All my favorite books come from a “deep place of junior high trauma.”* From Harriet the Spy to The Outsiders, right on up through Rick Moody’s Purple America and Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Picture Olive at eleven. She has huge feet. The mean kids chalk hopscotch squares too small for her shoes. She’s out before she started.
Teachers joke you teach the grade where you are emotionally stuck. If true, I’m a perpetual seventh grader, when kids are righteous and affectionate by turns. When my fellow parents complain about their kids, I first side with the children. I have to imagine myself into the parental view.
Junior high, it seems to me, is roughly when kids see the multiplicity of everything and everyone–people and institutions and cultures. And they are Outraged. (I love this about them.)
My parents’ marriage ended, traumatically, when I was in third grade. But I sailed through elementary. In fifth grade, my babysitter friends and I held a protest march. We demanded a 15 cent raise on our hourly. We chanted; we carried signs. We knew the genre. We marched, however, not in front of our employers’ houses but a sitter’s house—a fatal confusion about audience. Our cause sank without a trace, but we were righteous.
In sixth grade, six of us wrote a play, which our hippie teacher helped us stage. We invited the whole school to the auditorium. About two minutes in, Max-the-counterfeiter started printing bills in his basement. Rosa-the-hooker, Max’s girlfriend, applied lipstick in a bored way. The kindergarten teacher rose from her seat. She was red-faced and for several minutes, or so it seemed, mute. We came to an uncertain halt, while she led the kindergarteners up the aisle and out the door. The door swung shut and we resumed the giddy action. The denouement involved destroying Max’s “den of iniquity.” I kicked over the cardboard counterfeit machine, and it sailed into the audience, taking out a few second graders. We rated the whole thing a dazzling success and talked about it for weeks.
Entering junior high was like being dropped into a vat of acid. (See Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice.) Friendships dissolved. My best friend moved to England. My new best friend walked behind me so she could pinch my butt. Repeatedly. And hard. A trick she learned from her bullying older brother, who swear to God, loathed her. He was forever stuffing her head down the toilet until she nearly drowned. In my school photo I look pale, stunned, folding from the inside.
Publicly, her brother was a peacenik, all leather peace signs and tie-dye. There was a photo of him in our local paper protesting the war and extending a daisy (Could he be more clichéd?) to an impassive national guardsman. My friend and I savored our secret knowledge of her brother’s hypocrisy. We marveled at adult ignorance of her brother’s true nature, of everyone and everything’s true nature. In elementary, I would have rated this “adventure.” In junior high, everything was angst.
I am tempted to go further and say most of the best (fiction and non) writing comes from “a deep place of junior high trauma.” I have read nonfiction books about the driest of subjects—farming say or Soviet politics—and loved them. The author of the farming book was bullied in junior high. He escaped summers when his parents sent him to work on a farm. (They were lefties, of course.) At the farm, he was one of the men, responsible for hoisting his own bales of hay. The woman who wrote piece after piece about an American who defected to the USSR, as a teen she defected from her upper class home, at first silently, privately and then publicly and professionally. These authors, I would bet that they probed the “deep place[s] of junior high trauma” to write such compelling nonfiction.
About the worst times, my father used to say, “It’s all grist.” Meaning, I think, that you can make something of terrible stuff. I can’t bring myself to say everyone’s junior high suffering is worth it, but I like the books.
* Kelly Ford’s hilarious blog, “Red Rover, Red Rover, Send My Next Novel Right Over,” on choosing her next novel’s subject included this brilliant phrase, “from a deep place of junior high trauma,” which got me thinking.