A few years ago, my Mom handed me an old grocery bag on which I’d once written in black marker, “Do Not Touch!”
“These are your notes from junior high…” she said, “Take it!” I opened the bag to find hundreds of historical remnants of the most insane time in my life. Throughout 7th – 9th grade my friends and I wrote “notes” — text message handwritten on paper — to each other every day. We folded them up into little footballs or origami shapes and passed them to each other in the hallway between periods, hoping that we made it to our next class without getting shoved, “capped on” or sexually assaulted. I am, sadly, not exaggerating.
Back in the early 80s, parenting wasn’t a “thing,” more of a fly-by-night check in. As such, college educated adults in Berkeley allowed their children to walk into the Wild West of junior high schools. Each day, my best friend and I— we’ll call her “Jane”— walked to school, our eyes slathered in Boy George-style liner, our hair standing on end with gel, entered a petri dish of burgeoning drug dealers, well-seasoned pot-heads, and future convicts (how I wish I were joking) and, gladly, documented the adventure of our days.
Since most notes were written to me, I don’t have too much embarrassing evidence of my insanity…but what I have is plenty. In one of the few notes I wrote to Jane, I mention “cutting” (class), getting “burnt” (high), and “fine guys” who I also referred to as “men,” despite the fact that, as Jane so eloquently put “the best we ever get are always 4’9″ or less.” She was “capping” on my taste in some 90 lb. 8th grader. In another note, featured above, I or Jane, wrote out our “tag” name, graffiti-style, “Ladies of the Night.” At one point a guy friend, now Jane’s husband, informed us what the expression “Ladies of the Night” refers to. But we were not deterred; we figured cool girls call themselves “ladies” and went out at “night.” What’s the big deal? (Oh, the horror…thank God I don’t have a daughter…).
Whatever we missed in class (when we didn’t miss class) we made up for with our own epistolatory drive. Jane wrote me somewhere in the hundreds of detailed notes (which I won’t publish because, well, she has kids), with dates, times, names, and detail of activities of the girls and boys
Violence and sexuality intertwined in my psyche like those plastic lanyards I made at camp. Amidst the sounds of Prince’s ubiquitous 1984 and Madonna’s Material Girl, (1984 was pop music’s greatest year) the smell of pot and Ralph Lauren’s “Polo,” and the feel of Wet n’ Wild lipstick stolen by the local drugstore. (I hope there’s a statute of limitations). The police frequented our campus, as did hallway fights and notorious stories of violence. One time a student dropped a desk on a teacher from a bridge. After a “fine” guy talked to me one day, he kicked a kid’s face in. To this day I feel for that poor kid. I felt sorry for the teachers, who, whether or not they cared, at any moment might have to stand in the middle of a fight.
Lacking discernment and filled with my own frustration and anger, I took for granted the fear and aggression of this environment. But I can’t say it was bad for me. Not surprisingly, in a few years, many of the kids at the center of the violent whirling dervishes left school, for drugs, “juvey” or worse. The rest of us struggled with academic failure, marijuana, or as my notes attest too, extreme mood swings. However, most turned out pretty well. Many of my friends from that time, middle class kids, became successful interesting adults: my 8th grade class included Rebecca Romeijn, Lyrics Born, documentary filmmakers, actors, singers and writers.
I think about this when I meet my friends’ teen kids, whose lives could not be more different. It’s not just that they get picked up and dropped off from school, or that the major threat in their lives comes through social media, but if one fraction of the events at King Jr. High took place at their schools, there would be a parent riot.
I only got in trouble once in Junior High. I can only say that I am quite a good actress. My mother later explained her lack of suspicion of me by saying, “You looked so innocent.” Maybe I was. Maybe we all were.