One of my favorite magazines to write for is The Sun, a literary magazine that features a section of “Reader’s Write” short essays. Each month a short writing prompt is listed and readers send in their short pieces written from that prompt. This is an essay I wrote for the writing prompt “Choosing Sides”:
I had no trouble hitting the baseballs my brother would lob to me in our pasture. I’d swiftly run to the rocks that were our bases, even sliding into the occasional home run. In my head I heard roars of approval from imaginary spectators as I bounced a basketball on our gravel driveway and made baskets through the old rusty hoop attached to our garage. I’d bounce the ball under one leg and through the other with nimble hands. On our grassy lawn I could deftly hoola-hoop and perform a mean handstand.
But as soon as I stepped through the doors of the Catholic elementary school I attended my feet turned leaden with the heaviness of poverty.
By third grade I’d become the class pariah. I was the “poor girl.” Students spit at me in the halls, shoved me out of their way and assailed me with taunts of “Peter, Potter, toilet water.” I learned to navigate the hallways with my head down, shoulders hunched, books clamped tightly to my chest.
To add insult to injury, I was one of the few girls who developed early and by fifth grade I needed to wear a bra. Since my parents didn’t have money for a new one, I inherited one from an older sister. The stretched out elastic band was too loose so I pinned it together with a large safety-pin. My pink dress was so old the material was practically shiny with wear and the hem had been let down and put up so often there was actually a permanent crease at the hemline. When the rubber bands that held my knee socks up snapped, the socks would bag loosely at my ankles. I couldn’t have felt more out of place among the privileged rich Catholic girls in their puffed-sleeve dresses, lacy white anklets and shiny black Mary Jane shoes.
Surely the nuns saw how the other students treated me. Yet they did little to stop the persecution. In fact, they heightened it by having the poor children wash tables after lunch in exchange for a free meal and also through perpetuating the ritual of choosing sides for teams.
I dreaded the two or three days a week when we had Physical Education. Invariably the two most popular boys or girls were designated as team leader and they would stand in front of the rest of the class, taking turns calling off the names of those classmates they wanted on their teams.
I stood with the rest of the class, looking down at the ground, blushing furiously and blinking back tears as I heard name after name called out. Even the boy who smelled of manure was chosen before me. I prayed the ground would open up and swallow me, until finally, I stood alone and heard the resigned, “You get Potter.” I’d trudge to the back of my group, pretending not to notice the glares that greeted me. It was even worse if the misguided teacher chose me to be one of the leaders. I knew no one wanted to be on my team so I invariably chose the misfits first, guaranteeing a loss in whatever game we played.
As much as I would have liked to show my real athletic prowess to my classmates, I seemed unable to perform even the simplest moves in front of them. It didn’t help that when I did attempt to replicate the swing of the baseball bat that I’d perfected at home the pin securing my bra would give, opening up and stabbing me in the back. Even if I’d hit the ball, I wouldn’t have dared to run knowing everyone’s eyes would be drawn to the bouncing of my newly grown breasts.
How I performed hardly mattered anyway. I was chosen last for all teams, even for the spelling bees where I excelled.
I didn’t escape the particular cruelty of choosing sides or my classmate’s taunts until I left parochial school and entered what my parents probably considered the true gateway of hell, a public school. There, thanks to developing friendships with girls who hadn’t known me from Catholic school, teachers that encouraged my writing and acting, and a host of activities that I could actually excel in, I finally developed a sense of self-confidence and thrived in the academic and social environment of high-school.
But to this day, my memories of those days in a Catholic school are of a Hell on Earth.