When I was in seventh grade, girls started carrying purses to school. I remember being confused, since everything typically kept in a purse could be kept in a backpack, but since peer approval has always been close to the top of my hierarchy of needs, I dug up a small leopard print purse my grandma had given to me a few Christmases ago and decided I would bring it to school. That weekend I spent hours contemplating what to put in it, and by Sunday evening the only items that had made into my purse were my phone and some chapstick.
The next morning I left home with my purse over my shoulder, gripping the strap tightly as I walked towards the bus stop. But as I approached and saw my friends sitting at the curb, panic rose from my gut and I quickly hid my purse in my backpack. Even before the school day had started, the fear of what my middle school peers might think was crippling - paralyzing even. (Now that I work in a middle school, I see that this fear innately lives within everyone, but is especially pronounced in middle school).
I hid my purse in my backpack until gym class which I had with a girl named Jackie, the only person at school who I knew wouldn't make fun of me or judge me if I showed her my purse.
I don’t think I could’ve articulated at the time why Jackie was the only person I was willing to share my purse secret with. I'd like to say it was because she always nice to me – which she was, and genuinely so. But though I’d like to think that my middle-school-self saw the value in Jackie’s sincerity and kindness, the truth is that Jackie was closer to the bottom of the social totem pole than I was, and that underneath my seemingly innocent motive was a subtle but poisonous belief that I was somehow better than Jackie, and thus how she viewed me and my purse was of little consequence.
Jackie didn't fit into a clique like all the other kids at South Point Middle School. She wore long denim skirts to school and her hair was kept in braids. She laughed too loudly at times, and kids would say things about her family, or lack of one, and make comments about the way she smelled. Every day in the cafeteria I would see her eating near other people, but never with them, a smile always on her face and a ratty light blue sweater tied around her waist.
It was the sweater I would picture in my mind in the months to come when we would whisper about what happened.
My middle school wasn't the most ideal place to experience the woes of adolescence, but it was still shocking to hear of someone attempting suicide, especially on school property. It was Kelsey who saw Jackie’s sweater hanging from the pole in the bathroom and realized what was happening just in time to call for help from the nearest adult. I thought later about how it must’ve been God who picked that moment for Kelsea to walk through the doors of the girls bathroom, before it was too late.
After that day, school felt heavy, ominous even – the guidance counselors made sure to talk to every class about what happened and let us know that we could talk to them about anything we were feeling or had questions about.
The heaviness lasted for about a month or so, and then life kind of went on. Jackie came back to school, and I can’t really remember if anyone talked to her about what happened. Before I we knew it, the school year was over and I ended up moving across town and going to a different school.
For the month after the incident, everyone wanted to know why it happened, why she did it. I thought about the day I had showed her my purse. She hadn’t said much, besides that she liked it, and a few days later I felt a little less self-conscious about carrying my purse around. It was on that same day in the cafeteria, as we sat on our plastic benches eating lukewarm bean burritos, someone said loudly, ‘Jackie smells like trash’.
What happened after that is a blur in my mind. I remember the smell of bean burritos but I don’t remember the smell of trash, and I remember the sound of laughter but I don’t remember if I laughed along or not. But what I do remember is Jackie sitting a couple tables away and how we were laughing at Jackie, and how Jackie had not laughed at my leopard print purse.
It haunted me for a few years afterward, remembering the laughter and thinking about the image of a light blue sweater hanging from the pole in the girls bathroom. I remember writing stories about it in high school whenever given a free writing prompt, always including the light blue sweater and the pole in the girls bathroom. My teachers never asked questions and I kept writing.
I’ve been thinking about what happened with Jackie more now that I’ve started working at a middle school again. Once in the middle of a rough school day, a student handed me a small blade, something they’ve been taught to do whenever they are intentionally holding on to something could be used to cause themselves harm. Fear and heaviness that shot through my veins, and I’ve kept that blade and a few more since then. On some days I look at them and picture the faces of individual students and of Jackie.
I've been thinking lately about how difficult of a task it is for not only middle-schoolers but adults as well to choose to be kind. As someone who’s done it, I can say with certainty that it’s easy to laugh along when someone is saying that someone smells like trash. It’s easy to value your standing with your peers more than another person’s wellbeing, and it’s easy to consider your own feelings above the feelings of others. It’s easy to be a bystander.
Waking up each day and choosing kindness even when it often means risking something of yourself is not easy. In fact, it’s grueling and intentional work, and in reality cannot be mustered up from within, but must come from Someone greater.
I’ve lost contact with Jackie, and almost everyone else I knew at the time. Maybe it was intentional - I’m not sure, to be honest. I never found out what happened to her, but I see her in the faces of so many of my students, who I hope are learning to be kind. I’m starting to realize that there’s only so much I can teach them, especially as I struggle to be kind myself – and the world is relentless with its prejudice, injustice, and hatred. But if there’s anything I hope they begin to see, it’s that it’s an honor to live among other human beings, and there isn’t a soul in the world that isn’t sacred and precious.