This morning I was wasting time on Pinterest, scrolling through someone else’s food board (and judging from the number of pins featuring casserole dishes piled high with glistening, cheese-smothered, artery-clogging, totally scrumptious-looking food, this person must be as big as a house) when I spotted something that sent me into a flashback of my early days as a Jehovah’s Witness:
Terrifying, isn’t it? Yes it is, and this is why.
During 7th grade my family had been studying with the JWs and we had been adopting the new lifestyle, including dressing more conservatively. Well, I did anyway. Everyone else was fine, but I wore the prevailing style of the day, miniskirts. Mind you, I was not one of those girls who had to lean backwards in order to sit down and still maintain her ladylike facade, but I wasn’t “modestly dressed” by kingdom hall standards. As a result, my hemlines were sent crashing down to my kneecaps.
Dad was even more stodgy than most JW fathers and refused to allow me to wear pantyhose at age 13, so I had to stick with my cable-knit knee socks. By the time I was dressed I looked like a teenager from 1943.
Now, we lived in the boondocks, and even in 7th grade I was still attending an elementary school where standards of fashion were quite forgiving. Nobody at Carl B. Lord Elementary School gave my new look a second glance. I even got away with wearing gaucho pants!
However, Dad decided that our house was too far away from the center of all things JW, the kingdom hall. There were others in the congregation who lived even farther away than we did and seemed not to mind the drive. Gas was still only about 30 cents a gallon (free steak knives or monogrammed tumblers with a fill-up), so that was no motivation. In any case, the house was sold and we moved into town.
The circumstances of that move were a bit unfortunate. We had to be out of our country house only a couple of weeks after the folks bought the house in town. The real estate agent had told us it would be no problem but then neglected to inform the family living in our new digs until only a week before we were to move in. Those poor people had to pack and dash and apparently they spread some bile around the neighborhood about the reason for their hasty departure.
Our neighbors were not pleased to see us move in. Our car got egged a few times, and the kids would hoot and holler and throw rocks at my brother and me as we rode our bikes past their house. Great, just great. In a few weeks we were also sharing classrooms with those little thugs.
I suspect Mom was trying to be thoughtful when she spotted that lunch box in the store and brought it home for me. She even said, “It’s plaid! Plaid is very fashionable this year!” With that she dispatched me to my new school.
I was an 8th grader, starting at a junior high school where second-year students were supposed to know the school routines and rules. Since I was extremely shy and timid to begin with, standing out in any way was a horror show for me. I didn’t dare to ask questions, and I had no friends. Consequently, I made mistakes and got yelled at a few times by the office staff.
The school building itself was spooky. It was a three-story gothic-style brick building that had formerly been used as the high school. Inside, the hallways were gloomy and hung with tapestries depicting Medieval life. The ceilings were high and there were huge staircases that we had to climb. My home room was on the third floor. They had even stuffed a few classrooms in the basement which featured circuitous corridors bristling with mechanical devices and pipes. The classrooms on the upper floors had 10-foot-tall windows, most of which opened only under extreme protest. There was nothing familiar, homey, or cheerful about that building. It screamed “Dickensian insane asylum.” All the place needed was gargoyles and a Scottish moor to complete the effect.
Being the new kid is hard enough without also showing up on the first day outfitted in long skirts, knee socks, a red plaid lunch box, oh and don’t forget – a set of bizarre religious beliefs, some of which forced me to take unpopular stands. Life would have been easier if I’d had a “kick me” sign taped to my back. In the hallways I was taunted, teased, pointed at. It took me a few days and a lot of tears to master the combination lock on my locker (surprisingly enough Carl B. Lord Elementary didn’t feature lockers). But the worst torment occurred in the cafeteria where my lunch box was the most popular object of ridicule ever to make an appearance in that school. The inside of the box bore the slogan “One of the ‘Rustless’ ones!” in an unfortunately bold font. The kids sitting at my table found that slogan to be endlessly hilarious. It’s a wonder I made it out of that building alive on the first day.
After a tearful night back at home where I begged my father to take me out of school, (I mean, what was the point of enduring all of that trauma when Armageddon was coming in a couple of years anyway – or maybe sooner, you couldn’t know) the red plaid lunchbox stayed at home and I was allowed to use a paper bag. Believe me, that was a huge concession in my house. Even knowing the humiliation I was enduring at school my father insisted that I wear a skirt or dress at least 3 times a week.
We lived about 2 miles from the school, and at first I rode my bike to and from school every day. Once the weather got cold and snowy I decided to try the school bus. I had always ridden the bus when we lived in the williwacks and was used to old Mr. Boler or Benny White, both of whom ran a tight ship. One day, a boy gave Benny some lip, and the bus came to an immediate stop. Benny threw the kid (and I mean threw) off the bus and we carried on as usual.
Their only concession to our youthfulness was occasionally to drive fast down the pothole-infested final leg of our bus ride while we bounced on the back seats hoping to hit our heads on the ceiling. That’s what passed for thrills in North Vassalboro, Maine. That, and on especially cold mornings spitting on the aluminum railing on our front porch and watching it freeze almost immediately.
Riding the bus in town was quite another experience. On my first ride someone grabbed the hat off my head and threw it out the window. It was when the food fight started that I decided I’d rather freeze my patootie off walking back and forth than ride with the single-helix mutants on that bus.
So, when I innocently scrolled to that photograph of my old nemesis, the red plaid lunchbox, all of the horror came flooding back over me. But now, sharing it all with you, I feel I’ve exorcised those particular demons.