In middle school I was on the lower end of the food chain. Being a 4-foot-7, bite-sized Asian kid with glasses who walked around with his nose stuck in books all the time, I was the most popular kid in school. Yeah, right.
I was teased all the time, maybe something about the way I talked or dressed or acted. My hand-me-down clothes were often too big and had to be rolled up. And I was probably the only kid in the universe who didn’t get the memo that reading wasn’t “cool.” My backpack was filled with books. After eating lunch I would go to the library to read sci-fi and fantasy books like Ender’s Game, Pendragon and Inkheart. I had a bad habit of carrying around two to three books at a time, in case one got boring. I was called “bookworm” (and that was one of the nice nicknames). Interestingly the same group of geniuses who would call me “know it all wannabe” would also name me “dumb butt.” I didn’t bother to point out the irony. Then there was the occasional “Hey you, shorty. Let me see your homework.”
I hope I’m not making middle school seem worse than it was. There were some good things too. I had fun in most of my classes. I enjoyed learning and kept trying to break the class record for highest reading level. I had a couple of friends but not many. We would spend lunchtime talking about school and usually anything from Pokémon to Yu-Gi-Oh! to Harry Potter. Outside of school we barely hung out. And the teasing, I just learned to live with.
The bullying got worse
In eighth grade the PE locker next to mine belonged to a stoner. Every day as we were changing he would make some smart remark like, “Nice shirt. I didn’t know the 99 cents store sold clothes.” I was used to it and didn’t really pay much attention. One day our PE class had just finished doing laps around the track and we were heading back to the locker room to change and get ready for lunch. He looked greedily at the water bottle I was holding, then back at the water fountain. Deciding that the five extra steps to the water fountain wasn’t worth the trouble, he took the water bottle from my hand as I was drinking it. Then he shoved me, just for the hell of it, throwing in a sarcastic “thanks” as well. That was outright bullying and I wasn’t going to put up with it any longer. I was ticked off and, going against every instinct in my 100-pound body, pushed back. He fell back a couple steps and looked stunned.
Suddenly the world slowed down. I watched the water bottle fall and the water trickle out. I was thinking, “Oh crap, should have just let him take the water.” I was about to get in a fight. I wasn’t scared of him, even though he was two heads taller than me. No, what I was really concerned about was the talk with the counselors afterward. I didn’t want to get into trouble.
I tensed my body, waiting for him to throw a punch. Out of the corner of my eyes I saw a crowd gathering. Then another eighth grader stepped in and separated us. The PE teacher peeked his head around the lockers to see what the commotion was about. And just like that it was over. The bell rang and I slipped into the crowd to go to lunch.
In my mind, I would challenge him to a duel after school, somehow summoning my inner Bruce Lee and opening up a can of Jackie Chan theatricals on his sorry butt. Fortunately for me, I think he either avoided me or I avoided him and eventually the whole incident was forgotten. It bothered me, however, that such people could really exist. With high school approaching I was worried about bullies and whether I would be accepted.
During the summer before my freshman year I took summer school and joined the marching band. That meant 10 hours in the sun practicing during band camp. We were preparing for the Stevie Wonder-themed show we were going to perform that August. Everyone grumbled good naturedly about marching in the heat, and giggled whenever the director told us to “blow harder.” Everyone seemed to know that the freshmen would not know anything about marching (because we didn’t). And for that they babied us, “do this instead of this.”
I was surprised by how friendly everyone was. No one looked at me like I didn’t belong. I had imagined that the older kids, being older and “cooler,” wouldn’t talk to the freshmen. During our first couple days of band camp, I was eating lunch with other freshmen when a sophomore, Daniel, sat next to us. “Hi, how’s school going?” He sprinkled in tips about high school, “Oh yeah, I love that teacher, she’s awesome. Just make sure you don’t sleep in her class.”
I appreciated that someone looked out for me
One day during the beginning of the school year the band was hanging out in the shade waiting for water. I was joking around with another freshman when he made a joke about the color of my trumpet (I had a black trumpet, which was an oddity in a yellow and silver brass world). I took this as a compliment, but the section leader Chris, standing within earshot, got up and put a hand on my shoulder and said to him, “Hey man, back off. He’s cool.” The guy shrugged and walked off. Chris was a 6-foot-tall junior (I looked up to him literally and figuratively). Chris turned and looked at me and said, “Hey man, if any guys give you trouble you let me know about it,” patted my shoulder and walked off. I was touched that this guy stood up for me. I hadn’t done anything for him, but he was looking out for me.
I realized at that moment that everything was going to be OK. I would have a family, the trumpets, to lean on for support throughout high school. The band upperclassmen gave me the confidence to make friends because they accepted me. I was ready to take on high school, get out there and meet people. High school was a chance to reinvent myself.
At first it was hard meeting new people. I almost always started off with a “hello” and usually went to small talk, followed by an uncomfortable silence, which I broke with some lame joke I had memorized from a joke book the day earlier. “Grandma gave me five bucks and said don’t tell your mother—I said it’s gonna cost you more than that.” This usually was followed by an awkward laugh from both of us that broke the ice. From there we would talk about classes and trade numbers for help on homework.
A couple weeks after starting high school and experiencing it in all of its glorious wonder (I was especially enthralled and disgusted by the couple that had chosen to make out right in front of my locker), I realized that I had come a long way from a shy introverted bookworm to a more outgoing person. High school seemed a much friendlier place. Everywhere I went, in class, in the lunch lines or the library, I would see people and say hi. When I passed my friends, I’d get high fives from the guys and one-armed hugs from the girls.
At lunch I sat with my group of friends from my classes and band, talking, joking and just being a normal teenager (that is when I wasn’t cramming for tests). It felt good to finally have a place to belong.
I got involved with other activities too. I joined the golf team, and was confident enough in my speaking abilities to volunteer to lead the speech team sophomore year.
Looking back at middle school I regret nothing. I see it as a useful lesson. It taught me that my insecurity invited torment. I think the reason I got pushed around was that the bullies were also insecure and needed to make themselves feel better by making someone else feel worse. Writing this article has been one of the harder things I’ve had to do, because it opens up all these old memories and old wounds. I feel like a different person now, as if all these things happened to another person.
I recently met with the incoming band freshmen during band camp. I do my best to help the freshmen. Anytime someone wants to talk to me or vent, I’m there for them. It makes me feel good when I see them looking at me the way I looked at Chris, and knowing they’ve got a friend in me.