Top Ten Things I’d Whisper In The Ear Of My Junior High Self
by Lori Sambol Brody
I heard once that middle school is when the brain and body experience the largest growth. For the brain, the cells and connections you use then are those that survive. The world opens before you and you step into it (hesitantly or eagerly). Opinions and interests begin to form. You are becoming you.
Although middle school (it was called junior high in my day) is decades behind me, my oldest daughter is finishing middle school and my youngest daughter is poised to enter. These years are full of tears and drama. Friends. Ballet roles. Strict teachers. Academic angst. Grandparents dying. My daughters no longer take kindly to advice. They roll their eyes and flip their hair. Sigh huge sighs.
So, here’s ten things the 2016 me would like to whisper to the junior high me (shhh don’t tell my daughters).
- That time your grandfather died. You never get over grief, but grief changes as the years pass. You’ll stand over the yahrzeit candles burning on your counter on Yom Kippur 2016 and wonder how you know so many people who died. Your grandmother. Your mother. You still dream about them, still see their faces when you close your eyes.
- That time you ran into Jeff Shumacher when you just woke up and picked up the newspaper at your doorway as he was delivering it. You are embarrassed because he, this boy you’ve crushed on since elementary school, saw you with your hair pulled back in a messy braid, dressed in the flannel granny nightgown your mother bought at the Lanz store. Know this: you will have many more humiliating incidents with men. I mean this to reassure you. Soon, Jeff will go to a different high school, the newspaper he delivers will fold, the apartment building he lives in across from the elementary school will be torn down, and all you will remember of him is faded embarrassment and those long blond bangs falling across his forehead.
- That time you ignored your best friend at Camp Hollywoodland. Don’t turn your back because you want to hang out with the three girls in matching tube tops, who want you to wear a tube top too although you don’t own one and haven’t figured out how to shave under your arms. You will know the tube top girls only a week; they are moths that fly in and out of your life. You will know your best friend for decades. She’ll be there when you study in law school together. She’ll be one of your friends who throw your bridal and baby showers, she’ll be there when you have break-ups and miscarry, she’ll be there when your mother dies. Don’t be an asshole.
- That time you sat next to Jill Bernstein who scrawled “I [heart] Tom Petty” and “Mrs. Jill Petty” on the paper-bag covers of her textbooks. Ask her about Tom Petty, go to her house and play “Breakdown” and “American Girl” on her portable turntable. She is an eighth grade visionary. Listen deep and hard to Petty’s nasally voice. Don’t dismiss him because you’re into the Bee Gees and Rod Stewart. Don’t realize 30 years later, singing “Free Falling” with the radio as you descend a canyon road into the Valley and see Ventura Boulevard, the 101, and Mulholland spreading before you, that finally you understand Jill Bernstein. Don’t regret the years you lost without being in love.
- That time you stole Christian Dior nail polish in Tuberose, those times you stole those barrettes, that time you stole the Dolphin shorts from Frontrunners. You will write a story about that nail polish, you will have those barrettes for years, until you loan the green one to your tween daughter and she loses it. I’m sort of proud of you, not getting caught, even when you pulled your jeans over the Dolphin shorts and walked out of the store. (However, perhaps you shouldn’t have picked the ugly colorblock yellow and brown ones.) It’s not my job here to legislate morals, just to keep you safe from regrets and sadness. (But if my kids are reading this: absolutely do not do. You’ll get caught: technology has improved since 1979.)
- That time you climbed the ropes in P.E. to avoid getting a D. You had more choices than to practice climbing the ropes on the weekends. Mr. Armand’s rule that you had to climb the ropes to earn a C is arbitrary, yes, but this will not be the last arbitrary rule you face. Junior high school is all about making students, in preparation for life, comply with arbitrary and authoritarian rules. Resist, because years later you are still annoyed about it, still wonder why climbing a rope is useful, unless you’re escaping zombies and a rope dangles in front of you. Resist, or you’ll wonder, years later, how to resist.
- That time Ms. Kaye rejected all your poems for the class literary magazine. I know you’re angry and hurt because none of your poems were selected, and all of Jenny Y.’s were. Don’t continue to write poetry and hate on Ms. Kaye: move forward. Your talents lie elsewhere. Perhaps you should turn to prose.
- That time Ms. Nagel wrote on the blackboard in English class “Pain makes man think. Thought makes man wise. Wisdom makes life endurable. — The Teahouse of the August Moon.” You think you understand the quote but pain is still abstract. When you are 25, recovering from surgery for a perforated ulcer and clicking on the morphine machine’s button, you realize that the writer was not thinking of physical pain, because with physical pain you cannot think, your whole world is pain. Emotional suffering is what leads to wisdom. Even this is wrong, but that is not your fault, the premise of the quote is wrong. Joy also makes life endurable. What I’m saying to you: don’t forget the joy.
- That time that guy goosed you at UCLA Mardi Gras. When that guy grabs you between the legs and laughs with his friends when you’re waiting in line for the Zipper, don’t merely turn around and glare at him. Don’t be embarrassed, don’t feel like you’ve done something wrong, that perhaps you shouldn’t have worn Jordache jeans so tight you lie down to zip them up. Ball your hand into a fist and hit him in the face with all your might. Hope he bleeds. You won’t have the vocabulary to identify the boy’s actions at the time; much later you will find the words for what the boy did.
- Those times you thought you were weird to retell Star Trek episodes, with you as the star, to get to sleep. It’s not weird to invent a female head of engineering whose best friend is Bones (who wouldn’t want to have him as a friend: over mint juleps or Saurian brandy he’d cantankerously give you just the advice you needed). It’s ok for her to be in love with James T. Kirk, although Kirk is confusing. He’s ridiculous. But something about the way his gold shirt strains across his chest and how he confidently grabs alien women attracts you. His hypermasculinity, when you live in a house full of females. You will learn that later your stories are fanfic. You are not weird. Well, maybe a little weird. And that too is ok.
About the author
Lori is the author of the Little Fiction story, E Ticket, a coming of age piece that may or may not include boys reminiscent of the above-mentioned dreamboat, Jeff Schumacher. And speaking of that story, it was one of about a dozen or so pieces Lori had published this year. Which would be surprising if she weren’t so damn talented.
Originally published at littlefiction.com.