Thursday, February 21, 2008

Mary Jane Peters

Just writing that name spooks me, all these years later. Mary Jane Peters was that one kid in grade and high school who caught shit from everyone. She had “cooties” … whatever the hell they are. If you wanted to freak a guy out, you’d write “Mary Jane Peters + (insert guy’s name here)" on any surface, and this would inspire an immediate cross-out campaign with a ballpoint pen or magic marker that would leave tears and indentations on the writing surface. Those bullied kids (and apparently young adults) who freak out now and shoot up their schools? Mary Jane Peters was the one person from my youth who would have had valid reasons to ponder this.

I looked in my senior yearbook, and she wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened to her between grade school and our senior year of high school. (We were in the same grade.) She must have transferred at some point, although I can’t recall when that was. I’m not even sure what town she was from in the area. I pictured her having a hard scrabble existence, living in a crooked house on the side of a coal bank, parents with bad dental work, skinned rabbits hanging in the back yard on a clothes line, like The Addams Family, always raining over their house.

A few years ago, one of my co-writers at the NYPress, George Tabb, put out an excellent book about growing up Jewish in suburban Connecticut in the 1970s: Playing Right Field: A Jew Grows In Greenwich.

The book is written by the male Mary Jane Peters, the one kid who got his ass kicked on a regular basis, who was harassed constantly, raised by a maniacal father, picked on constantly for his ethnicity and simply falling into the role of being “that kid” – kids have memories like elephants and will drag the tarnished image of “that kid” from grade to middle to high school. George got it in spades; the book is darkly hilarious. Frankly, I didn’t like his follow-up book anywhere near as much, as George actually found some kind of happiness and acceptance in his life. (In my mind, he writes much better when the odds are completely against him, and there’s no hope of him ever escaping his horrible situation.)

At that time I wrote to George, confessing to him my sin of the one situation where I could have treated Mary Jane Peters humanely, but instead chose to be a typical adolescent prick. Shit like that haunts me now. I didn’t do a lot of it, but the times I did do something horrible in my youth, I can recall them now clearly.

I think Mary Jane’s main crime may have just been that she looked odd. She was a bigger kid, not huge, but a big girl, with stringy, light brown hair and standard-issue cat-eye glasses that didn’t do her any favors. A round face, very plain looking. Hygiene problems? I don’t recall any, although I’m sure legend has it she smelled “funny” or something. She did act “weird” by asshole teenage standards. Her manner of speech was very clipped and formal which, given her working-class background like the rest of ours, stood out. I do recall her style of dress being a little run-down, a little beat-up, clearly some Salvation Army duds in her spring and fall collections. This being a rural working-class area, plenty of kids fell into that category. Shit, I was constantly wearing ragged hand-me-down pants that had clear lines in the hem where my mother had let down and brought up the length of the leg to suit whichever brother was wearing them at the time. I don’t recall her ever being abusive or strange to people. She didn’t really have a chance as kids were being abusive and strange to her 24-7.

Kids would do the most incredibly insulting shit to her. A big one would be for some burlier guys to pick up a small guy, when the teacher wasn’t around, and heave the small guy onto her desk while she sat there. Of course, the small guy would act like he had just been heaved into a sewage treatment tank, writhe in faux agony, then bolt away, screaming. Girls would pretend to see “cooties” in her hair or on her desk and scream shit like, “Ew! Ew! Look at Mary Jane’s cooties!” while everyone sitting near her would pretend to scatter away in fear.

The implication was head lice? I got news for you. We were checked for head lice constantly in grade school. I don’t recall her ever being flagged for this. The concept was to paint her as someone who had fleas and lice, because she was weird. There was no evidence of this. All there was evidence of was kids doing what they do best: treat each other like absolute pieces of shit because they were warped. We all did this to each other in varying degrees, but no one seemed to grasp the insanity of singling out kids like Mary Jane and making her a constant recipient of this sort of irrational abuse. Most kids, it occurs to me now, were borderline psychopaths, constantly on the lookout for situations where they could humiliate another kid. Why? I guess there would be any number of reasons for that. Even in my own house where we were raised reasonably well, I can recall fighting like cats and dogs with my siblings, raging fights, over nothing, really. Ditto childhood friends. I’m sure a child psychologist could separate all the bad wiring, but the basic, unavoidable truth is kids tend to be assholes. And they often grow up to become even bigger assholes when they can’t figure out why their personal lives are rubble. Dr. Freud, eat your heart out!

So, there’s your picture of Mary Jane, this basically isolated person whose daily life at school was transformed into burning hell by kids who would normally blanch at the idea of lynch mobs and bullies … but for some reason suspended all logic for her. I think she did have some friends, but I’m not sure how close they were. I hope she had someone to keep her head on reasonably straight. She must have, because despite the constant harassment, she seemed fairly well-adjusted. Sure, very much on the quiet side, but again, I’m factoring in the full-court press of abuse she tolerated every day.

Let’s go back to the sixth grade. One Saturday, I was riding my bike around the hospital. I lived in a very small town, less than 500 people, but we were noted for two things: having a Catholic/Protestant cemetery on the hill, and a hospital on the edge of town. Both the cemetery and the hospital were great places for kids to congregate, as both had open expanses of green grass at various points. We often played football and baseball on the hospital and cemetery fields. In winter, we’d sleigh ride on the hill in the cemetery, and walk through the hospital grounds to get to the great hills on the country club golf course just past a wooded area behind the hospital.

And we’d ride bikes around each. The hospital had a maze of roads leading around the grounds, a very small, vaguely industrial area with a big power plant on the edge by the golf course, a place that seemed like a haunted castle. I’d often go on bike rides around the hospital grounds just to get away from it all, i.e., a small house filled with six other people, and a neighborhood crawling with too many kids on the tail end of the Baby Boom.

That day, I was riding around the hospital parking lot, when I noticed a kid slightly younger than I was, probably about 10, staring at me while he leaned on a car. No big deal, I thought, stare all you want, I’ll do one more lap around this parking lot, and then I’ll be gone. As I passed him, the kid yelled out “Asshole!” and started sticking out his tongue.

What the fuck, I thought, in my 12-year-old mind. Doesn’t this kid know I could destroy him in a fight? What’s his problem? What have I done to arouse his anger. I circled back and asked, “What’s your problem?” He answered something like, you, you big dick.

Just as I was getting ready to get off my 21-inch Huffy with banana seat and dust the little prick, I saw two more kids approach from the hospital, a boy and a girl. For whatever reason, the lot, which had plenty of cars, was empty of other people. As they got nearer, I could see, much to my surprise, that one of them was Mary Jane Peters, apparently with a little brother, younger than the kid who was trying to pick a fight with me.

“Hi, Bill,” Mary Jane called out. I was shocked that she knew my name. Sure, we were in the same sixth grade class, but I don’t recall ever speaking to her before. And I wasn’t one of those kids who took perverse pleasure in ragging on her all day. I didn’t mess with anybody. A, I wasn’t raised that way; B, I couldn’t stand when other kids would mess with me. I think the theme song of my youth was “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” by Bo Donaldsen & the Heywoods. While I wouldn’t take part in the degradation of Mary Jane Peters, I also wouldn’t befriend her either.

“Hi, Mary Jane,” I answered, a little befuddled.

“Don’t mind my brother, he fights with everybody.”

“He called me an asshole.”

I can’t remember the kid’s name. Let’s say it was Dave.

“Dave, apologize to Bill for calling him an asshole.”

Dave kicked some pebbles away, eyes downcast, hands in the pockets of his shorts.

“Aw. I’m sorry for calling you an asshole. I didn’t mean it.”

“Thank you, Dave,” Mary Jane said, “that was very nice of you.”

Dave asked if he could ride my bike. I think that was the real reason he called me an asshole. He coveted my bike, which was no great shakes, but I gather Mary Jane’s family wasn’t in great shape financially. While I let Dave ride my bike around the parking lot, Mary Jane and I had a conversation, I can’t recall exactly what it was about. I gathered she was there to visit a sick relative, and her parents were still inside during visiting hours, telling the kids to go out and play.

What I recall thinking was, christ, she’s normal. She’s actually a nice person. Good manners. Reasonably intelligent. Lucid … although the word “lucid” would not have materialized in my 12-year-old mind. I would have expected her to be a cauldron of bitterness and rage over the constant abuse. She still seemed weird, with a very formal, clipped way of speaking, like we were at a tea party. But certainly no more weird than other kids, and far less hostile. Eventually, her parents came out, Dave, who now seemed happy, gave my bike, and I rode off into the late spring evening, mind partially blown by this unexpected encounter with a legendary cootie.

How was I going to handle this new knowledge? Probably no differently than I had. The conversation wasn’t so revelatory or exciting that I left thinking, “I’ve found a new friend!” I surely wasn’t attracted to her. It was just a nice moment where I got to extend an olive branch across that pre-adolescent sea of misunderstanding, to see that this person who was treated like a monster wasn’t much different than anyone else I knew. I’d say “hi” to her in the hall, talk to her on occasion – I was convinced that much would change. I wasn’t the kind of person and am not now that I’d pretend something hadn’t happened and present her with a stone face.

I go to school on Monday. All is well in my neck of the classroom. At some point, probably a study hall around lunch, I hear a commotion over near Mary Jane’s desk, which isn’t unusual. Coarse laughter, finger pointing, the usual. One of the more popular girls in the class blurts out, hey everybody, read this, as she holds up a notebook, apparently Mary Jane's notebook. Mary Jane just sits there staring straight ahead.

On the back of the notebook is a huge heart with an arrow through it, and written on the inside, in florid blue script is “Mary Jane + Bill.”

I just about shit. Two days after our quiet hospital parking lot interlude. Who else could it be. I could see that she was so un-used to basic kindness from kids her age, that once I showed her some, she went completely overboard and had developed a crush on me. While I should have been thrilled that any girl felt that way about me, this felt more like being chased by a bear covered in burning shit. I was terrified that everyone would find out it was me who Mary Jane meant. There were a lot of Bill’s around. Kids knew I had no contact with her, positive or negative. No one immediately suspected. Maybe she meant a troll named Bill who lived under the bridge by the interstate?

Ms. Popularity started grilling Mary Jane in front of everyone; it was like an episode of Phil Donahue where he had a Nazi or someone of that ilk in front a grumbling, angry audience. They wanted payback, answers, recriminations.

“So, Mary Jane, who’s your new boyfriend, this ‘Bill’ – do we know him?”

Mary Jane just sat there, staring straight ahead, as she always had when kids pulled this kind of abusive crap on her. Thank God she was playing dead again. If she had pointed or looked at me, I think I might have spontaneously human combusted. One thing to note here: I was a chubby kid. I guess I was cute enough, but chubby kids tend not to be sex symbols of any sorts to pre-pubescent girls. I wasn’t hot stuff by anyone’s standards. The concept that Mary Jane would suddenly fixate on chubby smart-guy Bill on the other side of the class room didn’t seem to enter anyone’s mind – there just wasn’t any connection. If I had been some Rob Lowe-looking kid, then it could have been implied that Mary Jane had become infatuated with an unobtainable god.

I can’t recall Ms. Popularity’s name, but I recall we got along, because she was a “smart kid” too. (Yes, even some smart kids were animals.) Smart, but nasty, like an egg-sucking dog. I think as a joke, she called across the room, “Hey, Bill, did you know Mary Jane is in love with you?”

Fuck’s sake, I was on the spot. Ms. Popularity’s voice was dripping with sarcasm, like she was sharing an inside joke with me (in front of 30 other kids with everything but a spotlight on her). She knew it couldn’t be me. But I had to play along because if I had shrugged and told the truth, it would have blown everyone’s mind: “Yeah, she probably does mean me. I ran into Mary Jane in the hospital parking lot on Saturday, we talked, and while I thought we made a nice connection, we’re certainly not in love, or at least I know I’m not. Mary Jane, you’re a good person, even better in light of all the shit you take from these regrettable goons, but I have to make it clear that I see us being ‘just friends’ much as none of us like to hear that. We get along. You’re cool. Let’s just be friends, because I don’t want that boyfriend/girlfriend thing with you, OK?”

I recognized I had to completely reject Mary Jane in front of a kangaroo court of 12-year-olds who would never understand that sort of humane, rational answer. Their response would have been to start chanting: “Mary Jane and Bill/Sitting in a tree/K-I-S-S-I-N-G …” You can’t reason with shitheads, a point I’ve had driven home many times before and since, with people of all colors, creeds and classes, across every strata of humanity. I made a sour-puss face.

“Oh, no! It ain't me! I don’t want to get cooties! I would kiss Mr. Savage first!”

(Mr. Savage was our sixth grade home-room teacher. I don’t think he was gay, but he could have been, can’t recall his back story and if that was part of it or not. He did seem vaguely gay. The implication, of course, was that I would rather make it with a man than Mary Jane, thus alleviating me from even the slightest suspicion that I would have anything to do with Mary Jane. And, of course, the thought of me kissing Mr. Savage was an outrageous bon mot, clearly aimed at the cheap seats, some dime-store homophobia in lieu of a fart joke.)

Ms. Popularity laughed. Everyone did. Except Mary Jane. Who sat there, stone faced. She glanced at me momentarily, and in that glance, I could see something breaking. Not her heart. I don’t think that was possible after all she’d been through in the past few years. It might have been her faith in common decency, that one person could treat her with such kindness, and then carelessly turn around two days later and lay a brutal smackdown on her in public that would destroy all previous goodwill.

I had gone over to the dark side and felt like a real asshole, made all the worse by the approving howls of laughter around me. I was one of them now, one of the pricks who delighted in humiliating this poor girl who had never harmed anyone. The Beatles were huge on my playlist at the time, and the instrumental portion of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” was playing in my head. Evil-sounding stuff.

It was a perfect storm of bad circumstance. Mary Jane hadn’t meant other people to see her secret heart – it was on the back of the notebook, no doubt snatched from her desk by one of the cretins as a prank. I guess she wrote that so she could have some physical evidence of kindness that existed after the fact. Ms. Popularity saw her chance for another moment in the spotlight, grabbed it, then dragged me into it in public, not grasping that I really was this mythical “Bill” referred to in the heart. Like another infamous Bill, many years later, my policy of self preservation became obvious: deny, deny, deny. They never did find out who “Bill” was. A few days later, she had put a big “X” through my name in the heart and told everyone she and Bill had “broken up.”

Is it clear why I still feel troubled over that situation, a good 30 years later? I’ve surely mistreated people since, sometimes on purpose, but that one instance, that was one time in my life when I hung someone out to dry when I should have made a stand against the ass-backwards world we were living in. Didn’t happen, at least not on my watch. I don’t want to romanticize the plight of Mary Jane – she was just a kid who got picked on too much and somehow learned to live with it. By the same token, I don’t want to play down what an awful thing that was I did to her, and how it still bothers me now that I shit on my principles to save myself from a moment of the humiliation she experienced on a regular basis.

Where is she now? Man, who knows. I couldn’t answer that question in 1982, much less now. When did she break off from the rest of us? I wish I could pinpoint that. A few of us would like to fantasize that at one of our reunions, kids like Mary Jane would show up looking like Cindy Crawford in a french maid outfit, toting a flamethrower and lighting people on fire as they slow-danced to "Keep on Loving You" by REO Speedwagon. That never happened either. I hope she turned out all right – I suspect she did, as the inundation of darkness she received as a kid no doubt prepared her for adulthood and the “real” world. People do come out the other end of experiences like that, often with a depth and understanding that attractive and/or popular kids could never understand. And it still grates on me that I made life that much harder for her.

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