“Oh my God!” my mother said as I sat in the back seat of our Chevy Citation, idling in the parking lot of my junior high school. “The other girls are wearing $300 dresses. Are you sure you want to go through with this?”
It was June of 1985. Ronald Reagan was president, the number one song was “Heaven” by Bryan Adams, and I was about to attend my junior high graduation. My stomach was jumping and my legs felt hot in white tights.
We had moved to Holmdel, New Jersey the previous September — my mom, my younger brother, and me. It was among the wealthiest towns in the state, and Mom had moved us there because it also had one of the best school districts. But there was only one neighborhood in town where we could afford the rent among the horse farms and mansions — an old development of small homes appropriately called “Old Manor,” across the railroad tracks from the working-class shore town of Hazlet. But by the time my eighth-grade graduation came around, we were already packing to move. My mom couldn’t afford the rent any longer, and it was clear we didn’t fit in.
“I’ve never heard of someone wearing a $300 dress to an eighth grade graduation,” she said.
These days, people watch John Hughes films from the 1980s and get nostalgic. Last month was the 35th anniversary of one of the most quintessential teen ’80s films, Pretty in Pink, in which the gawky leads become heroes. In the real-life 1980s, happy endings took much longer. In my case, I did eventually learn to stand up for myself, slowly but surely.
My public school was just as snobbish as the ones in the Hughes films. Kids frequently talked about which companies their parents owned or accused less wealthy peers of buying their clothes at Kmart. One day, I heard a rumor that our skinny, mustachioed math teacher, Mr. Donato, bought his ties there. By the end of the day he looked ready to cry.
Shortly after I graduated, I read an article in the local paper about Holmdel parents protesting the possibility of state-mandated affordable housing. The article, in the Sunday, Sept. 14, 1986 Asbury Park Press, “Debate Stirs in Holmdel Over ‘Have Nots’ Fitting In,” quoted a parent at a Township Committee meeting as saying, “Kids are going to see other kids wearing designer jeans and $40 sneakers they can’t have, and they will steal to get them.” A committee member responded by congratulating him on “having the courage to say out loud what thousands of people in Holmdel think.” Even as a teen I was horrified.
Sure, I’d grown accustomed to the cruelty of junior high, but what parent thought it was okay to let their kid wear that on a t-shirt?
In order to fit into my eighth grade class, there was standard garb: Guess jeans, Madonna-style rubber bracelets, and an oversized, fluorescent shirt that said, “Frankie Say: Relax! Don’t Do It!” But some of the fashion trends were darker. A popular boy named Jonathan frequently wore an Ocean Pacific hoodie that said “No Fat Chicks” on the back, with an icon of a pig in a dress, a slash through the graphic. I had grown accustomed to the cruelty of junior high, but what parent thought it was okay to let their kid wear it on a shirt?
Most of the teasing was more subtle and harder to pinpoint, as bullying often is — the reason anti-bullying efforts have to go deeper. In my homeroom each morning, a girl named Christine made sport of asking me where I’d bought every item of clothing I was wearing. Any response from me became fodder for further teasing, so I was left to stare at the green marbled floor, waiting for her to stop, tears in my eyes. I had started eighth grade as a good student who loved to read, but my new goal became — as it did for many students in the 1980s — to erase anything about me that was different.
I stopped raising my hand in class. I ran through the halls to avoid a boy named Louis who yelled suggestive comments to make his friends guffaw. One day, he approached me in the lunchroom and announced, “You’re like one big p*ssy just waiting to be f*cked.” The boys all laughed.
Years later, I found out this was a line from Scarface. So, not only was Louis a bully, he actually plagiarized his bullying.
“Maybe we should skip this,” my mom said in the parking lot on that June graduation day. “Really, a $300 dress for an eighth grade graduation?”
I was stunned: my mom was actually offering to let me skip a school event because I might be uncomfortable? When had that ever happened — and why didn’t it apply to anything religious?
But I was resolved to go through with it. I’d already challenged myself a few weeks earlier by allowing the school to list my middle name in the graduation program, though it was an unusual name that would surely incite taunting. It was a first step toward asserting myself, a sign I wasn’t ashamed of my differences. Now, I was damn well going to go up on stage and stand with the rich kids.
And make no mistake, they were rich; a few months earlier, our health teacher had been talking to us about the rise in cocaine addiction. “Has anyone heard of the actress Lauren Tewes, who used to be on Love Boat?” she asked, preparing to use her as an example of the dangers of drug abuse. A girl raised her hand and said, “She’s married to my uncle.”
“Well, she must have loved that,” my mother said later, when I told her about it.
A few weeks later, our reading teacher was discussing the topic of unfair stereotypes and said sarcastically, “Let’s face it, we live in Holmdel. We are rich snobs!” I didn’t laugh.
Finally, on that hot afternoon, I stepped into the auditorium wearing a light blue dress my mom had nabbed for $39 at Bamberger’s. The other girls and I clustered around a giant cardboard box filled with corsages.
The only ones left were red or orange, and clashed with many of our dresses. I noticed a lone light-blue one near the bottom and reached down for it.
When I looked up, a girl named Alyssa was staring at me. She wore a gold necklace that said “Alyssa,” just in case anyone forgot.
“Are there any blue corsages in there?” she asked loudly, looking at me and then at her friend.
Her friend looked at me, then peered back at Alyssa. “No,” she said. “I don’t see any.”
Alyssa said loudly, “Blue is really the only color I can wear with this dress.”
Her friend looked at me again and said, “Yeah, blue is the only color you can wear with that dress.”
They both waited as I stood there.
“You can have mine,” I said.
“Oh, thank you!” Alyssa foamed, snatching it from me. “That is so nice of you! Isn’t that so nice of her?”
“That is so nice of her,” her friend concurred.
We wandered behind the heavy black curtains and prepared to sing our graduation song, a big radio hit from that year. I paused to remember some choice moments from the last nine months:
- At lunch, several kids had discussed how superior our school’s test scores were to other schools.
- A group of boys told an overweight kid in our class that he “reeked.”
- A popular girl stole a 50-cent box of M&Ms from under the seat of an unpopular girl who was selling them for a band fundraiser. She and her pals passed it around the classroom and grinned at each other.
- Our social studies teacher caught two girls passing a note that ridiculed his clothes. He sat on his desk, holding the note, and lectured us about disrespect. “I’m sorry you don’t like my oatmeal pants,” he said mournfully. One of the girls started crying.
On stage, we stood in front of our chairs, before our parents and friends. Together, we launched into our chosen graduation song:
We aaaaaaare the wooooorld…
We swayed back and forth.
We aaaaare the chiiiiiiiildren…
We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giiiiiiiving!
There’s a choice we’re maaaking…
We’re saving our own lives.
It’s you who make a better day… just yoooooooou and meeeeee!
After we angels finished singing, I scooted off the stage and went home with my mom to finish packing to move. I had faced my fears — and knew there were better places for me. We landed in a town with a less prestigious school district but a more varied population, and I was much happier.