The last year of elementary school was rough. We had just moved to a new, bigger city where 6th grade fell under "elementary." I was new, and naive, and all the styles were different, and suddenly very aware of my Harry Potter glasses (before they were trendy) and my buck teeth. And the things I did to minimize my lameness only made it worse.
For example, I was terribly self-conscious about the HUGE HIDEOUS SCAR* on my lower lip. I got teased a lot about my face because I had the general facial proportions of a poison dart frog. The boys at school called me "catfish" and would swim past me in the hallways, exaggeratedly gulping in water to filter through their gills. Though the constant teasing related to the size of my mouth, I somehow related it to my HUGE HIDEOUS SCAR and tried to cover it with makeup. From the ages of 11-13 I wore thick, dark dark purple lipstick two shades lighter than "goth massacre." And sometimes when I tired of the kiddie Marilyn Manson look, I switched to a shiny metallic blue lipgloss. No one would see my HUGE HIDEOUS SCAR so they'd stop picking on me, right? For some bizarre reason the teasing continued.
But all this was about to change.
I was going to enter the seventh grade.
My elementary school class would be splitting up, integrating with new people who didn't know I was a certified dork. And after all, MIDDLE SCHOOL shone as a cultural and social beacon of acceptance and new chances. What could go wrong?
Pretty much everything.
For starters, my mean mean Lady Mother made me ride the bus. I suppose in her defense, Lil Watz had to be at Elementary school at almost the exact same time, but still. The elementary school technically backed up to our backyard. He could walk. All he needed to do was cross a rushing toxic-sludge creek, wade through brambles and vicious underbrush on a unmarked path, not piss off the angry souls resting in the scary potter's field (which I discovered on day by TRIPPING OVER A GRAVESTONE. Second-scariest moment of my life), and crossing a desolate field. Totally doable for a third-grader. GOSH MOM.
All the jackasses who picked on me in sixth grade? Yeah, turns out they all lived in my neighborhood. Meaning, they all rode my bus. Meaning, for thirty minutes every morning and thirty minutes every afternoon, there was no adult supervision to quell their merciless torment.
I had entered middle school, and also apparently hell.
Though bookended by the slow, methodical destruction of my self esteem, I enjoyed class. I met my bff (still to this day, ten years later) A. Stox in my homeroom and really enjoyed my teachers. I think they were kind of worried about me, though. My language arts teacher pulled me aside to suggest dyslexia testing once, and I explained to her that I'd gotten bored and decided to start writing all my vowels mirror-flipped. She was not amused. I flipped them back.
A. Stocks and I greatly enjoyed our homeroom, which doubled as pre-algebra. Less of the lumbering jerks in this class. Our teacher, Mr. Ra, was in a word, ostentatious. He wore bright, loud clothes and shouted about pre-algebra in a bright, loud manner. And the hand gestures. Oh child. Those wild exaggerated hand motions would put an angry Italian mother to shame. But I liked him, and pre-algebra presented the first scholastic challenge since... ever, so I mostly felt content.
One crisp autumn morning I was in particularly high spirits as I waited for the bus. The weather seemed lovely, the trees all aglow. I mostly tuned out the "you're so ugly / bug eyes / hey catfish face / swim home to your school of ugly catfish / catfish face / ugly ugly ugly" chorus and listened to a CD on my portable CD player (good gravy I'm old. Also I listened to Switchfoot's "Dare You To Move" which was branded weird freak music until a year later when they put out a music video on MTV) and went on to class. Things were going swimmingly (ha, fishpun) until...
"MISTER RA OH MY GOD THERE'S SOMETHING MOVING IN R.GRACE'S HAIR OH MY GOD OH MY GOD GROSS."
This had to be some sort of mean joke, right? But I barely knew the kid sitting next to me, and she had on a look of utter revulsion even worse than the faces of my bus bullies. And suddenly, because it had been pointed out, my scalp crawled with unfathomable itching. I pictured my entire head overrun with lice, millions of white bugs trafficking about me. My whole body ached yearning to scratch my head until I'd torn all my hair out and destroyed the source of the itching. twenty-seven pair of viciously judgmental preteen eyes locked on my thin, mortified frame. I was going to die. If not from lice, then of embarrassment.
Mr. Ra came over, furious to be interrupted from his lavish lecture and looked at my head. And shrieked.
"OH MY GOD R.GRACE WHAT IS THAT GET IN THE HALLWAY NOW."
His face, a mask of horror. His arms, windmilling in terror. Even my teacher thought I was gross.
I hung my head in shame and shuffled to the hallway, Mr. Ra close behind. We arrived outside the classroom and I realized every other teacher on the hall had their door open. Slacker students, unmoved by their teachers' soliloquies on social studies, suddenly grew vastly entertained by the spectacle right outside their door. I still had an audience witnessing my humiliation.
Mr. Ra danced around me for a second, muttering things that sounded like "nasty" and "disgusting" as I tried to think of how to politely ask my parents how to ship me off to boarding school on another continent. Suddenly he issued a command: "Hold still." I froze.
He proceeded to SWAT AT MY HEAD WITH A RULER.
I'm pretty sure that's illegal, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
After two swipes (I'm pretty sure the first one was just for dramatic effect), something wiggly and strange flew out on the floor.
A fuzzy wuzzy caterpillar.
Or, Pyrrharctia isabella, also known as a woolly bear. About an inch-and-a-half long, bright orange and black. It shuffled along on the cheap tile, beginning its long trek home.
And it had been hanging out in my hair for at least two hours. I realized it must have fallen out of one of the big pine trees I stood under as I waited for the bus. Two small miracles had occurred in that short time: none of the bus bastards had noticed the giant woolly bear wriggling on my head. And also, I had somehow managed to not squish it with my headphones. A caterpillar was pretty bad, I'd been permanently scarred for life, but at least it wasn't caterpillar guts. I mean, gross.
Mr. Ra straightened his collar. I looked around the hall to see the faces of students framed in the doorways, eye wide with terror that a teacher had just whacked me about the head multiple times. As soon as I caught their eyes, they turned away with rapt attention to their teachers, lest they received a thwacking too.
"Don't ever let that happen again." Mr. Ra said stiffly and turned to reenter the classroom.
I stood there for a moment in utter shock at the events of the last five minutes. The entire class, and by lunchtime the entire seventh grade, knew I had a giant bug crawling across my head and I hadn't even noticed it. Why on earth would I have just let this happen? How had it even been possible for such a strange turn of events in the first place? Though I didn't entirely understand it then, a few things started clicking into place in my mind. Sure I had my hopes and dreams, but the universe worked in a very precise and specific way, and one true thing would soon become all too apparent...
I was never going to be cool.
* I got the HUGE HIDEOUS SCAR when I was a wee babe and busted my face on a metal stool while trying to pull up and stand on my lardy baby legs. (Yes, the Grace in R.Grace was apparent at such a tender age) I never noticed it until I was seven and some kid at 4-H Club Camp came up to me and said "what's wrong with your face?" When I asked her to explain, she asserted, "Your mouth. Why is it so ugly in the corner right there?" And then she took my cookie and walked off.
In recent (like, embarrassingly recent) years, I realized the HUGE HIDEOUS SCAR is but a small twinge in the corner of my lip, and no one ever mentioned it because it's not very noticeable. I have made peace with what used to be my self-confidence kryptonite, like, "you do your thing and be there on my face, but I'm not tilting my head in that direction for pictures."
And life goes on.