by Jess Burnquist
I turned 12 in the spring of 1983. In honor of making it to my maximum middle age, I'm writing 12 reflections about that momentous time when one foot remained lodged in childhood and the other began to tiptoe toward adolescence. Catch up on Part I here.
REWIND: 1983, Part II
As a child, I held fast to characters in books or movies that I loved — often seeking their counterparts in real life. Maybe it was my early writer's brain that caused semi-obsessions with befriending anyone who looked like Laura Ingalls Wilder — especially young Laura as portrayed by Melissa Gilbert in Little House on the Prairie. In 4th grade until the end of 6th grade, I was also obsessed with Sandy from Grease. Not the saucy, leather clad, Olivia Newton John at the movie's end — I emulated sweet Sandy. I desperately wanted perfectly trimmed bangs, cardigans, and poodle skirts. When roach-clip/feathered barrettes, matching crop pants, and penny loafers were the rage, I longed for Peter Pan collars and bobby socks. I wanted to be a good girl and get good grades and attract good and wholesome friends. I thought everyone should sing at recess.
I kept a diary and wrote in Sandy's persona. Perhaps escaping into bubbled cursive diatribes about missing Australia and wondering if Danny Zuko would ask me to the dance kept the ever increasing tensions of my parents' disintegrating marriage at bay.
Maybe I was just weird.
For all of the magic of a hard-to-pinpoint 6th grade togetherness, there was also a festering frustration with one another.
When I was invited to attend a Fall Harvest Hayride, I was unaware that it was a church function hosted by a church that at least 80 percent of my classmates attended. As one of three Jews at my school (shout out to Barry and Amy!) I realized mid-wagon pull that I couldn't join in the sing-a-long about Jesus. This wasn't the singing I dreamed of when I was invited. Where was the carnival, or bonfire like in Grease? When I confided to a peer that my parents might be getting divorced, I was told that they were sinners. No one here would believe my squeaky clean Sandy persona. I began to withdraw in subtle ways. My pretty 6th grade teacher who loved projects and wanted us to learn calligraphy didn't seem to notice my efforts anyway. I'm pretty sure I saw her roll her eyes once when I explained my mom couldn't make an early afternoon conference because she worked until 6 p.m.
And our music teacher, the one who never wore a bra, refused to let us pick songs for choir concerts. I was so sick of "Rainbow Connection." Couldn't we please just sing "Summer Nights" from Grease? No. No. No.
In November, my pretty teacher began reading The Great Brain books by John G. Fitzgerald to us after recess. We would come in sweaty from running and chasing after our crushes to settle into our desks for story time. A perfect illustration of the juxtaposition of tween life.
I was seated at a table next to Cathy who would become my best friend for years, and directly across from a boy named Sean. He looked just like how the main character in The Great Brain was described. I longed to call him J.D. and to brush his auburn brown hair out of his eyes. I began to obsess over him but not in a romantic way. I wondered if he chased frogs or had adventures in the canal on his way home. He seemed like a rascal. I wanted to become his friend. I imagined Sean's personality so much in line with a fictional character that it became easy to ignore how much trouble he was always in. My pretty teacher used the old technique of writing one's name on the board as a warning and then adding a check-mark if the behavior didn't stop. I had never had my name on the board. I couldn't imagine anything so awful. Sean's name never moved from the board. The only thing that fluctuated were the amount of check-marks he received. If one got three check-marks, it was time to go to the office.
Rascal Sean plopped into his desk and immediately began playing with the peeling tape on his name tag. As my pretty teacher began to read, other students rested their heads on their hands and settled in for the next chapter. Sean rolled a crayon my way. It was bright orange. Safety orange. He stared at me. Maybe that was the last time a boy looked at me as just a kid. Not as a kid with boobs. Not as a girl. Just as a kid. I rolled the orange crayon back to him without breaking his glance. He rolled it back, only faster, and it almost fell off the desk. I caught it but my chair teetered causing him to giggle. Check-mark! I broke the crayon in half. Sean giggled again. His eyes crinkled and he kind of snorted. I giggled. My pretty teacher got up from her chair and slowly wrote J-E-S-S-I-C-A on the board. I gasped.
She looked at me with a raised eyebrow as she smoothed her denim prairie skirt and sat back down in her chair at the front of the room to begin to read again. I looked at Sean. His lips were pursed and he was no longer smiling. Something inside me shifted. I took the pointed broken half of the orange crayon and held it between my thumb and forefinger. Sean's eyes widened. I flicked the crayon-half which immediately resembled an arrow arching slowly and perfectly toward his face. When the crayon hit the center of Sean's nose, he went cross eyed. I absolutely lost my shit. We didn't just giggle, we cry-laughed. There were guffaws from well-behaved students sitting nearby.
Check-mark! Check-mark! Check-mark! Check-mark! Check-mark!
My pretty teacher was out of her mind. Sean grabbed my hand and escorted me out of our portable classroom toward his well-worn path to Principal Cornell's office.
"I didn't know you could be bad, Jessie," he said as we neared the office.
I felt unafraid. Definitely intrigued.
"Tell me about it, stud," I replied a bit breathlessly.
Jess Burnquist teaches high school English and Creative Writing in Arizona. Because she has a teenage son and daughter, she is literally surrounded by adolescents 24/7. Sit with that for a minute. Her writings and teaching blog can be found at www.jessburnquist.com.