In fifth grade I was not a pretty girl. I was at the pinnacle of awkwardness. I was wearing satin coats and overalls with only one shoulder hooked. The other just dangled sadly behind me as I bounced through school and tried not to be noticed by my enemies.
My enemies were two boys who liked to steal my erasers and pull my pigtails. One of them even took to calling me "Miss 108" because he'd been standing near the girl's side of the gym at the beginning of the year when we had to weigh in. He'd heard the gym teacher tell my weight to the girl who was recording them in a gradebook. I was one of the only girls over 100 pounds that year. That boy never let me forget it.
In the middle of the year there was a day where I was standing at a big round table in the middle of the room. There were crafty things on it. Scissors and glue and construction paper. I was digging through them with elaborate slowness because I was actually standing there to hear the popular girls who sat next to the round table talk about Ryan McLean. Ryan McLean was the love of my life when I was in fifth grade (and sixth, and seventh, and eighth) and I was starved for any sort of information about him.
This popular girl who was dating him had curly chestnut hair. She had expensive clothes. Her scrunchies were always the prettiest ones in the whole room. She and her friends were sitting head-to-head and whispering about a date she'd gone on with Ryan. What kind of date I'm not exactly sure because were in fifth grade and what kind of parent lets a fifth grader go out on a date? Anyway, she was talking about how she and Ryan had been French kissing and how wonderful it all was, what a good kisser he was, how much better he was than her last boyfriend.
I wanted to stab myself in the heart with a pair of scissors.
Then someone tapped me on the shoulder. I whirled around, afraid I'd been caught eavesdropping. I had. It was one of my boy enemies. He was smirking.
"Hi, Jess," he said.
"Hey," I said. I knew better than to extend a conversation with him. He was in the highest, most golden ranks of the social hierarchy in our middle school and to try to hold a conversation with him was a serious faux pas. I gathered some construction paper into a pile and turned to go back to my desk.
"Hey, Jess?" he said. "I want to know something about you."
I kept walking, thinking he wouldn't try to follow me around the room. This boy didn't follow anyone, especially me and my dangling overalls.
"Jess," he said, "Jess, I want to know if you're a virgin."
A virgin? I didn't know what that word meant. It sure didn't sound good. The way he said it made that word hang in the air all toothy and evil-sounding. Whatever it was, I knew it couldn't be good.
I set down my construction paper and turned back around to face him. I was going to put him in his place. I was finally going to show him that I was a strong girl and he couldn't hurt me anymore.
"NO!" I said. "No way!"
Then there was a look on that boy's face. A strange, concerned, shocked look. "No?" he asked.
"No," I said again, although now the tension had started to shift again. Whatever I'd said was the wrong thing.
Then his face lit up. He flashed a smile at me--all gleaming, perfect teeth--and then cleared his throat. "JESS ISN'T A VIRGIIIIIIN!" he said. He raised his voice so the whole room could hear. The popular girls stopped talking about Ryan McLean and his amazing tongue and soft lips. Their seats creaked as they turned to look at me.
"Stop it," I hissed at the boy.
But he didn't. He kept chanting the words, even after I brushed past him and out into the hall, even after I walked to the drinking fountain and bent over it, pretending I couldn't hear him. For the rest of the day, for the rest of the week I was Jess, Not a Virgin.
Eventually he got bored with that tactic and moved on to another, then another, then another (eventually graduating to sticking pencils in the space between my teeth and calling me Beef), but soon he would move away to become a football star and I would stay on at our school to write angry stories where Ryan McLean fell in love with me and we ignored this boy until he lost all popularity and had to date the weird girls who sat around doing shots of pickle juice at lunch.
I was forced to remember all of this yesterday because my classes are doing topic-generation for their first essay, and to help the process we did some freewriting and made a quick timeline of our lives. I made them write down things they remembered from elementary, middle, and high school. I said, "Mark down things like favorite teachers, least favorite teachers, what you wanted to be when you grew up, who you were best friends with, times you got in trouble, after-school activities you were involved with, and crushes you had." Then I looked down at the example timeline I'd scribbled down in ten minutes before class. I'd marked in all my enemies. Who I'd hated and when. "And enemies," I said. "And rumors that got started. Don't forget those things--they could make for interesting personal narratives."
One of my girls sighed, tossed her hair, shook her hand out like it was about to get the workout of its life. "Oh," she said, sound weary and resigned, "This is going to take a long, long time."