October 26, 2007
by Alison Weiss
Age 12 at the time
It’s 1975 in Southern California, and I have entered junior high. “Love Will Keep Us Together” blasts from every car stereo, and it never really gets cold enough to wear a coat. I begin to understand what the Beach Boys mean by endless summer, even though I’m not the kind of beach babe the Beach Boys sing about. At age twelve, I’m thin with pale skin, straight black hair, and wire-framed glasses that are perpetually bent and sliding down my nose.
My family and I have landed in this beach town after stunning bad luck. My parents’ dream to run an alcoholism treatment center has failed utterly after less than a year. In short order, they have lost everything they own and are living in a rental house with me and my four sisters. My father is gone every weekend to make money. My mother works full time as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital. During our first six weeks in L.A., my youngest sister gets hit by a car and spends all summer in a body cast and then a wheel chair.
There is no money for clothes. My grandmother has learned to sew and specializes in quick-and-easy polyester. Each girl is given a huge bag of my grandmother’s creations. I start 7th grade in a powder blue polyester pantsuit. People ask me so many times that first day who made my outfit that by the time the last bell rings, I’ve taken to lying that I bought it at Orbach’s department store.
It’s hard enough to learn to navigate through Oceanview Junior High’s long halls, but I’m doing it alone. I want something that is out of my reach: a friend. Not a group of friends, that’s way beyond hope, but I’ll take a friend. It doesn’t even have to be a best friend, just a friend to save me a seat in class. I can’t impress people with my athletic skills because I’m terrible at sports, and I’m already out of the running with my homemade wardrobe. The only thing I think I have is that I’m smart. So, I do the unthinkable, I actually show my intelligence. I write ten-page reports for Science class. In English, the teacher chooses my poem to read out loud. For a while, my academic success carries me -- and then it takes me straight to hell.
It starts out as an ordinary day. In social studies, I raise my hand too often, answering a question correctly that Christy gets wrong -- Christy, who is the leader of a gaggle of girls, and who doesn’t like to be embarrassed. She gets perky, sporty Jax, her second lieutenant, to take me down. Without catching the attention of our teacher (who has tired hair and always reeks of cigarettes) Jax starts passing around a note, some kind of survey. It makes its surreptitious way around the classroom, and there is lots of giggling. It doesn’t reach me before the bell rings.
The next period is math. I slide into my seat, and Jax walks by, casually slipping the survey onto my desk. It’s my turn, I think, to see what everyone was laughing about. There is only one question on the survey: Who thinks Alison is a geek? My eyes slide down the paper, and I see that all my classmates have signed it with cruel embellishments, “She’s the geekiest.” “She stinks.” “She’s greasy.” My stomach drops and I almost stop breathing. I dig my nails into my palm to stop from crying, but it doesn’t work. I have never felt more alone. There is not one safe person in the room.
And the worst part of this story? I will keep that survey rolled up in my nightstand drawer to take out and re-read. I will not lose my sense of utter loneliness for years.