Junior high is a tough time in any young person’s life. It’s that time in our lives when we’re still not old enough to drive a car, but still too cool to be seen with our parents in public. It’s a time when we ridicule our enemies, but cut our friends down even worse. Our bodies are changing awkwardly, and our behavior is inexplicable. It’s the time when some kids move from puppy love relationships to actually getting physical with members of the opposite sex. It’s that time when we all struggle to fit in, still finding out who we are and what kind of people we will become. Everyone is self-conscious, and even the ultra-rich or ultra-popular could be susceptible to ruin and shame if they slipped up in the preservation of self-image.
Although no one would ever confuse me with being rich or popular, I was fairly well-known since I was, even at that age, outspoken, really just an asshole, and I could get away with it because I was so much bigger than my peers. Long before I became the bold, alluring, bad-ass I am today; (pause for laughter) I was a fat, sloppy, teenager, seeking approval from everyone around me. I had a big mouth but an even bigger waistline, so I made myself an easy target, which would ensure that I would never be physical with the opposite sex and that I’d never fit in with the cool kids. Looking back, I gave both my friends and enemies plenty of ammunition to use as ridicule, but it wasn’t just my fault. The teenager in me still blames my parents for a lot of the agony I endured as an adolescent.
The first source of blame I put on my parents’ shoulders is that they had an amazing benefits package through their paper mill, which meant I got the finest dental care. How could having a brilliant, white smile be the source of pain? Well in order for it to get that way I had to undergo so many unnecessary procedures, at the hands of my orthodontist, a man whose name was Dr. Kruel. I’m not sure if that was his birth name, or just a dental “stage name” he undertook because the guy played the part of a cruel asshole. Dr. Kruel installed a metal spacer in the roof of my mouth, which helped straighten my teeth, but first created a large gap between my two front teeth, a gap large enough to make me look like a beaten up boxer, without the muscles or glory. After that Kruel recommended a retainer that I was supposed to wear at all times, and I mostly did, except for when I was accidental throwing it away every other day. I’d leave it on my lunch tray, or my plate, then scrape it off into the garbage and have to go dumpster diving just to retrieve it. Because at this point in my life nearly half my caloric intake was from the six or so Pepsis I drank a day, my retainer was brown, and starting to corrode from all the different acids found in soda. You think this would have been a warning sign, to quit drinking soda, but my parents always made sure we had no less than eight cases of soda in our house at any one time.
By far the most memorable dental experience, and Kreul’s second favorite form of medieval torture, was the headgear he forced on me like I was “The Man in the Iron Mask.” Fortunately, I only had to wear this catcher’s mask to bed at night, and never out in public, but that didn’t prevent it from single handily ruining my life for almost two years. The mask had plastic pads that braced my forehead and chin. The pads were connected by metal bars, which formed a jagged grill on the outside of my mouth. I then latched four rubber bands from the outer grill to my retainer inside my mouth, and then tried to sleep in a way that didn’t fuck the whole process up, a nearly impossible task. The rubber bands ensured that my mouth would be agape all night, and nightly I woke up in a puddle of drool. In the morning I’d have crusty saliva all over my face, causing my skin to break out like wild fire. The plastic pads on my forehead and chin also irritated my skin, which meant that my rather normal looking face had become the Mount Saint Helens of acne explosions, a poster child for Neutrogena if there ever was one. It was horrible, but it only went on for two years, and besides teens never pick on kids with acne at that age.
To remedy the acne my parents took me to a dermatologist. I don’t remember his name, but he must have gone to the same school as Kreul, the school where they teach wannabe doctors how to humiliate teens. This doctor prescribed an acne medication in the form of a balm I applied to my face twice a day. The stuff could have burned genital warts of the devil’s dick because it felt like it was made from 90 percent bleach. However, it wasn’t able to cure my acne, in fact the medication made things worse, because it burnt my face, causing my skin to crack, peel and flake away. My face looked like those images of a lake that dries up, to reveal crazy series or irregular, cracked lines.
The final straw with “Doctor” Kruel came when I reached high school and I was up to my teeth in his bullshit. A couple years earlier he decided it was in my sister’s best interest to have her jaw broken to reset her smile. My sister’s smile was far from gruesome; in fact she was rather pretty. But seeing her in the hospital after the procedure and watching her eat through a straw for a few weeks was more than I needed to see to know Kruel had lost his damn mind. So, when lacking in other ways to suck my parents’ dental plan for money, he recommended breaking my jaw as well, I realized enough was enough. I got out of his dental chair, walked out of the office and never returned. I don’t care how many cute Garfield postcards he sent in the mail, reminding me I was overdue a visit; I wasn’t going to be subjected to his delirious torture plans any more. The mild overbite Kreul sought to remedy persists today, and contrary to his caveats I’m able to speak, to eat and to smile without puncturing holes in my mouth
The second thing my parents did to ensure I would be an outcast, shunned by the popular kids forever, was to buy a new car while I was in junior high. Well, the car wouldn’t even have been considered new in the year I was born, as it rolled on the line in 1977, and I came into the world in 1983. It was our neighbor’s dowdy 1977 Ford Thunderbird, a car more out of style than bell bottoms. Judging from the smell of moth balls that lingered for years after, the previous owners must have had it in storage for some time before my dad bought it. Actually, I’m not sure if he bought it or lost some sort of bar bet, because the thing was a monstrosity. It was mostly burgundy with a tan roof and rims. People joke about old cars being as big as boats but this thing was an aircraft carrier. No exaggeration, I think we were attacked by Somali pirates at least once a week riding home from school. When we drove it on the highway, we would have to stop at weigh stations because it had to weigh about 8000 pounds.
My dad would pick me up after football practice out front of the school, but I’d beg him to meet me a block… or six away. My friends would laugh as we’d see the red and tan ship sailing into port, my dad’s arm proudly hanging out the window. Sometimes I’d have friends who needed a ride home, but upon seeing it, they too decided it would be best to get some exercise and just walk home.
The inside was the same tan color as the exterior trim and the vinyl seats were brutal in extreme temperatures. In the summer your legs burnt if you wore shorts; in the winter you’d freeze if the car wasn’t preheated. Regardless of temperature any exposed skin would cling to the seat and you needed a spatula to pry yourself free after long rides. One of the few luxuries was that it came with AC, a feature we probably used three times a year. My dad preferred to roll the windows down, and besides, running the AC meant being trapped inside with the odor of moth balls. Luckily I was just a few years away from a license and having my own car, but the damage was already inflicted on my social standing.
A third form of misery I dealt with as a teen in my parents’ house was that we didn’t have cable television until I reached junior high. Actually since we lived out in the Styx there was no cable, we finally arrived when we got a shitty satellite. When we did finally get some premium channels going there was one program that I’d never miss: Monday night wrestling. This didn’t make me a complete lame ass, since wrestling was at its highest popularity in those days. Muscle-bound men leaping around in their underwear, with shaved legs and chests would never be more enthralling than at the height of the WWE/WCW rivalry. A couple older friends who didn’t have cable would drive over, and we’d be engrossed by three hours of wrestling each week. My parents would let me occasionally order Pay Per View events and we’d get together 10 or 20 guys and hoot and holler over our favorite wrestlers.
Wrestling was always a hot topic at our lunch table in junior high. The lunchroom again, represented a caste system similar to the bus we took to school. There was a table for the jocks, druggies, rednecks nerds, minorities and handicapped kids. Our table was a hodgepodge of kids who didn’t fit in anywhere else. These were the kids who didn’t play the “cool” sports: wrestlers, linemen from the football team and perennial bench warmers. We also had the skater kids who didn’t really skate, a couple of nerdy guys, a kid who was half Indian and a few kids who were known to spaz. We’d spend the lunch hour ripping on each other, and occasionally things would get so bad that our group would break apart into smaller factions when grudges formed. I’d like to think of myself as the Ambassador of Misfits. I could bring everyone together, and on some days when I’d bring in a box of the best cinnamon rolls in town, I’d get us a place at the cool table with my former jock friends from grade school.
There was one kid, named Adam, however, that took his love for wrestling to extremely nerdy heights and eating lunch with him meant my friends and I were lame by association. He owned every “Stone Cold” Steve Austin shirt ever made, and in the days when the internet was still a novel thing to all of us, he created a website dedicated to his favorite wrestler. One day in class, Adam had a seizure and missed a couple days of school. We were relieved to hear he was ok, but wickedly we were relieved to not have him sit by us for a couple days. When word quickly spread that during his seizure Adam lost control of his bladder, and pissed himself we knew it was going to be a delicate situation when he returned. We speculated on how to handle it and my friend Jake summed things up best. “If I pissed myself at school I’d change my name and move to another town.” We laughed for days about that remark, but knew it was true; junior high was a tumultuous time, all that anyone wanted to do was survive without a catastrophic embarrassment. Adam came back a couple days later but soon decided to ostracize himself from our group, which was probably the best for all of us.
One final thing I can blame and thank my parents for is that they allowed me to dress however I chose, provided it fit within their budget. I graduated from Shopko brand jeans to Levi’s during junior high. I refused to wear any sports gear that wasn’t Nike or at least Reebok. They bought me some killer Shawn Kemp and Jamal Mashburn basketball shoes, which helped place the focus on my abnormally huge feet, and off my greasy, disgusting face. But there was one thing they’d buy for me that I’d regret almost instantly.
Around this time a clothing label known as FUBU rose in popularity among teens. FUBU started in New York and was popular in the hip-hop community. Most of their clothing was outfitted with the colors of gangs: red and black or navy blue, and was branded with the number “05,” which I never understood. FUBU stood for “For Us By Us,” which meant that it was largely intended for African-Americans. In my junior high this meant it was worn by the druggies, the gangsta wannabes, the kids who listened to ICP (a god awful bunch of white rapping clowns), and more sparingly the few minorities who could afford it. I didn’t really know who I was at that time, so I decided I wanted in on this trend and my mom obliged, buying me a red FUBU hooded sweatshirt from the mall.
That night my older friends came over to watch wrestling and I could hardly contain my excitement. When they asked what was causing me to be so wound up, I told them I was dying to wear my new hoody to school the next day, my popularity would soon be soaring through the roof. They asked me to put in on and when I did their reaction was absolute horror, chastising me, “NOOOOO!!! You aren’t serious are you?? Do you know what kinds of kids wear those? No, Ben, NO!” All I wanted was approval, and here my best friends were tearing me a new asshole. I put the FUBU hoody back in the bag with the receipt; we returned it to the mall that week, and never spoke of the day when I almost became a Central Wisconsin hip-hop mogul.
By the time I graduated high school FUBU went under in America and focused solely on international markets. Part of this is because everyone copied their style. Wal-Mart rolled out similar clothing, but in place of the signature “05” they instead had “08” printed on them. The kids who couldn’t afford to shop at the mall were blasted for wearing these knock-offs and there was no surer way to guarantee your low spot on the social totem pole, with the exception of pissing your pants at school. I’d like to think my buying the FUBU hoody also contributed to their demise. Surely, that trend had jumped the shark when I brought it home from the mall and tried it on for my friends that night.
Looking at myself now, it seems the more things change the more they stay the same. I still find myself driving piece of shit cars. I still dress like a total clown some times. My friends and I still tear each other apart, worse than any enemy ever could. One thing that has changed is I no longer have to deal with acne. The other big change is that I don’t care what people think anymore. I once read somewhere a quote that I can paraphrase to sum up my feelings on growing older as it pertains to the opinions of other people. Before you turn 20 you care too much about what other people think. When you hit 30, you no longer care what people think. By the time you reach 40 you realized no one was thinking about you all along.
I find that fitting because we are all tied up in our own little worlds as teens, thinking the world revolves around us, when in reality, we’re all too busy to constantly notice everyone around us. No matter what age we are, we all strive to be accepted, but it’s self-acceptance as we age that tends to matter most. These days I don’t care what people think, but when I find myself worrying about my friends’ opinions a little too much I grab my lunch and eat alone.