[1972 - Burlington, North Carolina]
Sixth grade. That was a tough year for me. I was awkward with my full adult-size white teeth, the front two slightly overlapping, and probably the first thing everyone would notice about me since I always smiled. It was usually not a happy smile so much as one of resignation; Me...resigned to the fact that I was the weird kid. The one that was bullied by being ignored. Ignored by my teacher and ignored by my classmates.
This was the year that we were living at my Grandmama’s tiny house in a new school district, not really built to accommodate four kids, a Mama, a Daddy, and a Grandmama. Throw into the mix that I didn’t have the cool clothing that was required to be worth noticing and was still working on overcoming the lisp that fifth grade speech therapy had nearly eradicated. I avoided words that contained “esses” like the plague, my mind working overtime to substitute “ess-less” words...on the spot...in every conversation. It was unfortunate for me that my name had an “ess” making every introduction, in which I had to state my name (Litha) painful. I concentrated really hard on getting it right on my first day of sixth grade when we went around the room with initial introductions.
Miss McCain said, “Tell us your name and one fun thing you did this summer.” I willed my tongue to cooperate by pushing it hard against the back of my upper teeth when it was my turn. Dread consumed me as I stood. My mind went blank for a second; what was my name? Think. Think. You’ve got this, I encouraged myself. My heart raced as I whispered, “My name is Lisa and this summer I moved in with my Grandmama.” Four “esses” and I nailed it! I was proud but still heard snickers around me. Not “ess” related...more related to my first-day-of-school outfit. “Look what she is wearing,” wafted from somewhere in the back of the room. “Moved in with her Grandmama?” from somewhere near the front. “Shhh,” from Miss McCain.
Smock tops were all the rage in the early seventies. Little cute flared shirts, typically with a smocking or embroidery detail on the front, just touching the waist of little cute flared jeans. I had neither of those so rummaged through the closet—shared by my mama, my two brothers, my sister, and me—pulling out one shirt that looked smock-top-ish. It just happened to be one of my mom’s maternity tops, not yet retired to the give-away-basket since my mom was still carrying some baby weight even though my youngest brother Jeffrey, had just turned three. As for the jeans, I found a pair of my mom's pre-pregnancy jeans (they would be jeggings these days) in a dark blue denim-like material. The problem with those (other than the obvious fact that...they were mom jeans) was they zipped in the back and the zipper kept slipping down, leaving me in constant fear of my pants dropping down around my ankles. What an unfortunate choice. Clothes for the children was never a priority in our house. I heard the comment, quickly sat down face red with embarrassment, and plastered the ever-present smile back on my face.
As the year continued, at a painfully slow pace, I dreaded it when we had to buddy up with a partner for an activity, always running a quick mental count to ensure there was an even number of kids present that day. I didn’t want to be the odd-kid-out but I was smart and, with false bravado, did my best work alone.
Picking teams for kickball at P.E. was equally stressful. The best I could do was hope that Jane Ann had tinkled in her pants that day. That was even more off-putting than everything about me. It would come down to Jane Ann and me, the last two standing. I watched both team captains mentally assessing the situation...tinkle-pants or weird kid with the lisp and mom jeans...two sets of eyes assessing the wetness factor of Jane Ann's pants as their eyes shifted back and forth between the two of us. Finally, the decision was made, “I pick Lisa.” I smiled at not being the last kid standing.
I had the last laugh though, the following year as whispers of, “Have you seen Lisa? She got HOT over the summer,” began to circulate. We all grow into our teeth at some point. I smile a happy smile this time. Now, if only a box of hand-me-down clothes from my wealthy cousin would arrive in the mail before 7th grade, I would have it made.
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events. (1972 Burlington, NC)
Bullying is no joke.