by Jennifer Schrader
These days we hear stories about the hazing and cruelty that can exist between kids in middle school. But when I was there in the late seventies, such things were never discussed.
A clique of about five girls had it in for me; they would literally wait outside the door to my classes to accost me, taunting me to get a reaction. I was a nerd, and my responses, when I dared to retort, were graceless. Seventh grade was one long year of torment; every day the girls found me somewhere, cornered me and called me names. It never occurred to me to get parental help, but it was easily the worst year of my life.
When I entered eighth grade I was afraid. My fears were realized when the same bunch of girls, with new additions, started harassing me again. I struggled on. A few weeks into the year, I noticed that one of the new girls, “Darlene,” now led the clique. I didn’t know her and never noticed her around when I was attacked, but I feared her.
One day, the girls cornered me again, I got angry and yelled insults back, whatever nasty words came to mind. It was an incident like a hundred others, forgotten it by the time I got to gym class. But suddenly I was alone in the locker room with Darlene advancing on me with her jaw set. She confronted me angrily, saying I had insulted her friends, and must answer to her.
It was too much for me. I started to half cry, half protest, wailing that they had insulted me first, that they did so all the time, that I was just trying to defend myself. Darlene listened in silence, and when I was done, she said something that changed my life.
She said simply, “I didn’t realize that. I’m sorry; I’ll talk to them.” She must have, because they never, from that moment on, picked on me again.
What Darlene changed for me, more than anything, was my understanding of my enemies. The notion that they were people, that they could possibly be reasoned with, that they might be kinder to me if I showed them my own humanity and not only my defensive thorns shook my whole understanding of the world.
Darlene caused me to believe that strangers might bring something good, and that life is lived best in that hope. She helped me notice that I, too, had been cruel, even though only in defense, and that it was not the best choice.
Darlene and I didn’t become friends. But I believe she changed me more than almost anyone else through that one compassionate, sensible act. And she gave me a sense of what character and integrity can mean even in the heart of the middle school jungle.