We moved around when I was growing up. Not every year or so, like military families, but a few times. Enough for me to gain some experience being “the new kid.” My parents were sensitive to the effects that changing schools had on their kids and tried to move during the summer months, so starting at the new school would be easier. I didn’t appreciate this enough until the one time I had to start a new school mid-year. On my first day, the little, ancient, wig-headed 6th grade teacher was walking students through diagramming sentences. What? I was always a very good student and I was well versed in the parts of speech, but what, pray tell, was the point of this exercise? I couldn’t figure how to do it. It was one of the few times in my life I didn’t enjoy learning. And I never did learn how to diagram a sentence, even after becoming an English teacher myself.
Starting a new school in the fall was much better. Even if all the other kids knew each other, at least the lessons were starting from scratch, and you could always count on a review of the previous year’s learning. Of course, it was still nerve-wracking, being the new kid. Especially as I got older.
The last time my family moved it was the summer between 8th and 9th grade. I was moving from the tiny wheat farming town of Prescott, Washington, population 253, to the “big city” of Spokane. Back in Prescott, my class was one of the largest in the all-inclusive K-12 building, with a total of 18 students. With little competition, as an 8th grader I managed to be ASB president, a cheer leader, play every sport, all while maintaining a 4.0 grade average, which also landed me valedictorian of our junior high graduation.
Of course, I was merely a big fish in a little pond, about to become a minnow in a great lake. My 14-year-old self didn’t think in these terms, however. I was excited! I just knew that city life was going to suit me well! In fact, right around that time, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” had come out, with its opening line, “Just a small town girl, living in a lonely world, she took the midnight train going anywhere….” I was sure that was written just for me.
Boy-crazy to boot, this move opened up a wealth of possibilities….
Nowadays, going into 9th grade would mean entering high school. If you have to move to a new town, starting high school is a great time to change schools because so many kids are coming from different middle schools. No one notices if you are “the new kid.” However, back in the early 80s, the Central Valley School District was still on the junior high system, with 7th, 8th and 9th graders grouped together. I was to enter North Pines Junior High as a 9th grader.
As it got closer to September and the start of school, the reality of being the new kid in such a big school started to weigh heavily on me. It didn’t help that after I signed up for the fall soft-ball team, my dad shared something terrifying. He’d heard from a guy at work that the North Pines girls’ soft ball team was “rough.” They had a reputation for being tough girls with a penchant for fighting. I imagined a mob of Amazon teenage women, smacking their bats rhythmically into their hands as they ganged up on the petite new girl for some cruel and twisted initiation rite.
We didn’t talk about anxiety back then. In my family, we didn’t talk about feelings at all. In retrospect, I can see clearly how anxious I was. I’d have panic attacks. I’d stuff myself with comfort food until I was so sick I’d throw up. But I didn’t connect this with the anxiety of starting a new school. And I didn’t tell anyone how I was feeling. I did what a lot of us did back then. I sucked it up and went to my new school.
I was relieved that on the first day of soft ball practice I wasn’t attacked by a mob of Amazons, even though many of team members were strikingly tall and masculine. Instead, I was befriended by another petite girl who had the same name as me, Amy Hartwell. She even invited me to join her and her friends at lunch. Very few acts of kindness in my life match the enormity of this gesture: inviting the new kid to sit at your lunch table. I sat with them every day. They weren’t the popular kids, but they were good kids. Kind kids. In a world that seemed terrifyingly hostile to me, these kind kids were a life saver. Literally. As I got older and was plagued with depression, I had to wonder what it would have been like for me if the kind kids hadn’t befriended me. I don’t want to imagine.
September passed into October and Halloween arrived. The kind kids invited me to go trick- or-treating. Never mind we were way too old for trick or treating. We were still children enough to appreciate the lure of free candy! A tall red-headed, freckle faced boy named Val joined us. I knew him from English class, where sitting behind me, he teased me mercilessly, so I knew he liked me.
We romped around the neighborhood the whole night, laughing hysterically as at house after house we were chastised for being too old for trick or treating.
“Never!” We’d cry out in glee, as the givers of candy begrudgingly filled our pillow cases.
Actually, we were wrong. In fact, that was the last time I ever went trick-or-treating. And after soft ball season, I made new, more popular friends. I didn’t hang out with the kind kids anymore. But nowadays, with my own daughter starting middle school, I think back on my junior high days with fond remembrance. I am so grateful for the kind kids. Nostaligically, I wonder, will this be my daughter’s last trick-or-treating?