The spinning curve of the red rubber dodgeball eclipsed everything in my vision. It even took over everything inside my mind’s eye. It’s bumpy surface, like sunburnt skin, was spinning closer and closer directly towards me. I could make out scuff marks and a shiny patch where the tiny bumps had been worn smooth by so many kicks in kickball and the not so many dodges in afternoon dodgeball games. I saw the red rubber sphere spinning towards me at light speed, but it was all happening in slow motion. It was inevitable. The smash of rubber to the center of my face. I hoped I would look tough with a broken nose or a nice purple bruise. I could put a neat white strip of adhesive tape over it like Jaclyn Smith did in the episode where she fell off her skateboard chasing a diamond thief. She looked tough and pretty.
Maybe if I had a cool but sexy adhesive strip, Kenny Evers would finally like me. Or, at least choose me when we lined up at the tetherball pole to pick teams. It was humiliating, standing there wishing you wouldn’t be picked last. Well, you knew you wouldn’t be last. Josh Fickner was always last. But, to be left second to last with just Josh, that was almost as bad as not being picked at all. That had never happened to me. There were always at least two or three other people still standing there awkwardly when I was finally chosen. But, still, the horror of it loomed large.
Kenny had never picked me. He was so dreamy, in his Tough Skin bell bottom jeans. He had wild dirty blond hair that always looked like he just woke up from a nap, which, more often that not, he just had. He didn’t care about grades or what the teachers said. He had a crew. They wore sleeveless jean vests and half shirts. When he went to school birthday parties he and his crew hung in the back silently looking over one another’s shoulders, occasionally murmuring quietly.
Looking back, Kenny was just a shy quiet kid surviving a loud alcoholic father and a Farah Fawcett look alike mom who wore staggeringly high heels and tight jeans to school events. She looked glamorous but sad, and sometimes a little scared. Despite the somber dusting she wore like shimmer powder, everyone watched her shamelessly whenever she was around. One day I overheard Kenny’s dad yelling at him when we were shopping at Alpha Beta. He was yelling at Kenny’ for hurting his mother’s feelings and Kenny was looking straight ahead. I pretended I hadn’t heard anything and offered Kenny a quick smile then looked away as my mom and I bustled past them in the frozen dinner section.
As the red rubber ball continued it’s trajectory towards me, I pondered an important 6th grade dilemma. Would getting smacked in the face help rather than hurt my chances of being picked by Kenny to be on his dodgeball team? My chances, all but hopeless after “The Incident” could use improving.
“The Incident” happened a few weeks earlier. My sister and I were dropped off at school way before the first period bell. It was foggy. Someone had forgotten to put a lone dodge ball in the storage locker and it glistened in the sunrise-red morning fog calling to me. I knew we weren’t supposed to use the sports equipment without a teacher present but hell, we had over an hour to kill and who could blame us? I picked up the ball and threw it straight at my sister with a satisfyingly sharp snap. Tania caught it and smiled as we both ran to the white 4-square outline. Game on.
With the words: You say you wanna go for a spin, the party’s just begun, we’ll let you in. You drive us wild, we’ll drive you crazy. You keep on’, you keep shoutin’...I wanna rock and roll all nite and party every day blaring in my head, Tania and I started our game. We were tied, 3 to 3, when I stopped to re-apply the watermelon Bonni Bell Lip Smacker that Kris, my best friend, and I both wore on strings around our necks, and that’s when I saw him.
He was just becoming visible in the slowly dissipating morning fog. His green and white Kangaroo tennis shoes making a slight squishing sound on the dewy asphalt. His Hotter Than Hell t-shirt was frayed at the sleeves and cut back to show off his pale, narrow shoulders. He was the only boy in our class brave enough to wear his shirts like that to class. He was constantly sent to the principals’ office and would inevitably return to class the following period in an over sized plain white t-shirt or blue windbreaker zipped all the way up. Despite being punished he always kept a defiant smirk around the edges of his thin pink lips. That smirk made most of the Green Valley Middle School sixth grade class members either want to be Kenny, or be with Kenny, even though most of us were still not exactly sure what be with entailed.
That same defiant twinkle beamed across the playground as Kenny sauntered towards us. Desperate to look as cool as possible, which to be honest, was not very cool at all, I refused to look at him. I bounced the ball to Taina, who struggled to keep her eyes on the game. I could feel his gaze, like an electric pulse tugging at me to look at him. I willed Tania to ignore him and thankfully she did. The ball was in mid-air coming back to my left when he pounced. He snatched it like a lizard catches flies. SNAP! With a soft swoosh he landed, his green and white Roos facing squarely in front of me. He jerked the ball over his head and beamed those twinkly green eyes at me. “Game over, Catholic.”
He had started that Catholic thing. I hated him for it, even while secretly admiring the comic wit. Having a name like Cristien Storm which everyone pronounced Christian Storm, was, as you can surely imagine, not easy in grade school.
What is that, like a Jewish Hurricane? Catholic Thunder was another nick name. Today these might be excellent roller derby alias’ but in 6th grade there was no such thing. I endured the teasing and taunting and like to think I am stronger for it, but I am probably not.
“Whatcha gonna do Catholic?” Kenny sneered.
For some reason at that precise moment a chemical change or emotional charge, a storm of some kind, if you will, occurred. I had had enough. I wasn't the prettiest girl in my 6th grade class. I wasn’t the smartest. I wasn’t the best at playing baseball or writing A+ worthy essays on historical figures of note. I wasn’t a spelling champion or algebra whizz. I was just a normal little girl trying to navigate the maelstrom of sixth grade at Green Valley Middle school. I had new hormones raging through me and acne that made me wish the sidewalk would open up and swallow me whole. I didn’t have a red Goodie comb and no boy had ever asked me to walk the perimeter of the playground during lunch recess, arms crossed behind each others' waists with our hands in each others' back pocket. I didn’t want to bully anyone, but I was tired of being collateral damage, close to but not the direct target of the worst of the bullying. Without saying a word, I walked right up to Kenny and kicked him in the shins. Twice. He dropped the ball.
“What the fuck Catholic?” He said leaning over to rub his shin.
I turned my back on him and walked over to the white 4-square outline and my slack jaw sister. I nodded at her, rolled my shoulders back, stood in the center of my white square outline and bounced the ball in her direction.
“Whatever Catholic.” He said as he walked away.
My sister and I finished our game. Other kids joined us on the playground and eventually the incident got swallowed up in the chaos of a Green Valley Middle School Tuesday morning. The teachers arrived, took the dodgeball back and blew sharply into their shiny silver whistles to make us line up. The school bell rang, first period started and I assumed the incident was forgotten
The incident, however, while lost in the chaos of a Green Valley Middle School morning, had not been forgotten.
We had all lined up. Boys on the right, girls on the left. Michael Evenson and Jimmy Johnston were, of course, the team captains. They were always captains. Even when the teacher tried to make two other people team captains, one would choose Michael and the other would choose Jimmy to be on their teams and they would end up being the actual captains. Jimmy would always pick Julie and Bobby for his team and Michael would choose Rachel and Justin. There was a specific order and system that would seemingly self-correct whenever a teacher or anyone else tried to alter it. You don’t mess with the system. There are rules.
Green Valley 6th Grade Middle School Rules:
1. Jimmy and Michael were always captains
You never threw the ball at them
They never went after the weakest player
Rachel and Julie were second in command. Julie was always on Jimmy’s team and Rachel was on Michael’s.
Rachel and Julie were nice and didn’t bully anyone
The girl bullies, Lisa and Tammy, left Rachel and Julie alone and Rachel and Julie didn’t intervene when Lisa and Tammy slammed someone in the face with the ball or tripped someone; Rachel and Julie never saw anything
You could count on Rachel and Julie to be nice, but they would never have your back
3. The biggest bullies, Kenny and Lisa had their own pecking orders complete with their second in commands Sarah and Peter.
4. If you were not part of any identified group, you were left alone during free times and recess but basic targets when playing games or sports.
5. If you were not part of any group and were noticeably not nice, however they defined it on that particular day, to Peter, Lisa or their sub group members you were dealt with: public humiliation,and teasing. This was different than the bullying that other classmates endured, but enough to remind one of their place in the Green Valley Middle School 6th Grade Social Hierarchy
Today, the Green Valley Middle School 6th graders were playing dodgeball. Teams had been chosen. Our team was in the center, three balls in action. I had been dodging well and was feeling proud of my deft maneuvers. A shoulder duck mere seconds ago had been executed perfectly. The shiny red surface of the dodgeball had skimmed over my right shoulder, smacking Becky Dieters squarely in the back. I crouched, stood, pivoted left. That was when I saw it. The red rubber ball spinning straight at my face. I froze. I am not proud of it, but that was my response none-the-less, the proverbial “deer in headlights.” Stuck in place, I watched in horror as the red rubber ball spun closer and closer. Impact was imminent. My nose itched and my eyes watered in anticipation. The smack was coming. It would be loud and it would hurt.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kenny’s eyes twinkle. He was looking right at Rachel, who was the one who caught me off guard and lobbed that red death globe at me. I looked past the spinning surface into her eyes. She was smiling shyly and coyly looking down. There was no mistaking it. She was smiling for Kenny. Shit, I thought. All images of Kenny gently touching my bright white adhesive strip with his forefinger then touching my cheek dissolved. I was left with the sickly residue of betrayal and the heartbreaking realities of Green Valley 6th Grade Middle School recess crushes. Rachel had broken rule number 2 and gone after me to not only restore Kenny’s ego, but in the hopes of walking the playground perimeter with him later that day at lunch, her hand neatly tucked in his back pocket. I wanted to scream I won’t do it again, I will never kick Kenny again! Instead, I sighed. The inevitable was approaching and there would be no sexy purple bruise or white adhesive bandage. Only me and a red splotchy mark in the center of my face. I willed something, anything to happen that would alter the tragic fate of this moment. I wished I could beam myself to a different place like Captain Kirk or that the playground would open up and swallow me whole, neither of which, I knew, would happen. Shit, I sighed again.
*While Green Valley Middle School does still exist and I do have a sister named Tania, this essay and the characters in it are an amalgamation of the many sixth grade experiences that many of us survive.