New Kid In School
Blog #40 – New Kid in School Post Oct. 6th
When I was 9, we moved to a small town about 20 minutes north of Milwaukee with a population less than 5,000. It was my mom’s hometown, so when she was a child in the 1930s, the population was probably less than 1,000. But from my perspective coming from the city, this town seemed slow and sleepy, and might as well have been less than 1,000.
Since we moved to a new town I became Julie again. Like everything else I was attached to, my relatively new name had been taken too. My mom had already registered me at the school as Julie, so I wasn’t going to try to claim my name of Jewel again. I already stood out too much as the new kid in school and didn’t want to bring any more attention to myself.
My first day at school was in the middle of my 4th grade school year, and I witnessed all sorts of differences from my previous school. First of all, there were no kids of color. It was a homogenous group of people. In fact, I don’t remember seeing any diversity in ethnicity – even in the adults. My teacher was older. She reminded me a little bit of my grandmother, except she wasn’t as nice. My teachers in the city school were much younger and friendlier than the one I was assigned to. I remember her picking on one child in particular. He seemed so sweet, but was easily distracted. It frustrated the teacher that she couldn’t get him to be still and attentive. I never noticed that he was distracting, but he was in the front row, in front of her desk, so she kept a lot of focus on him. One day she got so frustrated and took his ear and pulled him to the front of the room, yelling at him the whole time. I was appalled. I could see she was causing him a lot of pain. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of a teacher inflicting pain on a student, especially one who seemed so innocent. It took all my strength to not stand up and tell her to take her hands off of him. It was almost as if a hand was on my shoulder, with someone saying, “No, this is not your job.” I noticed that she picked on a few of the boys, but never got frustrated with the girls. It reminded me of our babysitter and the favoritism she showed me versus my brother. The idea of girls being better than boys or boys being better than girls had never occurred to me. It didn’t take long before I lost all respect for her.
The school was also behind on the educational level I was used to, and I finished my work twice as fast as the rest of the class. I found myself incredibly bored. Even on the playground I could outrun everyone – even the boys. That was a clear sign to me that these people were living underwater. I could never outrun a boy in Milwaukee. It was short-lived, though. With that being my environment, in time I slowed down too, and by the 6th grade was an incredibly average girl runner.
Due to my observations, I felt empowered. Or maybe I should say, I felt like I should be in charge. Clearly I was more educated, could run faster, and didn’t have the experience of a teacher behaving like a dysfunctional adult, so I was more aware of the wrongness of it. I grew fond of a few of the kids. I was kind of like a novelty to them. Being the new kid in town, they all analyzed and watched me closely. They knew I could read and write a lot faster than them, and I seemed to have a great advantage in their eyes. They looked up to me and put me in the category of popular kid. I was delighted to have that kind of attention. But before my ego got out of hand, I got a little perspective check.
There were three 4th grade teachers and classrooms, and we were all put together for gym class. When we picked teams, I would almost always get picked first or second. I was a little surprised, but thrilled, until I realized it wasn’t because they thought I was cool. The other 4th graders that weren’t in the classroom with me didn’t even know who I was. They would say, “I want Heather!” and point to me. I was confused. Who’s Heather? Kids from my class would try to correct them, and they would say, “Well, whatever your name is, I pick you.” The confusion wasn’t cleared up until a couple of months later. One of the kids argued, right there in the middle of the gym floor, that my name was Heather. Everything came to a halt. The Phy Ed teacher was unsure what to do. When I realized he was yelling at me, I told him, “My name is not Heather, my name is Julie.” Finally, one of the kids who knew Heather said, “Heather is going to the other elementary school now. She’s a new kid, her name is Julie.” The boy, who was demanding that my name was Heather, was dumbfounded. He couldn’t believe it. Finally he said, “You look just like her!” After that, there were only a few more times that I was called Heather. I finally met her a couple of years later - in the 7th grade in my catechism class. I didn’t think I looked much like her, except that we had the same body type and dark eyebrows against light brown hair. When I told her my experience about being mistaken for her, she seemed disgusted. She didn’t know me, but at that moment, she decided she didn’t like me. She acted repulsed by the idea, even though I agreed that we didn’t look at all like each other. And with her reaction, I was ashamed to be affiliated with her. It was odd, because even in the 7th grade, there was one mix-up at my church with one of the boys, who thought I was Heather. I don’t know if he was embarrassed by his mistake, but from that moment through high school, he made a point of picking on me and telling me how ugly I was. Yet, when he thought I was Heather, he was really nice to me. So strange to witness people’s reactions from how they adored me when they thought I was her, and then judged and hated me when I wasn’t, even though they didn’t know anything about me. It was one of the things that told me it was safer to stay in the shadows, and not be one of the “popular” kids.