It still surprises me that the peak of stress in my life was in the seventh grade. Nothing has yet surpassed it, still. Pain, that’s a different story. But for stress, age twelve and a half, seventh grade still wins. It was my first years of having to go to P.E. classes, where I was among strangers instead of family or at least the familiarity of people I shared a class with all day long. I was never conditioned to sports. I’d never thrown a ball with anyone, and if a ball was flying towards my face, I had a fairly normal human reaction of wanting to duck and protect myself instead of lunging towards it to greet it with my hands out. In the terminology of sports, this made me not much of a team player. The coach, Coach Craig, who was otherwise a pretty nice woman, held fast to a theory that peer pressure could take care of these things. So I spent the whole 45 minutes of P.E. class with everyone around me mad at me and sometimes yelling at me, while I was trying to just be invisible. If I had had better coping skills, I might have spent more time getting people to coach me at sports at home, or at least kicking a ball around or studying the rules of football. Instead I survived 6th period P.E., minute by minute. I still remember the gnawing in my gut as I would exit the locker room and head down the hall into the bright light of the outdoor tennis courts and the football field, silently praying that the teacher would have us run or do something that I wasn’t terrified of, instead of the foggy mystery of team sports. Everyone in the world seemed to get it and do okay with it, and I couldn’t cope with for one second. I remember how every day was a slow and painful countdown towards this class. Every weekend, at that point in my life, I felt like I was helplessly watching the hours peel away from me until monday, when I would have to go back to school and go to that class. I looked into the options, and there were none. You could take either Cadets, or P.E. Cadets was social suicide, and therefore wouldn’t do anything about my stress at school. I was doing team sports at some sort of metaphorical gun-point.
I was also still adjusting to public school, even though I had come back from home schooling the previous year and had already done 6th grade. I had still not adjusted. I also went to a junior high school that took a full hour by bus to get to. This meant getting up at 5 a.m. at the latest, and my bedroom at that point in time was a trailer next to my house and it had no heat, just a down sleeping bag that was painfully difficult to get out of when the alarm made its piercing call to get up and into the freezing air. I then walked about a half mile to the bus stop in almost dark. All of this so I could spend the day fearing the last class of the day, P.E. I still cringe when I hear that particular alarm, and it is often found on the first wave of kitchen stoves that had alarms on them. I used to make my lunch and bring it to school in a brown bag, something I later learned you just don’t do. I later learned that you either bought lunch at school or you didn’t bring lunch and didn’t eat anything. End of story. At least that’s how it was in my little world. They divided up our lunches into 1st lunch and 2nd lunch, and I somehow ended up with lunch with nobody that I knew, although a girl I went to kindergarten with a long time ago and her sister, let me eat lunch with them. Anything else? Oh yeah, my front tooth was busted and had a gaping hole in it. And I had stringy hair and big eyes. Somewhere along that time the girl who had a locker next to me watched me open it and, learning my combination, stole my coat out of my locker and I guess threw it away. I had stress. Somewhere in that first semester I also peed my pants at a carnival down the street from my school because I couldn’t get the knot undone on this homemade jumper I was wearing, and peed on myself inside of the bathroom stall. Then, the girl I was with got into an argument with me a few weeks later and she got so mad at me that she started calling me pisspot in front of everyone in the lunch area, and even got my good friend Shireen to join her. I wrote a pleading letter to Shireen, and the girl read my letter to everyone at lunch. Somehow, this still paled in comparison to P.E. class. The girls and I later made up and all the madness stopped pretty quickly. It was a memory I had trouble talking about for many years, but a resolved memory nonetheless.
The transition came along somewhere in the middle of the year, when I finally got my tooth fixed which had huge effects on my self-esteem, I got a much more flattering hairdo, and I was growing into my big eyes. I also made the simple decision to sleep in the house again (helloooooo) where mom got up before us and built a warm fire in the stove. I started spending huge amounts of time with my neighbor Angela, whom I’d already been friends with for many years. We were going through a lot of the same changes at that point in time, and I just mean puberty, not social stress. Anyway, they changed the lunch setup, and I now had second lunch with Angela and her friends. She let me wear her clothes, and we ended up getting matching hairdos in the beginning of that bouffant eighties hair era. We learned about make-up together, and she shared her lunch money with me every day, even though it cut her already spare lunch allocation in half. We also had each other to walk to the bus stop with, in the cold, pre-dawn hours of desert winter, and we walked home together at the end of the day and commiserated about living in the desert (why, God, why?). By the end of the school year, I was friends with everybody and loved going to school. I finally started getting up in the mornings with eagerness. I would sometimes borrow Angela’s sister’s outfits so that she and I could go to school in identical outfits, like twins would do. We got a lot of attention for it, and it was a cute and normal thing for two girls in junior high. The girls that were mean to me earlier in the year were already a faint memory, and were writing notes to me and marveling on how cute Angela and I looked in our matching outfits (was I supposed to invite them to join us at lunch?). If anybody ever wonders why I have such a savage loyalty to Angela to this day, I can only recall those early years, and the many other selfless acts through the years, because it is just in her nature to think about the people around her and how they are doing, and to do what she can to help. She did it without expecting anything in return, and never really gave it a second though because that’s how everyone in her family acted. I just got lucky to end up living down the street from her.
No college struggle, no job stress, nothing has ever compared to the stress of the first half of seventh grade. I guess it builds character, and it’s just part of my history. I was still one of the lucky ones as a kid, because at the end of every day I also walked into a home where I was loved and my arrival was anticipated and looked forward to. I lived with people who made me laugh and supported me and made life at home fun, and I didn’t even begin to understand that most of the people I was going to school with didn’t go home to that. Even the ones who were lucky enough to have a complete family at home still didn’t have one like the one I had. Their lives were surrounded with restrictions and being yelled at and punished, and my life wasn’t. I would have approached the world with a lot more compassion, had I known that. I only worried about what was going on with me. Fairly normal, I guess, but I still assumed everyone was coming from the same general comforts at home. So I can give myself a lot of credit for the happy life I’ve built for myself, but I can’t count the number of times I was just lucky.
And yes, I still have anxiety attacks when I try team sports.