The Middle Ground: The Teenage Years
What do you remember the most about your school experiences while a teenager?
I could write a book on my school experiences during high school!
My Freshman year was terrible. I went to a private school and had zero friends. But it wasn’t just that I didn’t have any friends that made it so awful; I was aggressively bullied at this school by three girls I unfortunately had to share Journalism class with. The ring leader’s name was Rachael and her mission in life, it seemed, was to make my life miserable. Every day, she’d criticize me; she wanted to know what size clothes I wore and she made fun of the answer. Once, before our teacher came into the room, she took out a pad, poured catsup on it and stuck it to the television screen. When the teacher came in, the girls told him I had done it. He didn’t believe them, and I did not get in trouble, but that wasn’t the point. The worst thing they did, though, was they would walk by my desk, snatch a piece of loose-leaf paper on which I was writing my books, wad it up and throw it in the trash can. The first time they did this, I was horrified—-and absolutely heart-broken. I sat in my chair literally shaking, debating what to do. I thought about leaving the page in the can and just re–writing it. But I could not let my characters be so mistreated. I got up and, ignoring them, walked to the trash can and retrieved the page. I smoothed it out, heartbroken to see the wrinkles on it. Perhaps the saddest thing about this experience is that the teacher of the class knew I was being aggressively bullied and did absolutely nothing. When the sanitary pad was placed on the TV and I started crying when they said I did it, the teacher turned red in the face and walked out of the classroom. No one got in trouble for that stunt. Because of these girls, I had my mom pick me up early one too many times from school so that I wouldn’t have to sit through it. At the end of the year, the teacher tried to dock my credit for it, saying that I had missed too many days. Mama had known about the bullies because I told her, and would come home crying. Infuriated, she called and threatened to involve the head principal if I didn’t get credit for maintaining an A average in a class in which I was so horribly bullied. The teacher’s quiet response: “Okay.”
Jason started mid-year.
Jason was an interesting kid. Like me, he was a Freshman. Like me, he was definitely an outcast. Jason’s parents were divorced; due to some mysterious decision his father made, his mother had recently been granted full custody. His father was an agnostic and so was he, Jason loudly ascertained. His mother had put him in this private Christian school to make him learn about the Bible. Jason wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. He went out of his way to make the other kids pick on him. He rode a bike to school. He wore grunge clothes. But the worst thing he did was put headphones on in Bible class. The principal told him to stop; Jason refused. The Bible teacher confiscated the headphones; Jason went to sleep instead. He was determined to avoid all religious conversation….. and every other kid in that school. Although I could not relate or understand his defiance towards God, I could understand the bullying. I felt sorry for Jason. So one day, I made a conscious decision: I was going to be that boy’s friend, whether he wanted me to or not. I started deliberately sitting beside him in the lunchroom. At first, he ignored me. I just smiled at him. I was really, really good at smiling. I asked him about the stupid music he listened to. I talked to him about anything and everything except God. Eventually, he started talking back. While we were never really “friends,” we weren’t enemies either. And Jason would talk to me. Soon, he angrily asked why I believed in a God that did nothing… or, he asked, was I just a hypocrite like all the other people around us, claiming to believe in God just because it was what I’d been taught? This opened the door for me to tell him all the many reasons I believed in God. I didn’t tell him about my dad. I wish now I had of. But I didn’t. Instead, I told him that God held my hand. I told him that I had met strangers who changed my life at just the right moment in time. He never changed his belief, but I saw a distinct difference in him by the end of the year. He didn’t try to wear headphones anymore, and he wouldn’t yell at me if I mentioned a verse in the Bible. For many years after this school, I prayed for Jason. And I hope with every fiber of my being that he is okay, stable, healthy and confidant.
Every rain cloud has a rainbow.
For me, the rainbow of my Freshman year was French class. My teacher gave us an assignment in which we were to teach someone a little bit of French. I don’t know what gave me the idea but I went to the elementary building, found a teacher who taught third grade and asked her if I could teach her class a lesson in French. She agreed. Then she asked me if I would be willing to come and teach them once a week for the duration of school. This was a major deal. First, I asked my French teacher but, because it meant that I would have to skip French class once a week, I had to get approval from the Principal. I was very nervous about this. But I really wanted to do it. So I asked. Amazingly, his response was: “Wow, of course, that’s great.” So, every Friday, I taught third graders French. This was the first time I had taught…. and I instantly became addicted. I fell in love with the children and with teaching. It sparked a light in me that has yet to be extinguished. Even more importantly, it gave me something to look forward to and a much needed dose of self-esteem.
After that horrible year was over, I talked my mother into letting me go to a public high school. But not just any public school: I specifically lobbied, begged and pleaded with her to go to McGavock. You have no idea what a campaign this was, or how incredibly difficult. McGavock had a reputation. Supposedly, there were all sorts of bad things happening there, from a police presence to guns to drugs to who knows what all else. Plus, it was ridiculously large: two levels, a Sophomore class of a thousand. It was ridiculous. But I begged. Eventually, Mama agreed to let us start there “and see.” My sister was scared. She did not want to go to McGavock. But she was brave and stuck like glue to my side. So we started. The first day was weird. We sat in a really large room and waited for our names to be called to get our schedules. Then we had someone sort of just say, “There you go! Good luck!” and release us to find rooms that could be a million miles away from where we were. Two cafeterias, four offices, thousands of students. Somehow, we found our rooms and school began.
And both my sister and I fell in love.
Miraculously, we stayed the entire year at McGavock. At the end of Sophomore year, I still didn’t have any friends…. but I had an English teacher that showed me I could write poetry. And not one, single student had made fun of me the entire year. While I was ignored for the most part, I blended so seamlessly into the melting pot that was this school. At the end of Sophomore year, we moved around during the Summer but eventually settled back in Nashville. Junior year started. And this year, I got to have some of the world’s best teachers. Stackhouse was an English teacher. I had heard “he’s awesome” so many times during my Sophomore year that I knew I wanted to be in his class even though I had never met him personally. So, just because I had heard so many good things about him, I stood in line to get a ticket that identified me as one of the lucky ones: I could have a spot in his class. That is how popular Stackhouse was: students stood in line to get a ticket. Those without tickets could not sign up for his class. The first week in his room, I knew why: he loved students. And he also was a phenomenal teacher: we would read a book, then he would ask a non-answerable question and spend the rest of the class period debating it. I still remember his “fate versus free will” discussion that came as a result of reading “The Scarlet Letter.” And then he started the grammar unit. I hate grammar. I love commas and I really don’t care when and where I should use them. I use them because I like them. I also couldn’t care less what a preposition was. At the start of this unit, I made Bs and Cs on grammar exercises. Stackhouse had a rule that said that if you made a D on a quiz or a test, you were special: you got to come up to his desk and chat about why you made that grade. Behold, one fateful day, I made a D on a grammar quiz. With quaking limbs, I walked up to his desk, along with three other “special friends.” He gave us our papers, told us to look at what we had missed and then explain what we did not understand so that he could re-teach it to us, basically. Staring at my paper, I shook my head. “I just can’t do grammar, Stackhouse.” Stackhouse ignored me at first. Instead of responding, he talked to the other three for a few minutes. Then he leaned back in his chair, stuck that stupid straw between his teeth again and stared directly at me. “And you,” he said. “The only reason you ‘can’t do it’ is because you keep telling yourself you can’t and, quite frankly Tiffini, I’m about tired of it.” Humiliated, my face immediately turned a royal shade of purple and tears stung my eyes. I tried to breathe but couldn’t. Instead, I stared down at my paper. Seeing that I was so visibly upset by this speech, he moved on. Finally, he sent us back to our seats. Then he started teaching about direct objects. I was brave and raised my hand to ask a question. He answered it, then went on teaching. Except that thereafter, every, single time he would mention direct objects, he asked me for the answer. By the end of that class, I was mortified, shaking and emotionally devastated. Clearly, Stackhouse had it in for me, I thought, he was trying to kill me. A few days later came the first test. Amazingly, I didn’t only pass this test, I aced it. I was floored—-but not as much as Stackhouse. As he held out the paper to me, he said, “And you! Frame this.” The next test came and, well I’ll be darned, I aced it too. The boy siting beside me saw the A and said, “Hey! She did better than me!” and Stackhouse said, “Yeah well, she’s prettier than you are too” (you wouldn’t understand this unless you’d been in his class). What I heard was “I’m proud of you for this.” So I kept doing it. Finally, after handing me yet another grammar test I aced, Stackhouse said, “Tiffini, what’s got into you?” I beamed my way through the rest of the school day. That horrible day he picked on me did more than embarrass me. It told me that Stackhouse thought I could do grammar and that knowledge made me want to prove him right. So I did.
At the end of the semester, Stackhouse had a habit of calling out the names of everyone who had pulled an A in his class. The day came and I sat staring at my desk. There was no way I made an A that six weeks; it had been six weeks of grammar hell. Then I heard this: “And the A that I am most proud of, out of all my classes, Tiffini.” Numbed shock coursed through me. After a full semester of acing nothing but grammar, no reading at all, seriously, it was one of the best days of my entire school career. After class, he asked if I could see him for a minute. Walking out into the hallway, eyes worried, I said, “Am I in trouble?” and he scowled, asking, “Have you done anything to be in trouble for?” Me: “I don’t think so.” Stackhouse shook his head: “Tiffini, when I averaged out the grades for this six weeks, your grades came out to be 2 points shy of an A. That means you really made a B.” Me, frowning: “O-kay.” He went on: “But you’ve done things this six weeks that you have never done, like make As on grammar, one after the other.” I smiled. He went on: “You worked really, really hard and, quite frankly, my dear, you deserved an A.” My smile grew to encompass my whole face. Finishing, he said: “So I gave you the two points so that you could finish this six weeks with an A.” Leaning over, I hugged him, saying thank you. His response: “Ah yeah, well, Merry Christmas.”
Stackhouse, however, wasn’t the only good teacher at McGavock. That same year, I was in Mrs. Waller’s Child Psychology class. I knew when her birthday was and, every year, I got her a cake for a birthday party. My Senior year was the third year I had Mrs. Waller. The day of her birthday, I enlisted the help of her friend, a sociology teacher whose classroom was next door. I went to him at the start of the day and asked that, once class started, he come over and get Mrs. Waller out of the classroom for a few minutes. He almost forgot—but then he saw me and remembered. Moments before a test, Dr. Williams knocked on our door and pulled Mrs. Waller outside. As soon as they were out, I unzipped my backpack and pulled out a cake. Pete and Michael, the only other students in that class with me, said, “What are you doing?” Me: “It’s Mrs. Waller’s birthday. We’re not having the test today.” Pete: “I bet we do.” Me: “No, we’re not. I do this every year.” Michael put away his pen and laughed as I sat out the cake. A minute later, Mrs. Waller walked back into the room and we all sang happy birthday. We did not have the test. But what was even more important than having a day’s reprieve from a test was the sense of friendship and… peace…. that permeated that room and that school.
Unfortunately, at Christmastime during my 11th grade year (this would be that special year in which I was a student of Stackhouse’s English), we moved to Memphis. Devastated and heartbroken, I wrote each of my favorite teachers a letter. I poured my heart out. Although I did not tell them anything about my personal home problems, I did tell them how much I admired, loved and respected them. Stackhouse wrote me a 2 page letter back. Several months later, we returned to Nashville and went to the school. My mom went to the office to get transcripts and my dad walked with me to see Stackhouse. We got to his room but he wasn’t there; the student teacher said to check the library. We walked into the library and Stackhouse was there but had his back to me. Without speaking, I walked up and touched his shoulder. He turned around and the look on his face convinced me that he really had cared. Smiling slowly, he said, “Wow” and leaned over to hug me. We chatted for a few minutes. He shook my dad’s hand and then we left. When school started back, I begged, once again, to return to McGavock. I pleaded with my mom to let me graduate from that sweet school.
See, it hadn’t just been the teachers.
I had friends there.
I learned this when I had birthday parties and people actually showed up. I learned this when a couple of friends told the guidance counselor they were worried about me. She, in turn, asked me to be part of a group of students that gathered and talked about their problems. All of the students in the group had been affected, in one way or another, by violence. I sat in that cozy office every week; I told about what happened when my grandmother was around. I told about the fights my parents had. But I did not tell about my dad. I wish I had. What was important, though, was that I believed the counselor and those few special friends really cared. I also realized that I hadn’t been as insignificant as I had thought. After being gone the last half of my eleventh grade year, when I started back, kids I had barely spoken to the previous year of being there stopped me in the hallways to say hello. They told me they had missed me. They asked me where I had been. In all the time I spent there, two and a half years, I only saw one drug deal and one real fight. I never saw a weapon. There was a never a bomb (though we did have a scare after Columbine). Instead, there was just the Smoking Porch and the mysterious flight of stairs to which the upper classman tried to sell the Freshman keys, promising there was a mythical pool on the roof. My Senior year came and I was given the special chance to go to France. I graduated with kids who had never laughed at me, and who knew who I was.
McGavock was a safe haven and, a decade later, I still regularly give thanks for that special place.
Tell about your first steady boyfriend.
I did not go on a single date in high school. Not one. I did not have a boyfriend, at all, in high school. Not a single one.
However, during the Summer that I graduated, I met this guy named Allan. He was a wannabe cowboy, complete with boots. He seemed sweet. He was technically the first boy that kissed me, but I don’t even remember where we were the first time he kissed me, as terrible as that sounds. What I do remember is that we hadn’t been dating long at all when he invited me to go to a horse race with him and his family. I thought this was awesome; I loved horses. During this trip, Allan tried for more than a kiss and totally freaked me out. After that, it just kind of fizzled; we stopped calling each other, and that was pretty much that. We didn’t even really have a true “break-up.” We just sort of stopped. It was a relief because I knew that he’d wanted more than a kiss and in no shape, fashion or form did I. That “relationship” lasted about a month, give or take.
Tell us about your first meaningful kiss.
Hm. My first meaningful kiss wasn’t until I was in college and I’m sure that’s a question in the next chapter so, for now, I’ll just say…
I’m just going to say that there were fireworks. It really was made of all the stuff you read in romance books. In fact, for years, I wondered if it had really existed, that can’t eat, can’t sleep, reach for the stars, over the fence, World Series kind of stuff. I have a vivid imagination and I feared I’d imagined how wonderful it was. Sometimes, granted, I still wonder about that. But more, I think it boils down to what really makes a kiss a kiss to remember is the feeling you get from the entire relationship. I felt…. beautiful. And, at the time, I truly believed he liked me too. Looking back, I think that’s, at least in part, what made that kiss so indescribable.
What were the most mischievous pranks you pulled?
Me? Pull pranks? Oh, please.
I wish I had pulled pranks.
What were the attitudes among teenagers about sex, drugs, alcohol?
I don’t know.
I really don’t because the friends I did have, we didn’t really talk about those things.
What I do know is that I have only had intercourse voluntarily with one man and only been voluntarily intimate with one other.
I am terrified of alcohol. At 33 years old, I have not had a single sip of any kind of alcoholic beverage, at all. It should go without saying that the only drugs I have ever taken were prescribed to me by a doctor and no, they were not overused.
Yup. Those 5 lines pretty much sum me up in a nutshell.
Did you attend your school proms? With whom? Describe them.
I went to my Senior prom with my sister. I did not dance a single dance and I left early. I did not go to my Junior Prom. I never went to pep rallies; I had my English teacher let me stay in her classroom instead. True story. Like I said, no dates. No fun at all, that was me. 🙂
Did you have a nickname? How did you get it?
Blossom. I got it because I had a black hat that had a flower on it that I wore every day.
There was also a guy in my typing class that called me Speedy Gonzales because I was pretty fast on the keyboard. 😉
What was the most historic event that took place during “your generation”? How did it affect you?
The space shuttle exploded.
Those sentences should need no further explanation. Columbine, in particular, was an event that left me unnerved. I did not know anyone close to the tragedy but I remember watching it on the news and being afraid. I remember the story of the girl who answered “yes” when the shooter asked her if she believed in God. She was killed and her story moved me deeply as a teenager.
I also vividly remember Waco. I was scared of him. And I watched it on the news. I remember praying for the kids in the compound. David Koresh scared me; not necessarily his persona but the fact that one man could be capable of believing all that he did and of brainwashing so many.
OJ Simpson committed murder and got away with it and the entire nation sat glued to their TV during the trial. That happened when I was in the 9th grade and I remember being at lunch when the verdict was to be announced. The TV was on and all of us students watched it together; the cafeteria went wild when the verdict was read.
It’s funny but these national events shaped me because they connected me with others who watched them at the same time and yet I wouldn’t have recognized that fact without being prompted.
What is the happiest memory you have of your teen years?
My birthday parties, being taken in the limo to the horse stables and getting to run the horses.
What is your most painful memory as a teenager?
It involves an event that happened with my dad that I don’t want to recall.
I will say, though, that he was arrested for the last time when I was about to turn seventeen. I remember walking out of the school and Mama saying that he would be gone for a long time this time. I was so happy that I went out that same week to Taco Bell and got a job to help show Mama that we would be okay without him.
What was your first car?
An awesome black Mitsubishi Eclipse. It was a manual transmission and I absolutely loved that car.
When did you move away from home and where did you go?
I lived on campus my Freshman year at David Lipscomb University.