What’s in a Name?

No one wants to go back to middle school. Not a single person, with the possible exception of Billy Gilman, wants to revisit that period of our lives. Nothing went right, everything was unfair and we feel trapped inside our moody, horny, sprouty selves. We kick off adolescence excited we’re no longer in elementary school but our high hopes collapse in front of us like every skyscraper in a Michael Bay movie; the building and the people in it don’t stand a chance.

In seventh grade I took pre-algebra and failed spectacularly but when my parents moved us to a new city, my eighth grade math class turned out to also be a form of pre-algebra. This time, it came to me easily. Perhaps that was the fault of the stocky wrestling coach who taught the class. Perhaps he’d dumbed it down enough a mathematically-illiterate transfer student like me could get straight A’s. Or maybe it was simply the repetition afforded by taking the subject again that made the equations finally sink in. Either way, it was the only time in my life I had an A in math and I felt great about it.

What I did not feel great about was Emily. A wretched stork of a girl, she sat directly in front of me and took every available opportunity to belittle me. Never mind I’d done nothing to her, I was the new kid and thus, a target.

Emily was gangly like a flamingo, had a nose that can only be described as beakish, and her complaints sounded like the loud squawks of a wild goose. She’d been popular at one point but apparently something happened near the end of her seventh grade year and she’d fallen from grace. I never found out exactly what went down but figured it had something to do with her general state of horribleness.

To be fair, she was awkwardly growing into herself like the rest of us, but unlike the rest of us, she overcompensated for her obvious insecurities by being mean. She’d thump my self-esteem as she saw fit though none of her jabs were particularly well thought out. Bless her heart, she was still reeling from her fall from seventh grade grace and now that she was fledgling somewhere near the middle of the social cesspool, bottom-dwellers like me better beware.

During math, our coach-teacher would often have us work with a partner which meant she and I were forced to work together almost every day. Teachers try to impart a spirit of teamwork by making us work together, don’t they? What they don’t realize is most of the time we just want to work alone. Especially when you’re the abnormal smart kid in class, it would be faster if I could just do it myself. But day in and day out, Emily and I “worked together” which equated to me doing the work and her taking the credit. She also complained loudly about having to work with me, fueling my growing resentment. Once she even called me a nerd under her breath and though I hated name-calling and should have responded by slapping her into the next life, I sat quietly, steaming like a pressure cooker.

Name-calling was something we didn’t do in my house. My parents made it very clear they didn’t call each other names even in the heat of an argument; they respected each other and wouldn’t belittle their love or their friendship by tawdry name-calling. The same was to be true for us.

That didn’t mean I wasn’t accustomed to being called names. Early in junior high at my previous school, the kids in gym called me “boner boy.” More than a dig at my apparent pubescent anatomy, it was the first time in my life I was called a name solely for the purpose of inflicting hurt. Apart from elementary school kids calling each other names on the playground, I’d never been insulted in that way. And to be frank, though I knew it wasn’t a term of endearment, I didn’t even really know what “boner boy” meant. But LaShawnda knew.

I thought I liked LaShawnda because she was kind to me when I first sat next to her in class. She’d just moved to town, had big Princess Jasmine eyes, and for a bubbly, Keds-wearing white girl, a peculiar name. And she was nice to me…until she wasn’t. What happened to her happens to so many little “LaShawndas.” As the popular kids became her friends, she slowly morphed into a new person with new behaviors and new slang. It was as if she’d gone into Sylvester McMonkey McBean’s “Star-On Machine” and like the Sneetches before her, became who she thought she needed to be in order to retain her newfound popularity. She was all smiles as she called me names and giggled about it, but was she really all that happy? Probably not. No one in middle school is.

“Boner-boy” disappeared when I moved to a new city and transferred schools but the replacement word wasn’t any better. That’s when the kids started calling me “gay.”

In the mid-90s, “gay” was a commonplace pejorative that substituted for “stupid” or “dumb.” People, mostly guys, would say “that’s gay” about anything they didn’t like, thought was juvenile, or not worth their time. This happened everywhere from school hallways to church lobbies; the whole world reinforcing the ways “gay” was synonymous with something less-than. Knowing that, I figured they just had it out for the chubby new kid with glasses. Still, they were saying it to be hurtful and it was.

When I’d initially transferred to the new school, I’d left my junior high delusions of being the next Wynton Marsalis behind, putting down the trumpet in favor of joining the choir. “Why would you do that?!” Denise, the office secretary asked incredulously as I signed up for classes. “Our band is one of the best in the state!” My mind was made up though. A couple months later when the eighth grade urchins decided they had it out for me, I was glad I stuck to my guns because it was within the walls of the choir room where I felt I’d found my safe place. Everywhere else at school felt like a battleground. Even the yearbook room at times felt like a minefield. The other staff had a shared history from attending school together and as such, they knew people and traditions I didn’t. Often, my being new was used by our editor as a way to suppress my ideas and input. But in the choir room, I was the puzzle piece that fit.

My director was a charismatic man who I got to know better as I stayed after school for rehearsals or to help with choir officer projects. On one of those after school afternoons, my fellow officers and I were filing sheet music in his office when one of the girls pointed to a picture of him and another man and said, “Maybe that’s his boyfriend.”

I was confused.

“Well, he’s gay so it would make sense.”

That was the first time I associated the word “gay” with dating someone of the same sex—it was the mid-90s, I was 13, in suburbia, in the Bible Belt—and I thought about it for weeks. Now when the kids called me “gay” or “gay-boy,” the latter being a term only the pretty and self-involved girls used, I had a much wider context for how they were trying to belittle me.

However, our director was a fun guy who liked to laugh, who smiled a lot and loved Disney music sung in choral arrangements. There’s nothing less-than about any of those things, I told myself. We were a lot alike and frankly, if that’s the term ascribed to him and he wasn’t less-than, I reasoned that meant I wasn’t either.

This was a rationale entirely divorced from the same-sex attracted meaning of the word “gay” and applied solely to the term when used as a dude-bro pejorative. I didn’t, at the time, factor in the sexual connotation because I was far too busy trying to survive my day-to-day to unpack that part of it. It’s hard enough to figure out who you are without other kids telling you who they think you are, but by associating that word with my choir director who I thought was awesome, it neutered the barbs tossed my way in the hallways. In eighth grade, “gay” became just another example of insecure pre-teen name-calling and I learned to ignore it.

In the choir room, there wasn’t any name-calling and that made it the best hour of my school day. The second best hour was lunch. I had two friends with whom I ate every day, a pint-sized boy with stringy hair and a big smile who was in the sixth grade and a girl in my grade who wanted to be a country singer – rhinestone cowboy hat and all. Neither of my lunch-friends called me names. No one at church called me names either. We liked each other there or at least acted like we did. It was church after all and you’re supposed to love thy neighbor.

But outside of those places, I’d long figured out there’s usually an insecure cool kid looking for a way to feel better about themselves at the expense of someone else. There was LaShawnda, there was Emily, and across the room from her, there was Matt. At some point during class, I got a break from working with Emily and instead had to work with him. While I answered the questions on our worksheet, he asked where I moved from and I told him. He responded by saying, “You remind me of myself. I used to be fat like you but now I’m not anymore.”

“Fat;” a new name that upon impact, made me feel lower than I’d ever felt in my young life.

I didn’t burst into tears or insult him back. I also didn’t stand up to him or defend myself. Rather, I stared at him, quietly clinching my fists and locking it away. Matt was loud and ignorant but I told myself I wouldn’t be. I was better than that. Still, getting away with that first comment emboldened him to make many more. He’d mock my walk or my waistline or my shoes as he passed me in the hallway and though I often imagined bludgeoning him to death with my Trapper Keeper or stabbing him in the eye with a sparkly orange gel pen, I kept about the quiet business of getting to class.

A few weeks later when our math teacher told us to work in pairs, Emily happened to be in a particularly foul mood. Loud enough the entire class could hear, she squawked, “Why do I have to work with him again? He’s so stupid.”

I don’t know exactly what she said after that because a thick dark rage erupted from deep within me and overtook my body. I’d had enough. Between her and Matt and months of keeping my cool and trying to be the better person, I snapped. Slamming my hands down on my desk with a thunderous clap, I began shouting.

“Shut up Emily! Shut up! I do all the work and you get an A! Stop complaining! I should be complaining I have to do all of the damn work! You’re mean and horrible and call me names and you don’t try, so just shut up!”

I’m paraphrasing because the rage blackout didn’t dissipate until after the shouting—my shouting—stopped. She stared at me, her eyes red with anger and disbelief, and I stared right back unbothered by her or the rest of the class’ stunned silence. Eyeball to eyeball, I stared her down. You won’t get away with this anymore, I declared to her, to Matt, and to everyone. Horrified an underling would dare speak to her like that, she whipped around to face our teacher.

“Are you kidding me?!” she gawked. “I’m going to tell the principal he just said that to me!”

“That’s fine,” my wrestling coach teacher replied. He smiled, laughing a little to himself as he shrugged. “I should’ve probably sent you down there a long time ago but he was handling you just fine on his own. If you want to go down there, wait a minute so I can send you with a note about your behavior.”

“Whatever,” the goose honked, defiant and defeated.

After the most palpably awkward moment of silence in the history of junior high, I put my worksheets back in order, clicked my mechanical pencil two times, and calmly raised my hand.

“I’d like to request to work on this assignment alone, if that’s alright.”

He let me.

I got an A.

This is the second of three essays in a series. READ: Eighth Grade.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Feel God in This Cab, is available here. 

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3 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

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