Thursday, July 22, 2004

Geek

Have you ever had an experience in your life that was so profound, it actually changed the person you were and made you into someone new? I did.

My school years from about 5th grade until 8th grade were a nightmare. My father had retired from the military and had, effectually, stranded us in Massachusetts. This was NOT my first choice of place to live for the rest of my stinkin' school life. I was ripped from the relative security of private schools and placed in the public school system in our new town, a mere number in a squalid sea of humanity. My mother claims they were forced to because there were no private schools within driving distance of our new home. I would later discover there were no schools my mother was WILLING to drive to because of her unnatural fear of driving on highways. (She overcame this fear to drive my little brother to a nice private school in later years. [Stream of expletives deleted.])

The children in my new town had lived there for their entire lives. Their ancestors had lived there for their entire lives. I was used to living in transient communities full of Military families and other transplants, like ourselves. The other kids were in the same boat as you, so it rather forced you to be outgoing and make friends quickly. Not in my new home. These kids were stand-offish, judgmental, cliquish and cruel. The bonds I formed with the other neighborhood kids were tenuous, at best. Your best friend one day would be your worst enemy the next...and so it went.

I went from being an outgoing, friendly, and gregarious child to a sullen, sad, and disheartened one. I would try every trick in the book to avoid going to school. I claimed stomach aches, fevers (with the help of my bedside lamp and your standard issue mercury thermometer), chills, dizziness...and so on. I would pray for snow days in the winter time and celebrate "teacher conference" days in the nicer weather. Anything to avoid walking those cold institutional gray halls where the other children would taunt and dump your armload of books. Here was where I earned my first nickname from my school chums, "Rejecta" instead of Rebecca. Charming, no? People get alarmed when they hear of 12 year olds committing suicide. I just shake my head and wonder why it didn't occur to ME at that age. I certainly spent the greater part of my day wanting to curl up and die.

As bleak as things were (and they got steadily bleaker as I hit Junior High School), I managed to shuffle through my days and earn decent grades. The thought of going to the public high school with all of those evil children horrified me. I never would have survived. Lucky for me my parents finally realized the public school system wasn't doing me any favors and they suggested I look into private Catholic high schools in the area. I studied my ASS off for the entrance examinations and my parents got me a private tutor to help me. The preparations worked and I was accepted to Arlington Catholic High School - my first choice. I couldn't wait for the summer to be done with so I could make a fresh start at my new school. The icing on the cake was the knowledge that NONE of my classmates would be going to my new school. It would be like a fresh start. No one would know me there. I could be whomever I wanted to be.

Then it hit me. Who would I be? Even with a shiny new school uniform, people would have me pegged as a geek and not worth associating with in seconds flat. I radiated rejection and self-loathing from every pore. The end of 8th grade was looming and I only had a few short summer months to find "the new me". The old me was fat (or so I thought), greasy haired, thick glasses too large for my face, and wearing clothing my mother selected for me; an almost hopeless case. I shuffled along after my mother one fine Saturday as she did her weekly supermarket shopping at the base commissary (for those not familiar with military life, this is like a huge warehouse-style market full of regular and large purchase items at significantly lower prices due to the military's ability to buy in bulk). When we got to the checkout, my mother struck up her normal easy banter with the cashier as I unloaded the two wagons full of food onto the conveyer belt.

The cashier eyed me appraisingly and mentioned to my mother that they were looking for kids my age to fetch carts from the lot or bag groceries. I listened with interest but pretended to be too engrossed in my cart full of food to hear what they were saying. I took sidelong glances at the pairs of (and sometimes single) baggers at the end of each checkout line. It looked like boring and tedious work, but the baggers themselves chatted avidly with each other and seemed so, well, COOL to me. They were a scruffy and tuff looking lot, which I found scary and appealing at the same time. I felt my mother plucking at my sleeve and focused my wandering attention on her. "Why don't you go over to that fellow over there and ask about a job here? It's about time you starting saving for college and I am sure you'll want some spending money for the summer..." I nodded blankly and slowly began making my way over to this strange looking hippy type with a full beard, long hair, and a badge proclaiming him "Head Bagger".

I rehearsed random things to say to Ted and somehow managed to get the lump out of my throat and the nervous bat-sized butterflies in my belly to stay still long enough to blurt "Hi. How do I get to be a bagger?" He had me fill out a short application form, barely glanced at it, then said, "Can you start today?" I was stunned. I didn't know! Could I start today?!?! I ran over to my mother who was finally in the process of paying for her groceries and asked. "Sure, honey. How exciting! Your first job. I'll send your father to pick you up later. Just call us when you are done." I wandered in a daze back to Ted. He began talking about how things worked, schedules, getting me a name tag...it was all a blur.

I wasn't really listening. He was leading me straight over to this girl working solo at the end of the 20 items or less lane. She was impossibly tall, slim, and wearing Jordache jeans (my dream) and clogs. She was the epitome of late 70s cool. She had on a tube top with a jean jacket covered in buttons and enamel pins proclaiming her love of various bands...most prevalent was Van Halen. I caught Ted saying something about me being her new partner and she was to take a break and train me immediately. Say what now? This amazing creature was going to be MY partner? I studied her impossibly large hair, blue eye shadow that matched her eyes and heavy coal eyeliner...I was stupefied. She looked me over with a faint air of disgust and told me to follow her. She snatched up her tip box overflowing with bills and coins and Ted took her place on the line.

I admired her from behind as I followed her to the back of the store. She walked with an easy sway that was almost hypnotizing. I figured she must be at least 5 years older than me. She swung down the candy isle, snatched a bag of M&Ms, and continued to make her way to the large swinging doors that marked the boundary between average citizen and "employee". I crossed the threshold and paused in amazement. The space was cavernous and filled with row upon row of metal shelving stacked probably 30 feet high with boxes and crates. The area was a hive of activity with men driving forklifts and stock boys wheeling items back out to restock the shelves. I followed my new partner along the fringes and through a door marked "Break Room". She closed the door behind us and immediately straddled a red plastic chair in the back corner of the room. I followed timidly and sat down across the table from her. She slipped a pack of Marlboros out of her jacket pocket and tapped the top of the pack thoughtfully against her thigh as she looked me over from head to toe. She slipped a cigarette between her lips, lit it, took a long drag, and offered the pack to me. I looked at the pack blankly for a moment and shook my head no. No one had ever offered me a smoke before. I began to grin at the absurdity of it. She must have taken my grin as some sort of sign and said in an amused voice, "My name is Chris. What's yours?"

From that day on Chris became my mentor. Not only did we become the most sought after bagging team (for our speed and customer satisfaction), but she decided to take me under her wing as a sort of personal project. It turned out she was only one year older than me. She gently teased me for my clothing choices (cords and childish turtleneck tops with little frogs, ballerina slippers or something equally cheesy on them and penny loafers). We would walk over to the BX (sort of the Kmart of military life) on our breaks and she would help me select new clothes. I had never purchased my own clothes before in my life. Baggers worked for tips only, and boy howdy did we ever make some GOOD tips. The best money was in helping folks to their car with their purchases. I would often get $10 a pop for loading bags into nice folks' cars. It added up. I would give a modest portion of my day's earnings to my Mother to deposit in my savings, but she never knew how much I was pocketing and spending. Chris and I went all over the base together. She got me in to see my first "R" rated movie by convincing a guy in line to buy tickets for us (it was Heavy Metal...if you're curious). She changed my appearance, influenced my taste in music, taught me to smoke, and as high school progressed, taught me an appreciation for classic muscle cars, men, and recreational drug use.

OK, back up a moment. She TRIED to teach me about recreational drug use. Even with my new look and new-found confidence, I was still too much of a goody-goody to use drugs. I did learn how to roll a joint. I never smoked them, but I could roll them. While I looked like a dirt bag and hung out with dirt bags, I never fully adopted the rebellious dirt bag lifestyle. Deep down I was still a good kid and pretty much incorruptible. It was enough for me to just hang out with the cool kids. I think I was sort of a pet or mascot to them. The token straight kid. It worked for me.
And so I began my new life in a new school...but an interesting thing happened. I had a best friend, a boy friend (thanks to Chris and my new look), and a place to go after school (my job). I no longer found it necessary to try and make friends or fit in at my new school. I wore my uniform, played the roll of a good Catholic school girl, got great grades, but I had no interest in making friends with my classmates. Any spare time I had away from work, Chris, and my new boyfriend Ray; I spent with my nose in a book. Most of my classmates assumed I was shy. It was like I had a secret identity. Mild mannered loner by day...I would shed my uniform in a stall in the girls bathroom at the end of the day, slip out the back door of the school, light up a cigarette in the alley and make my way to public transportation to catch a bus to work. This continued until late in my Sophomore year when I decided that working as a grocery bagger wasn't enough of a challenge for me anymore.

Chris had dropped out of high school and was sinking deeper into drugs, sex and drinking. I had made a new friend and her straight-laced conservatism made me want to tone down my dirt-bag leanings. I got a new job as a sales girl at the mall in an upscale department store. The employee discount and company provided store charge card enabled me to refine my new look. I now had denim mini-skirts, leg warmers, designer jeans, suede elf boots and other cool items to show off at school dances (don't you just love the 80s). My classmates had already formed their little groups, so I hung out with my new best friend and her classmates (two years my junior). Other than brief stints in intramural tennis and as a photographer for the year book committee (had to have SOMETHING to put on my college applications) - I didn't spend much time at school. I did manage to have dates for both my proms (at my mother's insistence), but I was just biding my time until college started.

College was to be another opportunity to make myself over into yet another NEW persona. Who did I become in college? That is a story for another time, faithful readers.

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