person I was. “I’m flattered. Golden Retrievers are the most beautiful breed of dog.”
And then Dicky would bark at me.
At the time, I could not understand why Dicky called me Golden Retriever. But when I look back on pictures of myself from that era, I can see where he got his inspiration. The summer before sixth grade, the puberty fairy had delivered my period – along with a generous dose of hormones that, among other things, made my scalp produce more oil than my twice-weekly showers could handle. And I’d spent that summer in the over-chlorinated community pool, so my hair was a triangular helmet of green-tinged orange frizz.
By the second week of sixth grade, even my elementary school friends weren’t talking to me. I couldn’t blame them – associating with me would have been social suicide. But the fact that I couldn’t blame them didn’t make me any less lonely, and I realized there was only one thing I could count on: no matter how ugly or unpopular or dog-like I became: a Snickers bar was always going to taste like a Snickers bar. So I spent sixth grade lunches in the company of the friends I’d buy from the lunch line: A Chickwich, French Fries, and HoHos. I spent my lonely walks home after school in the company of the dozen-ish Laffy-Taffys and the King Size Snickers I’d buy at the town newsstand on my way home.
I rapidly put on twenty pounds, and most of it went to my face. My nose, forehead, and chin got fat. My eyes became tiny slits between my bloated eyelids. My Steve Urkel-style glasses indented my cheeks, creating a muffin-top effect.
I’d had my own wacky sense of style since I was a toddler, which my mother encouraged as long as I accessorized each outfit with an “I dressed myself!” pin. But in sixth grade, I could not be caught dead in the boldly pattered leggings and Cosby sweaters I’d adored in elementary school. The middle school didn’t have a uniform, but it might as well have: every single girl wore a white t-shirt, scrunched white socks, perpetually pristine white Keds, and Gap jeans, peg-cuffed at the ankle. On warm days, tiny shorts were permitted – as long as you shaved and the backs of your thighs were smooth.
Desperate for anything that might make me cool, I asked my mother to show me how to shave my legs. She was horrified. “Nice girls don’t shave their legs until high school,” she said. But I shaved mine anyway, slicing up my knees and ankles, and afterward, I put on the only pair of shorts I owned – a pleated, pink khaki pair. I buttoned them with great effort and rejoiced – until I turned around and, for the first time, discovered the backs of my pillow-y, dimpled thighs.
Determined that the right outfit would solve all my problems, I made it my mission to get my mother to buy me a pair of Gap jeans. I had never owned a pair of jeans, nor had I ever stepped foot in a Gap. My mom thought it was too expensive for children.
“Please, Mom,” I begged to her as we sat in the car waiting for my little sister to emerge from her dance class. “I need a pair of jeans, Mom. I need them.”
“What’s wrong with your leggin’s?” She asked me without looking up from her newspaper.
“Nobody wears leggings,” I said.
“Well, why on earth would you want to look like everybody else?” she asked me. I was stupefied. Had she not looked at me lately? If she looked like me, wouldn’t she have killed to look like anybody else?
“Those children in Africa would give their arm for a pair of leggin’s, Elizabeth.”
I flushed with shame. A few years prior, my mother had a flash of parenting genius that is the first thing I plan to steal when I become a parent. Around the time that I started asking for a Nintendo, she pulled me out of bed one night and plopped me down in front of the TV to watch an “Adopt A Child in Africa for A Dollar A Day” Infomercial. The little African girl with flies all over her face emblazoned herself on my conscience, and that night, I swore to myself I’d never ask my parents for anything again.
Arguments were always over when my mother pulled the African children card. But with my Gap jeans at stake, I was determined to find a loophole. I thought hard and suddenly had my own flash of genius: a visionary vision of Fly On Her Face Girl opening up a package filled with pair after pair of my multicolored leggings, her face lit up like it was Christmas. That, I thought, would solve everything.
“Let’s send them mine!” I said to my mother with glee, fully expecting her to turn to me and praise my innovative thinking and generous spirit. Instead, she turned the page of her newspaper.
“I’m not sending your leggin’s to Africa, Elizabeth,” she said.
“But they don’t fit anymore!” I pleaded – reduced, now, to whining.
“Of course they do, they’re leggin’s,” she replied, and try as I might, I couldn’t find a loophole for that.
So I raided my mother’s closet and unearthed a reversible oversize sweatshirt from Chico’s. That, flipped inside out every other day, became my sixth grade uniform, along with my quietest leggings: a khaki pair I’d been wearing to the stables for my riding lessons. I wore these clothes every day thinking I’d blend in, thinking anything was better for blending in than boldly patterned leggings. But wearing the same clothes every day just made things worse. Now, I was not just your average dog. I was a dirty, smelly, poverty-stricken dog with a horse-poo stain on the thigh of her pants.
By mid-year, I’d resigned myself to Golden Retriever status. I’d adjusted to the sting of Dicky barking at me every day, and my elementary school friends were finally testing the waters of talking to me at lunch again. In fact, my old bestie Michelle invited me over for a sleepover one Saturday night. Things, I decided, were looking up.
On the Monday after the sleepover, I was summoned, during English, by the school nurse. When I walked into her office, the nurse sent me into the sick bay and told me not to touch anything. With rubber-gloved hands, she turned on an exam lamp, parted my hair and promptly called my mother to pick me up.
I went back to my classroom to get my things. As I was packing up my book bag, Gia appeared. “Are you leaving?” she purred over a hair-flip.
Gia had never purred at me before, so I turned around to see if she there was someone behind me. There wasn’t. I turned back to Gia, gulped, and nodded, tongue-tied.
“Cool,” she murmured, twirling a golden strand of hair approvingly. “How come?”
Now, I have spent far more time than is healthy contemplating this moment and why I responded the way that I did. Perhaps I thought Gia might think it was cool if I was honest; perhaps I was too bewitched by her acknowledgement of me to come up with a lie; perhaps I wasn’t aware of the revolting implications of my ailment. Regardless of the rationale, as Gia stared at me expectantly behind her golden halo of hair, I blurted out the truth:
“I have lice.”
It still befuddles me how Gia managed to look sexy while running as far from me as possible.
When I walked into homeroom the next morning freshly de-loused, Dicky shouted across the room in my general direction:
“Watch out! Golden Retriever’s Fleas are here!”
And that was the end of things looking up. It wasn’t until we moved to Belgium three years later that a classmate voluntarily came within ten feet of me.
All through sixth grade – and seventh, and eighth – I would have given my arm to have anything that Gia or Joy had. I coveted every inch of them and every part of their lives. If only I had Joy’s voice, or her perfect peppiness, or the way she pirouetted. If only I had Gia’s fluffy golden hair, her sultry aloofness, or her high school boyfriend… if only I had their clothes, or their friends, or their family, or their family’s names… if only I had a twin. Then maybe I would be beautiful and popular. Maybe I would be happy.
In sixth grade, I cried myself to sleep every single night and faked sick every single morning. My poor mother was certain I was dying from some un-diagnosible ailment and dragged me to one doctor after another. To this day, I look in the mirror and am surprised not to see a Golden Retriever staring back at me.
But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t trade my sixth grade year for anything in the world. I was called pretty before sixth grade, and I’ve been called pretty since. And when people think you’re pretty, you don’t have to do anything to have value. You just have to sit there, in stillness, to be appreciated. You are like a pretty painting. And you have to be careful – if you open your mouth, you might just spoil the pretty picture.
But when you’re a Dog, you have to create your own value. During my dog years, I cultivated qualities that have far more value and longevity than being pretty: my kindness, my creativity, my sense of humor, my knowledge, my work ethic, my industriousness, my morality. And when someone acknowledges one of those qualities, I feel far more beautiful than I do when someone tells me I’m pretty. Achieving those values are accomplishments I can be proud of. Winning the genetic lottery is not.
Because we moved across the world to Belgium during my freshman year of high school, I don’t know what happened to Gia and Joy. I imagine they had dog years of their own at some point. For their sakes, I hope so. I have a feeling there was a lot more to those girls than being beautiful, and I hope they had a chance to prove it to themselves.
I do, however, know what happened to Dicky. He is a really, really, really short lawyer.