Tuesday, January 4, 2011

In which Missy G says she'll be my friend but only if I don't tell anyone at school

We moved to Lubbock when I was in fifth grade, in the middle of the school year. For the first time in my life, we weren't in base housing (except the year my dad was in Vietnam and the rest of us lived in an apartment 35 miles away from my grandparents) and for the first time in my life, except for the first two months of kindergarten, I wasn't in a base school. The house my mom and dad bought was across the street from Bowie Elementary School, so that's where my brother, sister and I were sent to school.

[Of course you know who Jim Bowie was! The guy who fought at the Alamo and whom the knife is named after! Didn't you have Texas history in 7th grade?]

There is nothing like being the new weird kid in the class in the middle of the school year in a school where kids aren't in and out all the time. On base schools, there are always new kids. New alliances form and disband, as they do anywhere, but nobody has the advantage of having been at the school since kindergarten. Everyone is new.

But I was the only new one in the fifth grade at Bowie. There were two girls of note in my class: Jennifer C., with her cool aviator-frame glasses, her long brown wavy hair and her yellow gingham double-knit polyester pantsuit, and Sandy M., who was an early developer, which is not such a great thing for a fifth-grade girl to be.

Jennifer was the arbiter of cool.

I was not cool.

Not that anyone in the class was really cool, unless you think that a music class that consisted of the teacher handing out a mimeo with lyrics so we could sing along with Karen Carpenter and her brother once the teacher touched the needle to the record was cool.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe every fifth grader really wanted to know all the words to Yesterday Once More, We've Only Just Begun, and Rainy Days and Mondays by heart.

Yes, I still know those songs.

It's just what you want your ten year old to sing, isn't it?

Talking to myself and feeling old
Sometimes I'd like to quit
Nothing ever seems to fit
Hangin around, nothing to do but frown
Rainy days and Mondays always get me down

What I've got they used to call the blues
Nothing is really wrong
Feeling like I don't belong
Walking around some kind of lonely clown
Rainy days and Mondays always get me down

Depression, not fitting in. This song is the fifth-grade anthem.

I did not make any friends those few months. I did, however, get glasses, as the school nurse, doing a routine vision screening, identified my myopia. I didn't know I couldn't see the board. I mean, I knew I couldn't read it from my desk, but I had no idea that wasn't normal. Despite my vision problems, I still skipped a grade and always read with the class ahead of me. It didn't hurt me academically. I could see up close.

I couldn't see up close fast, though. The highlight of my school athletic career was at Bowie when I hit a softball that was pitched to me. The problem was that I hit it after it had passed my bat, so I hit it into my mouth.

It hurt.

Yes I was always picked last for any team. Why do you ask?

My brother made friends. Lynn O lived next door with his sister Lisa and brother Lanny. His mom and dad were very nice. Mr O was a morning radio show host and would play Malaguena for my mother. Mrs O had her pretensions - she acted fancy and name dropped a lot [My mother would roll her eyes and mutter, "Yeah, I know your uncle is a congressman. You already told me. Like 400 times.] - but she let me come over and play their piano whenever I wanted. That made up for the time that she gave my mom a bunch of Lisa's outgrown clothes for me and then asked to have them back a few weeks later because she wanted to have a garage sale. I didn't care: Lisa had reached the age where she needed to be wearing deodorant but nobody had supplied her with such, if you know what I mean.

My sister always makes friends. People flock to her.

But I was weird. Kinda funny looking. Well, not really, but I thought I was.

The next school year, my parents put us in the Catholic school that was about a mile from us. It's not there any more - there's a golf course in its place. The three of us rode our bikes to school through the cotton fields, which wasn't as great as it might sound because there are frequent windstorms in Lubbock and wind + dirt = duststorm. That dirt gets everywhere. We would ride the long way through Lubbock Christian College to avoid the dirt, but that didn't always help.

Missy was in my class, one of the other four girls. There were six boys. We had our own Girl Scout troop and met after school in the cafeteria. One of the girl's mothers, who was Mexican, gave us a lesson in making flour tortillas from scratch. The secret is lard. Sorry if that bothers you, but it's true. Lard is also the secret to pie crust. It won't kill you. My grandfather ate bacon grease on his toast and he lived to 82. It was the smoking that killed him. Not the pig fat.

Missy lived only three blocks from me and also rode her bike to school. We would ride together, our plaid skirts pushed up to accommodate the crossbar and our pants underneath our uniforms to keep us warm. Lubbock might be in Texas, but that doesn't mean it's warm in the winter. It's in the high plains. Blizzards, etc.

I have to tell you a Lubbock joke. When I was in the Peace Corps in Chile, another volunteer, who was from New York, was planning to get a PhD and was applying to various programs, including Texas Tech (which is in Lubbock). This volunteer liked his beer.

You know Lubbock is dry, right? I asked him.

He looked at me, puzzled. Yeah, I know it doesn't rain a lot there. So what?

I laughed. He did not know this dry of which I spoke.

Back to Missy. We rode our bikes to school together. We spent afternoons at her house. We were in Girl Scouts together. We learned American Sign Language from our brothers' Cub Scout handbooks together so we could communicate across the classroom without the teacher knowing. (I had my glasses by now so it worked.)

Until we got caught, we stole pecans together from the lawn of the old lady in the big house with the huge pecan trees on Slide Road. The old lady saw our bikes leaning against her tree, saw us picking up pecans and stuffing them in our pockets, and came out to scold us.

Are you Baptist? she asked. [Maybe she asked if we were saved. I can't remember. It's the same difference to some people.]

No, we answered. We go to St Elizabeth's. We're Catholic.

Of course we were heathens. We did not say "No ma'am." NO MANNERS.

She shook her head and sighed. Oh bless your [pagan, anti-Christ] hearts, she told us. I'll pray for you.

I thought Missy and I were friends.

But again, I was not a cool kid. In St Elizabeth's sixth-grade class, Steve S. and Steve R. were the ones who decided who was in and who was not. I don't know why Steve R. should have been a cool decider - he was about as nerdy as they come, with his nerd glasses repaired with tape and his skinny, sixth-grade body. But he was Steve S's best friend and Steve S. was a good looking blond kid from a rich family who lived on Slide Road near the fancy pecan lady who was going to pray for us.

Missy valued their opinion and esteem.

So one afternoon, she laid it out for me: I'll be friends with you, she said, but you can't tell anyone at school.

The right answer would have been, Go to hell. Either we're friends or we're not.

But this was way before the self-esteem movement. It was back when kids handled their own problems without involving the adults. It was back when most kids had a strong intuitive grasp of realpolitik.

The answer was obvious.

I could either have self respect. Or I could have a friend.

I shrugged and said, OK.

Unfortunately, our friendship lasted only until the end of the year. Once we started junior high, she went to the Catholic junior high and I was back in public school. But more about that later.


  1. Ah, the Carpenters. Karen and Richard went to my husband's high school in Downey, CA. (I was a year behind at the other school in town, Warren High.) There are some apartment complexes there that they built, with one called "Close to You" and the other "We've Only Just Begun."

    It was a real shock when Karen died from complications of anorexia, which wasn't very well understood or acknowledged back then. Sad...

  2. Ima, so I am now only two degrees away from Karen!

    PS Sorry it took so long to respond to your post. Logging in and out of this blog is kind of a pain because of the unholy alliance between gmail and blogger.


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