THE WORST THING I EVER DID AS A KID: On Reaching for the One-Ring
Canva: Photo by Juan Pablo Arenas
Fourth Grade Fall 1981
There is an open spot in Queenie’s court. Princess is on the outs. (Again.) I know this because she called me and asked to play over the weekend — Suzy, that is. Of course not the Queen. The only time Princess ever calls me anymore is when she’s been flung out in the cold. And here in Minnesota, it gets way below zero! But I can always be counted on to be nice to her.
I was. Like always, when it’s just the two of us, she was nice back.
Now it’s Monday and she slinks into our classroom just before the bell rings. She sort of looks at me. Sort of smiles. I sort of smile back. I know better than to wave. If she were to let them know I’m her friend, it would ruin any chance she has at being welcomed back to court. It’s bound to happen. She used to be Queen Bee until the towering, perfect blonde showed up last year. Now Suzy’s been demoted. They have to remind her sometimes.
I wonder if she’ll sit with me and Mari at lunch today. Doubt it. She only does that when it’s been too many days of taking her punishment and sitting alone at an empty table until she’s allowed back.
As I’m putting my English books away, Jeans tosses a folded little triangle of paper into my desk as she passes. My heart thuds — that sickening thud that goes all the way down to my guts. I’m suddenly not hungry anymore. I stare at that triangle, sitting in the shadows under the upraised top of my desk, wedged between my marker box and my sticker-covered notebook.
I don’t want to open that note.
No doubt I’m in trouble for even associating with this week’s outcast. How they found out I went to Suzy’s house, I’ll never know. It doesn’t matter. My hands are shaky as I unfold the note. I take a deep breath before reading what that too-familiar bubble-scrawl says.
My eyes widen.
My brows furrow.
I blink a few times, then glance up.
They’re all standing by the door, watching me, waiting for the reaction to hit.
I read the note again. Then I fold it back up, place it in the corner of my desk and pull the top down. They can’t be serious. They’re setting me up. They’re going to take it back the moment I bounce over there, head nodding, eyes bright and hopeful, tongue panting like the Pokey Little Mutt I am. They’ll laugh and jeer and tell me how stupid I was for ever thinking they would invite somebody like me to sit with them at lunchtime.
Approaching the door, I keep my face very still and get ready to walk past them like I never believed it. But Jeans flops her arm around my shoulder to pull me into the circle. I can barely breathe. Somebody’s going to poke me. Shove me. Is she holding me still so I’m easier to punch? Mrs. Centers is standing guard, waiting for the last of us to make our way into the hallway, but I learned a long time ago — that’s not always a guarantee.
“C’mon,” Jeans chirps, giving her spunky curls a toss before herding me out the door. “I’m starved. Aren’t you?”
My eyes flick up at Queenie. She’s smiling her aloof-but-accepting smile. No way! I have just been bwonged on the head by the scepter of her sky-blue gaze.
I let myself be pulled along. They all chatter. I can’t really hear them over the pounding of the blood in my skull. My feet barely feel the linoleum tiles as I skim along. This can’t be happening. I can’t be the one they’ve chosen to fill the hole in their ranks. It’s never me. It can’t be me!
But it is.
We all get our food together. At the end of the counter, the others wait for me — last in our line — and we walk toward the courtly spot together. We sit down together. Put our trays down together. Nobody else sits anywhere near this end. Only a clump of the popular boys would dare come this close, but there’s a gap between them and the coveted spot at The Table.
Right there, between Jeans and Rainbow, I sit across from the Queen with my eyes huge and my mouth shut. They dole out the compliments. They really like my red velour top. Rainbow even pets my sleeve just to feel it and they all ooh-and-ahh. (Except Queenie. She’s too cool for that, but her approving smile says it all. My top is cool enough for The Table.)
I turn my head to share a full smile with Jeans, but really, I glance over at the empty table to my left. Empty except for one person.
Princess. Her eyes are buried in her tray as she slowly, sadly shoves runny mashed potatoes into her mouth.
My heart sinks. I know how that feels. Until Mari came in second grade, that was always me. But I’m not going to risk my own spot to say anything about Suzy. I don’t know what she did to get kicked out. I don’t want to know. That’s Popular Girl stuff, and besides, I know how mean she can be. She probably deserved it, if not for what she did to the Queen, then for sure she’s earned it with everything she does to everybody every day that she’s allowed to wear her tiara.
I hope she’ll understand now — that she’ll see what it feels like and remember the next time they invite her back.
I also would never wager my least favorite Smurf pencil that she'll ever understand, so there’s no way I’ll risk my spot at this table just to ask about inviting her back.
No, I know exactly who I’m going to use my new position for. Marian. I just have to find the right moment. And anyway, if I spoke up for Princess, she’d probably do anything she could to get me demoted again. I’ve seen her do it to other girls who get their shot at the top.
Today must really be my day, because even Queenie says how great it was to watch me kick Dan’s butt in multiplication wars this morning. (I’m the only one who can stop him in his tracks as he destroys everybody, up and down the rows of desks.)
“I knew he’d never get past you!” Jeans says.
“Yeah,” Rainbow chimes in. “That was so cool!”
My cheeks grow warm, along with the center of my chest. I gaze at every one of them, so pretty in their brand name clothes with their perfect hair and perfect smiles. So cool. They all get to wear a little makeup already. I’m not allowed until junior high, but that doesn’t matter today —
My brain screeches to a halt when I feel it. The prickle at the back of my neck.
I turn around. Behind me, two tables away, my best friend Mari is sitting near-but-not-quite-with the other girls of lowish status. My normal spot across from her is empty. Saved. Just for me.
Her head tilts and she shoots me the confused question. I answer with the Garfield Cool Eyes and turn back around. The moment there’s a lull in the conversation, I finally pipe up, “Hey…so…can I ask Mari to come sit with us?”
Bulgy eyes in green faces.
Mouths curled like on like lutefisk day.
My heart almost stops beating. Oh, no. Ohhhh, no-no-no. I have made a huge mistake. I try to smile. Try to be cool. Super cool.
Finally, Jeans gulps down the nauseous lump that’s obviously gagging her throat. “Why would you want to invite her over here?”
I blink hard. “Well…” My voice is a mouse-squeak. “I mean…she’s — she’s super cool. Super fun and — “
“Listen.” The scepter of doom comes down from on high: Queenie’s icy blue glare. “If you want to sit with us, then sit with us. If you want to sit with her…go ahead.”
They all stare me down.
“Sit with her.”
Everything she doesn’t say in those three words blares louder than the fire alarm on drill day. I know exactly what will happen if I stand up and take my tray back to my normal spot. It’ll be a thousand times worse for three weeks straight. Plus, I’ll lose my shot, maybe forever.
As I sit there in silence, stuffing my big mouth with corn kernels, they let the silence go on to hammer the point home. Eventually, they start talking again, but this time not to me.
I’ve been warned.
Through the rest of lunch, I promise myself that this is the best chance I’ll have to pull Mari up here with me. If I can get in deep enough, then I’ll have the position to say something. But not yet. I promise myself that I’ll write Mari a note after recess and explain my whole plan. If she can just be patient, I’ll get her invited to The Table, too.
I tell myself that over and over as I force every bite down my throat.
I tell myself that when we all stand up together. And when Jeans flops her arm around my shoulder again. And when we all walk out of the lunchroom in a clump. I tell myself that really loud when I walk past Mari and her huge, sad puppy eyes without so much as a glance.
I didn’t write her that note after recess. I didn’t write it during any of the afternoon classes and I didn’t say a word to her as we all grabbed our jackets to leave. Her last name is close enough to mine that her coathook and cubby are only a few people away, but I ignored her.
Because They were watching me.
Now as I lie in my bed in the dark, gnawing my lips to shreds and picking at the hangnail on my thumb, my heart is still racing. That lump still clogs my throat and I’m still sick to my stomach. I could barely eat anything at supper, even though Mom made her famous spaghetti with mushrooms and everything. I couldn’t choke down more than a few bites.
I even went to bed without reading. I can’t concentrate. My homework isn’t done for the first time ever. I don’t care.
Curling up on my side, I pull the covers up to my face and bawl into my pillow.
I don’t want to go to school again tomorrow. I mean, I never want to go back there but now…now I just can’t! I can’t go through a whole new day like that. That half-day was bad enough. I can’t keep doing it and doing it and doing it.
They always have a price for admission. I’ve watched them for too many years, I know how it is. You have to make whatever sacrifices they demand or you’re in for it. I had thought mine would to stop being nice to Princess when they’re punishing her. I do have to do that, but that’s not all they want.
I thought they would want me to stop beating them at swim meets and track meets and multiplication wars in math class. I thought the worse thing they could demand was that I let them cheat off my tests or to do their homework for them.
Not even close.
Nope, my sacrifice, if I want to be one of them, is Marian. The only girl who has ever been so nice to me and super-duper wanted to be my friend since Christina moved away after kindergarten.
“Oh, my Gaaaaawd,” Jeans said at recess, as we all stood off to the side of where Mari sat alone on the swings with her back to us. They led us straight there the moment she came outside. “What a fat cow. Look at the way her butt bulges over the swing. Blurrrrrrrb!”
All the broken pottery-shard laughs.
My mouth dropped open. I know I was supposed to laugh, too. Whenever other people laugh, my mouth shoots up at the corners and I make the noises but this time I couldn't even breathe.
“I know!” Rainbow this time. “Have you seen how hard the whole swing set pumps every time she gets going? Ba-BOOM! Ba-BOOM!”
The crow cackles.
“She has got to do something about that hair.” Queenie.
Then the squawking and sniping about Marian’s waist-length, black hair. It’s so thick and shiny. She wears it in one long braid every day. I think it’s the prettiest thing about her — that and her eyes. They’re huge with long lashes, such a dark brown they’re almost black. She told me she has Indian blood and they’re always teasing her about that. “Ojib-wuuuh…” They consider that almost as bad as being a “smelly, red-haired Pollack.” (Walter, still the lowest boy on the pecking order.)
Almost as bad as being Harty-Farty.
But not quite.
Now I have the chance to change everything. It can all end. The shoving and pushing and tripping and having everything knocked out of my hands. The threats and names and using every single thing they can find out about you as a baseball bat to hit you in the gut with. Every day. Week after week. Every year without end.
Unless you do it to someone else.
That was the price they demanded. Not that I just sit at lunch with them instead of her. Not that I forget about inviting her to sit with us. Not that I ignore her.
I had to agree with every mean thing they said. Then I had to speak mean things myself. But before that, they demanded the dirt on her. I didn't understand when they first started asking because...
So I answered.
They were smiling and their questions were so casual, just interested. I thought maybe this was my chance to convince them how cool she was. But then they started asking other stuff.
I hate lying. It makes me sick to my stomach. Plus, I'm really bad at it. Nobody ever believes me when I try to do it and then I get in even worse trouble so when they asked me about her family and the trailer they live in and her brother and that thing about her dad...
I didn’t want to tell them anything. By that time, I knew what they would do with it.
But I just can't make up lies the way they do and so I told them.
And they did.
The comments and the note-bombs tossed onto her desk and the whispering and sidelong looks until she was in tears by science class and at the end of the day, this time she was the one who wouldn’t look at me except just once.
Pure, betrayed hatred.
And I deserved it.
I had just earned every single shove and name and poke and threat anybody had ever given me since the day I was born, and I had no idea how I could keep doing this every day after this one.
I only knew what would happen if I didn’t. It’d been happening since before kindergarten, and only got worse with every inch they grew.
Third Grade Winter
I hate having to come to these stupid counselor meetings. Everybody thinks I must be afraid of Mr. Hillcrest and just won’t say so — that he’s the reason I get sick to my stomach every Wednesday just after lunchtime. Sometimes I get so sick I get sent to the nurse’s room. I get dizzy and can’t catch my breath, like at any second, I’m going to barf on the shoes of whoever is standing in front of me.
It’s not because of Mr. Hillcrest.
It’s not because he teaches swimming.
I mean it is, but not because I don’t want to go in the pool. I got over almost drowning when Mrs. Fields threw me into the deep end in first grade, knowing full well that I could swim. She was right, and I have loved being in the pool ever since.
What I hate is being in the locker room. It was all right when Mrs. Fields taught us gym, but this year, she only teaches us when we’re actually in the gym. Whenever we have swimming, it’s Mr. Hillcrest and he’s a man.
That means there’s no teacher in the locker room.
Just me and all the other girls. It doesn’t matter if I get undressed and put on my swimsuit inside the toilet stalls, or if I stay out in the locker room with everybody else. They’ll wait for me if they have to. They’ll even wait until Mr. Hillcrest sends a female teacher in to find out what’s holding us up, and then they’ll blame it on me. They’ll say they were “just being nice” because they were “sooooo worried” about me. And then I definitely have to go to the nurse’s room after that, because I don’t dare stick around when I’ve almost gotten them in trouble. Again.
Today, I sit across from the counselor, but all I can do is shrug. The adults all think I’m being a big baby about it. “Over-sensitive. Melodramatic. Theatrical.” So I’ve stopped trying to explain why I sit in that bathroom stall in my swimsuit with my clothes wadded up in my hands until I’m almost crying or puking or both. It’s because I know that I’ll have to go through those showers eventually, and when I do…
Concrete floors are very slippery when they’re wet.
The center poles of the showers are made of very hard metal.
The shower nobs are also very hard. They stick out right at the level of my eyeball.
The undersides of the locker doors have very sharp edges, right at the level of my temple.
The benches next to the lockers are bolted into the floor. They don’t move when somebody shoves you over them backwards, and that’s also concrete under them, just painted bright orange.
I’m way shorter than our new Queenie. I’m taller than Princess, but she is super mean. I think being one of the littlest has given her that extra dose of snarl. Her big brothers are some of the meanest guys in the neighborhood, and they passed it on to her. Jeans is just as mean and she’s bigger. And then there’s Farmgirl.
She could fling me around without even using all her fingers to grip.
And she does.
I know what it would take to get them to stop hurting me. My parents and the teachers can say all they like that “nobody has the right to put their hands on you or hurt you,” but they also say you never, ever, ever hit back.
I don’t want to hit back!
I don’t want to hurt them they way they hurt me. I don’t want anybody to have to go to the hospital or even the nurse’s office because I fought back. If I punched Jeans in the nose or pushed her back…if she fell or banged her head or…
The showers and concrete and the rough edges of the locker doors can really hurt skulls. Or faces. Or butts. I heard about somebody who broke his butt-bone when he biffed it while trying to jump his bike off a ramp. All the boys say that’s just bull, but they also said it was bull that your feet could get caught in the spokes while riding buck on somebody’s bike.
Tell that to my feet. The one time I disobeyed my parents because all the kids wouldn’t quit teasing and shoving me around and calling me crybaby and scaredy cat — that one time when I climbed on behind Henry Anderson, my feet did too get chewed up by the spokes. At least I was wearing shoes. Ruthanne wasn’t and she had to go to the hospital and everything.
People have to go to the hospital for all sorts of stuff. Stuff that happens all the time around school and in the neighborhood. Like there was a story on the news last year about a guy who got punched in the face. Just one little punch. When he fell down, he hit his head hard on the concrete sidewalk. He had to go to the hospital, too.
A day later, he died.
So I don’t believe the boys when they say breaking your butt is bull, and I really, really don’t believe Mr. Hillcrest, the nurse, my parents, or my counselor when they tell me there’s nothing to be afraid of on swimming day.
The morning after I betrayed the best friend I’d ever had, I woke up early, still disturbed. I did write Marian a note. The second my eyes locked with hers, she glared, snarled, and turned her back on me, then stomped off.
I felt not one shred of shame in chasing after her and begging her to take the note. She grabbed it and gracefully walked away with less hissing than I deserved. I took the eye-scold without a word, gladly.
I sat down.
To my relief — and more elation than I had felt upon being elevated from Kick-Me Dog to Queenie’s Court — I watched my words transform my best friend’s face.
I’m so sorry I was mean to you yesterday. You’re my best friend ever! I don’t want to be friends with them if I have to be mean to you. I want to be friends with you! Can I please sit with you at lunch and can we still play at your house this weekend? If you still want to be my friend, it will make the happiest in the whole wide world!
She forgave me. She was awesome like that, and I thought that made her a thousand times cooler than the whole Court. She hugged me, and we stayed glued to each other’s sides from that moment on. We were the Islander Misfits — The Bird Who Swims and Charlie in the Box. We were Bill & Ted. We became Maverick and Goose, a devastating setter-spiker team, when we weren’t singing our geeky hearts out, winning contests as the Dynamic Dancing Duo, and standing together against the world.
That single day I got my hands on the One Ring ranks among the worst things I have ever done in my life, but what I learned from it is one of the things I like best about myself.
I have never regretted that decision to hand back the tiara, even though I absolutely did pay for it. Neither do I regret a single time I won the multiplication wars or beat anybody out for a position, role, medal, or title I wanted. If I’d sacrificed myself for their acceptance, I would have lost it anyway, because I have even less ability to sacrifice the people I love just for their approval.
So they voted me Most Likely To Succeed, and they hated me for it.
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--UP NEXT: IN THE TRENCHES- A Tale About Being "All In This Together"
--We'll be dancing with my oldest ghosts now, with the things that make TBI more cumbersome than it already is, and yet simultaneously set me up with many of the tools to weather it the way I do. They are also the origin stories of how I became a Dancer and a Martial Artist, and why I write the fiction I write. For more on those topics, see: