Seventh grade is just awkward. In my personal and professional opinion, in fact, that year of school simply should not exist. We should ignore it, like the 13th floor of a hotel. It can’t be completely removed from existence, but we could surely choose to look the other way and pretend it isn’t there. My apologies to all teachers of seventh grade, but I’m sure that even you can admit to the atrocity of this painful season of growth in which students are stuck between happy childhood and painful teenage-almost-grown-up land.
Adding insult to injury, I had really bad hair in seventh grade. Prior to that year, my hair had (almost) always been long, but for some insane reason, right before the first day of Jr. High, I determined that I wanted a chic*, short haircut like my mom. Or like Courtney Cox in Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark video. Man, that chick** was so lucky! I wanted to be lucky. I wanted to dance with Bruce Springsteen in the dark on stage at a big concert, without a care in the world and particularly no concern for bad hair, an ill-fitting muscle shirt, and a hideously oversized watch.
So yeah, I cut my hair. The stylist made me look super cute that day, blowing out the short ‘do and then expertly crafting feathered curls with a hot iron. I was like, “I’m SO ready for seventh grade! Let’s do this!” And then I probably added, “Like, wow!” and “This is RAD!” It was the 80s, after all, and I was a Valley Girl. Kinda.
The first day of school was not great, and no day that followed during that year was great, either, except the last day of school when I found ink-penned graffiti in a shared classroom textbook that proclaimed, “[Natalie Novak] is a hottie.” That was a great day. But to that point? No. They all sucked.
In answer to your question: yes, I tore that glorious page of the textbook right out (what a vandal!) and still have it. Special moments, especially after a year of turmoil, must be treasured forever.
Bad hair was just part of what went wrong that year, but to elaborate: I had zero skills in the hair styling department, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not replicate the stylist’s adorably feathered coif.
Tears. SO MANY TEARS.
Soon into the school year, giving up all hope on cute feathered short hair, I began wearing a hot pink sunglasses headband. Every day.
Do you remember those headbands? They were streamlined sunglasses fit into a slender headband but without the combs on back to hold them in place. You could wear them as sleek, 1-inch wide sunglasses, or you could wear them as a normal headband. An awesome invention, to be sure, but perhaps it would have been less nerdy if I had this item in multiple colors or had also invested in some hair clips to mix things up a bit. The everyday wearing of this diverse, dweeby accouterment was fuel on the fire for Melanie.
I don’t know if everyone had a bully, but I sure did. She was super big – like the size of a full-grown woman who had religiously eaten her Wheaties from birth and was ready to go lift weights or arm wrestle at any given moment. I had Melanie in a couple of classes, but the problem class was P.E., where she took a shine to picking on me until I blushed reddish-purple and fought back tears. Oh, she was relentless, and her verbal attacks on my physical inabilities in sports and the K-Mart Special sneakers on my feet were accompanied by a towering physical presence that would close in with feigned intent as punctuation to her cutting words.
She was downright mean.
I tried talking to my parents about it, so of course they called a meeting with the principal, who called a meeting with Melanie and her parents, and there we all sat together in a small room promising to get along. I felt like a big whiny baby, and the whole situation changed nothing. Well, it did change one thing: I quit talking about it and instead started ditching school. I’ve always hated conflict, and what better way to avoid it than to simply not show up at all?
I would leave for school in the morning and then detour to the park, where I would hang out all day. A couple of times, I got my younger brother and sister involved in it. My sister and I were once questioned by a cop at the donut shop (odd that a police officer would be there [sarcasm], odder that we didn’t consider that possibility [truth]), We brilliantly came up with the tall tale that we were in the midst of moving and hadn’t yet started at the new school. What clever miniature criminals!
Of course, I eventually got caught. I got away with it for a long time, forging – *super cringe* – parental signatures on notes and handing them in at the office as my free pass to be a bad kid. You know how I got caught? I was overheard bragging to some kids about my delinquent behavior by a fellow student’s mother – who happened to be married to the vice principal. The jig was up, and it was up quick.
Several things happened in very quick succession. The most important of these was an immediate shift in my mental state. I couldn’t be a victim anymore. I relinquished that luxury by way of choosing to act in an irresponsible – and illegal – manner. Instead of having the sympathy of my parents, I had their wrath, and rightfully so. Here’s the BIG story, though. The good stuff: in the absence of feeling like a victim, I felt strong.
I wasn’t afraid to sleep in my own bed anymore. I quit crying. I didn’t feel scared when my parents left the house. I wasn’t terrified to go to school, and suddenly Melanie held no power over me. This all happened immediately. The circumstances didn’t change – but I did. Melanie was still Melanie (that bitch), but I was different. I realized that I was powerful in a way that I had never known before. I was in a fairly large amount of trouble for my terrible choices, yeah, but in the overall picture I was not defeated. I would happily accept my punishment.
Plus, detention looked good on my application for badass status – but that is totally another story.
Like I said, the entire school year stunk something fierce, but losing the victim label probably changed the course of my whole life.
One day shortly after I got busted as a truant, I was sitting against the building in the shade during P.E. free time. Melanie came over, bouncing a basketball a little too close to my feet while taunting me about my “ugly” hot pink sunglasses headband. I kept my head down and ignored her as she suggested that the thing probably had green mold on the inside that had grown because I wore it every day. Instead of tears bubbling up, I felt a surge of anger. I let her spit mean words at me as everyone in our class looked on, but the words didn’t hurt any more. It felt like they were bouncing off of me and dissipating. I could hear them, but I couldn’t feel them.
As she walked away, I stood and took off the hot pink 80’s dazzle – my accidental seventh-grade signature piece – and flung it with all my might on top of the roof. Everyone laughed, but this time they weren’t laughing at me – they were laughing with me. Some even looked a little impressed. I smiled and tugged my fingers through my short hair, which would eventually grow back into a long, even mane (because that’s what bad haircuts do, folks. They grow out and get better). That day, I silently shut the door on letting that particular bully ever get to me again.
There have been other Melanie Meanies in my life, because life isn’t perfect and not everyone is kind. But seventh grade taught me that I am strong and resilient. That icky year showed me that being a victim is a choice, and that peeling off that label will reveal a strength otherwise hidden. Zeroing in on how powerful you are as a human being can actually erase self-perceived weakness. It can change the course of your life.
It also taught me that I’m so much happier with longer, easy to maintain hair, and that hot pink is totally not my color.
All good lessons.
For your viewing pleasure:
Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark video
*Chic, pronounced “sheek” (understated, trendy style)
**Chick, pronounced “chick” (colloquial term for a young woman)