Thank you, Jennifer Madison

“Middle school is kind of like Middle-earth. It’s a magical journey filled with elves, dwarves, hobbits, queens, kings, and a few corrupt wizards. Word to the wise: pick your traveling companions well. Ones with the courage and moral fiber to persevere. Ones who wield their lip gloss like magic wands when confronted with danger. This way, when you pass through the congested hallways rife with pernicious diversion, you achieve your desired destination—or at least your next class.

― Kimberly Dana, Lucy and CeCee’s How to Survive (and Thrive) in Middle School

I hated middle school. At least when I was in elementary school I had the freedom to go to classes appropriate to my learning level. But when I was in middle school, there was no real differentiation. There were three tracks, period: behind, average, or honors. Now, we were at a Catholic school, so even the kids in the “behind” class would have been considered average in a non-parochial school system, but to be put in a remedial class was considered a death sentence for any social life you were going to attempt. Throw in the towel now, kiddo; you aren’t even a nerd. You’re a LOSER.

Because I had to transfer from a different parochial school, I was an outsider. I wasn’t as foreign and exotic as those kids whose parents were recent immigrants (Humberto or Amadeli), or as new to uniforms as someone who had previously gone to public schools (Christopher or Bernard), so I didn’t have a special aura. I was just another Catholic kid who had gone to another Catholic school. Worse yet, I was younger than everyone else, too. In sixth grade it looked like a third grader had escaped their class and was trying to hide in Sister Kathleen’s room. Which, given Sister Kathleen’s temperament, would have been a desperate act indeed.

Add to this my complete inability to mask successfully with the popular kids, and it was an inevitable race to disaster. While I managed to keep the meltdowns at bay (for the most part), it was obvious that I would not fit in with any of the established cliques. Let’s face it, in a school riddled with Quinns, I was a Daria.

eventually, I learned to keep my mouth shut.

That changed the day that I sat next to a girl named Jennifer Madison.
The entire school seemed to be named Jennifer back then, and there were at least four in my class alone. My math teacher preferred to seat us alphabetically, and by the luck of the draw I was placed in the back of the class next to Jennifer Madison, behind Charles P. (who was rumoured to pick his nose and EAT HIS BOOGERS), and with Bernard (Bernie) T. on the other side. So there we sat for the first month–me just trying to keep up with 6th grade math, not really caring about making friends anymore, when we had a fire drill. As per the norm, we dutifully lined up and walked out the door and into a large field next to the school

As an aside, this particular field was full of DRY GRASS, by the way, so I’m not sure how this would have been any safer in the event of a real fire. We also inevitably ended up in the spear grass / burr grass area, and I had a rash for like a week afterwards.

As we were walking, I tripped and almost fell. Jennifer pulled me back up and asked me if I was okay as the other kids taunted (nice trip, KLUTZ!). I thanked her quietly, and readied to move on quietly with the rest of the class, head down so that I could see where I was going. She leaned in and whispered to me, “don’t let the assholes get to you. They’re stupid, anyway.” I almost tripped again and I snickered lightly.

When we got to our spot (in the spear grass, again), I subtlety moved to the back of our group, away from the popular kids and any potential rash causing grass, Jennifer moved with me. I stopped to look at her; she was like nothing I had ever seen outside of a movie. Jennifer wore a purple purse covered with pins and buttons advertising 80’s hair bands like Motley Crüe and Def Leppard. She opened it up to rummage around and I could see the make-up inside. She had MAKE UP–at like 11. She pulled out a small tube of cream and handed it to me.

“here, it’s Benadryl. I get rashes, too.”
Mumbles, “thanks.”

I looked up at her, since at my age EVERYONE was taller than me. Her black hair glistened blue in the afternoon sun. I would later find out that she dyed it black. Her natural hair was a darkish brown, but she preferred to have blue-black hair, like her idol, Joan Jett. Jennifer wore eyeliner and mascara, which set off her blue eyes. At our age, none of us had even mastered blush correctly, but she had a perfect cat-eye. Her skin was paler than I had ever seen on a girl with dark hair with a few freckles dotted across her nose. Her lips were stained red with lip gloss, since we weren’t allowed to wear lipstick at school; she looked like she had just eaten a cherry popsicle. She wore the typical jelly bracelets of the 80’s, but hers were all BLACK (not a whiff of neon) along with a studded leather bracelet. And while the rest of us were wearing saddle-shoes or Bass shoes… she wore patent leather Mary Janes with a tiny wedge heel. In a word, she was COOL.

She leaned in slightly so I could hear her better.
“I’ve been in school with these bitches for the last 5 years.”
I gasped. She was cussing! Within earshot of the nuns!
“But I’ll tell you something…”
I leaned in a little closer.
“Shannon once peed her pants in front of everyone in Kindergarten. So don’t sweat her giving you any shit.”

And with that, we were friends. She showed me how to put on make-up, and introduced me to pop and rock/roll music. My parents, bless them, had opted to listen to a radio station that specialized in “the best of the 60’s, 70’s and today!” But it was mostly oldies. Little by little, I began to care a little less what the popular girls were doing, and developed my own interests. I made friends with some of the other excluded girls… I read more horror and young adult books. I quit dance class (which was paired with the cheer-leading/gymnastics class, so I was stuck with the popular girls again) to take art and EXCELLED at it. And through it all Jennifer Madison just hung out with me, along with a few of the other not-quite-popular-enough girls.

When I got my period at school unexpectedly, she was the one who helped me navigate through the Carrie-like horror that is an 11 year-old girl bleeding all over the place–and she didn’t shame me, or make fun of me. She just told me that I needed to keep pads in my purse, and change of underwear and shorts in my backpack or desk so I had options if there was an accident. She explained to me how to clean blood out of clothing, and showed me to sit on sheets of loose leaf paper the rest of the day so as not to leave prints on the desk chairs. She even showed me how to descreetly place and throw the paper away so as not to alert the other girls. She understood just how to explain things to me: no euphemisms, no condescension, best of all: no shaming. She was like a super-cool big sister who would tell me the unvarnished truth, but with compassion behind it.

When I graduated from middle-school (yeah, we had a graduation mass), my parents decided I should go to public school, and I lost track of Jennifer M. Sometimes I wonder if she ever got to see all those heavy metal bands she loved so much. I wonder if she got to go to a regular school where she could finally dress how she wanted to instead of gothing up her uniform. I wonder if she ever had any kids, because I’m pretty sure they would be awesome and have the best taste in music ever.

Maybe someday we’ll connect again on Facebook or something. Until then… I’ll just always carry some pads/tampons in my purse, and have a change of clothes in my desk at work. Because… hey, you never know.

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