My public school education experience can best be described as a dichotomy between rich and poor.
I grew up from 5-12yrs old in Manassas Park, Virginia. While there I attended the Manassas Park public school system where school was cancelled due to gang violence, some punk thought it was a good idea to burn the library, and the socio-economic classes were divided by a set of train tracks. In Manassas Park you could literally be born ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’.
Growing up in Manassas Park was good. I lived in a brand new subdivision that, while we lived there, gained a golf course and little shopping area. Life could have been lived exclusively on my side of the tracks if it weren’t for the fact that the schools were located in the heart of Manassas Park. Thus, I mingled with kids of all walks of life.
My friends were fiercely loyal and making friends was making family. Calling someone your friend meant calling them your comrade, your confidant, and you would do anything for them. Even in seventh grade I knew this. Girls often fought because some other girl ‘didn’t have her back’ or ‘was talking scrap behind her back’. Dating an ex, calling each other names, or hanging out with a girl from a different clique often deteriorated into the squall of a cat fight. Yes, I’m still talking about middle school and below.
For the record, my fights were all verbal.
There were levels.
Level 1: Did you here?
Girls whisper about the supposed offense made by another girl. Word gets back to the head girl and the whispering intensifies.
Level 2: Oh no she didn’t!
Girls begin to yell with one another in agreement about how heinous the outsider girl’s actions were.
Level 3: I know you’re not about to come up in here!
Head girl confronts wrongdoer. Yelling, pointing, and clapping ensue. No, the clapping should not be confused for applause. It is used as bombastic punctuation to pound her point home. Fights can often be won at this point. The loudest girl wins.
Level 4: Pop off!
A girl will declare that she’s about to pop off. Earrings and shoes may be removed at this point. A fight ensues. There are no winners here though the girls may each mutually claim she won the fight. But the bystanders that pull the girls apart rarely choose to raise a girl’s arm into the air to declare a winner. Rarely.
These fights were commonplace at school. I barely blinked an eye at them. At school everything was loud. Fights never broke the mold. If they got louder than everything else going on then they gained attention, if there was something louder then that won our attention. I never categorized this kind of behavior as good or bad while I was in the park. I always understood that, that was just something I didn’t do.
I was under the golden rule from my father: I don’t start fights, I finish them. Someone lays a hand on me, I can hit them as hard as I can until that hand is gone.
Needless to say, my brother had more experience with interpreting these rules than I was.
I had a lot of friends. In fact, I would pretty much say I was friends with everyone. So, I never got involved in fights. No one had ‘beef’ with me.
When my family moved 30 minutes away I was in seventh grade.
The change was incredible.
30 minutes away took us to cow farms, ten acre home lots, and houses that my sister and I enjoyed exclaiming that we could get lost in. (I have a funny story about how I thought a neighbor was rich enough to own a kangaroo that I’ll tell later.)
My little sister, who was 7 at the time, sat in the front yard of our new house and screamed to the heavens that ‘WE LIVE IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE!’
If you look at Haymarket, Virginia now it’s far from nowhere- about thirty minutes, but twelve years ago it was the middle of nowhere. Probably the capital of it, actually.
Anyway, I attended a brand new middle school and eventually a brand new high school. These kids were quiet. I remember going to classes and the silence that came over the classroom when the teacher began to speak made me itchy. I also remember suddenly feeling stupid.
At Manassas Park I was the top of my class, I was in advanced classes, and I had the goal every year of making a perfect score on Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests just like my brother.
At Bull Run Middle School I was put in a remedial English class because the faculty assumed that I would have difficulty reading because of the school system I came from. I failed my first nine weeks of math class and these kids weren’t learning History they were learning Civics and I was endlessly confused. Furthermore, they had classes like technology and Family and Consumer Sciences. I got to shoot a rocket, create my own website, make a sculpture, learn how to make french toast, and I finally realized that Civics was another fancy name for History and we were learning about the three branches of government that year.
By the time I made it to High School I was back in the advanced classes with the other 85% of the school population and I can speak the lingo like the rest of them. No one lived on the wrong side of the tracks here. At Battlefield High School kids lived in ‘ungated communities’. Thus, my friends and I in our hoodlum ungated community decided to create a gang, but that’s another story for another time.
One cataclysmic day my two worlds, my two identities came crashing together. It was like seeing a ghost then realizing that everyone else can see it too.
I was in the hall when my name was yelled. In quiet halls where the loudest thing is that one teacher that blew on a referee’s whistle to get us all to class, someone yelling my name got my attention quickly.
I turned and saw a face I thought I’d never see again. It was Leah (her name wasn’t really Leah, but I don’t know if she’d want to be associated with this story so I changed it). Leah was a friend of mine from Manassas Park and I thought she had been the funniest person in the world. I liked her for her big smile and her easy friendship rules. Leah was a good person. So when I saw her at Battlefield High I was instantly excited and happy for her.
We talked and I found out she’d moved here. I told her it was so different, but good. She already liked it. We decided we’d see each other at lunch and we parted ways. But I wouldn’t see Leah at lunch.
A few class periods later and I’ve arrived early for English 10. I’m setting my stuff down in my seat and notice that more than half the class hasn’t arrive. There’s still time. The tardy bell rings and the teacher, three other students, and I all look at each other confused. Where was everyone?
Yelling begins to spread down the hallway and alerts us to a ruckus going on. The open door provides a visual of kids about thirty feet away all huddled together. Then, I see a blur of a human shape run passed the door. A second passes and the blur returns, solidified.
I don’t even have time to say her name in greeting before she’s breathlessly yelling at me, waving for me to join her. “Lauren, homegirl, come on! It’s going down! You got my back? Back me up, back me up, let’s go!” Then she’s gone and has shoved her way into the knot of students surrounding the catfight that has erupted.
I’m staring unblinkingly at the door when I hear a snicker to my right. I look over and some classmate of mine is laughing at the idea of me, Lauren Peacock, getting involved in a fight to have some girl’s back. My teacher is looking at me like she expects me to bolt from the classroom any minute.
I lower myself in my seat, face beet red, and explain to no one in particular, “We were friends in my old school. That was a long time ago.”
And it was. It was gated communities, standards of learning, grant dollars, subdivisions, train tracks, and lightyears away.