It was December the last time I visited my middle school. I had a doctor's appointment a block away. It was the end of the semester and I was out of my mind tired. I had just survived a terrible class, a class I had to leave at the end of the semester because I believed that if I stayed, I was on my way to a meltdown. I had gained weight and my hair cut short. I was moving in a couple of weeks, leaving the town where I grew up.
It was odd that I remembered the shortcut to Sequoia. It had been years since I attended school there. I found the bridge that led to school without trouble. No gate, no yard duty, nothing. I crossed the bridge and I remembered a lyric from Michelle Shocked's "Anchorage" I took time out to write to my old friend, I walked across that burning bridge.
The field was the same. There was this large athletic field and I always thought it was beautiful. Sometimes I would walk to the school and just lie on the grass, trying to make sense of it all. I felt lonely a lot, even when surrounded by people. I dreamed of being a rich and famous writer. I want to rise above everything, above the fact that my parents still fought even though they had been apart for years, rise above my learning disabilities, rise above everything.
I watched for a while a PE class, watching for the kid who was slow, who wasn't coordinated like the other kids. I didn't see that kid. Mostly I saw girls laughing at something and playing. For some reason, that made me happy.
I looked at the school. It has changed a lot since I graduated in 1987. The first thing I noticed was that it was painted a lovely shade of blue. When I went to Sequoia it was painted this awful shade of green. Puke green, Formica green. It matched how I felt at times, chipped away, ugly, and hated. There used to be graffiti of girls' phone numbers, pencil drawings of penises. There used to be spit hanging on the ceilings, so everyone walked fast so the spit wouldn't land on your head. Now it was a nice blue color, and no pencil penises were in sight.
They added a gym since I left, right by the E wing. The E-wing was where you had the Special Day classes, the Resource classes. I had one class there, math. I was so ashamed. I would make sure that no one would see where I was going. It wasn't until years laterhaving just one resource class wasn't so bad when a girl who has dyslexia asked me how many resource classes I had. One, I told her. She let out a whistle and said, "You were so lucky."
D-wing. Where the sixth graders hung out, bright and bushy. I had my Core class here where I wondered if I could drop out of sixth grade and just go to college. I was bored with everything and felt burned out. I was twelve at the time.
C-wing. Seventh grade was where the 7th graders were, and I was in classes I hated. Now I look to see if there's still a cooking class. I don't see anything. I do remember once we were making Snickerdoodles and I was getting everything wrong, the measurements, where everything went. "You're just in the way," one girl told me. "Go sit down." I sat down, feeling ashamed. I couldn't even cook frigging Snickerdoodles. What was the matter with me?
B-wing. Eighth grade, one of the best years I had academically and personally. It was the year I was in the school operetta, the year I liked all my teachers and classes. Especially English with Mrs. Cullen where I wrote my first short stories. Mrs. Cullen, does she still teach here? I remember hearing she was a principal now. I walked in the office. A girl is wearing a baseball hat and her blonde hair in braids. "Can I help you?" she asked.
"Yes, does Vivian Cullen teach here still?"
She wrinkled her nose. "I don't think so." She turned around when the secretary says something: "Hold on." She talks to the secretary for a moment, and then says, "Oh, we know her by Mrs. Boylan. She left three months ago to work at the district office. Do you want to leave a message for her?"
"Tell her Jennifer Gibbons says hi."
It touched my heart when the girl wrote my name down on a Post-It. "How do you spell your last name?" she asks. I spell it for her. She looks at me. "You had Mrs. Boylan?"
"Almost twenty years ago."
"Wow," she said, "that was a long time ago."
"It was," I said, thanking her.
I walked out of the office. I can't believe how quiet it is. I know it's during classes but it's just so calm and quiet. I noticed that there are no lockers. Wait a sec, what happened to the lockers?
"Do you need help?"
I turned around to see a woman around my age coming towards me. "Oh, I used to go to school here. I had today off and I had a doctor's appointment so I was just passing by..." I realized by then I was babbling.
"Oh, really?" She asks, sizing me over. "What year were you?"
"I was 1985." It's odd but I don't remember her face. I would always memorize yearbook pictures so I would know who they were. She named off some people I knew vaguely, and then named teachers. A lot of them are gone now: Mr. Molino, Mrs. Jarvis. "I was just asking because you were asking about Mrs. Boylan."
"I knew her by Mrs. Cullen." I don't know what else to say. "Um, what happened to the lockers?"
"Oh, we had to get rid of them. Kids were leaving awful things in there, drugs, porn. Now they just use their backpacks."
"They had the same things when I was here. Only we just had to either get rid of them or turn the other way."
I know I've been too honest, I didn't get the non verbal cue to just say "Yes! Children these days! Isn't it terrible?" I don't care. I want to be honest.
"Yes, well..." We stood there in silence. "Thanks for visiting us!" she said, and walked away. I had a feeling I should get out of there right away, otherwise she'll start talking on her walkie-talkie: "We have a crazy woman here! She's talking about old teachers and wondering why we don't have lockers! Get down here stat!"
I walked across the parking lot and I looked at the school, the blue school formerly known as green. Things were different then. It's a cliché but true. No one imagined bringing a gun to school, or that we could sue for harassment. It was just life. We were expected to make responsible decisions and be future adults. Some of us succeeded. Some of us failed. And some were like me, late bloomers, but blooming just the same.
I looked at the school and I didn't feel the apprehension and anger I felt for years. All I felt was tenderness. I walked home because I had to pack boxes and get ready to move.
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries