Mullets. They all had mullets. The boys at my new middle school were all business in the front. They had a party in the back, but for sure all business up front. And pokey, too. They loved to take mousse and spike their hair up tall. I guess the business they had up front was rebellious.
They were all white. The entire school. It was a middle school/high school hybrid and every student was white. I remember my parents dropping me off at the office and the principal calling a boy from class to show me around. White. Every kid we walked past on the way to class. White. When I walked into second-hour social studies class, where a new kind of hate was waiting, I was stunned to silence as I looked around and saw no black kids.
Every eye dropped on me. I was the new kid. And there had not been one of those in a long time.
This was Slinger, Wisconsin, a small farming community in a hub of small farming communities. Slinger had drawn the shortest stick when they were deciding where the schools would be, so we were all bussed there. I did not live in Slinger. I don’t think it would have been any better if I had, but for the record, I lived in a tiny little town. A town of 368 people named Allenton. A town that had turned its back on its children. A town filled with hard-working men and women who just didn’t care.
I have hinted at this place before, at the fires, the beatings, and the crime I visited upon it. That is for a different page. Stick with me here, and let’s talk about small towns.
Let’s say you have an area with a small population. No bigger say than two thousand. Well, they have families with children. Those children all end up at the same school. Some move away, and every now and then a new one shows up, but for the most part it is these kids. They grow up together. They learn side-by-side. Play sports together. And this is fine, but after a while, every boy has winked and double blinked at every girl. For years these same kids have been looking at each other. They all start to dress the same. They all wear the same kind of hair-dos. Then one day a shy, half-broken, half-artistic boy is dropped into the pool. He is no more handsome than the boy standing next to him. He is no cuter, has the same narrow, featureless body his peers have, but he does have one thing you can’t find as you look around the room.
This boy is new.
There has been a fresh delivery of meat. It is shy and broken. This makes this meat even more exotic. It is from the big city. This shipment is wise in ways these pokey boys aren’t. He sees the world differently. And you have never seen anything like this boy in your entire life.
The social studies teacher was charismatic and I loved him instantly. He had a kind smile. Looked as cool as Mr. Olsen, looked intelligent, and I was just so relieved not to be the only white boy in the room that I did not notice the glint in his eye when he looked at my jacket.
After Malice, after failing sixth grade, and all the fights, I was more than half-broken. I was coming apart and had, in my desperation, clung to an article of clothing. I built my entire look on it. I wore my uncle’s fatigues jacket he had worn in the army. There were two reasons for this.
This is Wisconsin, central Wisconsin, and it is always cold. It is just past October and the cold is ramping up. But also, a jacket, a big jacket, is something you can hunker into. You can hide in a jacket this big. I rolled the thick sleeves up to the bend in the elbow. I left the jacket open and I had a look. I had an identity. I could stuff my hands in my huge jacket pockets and I was snug. And I needed that. I needed it badly. I had been defeated. I needed a place to lick my wounds and this would be it.
First two days were golden. It was my first play at middle school. I had a locker. I had classes to get to. I was moving to a new class every hour. I was not sedentary, I was mobile, and the student pool was constantly being stirred. Every hour, I had a few new girls to look at. I wouldn’t get beaten for looking at them, but still I took tiny sips at their beauty, never staring, never so bold as to lock eyes with them. But every now and then, I’d dare a glance. Every now and then, I would catch an eye just long enough to look away. When I looked back, they were watching.
On the third day, the other boys had caught on. Their girlfriends were talking about the new guy and they had honed in. I walked right up to a guy I thought was my friend and leaned against the wall. Every other boy had crowded around us. And they began to pick at me.
See, there was a plethora of classes, but mine all ended at Gym. I loved Gym, even though I was no good at it, but now we had to change clothes. And at this school, you had to get naked and take a shower with the other boys.
When I was first introduced to this idea, we walked in to meet the gym teacher and Shush found himself in a room with a man looking at a room full of naked boys. Shush nearly wept. He ran, and the alters who stepped in after him were shocked. They were exposed, even in their clothing, and wanted out. On the third day, the boys knew I was not going to change my clothing. And they knew I was not getting naked with them. That was all they needed. They needed the slightest corner to pull at and they found it.
“Where are your workout clothes today, Jesse?” Prickle asked. He grabbed my bag off my shoulder as the other boys crowded around then he opened it. “Nope, not in here. You’re not going to dress out again today, huh?”
“Bet he has a small dick,” Shear said.
“Bet he is scared it will get hard when he looks at us. He is a fag, I would bet my life on it.”
Then, a punch. These boys could not punch worth a snot. They were weak, and I had been forged in the fires of 20th Street School. These boys could not beat me. I could have taken them on at any point, but I was scared. Terrified. Maybe one of them had a knife. Maybe one of them was like Malice. So, I took it. I leaned against the wall as the boys surrounded me and I took one weak punch after the next. They tried to kick my legs out from under me but they couldn’t even do that. And somehow, it made it all so much worse.
When I fought Pride, when I fought Dang, when me and Angry went at each other, I was fighting a hard street kid. I was fighting someone who could hurt me. I had a hard spot to hit. But these boys were different. They had all known each other since birth. They had gotten into bits of scraps but there were no fighters here. I was not facing a gang member. There were no gangs in Slinger Middle School, and there were no answers for my levels of violence. But when they all got around me to poke and to pinch, taking it and not rising up was so much more horrible.
I have a theory about girls, middle school girls, and this is it. They have a very impressive pecking order. It never changes. It is the same everywhere. They organize themselves into order depending on who is the most popular. And this is the formula.
The meanest girl is the most popular girl in school. She is fearless and will lash out at anything. She takes shit off of no one and even if she was unattractive, she would still be the most popular girl. All the other girls fear her because she is smart, she keeps it tight, and she always has a comeback. She has a whip crack of a mind and she rules everything. No boy can talk back to her. No girl dares her. The meanest girl in middle school is the most popular. She fought her way there and she is never leaving. She has earned her title, and you will have to kill her to get it back.
The second most popular girl in school is the prettiest. She is always best friends with the mean girl. The mean girl may also be pretty, but usually some sort of slight has brought her to her throne. The pretty girl is not suffering from that. But no matter how pretty she is, she still carries with her a healthy fear of her best friend. These two girls run the school. They are untouchable. One rules her spot with a bite and a scratch, the other with a nod and a smile.
The third most popular girl is always the sweetest. She is every other girl’s friend. She is nice, and often the top girls don’t want to mess with her. Often, they love her. Often, they will defend her as long as she knows her place and stays out of the way.
In Slinger Middle School, my fate was tied up in these three girls.
My sister came home talking about her new friend, whose name was Blondie Grr. She was “cool.” She was a “metal girl.” She lived close and they were best friends. Blondie lived just two houses down in a big mansion with a pool and three floors. Less went to visit this girl for a while, and before dinner, I was sent to pick her up.
I was greeted at the door by Grr. I will not call her by a first name. I will leave it at Grr. She was short, dressed in comfort, and she was cute. She opened her door and said, “Fuck, how did G.I. Joe end up on my doorstep?”
“What?” I said confused.
“What are you doing here, man?” She stuck her head out of her door and looked up the street. “Did someone tell you where I lived?”
Then, I knew her. I had seen her a few times. Always surrounded by girls. Grr must be funny, because every girl around her laughed at everything she said.
“Is my sister here?” I asked. I was still so confused.
“Wait a minute, Less is G.I. Joe’s sister?” Grr said. “Where do you live?”
I pointed up the block, my front door visible from hers. “Wow,” she said. “G.I. Joe, the Great American Hero, lives two doors down.” She smiled and nodded. “I kinda like that. I’m looking at you, and I can see that you have no idea what I am talking about or who I am.” She backhanded my chest and my coat soaked it. “I’m gonna forgive you for that. I’m Grr. You’re G.I. Joe.”
“That is what we call you. Because of the jacket.”
“Who calls me G.I. Joe?”
“Everyone. All the girls at least. I’ll get your sister.” She stopped at the door and looked back. “Come back any time. I think I like you.”
The walk back to the house was short but it took a long time. I walked on stunned legs. What had just happened? Who was that? And were the girls at my new school calling me G.I. Joe? The girls at my new school had a nickname for me? What the hell was going on?
When, the next day, the boys crowded around me to pick at me and throw their weak insulting punches, Grr shoved her way in with a gang of girls. She wrapped her arm around mine and pulled me away.
She turned to one of the boys, a freckled, thin boy with the spikiest of the hair, and she said, “Jeep, I swear, if you touch him again I will break up with you and no girl will speak to you for a year.” Grr stabbed a finger in his face. “I swear it, don’t test me!”
He held his hands up and backed away. “I won’t. I didn’t even touch him, did I, new kid?”
“You call him Joe,” she snapped. She pulled me away in a cloud of snarling girls and took me to her section of the hallway. We were standing outside of a big set of double doors waiting for them to open so we could go to our lockers. She looked up at me and smiled. Beside her stood the prettiest girl I had ever seen.