I walk past Ladera Vista Jr. High and I want to take a sledgehammer to that fucking place. At a public junior high school, the very worst parts of society and human nature are manifest and rewarded: prejudice, injustice, segregation, superficiality, rigidly defined social classes, an authoritarian power structure, a pervasive "might makes right" philosophy. Fuck junior high.
I am 13 years old. It's lunch time and I'm standing in the same spot I always stand during lunch: two tables left of the cool people tables, where the not quite cool but not totally uncool kids eat lunch. The lunch tables emanate outward in waves in decreasing coolness. At the heart are the coolest kids who wear brand name clothing and have cool hairstyles and deep voices and big boobs and boyfriends and girlfriends. The cool kids are mostly wealthy and white, but sometimes a black or a Mexican or an Asian earns the favor of the cool kids by being especially entertaining or rich. Moving outward from this heart of coolness and the quasi-cool kids who are trying to be cool but failing in some way. Perhaps getting good grades or being too poor to afford the brand name clothing or being involved in an uncool activity like band or choir or drama. Or maybe they are just shy like me. And moving further outward are the wannabe gang members, the girls who are in the honors classes, the band members, the kids who talk about computers, the Asians, the blacks, the Mexicans and, on the very fringes, the Special Ed Kids (or "retards" as they are called by the cool kids).
One of the "retards" has wandered unknowingly into the cool tables. His name is James and he has Downs Syndrome. A cool kid named Joey tells James to stand on one of the tables and James immediately complies and then Joey says, "James, Choo-Choo!" James eagerly grabs his crotch and yells out "Choo-Choo!" The cool kids laugh.
From my quasi-cool table, I observe the antics of James and the cool kids with some amusement, but also a wrong feeling, a bad feeling.
I'm eating the soggy turkey sandwich my dad made me. It's the same sandwich he makes me every day: two slices of generic whole wheat bread, two slices of turkey meat, one Kraft single, one leaf of iceberg lettuce that is now limp and soggy from the mayonaise.
I turn and bump into Jon, a cool kid. Jon is eating a chicken sandwich from the cafeteria. The cool kids mostly eat hot food from the cafeteria. I envy them. When I bump Jon, the chicken sandwich falls from his hand to the ground.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I say, intensely conscious of the sound of my timid boy's voice.
"What the fuck?!" Jon yells in his confident young man's voice.
At this exclamation from Jon, almost all the heads of the cool kids snap around and fix on Jon and me. Waves of adrenaline flood from my mind all throughout my body.
"Buy me another sandwich!" Jon shouts into my face.
"I'm sorry," I say again and my voice cracks and I can hear a few chuckles from the cool kids. I was content to be ignored by them, but this is too much for me to bear.
"Buy me another sandwich!" Jon barks, "Or I'll kick your fuckin' ass!"
I feel like crying. In fact, water swells to my eyes and I dare not speak again for fear that my voice will break again. I fumble in my pockets and find 65 cents, which my mom gave me this morning for a "special treat."
I hand Jon the money and catch a tear with my sleeve just before it rolls down my cheek. For a moment, my eyes dart around helplessly at the staring faces of my quasi-cool friends, who offer no consolation. I don't blame them. I know everyone can tell I am crying, so I slink away to the bathroom, where I stare in silence for a long time at the tiled wall and then in the mirror at my freckled boy's face. I wipe away my tears with a rough brown paper towel.