At Rosendale Elementary every classroom had a door that led directly outside to grassy meadows and nearby woods. Every kid sat at a modern birch desk with matching chair. Every fifth grader had the honor of being an office helper, delivering messages and picking dead blossoms off the geraniums in the windows by the front door.
Van Antwerp Junior High School is a two-story brick box with four huge pillars holding up a peeling portico. I climb the steps my first day in ankle socks and Hush Puppies and bustle through the crowd of older girls in penny loafers and stockings. Turning right in the dim foyer, I hurry past older boys with greased-back hair to the sixth grade end of the building.
Miss Rhino, my homeroom and English teacher looks a hundred and four and so do the desks and chairs. She leans on her desk as if she’ll fall over if she lets go. Her hair is a ball of white fuzz, her lips and rouge as bright as a clown’s. Her voice is so thin and wavery, I can’t hear her instructions because Donna DiCaprio, in bouffant hair, frosted pink lipstick, and eyes outlined like Cleopatra, is talking to the cutest boy in class, Danny Weld. After only a week we have a substitute named Mr. Tyler. I like his cool corduroy jacket with suede elbow patches. Miss Rhino never returns. Tommy Cernak, who sits behind me, says maybe she died. Debbie Calder, who sits in front of me, says it’s probably true. At eleven, none of us have heard of retirement.
Van Antwerp classes are divided into teams under a system called tracking. The teams are labeled with the letters VJHS. It’s supposed to be a secret from kids, but how hard is it to figure out that The V team stands for Van Antwerp, the J is for Junior, the H is for High, and the S is for School. Betsy Greenleaf and Natalie Roppler are on the S team, so that’s all the smart kids, pretty much the same crowd who were in the top reading group in first grade. Butch Labrie is on the V team, so duh, that’s the bottom. Teams J and H have the in-between kids like me.
I travel with my homeroom upstairs to Miss Cleary for math. I like the way her brown hair flips up at her shoulders. I ask my mom to cut off my ponytail. Every night I try to curl my hair like Miss Cleary’s, but in the morning there’s always a ridge from the plastic clip that holds each pink foam roller in place. I haven’t learned how to comb out the ridge with water without making the curl disappear too. Mr. Funicello teaches science. No relation, he points out our first day, to Annette Funicello, who has graduated from the Mouseketeers to Beach Blanket Bingo. Mr. Roberts teaches social studies. He tells lots of stories and sometimes, during the boring parts, I stare at the buttons on his white shirt because right over his belly they look like they’re about to burst. My best friend, Linda, is on another team. Although we share the same sixth grade teachers, we have a different schedule. I only see her at lunch.
I have Mrs. Lourdes for French. The language classrooms are located in the seventh grade section in the middle of the building, so sometimes I pass Laura, Linda’s sister, in the hall. We still play together every day after school, but she never smiles or says hi if she’s with her seventh grade friends. I thought I would love French, but Mrs. Lourdes speaks at a hundred miles an hour. I wouldn’t know what’s going on except our dialogues are translated in the book. “Où est la bibliothèque?” Where is the library? “Le pickup ne marche pas.” The record player doesn’t work. It’s like Dick and Jane in a foreign language.
The only time I’m in the eighth grade end of the building, is for gym. You could find your way there with your eyes shut starting at the cafeteria in the basement under the seventh grade. That’s where the aroma of sweaty wrestling mats begins to blend with canned ravioli and fruit cocktail. Gym is called phys. ed. now, and the girls and boys are separated. Mr. DiLorenzo, the boys’ teacher, is a short, wiry man with thick, dark eyebrows who looks like he’s always ready to rip someone’s head off. Sometimes we hear him yelling through the gargantuan accordion doors that divide the girls’ side from the boys’. Mrs. Fraser, the girls’ teacher is amazingly dumpy for a physical fitness professional. She’s also the first woman I’ve witnessed, outside the Altamont Fair, with a slight beard. In the day of the Jack LaLanne jumpsuit, she wears an A-line skirt and a white cardigan to coach everything from gymnastics to softball.
Within the first month of junior high, Mrs. Fraser herds all the sixth grade girls into the auditorium for a special Disney movie sponsored by Kotex called: The story of Menstruation. I sit in the dark as the screen fills with animated flowers and girls growing into women. Internal organs are overlaid with diagrams and calendars. I leave with a vague sense of embarrassment and no practical idea of what having a period entails. When the girls get back to class, the boys snigger. When Debbie Calder whispers what you actually do with a sanitary belt and pad I want to scream, that’s disgusting! But she assures me you get used to it.
The film says every girl develops at her own speed. That’s explains why Donna DiCaprio, has raced into a D cup and I am in a JC Penney’s undershirt. I’ve noticed a few girls in training bras in the locker room where we’re supposed to take showers, but nobody does. We hurry out of our whiffy gym suits and into our school clothes eyeing each other for furry arm pits, shaved legs, any detail that points to where we’re all headed—the rocky shores of adulthood.
So much is changing so fast. My mom isn’t even my Girl Scout leader anymore. Debbie Calder, Barbara Nelson, Cindy Perkins, and Tina Lundgren, all from my homeroom, are in my new Cadette troop. Every Thursday we wear our uniforms to school, and afterwards, ride the bus to Cindy’s house. We don’t seem to go camping much. Instead Mrs. Perkins focuses on things like how to make an egg sauce for a cooking badge. But finally, after surviving almost a full year of sixth grade, she takes us to New York City for a badge on citizenship. We spend the weekend in a Manhattan hotel with a swimming pool on the roof.
A pool on the roof! In the gritty, humid air, I can’t wait to submerge my body, stinky with new BO. I toss my towel on a lounge chair and do cannon balls and cartwheels off the diving board until my shoulders are shivering with cold. Debbie, Barbara, and I wrap our towels in a sarong and gaze over the edge of the towering patio. In the dusk, a thousand windows begin to glimmer. The streets below pulse with blinking tail lights. Yellow taxis honk. Record stores, barbershops, delicatessens, all shout their names in neon pink and aqua.
Mrs. Perkins says it’s okay if Debbie, Barbara and I take the elevator down to change and get warm. She makes us promise, scout’s honor, that we will stay in our room until the other girls are out of the pool. We salute and dash onto the elevator, but before we reach our floor, the small cabin stops. The doors slide open and there before us are five well-dressed young men in bowl haircuts poised to enter. Standing there in wet hair, pink flip flops, blue lips and a dripping towel, I realize the guy in the middle, the blonde one, is Peter Noone. How many times have I heard him sing “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” and “I’m into Something Good” on my clock radio. The album cover says he’s fifteen, barely out of junior high himself. In person, he’s even cuter than Danny Weld. As we stare mute with awe, Peter presses the outside elevator button. The doors scissor shut, and we scream in unison, “We saw Herman’s Hermits!”
For the next twenty-minutes we ride the elevator up and down, hiccupping to a stop at every floor. But miracles cannot be replicated nor timed. We only intersect with Mrs. Perkins and two more dripping girl scouts.
In the morning we take the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. At the massive pedestal, I lift my Brownie camera from my neck and snap a shot of Debbie, Cindy, Barbara and Tina. The girls are specks beneath the magnificent gift from France. The black and white photo can’t capture the fact that their uniforms are the same green as Lady Liberty’s oxidized robes. We go inside the monument and climb above the colossal chain around her ankles, symbolically broken. We climb into her crown overlooking New York Harbor and the glittering Atlantic beyond. A thrill flies up my spine. Perhaps anything is possible. I smell freedom in the salt air. Mrs. Perkins takes my camera and tells me to get in the picture with my new troop of friends. They put their arms around my shoulders. She clicks. My face comes out grainy and indistinct as if my identity is a blur.
Only now do I understand that those closest to you tell you who you are and what you’re worth. What you hear may be true or false. Back then I wasn’t close enough to God to hear the truth. But looking through Liberty’s diadem with a handful of girl scouts I heard His whisper. I felt their care for me, their delight in my company. I witnessed a sparkling universe bigger than my neighborhood. Together we discovered that wonders were as close as the other side of an elevator door.
But technically Linda and Laura were still my best friends, my oldest friends. I didn’t understand at the time that friends who treat you badly can make you so insecure about yourself, that ironically, you’re less able to break free from their invisible tyranny. Friends also influence your ability to trust or not. Could a hundred and four years of oppression be retired in a weekend?
Looking back, what a fitting end to my first year of Junior High. Liberty Island. Physically I was not yet a full citizen of the United States of bouffant hair and frosted pink lips. But in my heart – so close to a new country, yet not ready to relinquish allegiance to the old world.