She was the most ugly, most unpopular, most annoying girl in the junior high. She was pathetic, really. And we all loved making fun of her. In a world where even the dorks had each other, Tina L. was totally alone.
She arrived at our small Catholic school at the beginning of the sixth grade. We had no idea where she came from and didn’t care to ask. Of the fifty or so in our class, most of us had been together since kindergarten. We were housed in a little brick building that was cozy and had big picture windows in every classroom that let in every ounce of sun. The school sat near a nice, upper middle class neighborhood, surrounded by trees and split level homes where the mothers were always waiting for us when we got home from school, and the fathers showed up for dinner in suits and ties. It was 1987, but there were almost no children of divorced parents among us. (Those whose parents had split up, of course, were referred to in a pitying voice by the adults as the products of “a broken home.”) Looking back now I can say that in many ways it was old-fashioned and provincial.
But all the same, it was very reassuring.
Our bonds as a class of students were strong, and the three level caste system rigid. When a new kid arrived, he or she was quickly dissected and classified: popular, semi-popular, not popular. I was semi-popular, part of a coterie of girls who cared about their grades and bought Tiger Beat and Bop and held sleepovers where we dared each other to do what we considered to be outrageous stunts, like darting outside in the middle of the night in just a bra and underpants. But we had not yet kissed boys, or cheated on tests, or learned how to hairspray our bangs just so. These traits, it seemed, belonged solely to those girls who were popular.
No matter what we were, we all had our kind to hang out with. But while even the not popular students had each other, Tina L. was in a group all by herself – Total Loser. She ate alone in the cafeteria, nobody wanted to sit next to her when our class attended weekly Mass. No one talked to her, except to mock her. She was assigned to a desk in the back row of the classroom, and it seemed to me that even the teachers hesitated to call her name.
She was homely beyond belief, and even now I wonder what her poor mother thought when she looked at her. Freakishly short, even for a girl, she was maybe a few inches above four feet. She had an enormous head of curly black hair that was almost the texture of pubic hair, and it bounced up and down when she walked. The kids called it an Afro to her face, and in a school full of privileged white suburban children, this was not a compliment.
Her voice was wound tight, a nasal sort of whine, and if she answered questions in class she had a habit of going on and on, rarely answering it correctly. She had a thin black moustache over her top lip, and she wore thick wire glasses that did little to hide her bushy monobrow. And, as if matters weren’t bad enough, there was the unforgettable, terrible moment in gym glass when, while dressed in a tank top, she lifted her arms above her head to reveal wiry underarm hair sticking out of her armpits like so many spiders’ legs. After that incident she was made fun of so brutally, I can’t believe she even showed up to school again.
But I think she was mostly annoying to us not because of how she looked or how she sounded, but because she didn’t seem to accept her lot in life. Instead of cowering in the back like we thought she should have, she tried desperately to fit in. It was almost like she was asking for it. She approached the popular kids with aplomb, only to be shot down with a withering look or a nasty comment. And she talked obsessively about her idol, pop singer Janet Jackson, even taking a black Sharpie marker and writing the name of Janet’s latest album, Rythmnation, over and over again on her red plastic school box.
“Why do you like Janet Jackson so much?” someone would ask her, and she would go off on some breathless, stupid tangent, rambling on nonsensically about Janet’s “philosophy of rythmnation.” People would ask her about Janet just to listen to her start to answer, and then they’d walk away.
Tina didn’t get good grades, she was a terrible athlete, and she expressed no visible talents. There was nothing at all that marked her as special, except for the degree to which she was hated. I guess it would be nice to look back and realize that she was too tortured a soul – too brilliant for us, too creative – to ever fit in. But I don’t think she was any of those things.
One afternoon after school, while doing my homework, I realized that I couldn’t remember what the English assignment was. I called every single girl in my class (calling boys would not be something I would be able to do for years to come), and they either didn’t know the assignment or weren’t home. Finally, Tina was the only girl left on the phone list. I debated for fifteen minutes over whether or not I would call her. While I had never been overtly mean to Tina, I had certainly enjoyed the weird thrill that came with observing the others who were. But I was a straight A student, and the idea of not doing my homework was unacceptable.
When I gave in and called her, the catch of excitement and surprise in her voice when she realized who was phoning her was palpable. She put me on hold, and I could practically hear her racing to find her assignment notebook. After I hung up the phone, I felt a bizarre mixture of pride and pity. Like I had been good enough to grace her with my presence.
During our eighth grade year she had a birthday party and invited all the girls in the class. We gossiped about it in the cafeteria and rolled our eyes at the thought of having to attend. But we were nice Catholic girls from nice families, and so on a rainy Saturday afternoon our mothers carpooled us in their minivans to a big fancy house in one of the best parts of Fairfax County. Her parents seemed older than our parents, and they were overly eager, like her, and the party was simply too much. There were more bowls of snacks and trays of prepared deli food than we could ever hope to eat, and more paper streamers and decorations than a preteen girl could ever want. The whole thing felt desperate, and I guess it was.
To keep us amused, her mother and father had rented videos for us to watch. To our surprise we discovered one of them was Beverly Hills Cop II, which we knew was rated R. For a brief moment Tina L. was, while not exactly cool, at least somewhat useful. We put in the video.
But only a few minutes into the film, just as Eddie Murphy’s language was getting especially blue, her father raced into the living room and took the tape out of the VCR.
“Girls, girls, I’m so sorry, I had no idea this movie had this kind of language,” he said, apologizing over and over. He was a thin man with a balding head covered in gray hair. He wore tiny glasses. He rushed the tape out of the room as fast as he could. All of us girls at the party groaned with disappointment, and Tina L. winced.
In my mind, the very worst thing that ever happened to Tina occurred on a Friday afternoon toward the end of the eighth grade. I say it was the worst thing because I’m a lifelong claustrophobic who went years without riding an elevator. But I would imagine that to Tina L. it was just one on a long list of tribulations.
We always ended our school weeks with an art class, and the mood on Fridays was always giddy and sort of chaotic. The teachers would busy us with time-wasting assignments involving construction paper and glue (the idea of studying “art” was not on anyone’s list of priorities). While we worked, our instructors would duck into the hallway and gossip with one another.
It was also the tradition at the end of the week to store our boxes of school supplies in the back closet so that the evil public school kids who used our classrooms for Sunday School wouldn’t taint any of our belongings. We were taught to fear the parish’s public school kids, whose parents – if they were even still married – did not care enough for their children to send them to Catholic school.
One Friday afternoon, as we were putting our things away, I heard a loud commotion and turned to see a bunch of the boys shoving Tina L. into the closet and shutting the door, leaning on it so she couldn’t open it. She banged at it with her fists, and kicked at it with her feet, and begged for them to let her out. After a few minutes, the boys did, and then they laughed at her. She laughed too, like she was in on the joke, and I hated her the most at that moment.
I watched the event unfold, and I realized that what was happening was wrong, sick even. But I did nothing to stop it. There was the other, stronger part of me that reveled in the delicious joy of belonging. Of knowing that it was good that at least it wasn’t me that everybody couldn’t stand.
I have no idea what became of Tina L. After eighth grade she didn’t travel on with the majority of us to the big Catholic high school nearby. And if she went to one of the public schools, none of us ever heard about it. We never bothered to ask her where she was headed.
As an adult, I’ve been surprised by how much I still think of her. There have been these weird moments when I’ve been home for the holidays and fantasized about running into her on the street or in the grocery store. In my mind’s eye she is all the things she never was in junior high: beautiful, smart, witty, and together. In that imaginary scene we run into each other and she struggles to place my name, and when she does, we just laugh about those terrible, pre-adolescent days, and at last I get to apologize for all the things that ever happened to her, for every rotten thing we ever did. And in that scene she laughs it off, she says it doesn’t matter, that she never even thinks about that time in her life anymore.
But that image is only an illusion, of course. Girls like Tina L. rarely turn out beautiful. And even if they did, my belated apology in a supermarket would be solely for my benefit. It would soften my guilt and nothing more. You get to an age and you realize that nobody endures what we put that girl through and forgets about it.