When you're 10 years old, there is no scarier place in the world than the principal's office. Especially if you are a teacher-pleasing, goody-two-shoes rule-follower...who just so happened to almost get into a fight.
My stomach inched into my throat as I sat across from my principal, who was also a former classsmate of my mother's and a former teacher of my sister's. I knew he expected better from me, and I knew I had just disappointed him greatly.
I remembered his kindness to me my second day at my new school, after my mother called him to ask why I hadn't been put into the advanced 4th-grade class while my records were being sent, when she had been completely clear with the school secretary that I was a gifted student. The school secretary had listened to my mom discuss her recent separation and new single-mom status and made a judgement call that I couldn't possibly be advanced-class material.
"Are you a good student like your sister?" We were standing outside the door to the "low" 4th-grade classroom where kids were allowed to sleep, roll around on the floor when bored, and were still learning to sound out words.
"Do you work hard, listen to your teacher, and make good grades?"
"I know your family, and I am sure you will do well here. Let's get you moved to the other 4th-grade class."
I was terrified a few months later to be sitting across the desk from this man, who had been led to believe I was a good student, a kid who would never to do something so awful as insulting another student and coming one hair shy of knocking her block off in front of God and everybody. And yet that is exactly what I had done.
She had it coming. Since my first week of school, late in November, a student in the 4th-grade class I had been promoted from named Ellen took my departure personally and made it her life's mission to terrorize me. Whenever the fourth-graders were all together, which largely included the cafeteria line and the recess playground, she called out to all who would listen what she saw wrong with my hair, my face, my accent, my clothes.
Especially my clothes.
"Look at her!" she'd say in a high, shrill voice that I would be reminded of years later when I heard Fran Drescher speak for the first time. "She wears the same clothes every day! I bet she doesn't even wash 'em. Hey, ugly, do you ever wash your clothes?"
She never used my name. From the first of December until the ground started to thaw in March, I was addressed daily as "Hey, ugly." Sometimes she got close enough in the lunch line to pretend to smell me and make a big production about the nonexistent odor of my clothes, which were never dirty (but, like any other child of the 80s, occasionally smelled like cigarette smoke.) More often than not she just spoke loudly enough about my repulsive presence so that everyone in the 4th-grade could hear.
It shouldn't have bothered me. I knew, for one, that I was clean. My grandmother, who I spent most of my time with that year, is the genetic source for my current OCD tendencies and would not have tolerated anything less than a clean child in her very clean home. And while I did wear the same type of clothes everyday, they were not the exact same clothes. I had brought with me to my new town multiple copies of the unofficial school uniform of mid-80s Erlanger girls: a pair of Lee jeans, a button-down oxford shirt in a pastel color, and white leather Nikes with a dark blue swish. All of the girls in the 4th-grade class I had left imitated each other in this attire, which we found preppy and stylish and readily available at either VanLeunen's or McAlpin's.
Moving to Knox County was like moving to a different world, fashion-wise. Anybody who was anybody dressed like an extra in a music video or like a Nickelodeon-channel star. My conservative and boring clothes didn't get me made fun of by the girls in my own 4th-grade class, but these girls were constantly trying to make me over with neon off-the-shoulder shirts, Esprit pants, and almost-high-heeled boots. During a skit we had to perform, one of my classmates brought in a costume that made me look like one of the Go-Gos. It was her everyday attire; for me, it felt like Halloween.
Ellen's daily taunting didn't cause the kids in my own class to make fun of me, but she got plenty of laughs from the kids in the class I had originally been placed in. And while she couldn't entirely convince me that my clothes were awful, being called "ugly" every day had started to wear on me. After I started to come home every night crying to my mom about my appearance, she decided enough was enough.
"You know what to tell her the next time she says that?" Mom said. "Tell her she's not so pretty herself, with a big nose she keeps sticking in other people's business."
"You want me to call her a name? Isn't that wrong?"
"It's not calling her a name. You're not calling her 'big nose.' You're telling her she has a big nose. There's a difference."
I wasn't sure I saw the difference, and Ellen's nose was really no bigger than anyone else's nose, but I stored up my mother's advice. And when the taunting happened in the lunch line the very next day, I simply did as I was told.
"Hey, ugly! Are those the same pants and shirt you wore yesterday? Aren't you ever going to change your clothes, ugly? Or are you too poor?"
I could handle being called ugly. I could handle accusations made about my wardrobe. Because, deep down, I knew those things weren't true. But I was, in fact, poor. At the time, I had a single mother who worked 3 jobs and we still struggled. And I happened to know for a fact that my tormentor herself did not have 2 nickels to rub together. Had one of the rich kids called me poor, I would have shrugged. Maybe even laughed. It's funny 'cause it's true! But to be called poor by a girl whose family, I was told by my mom when I named my bully to her, didn't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of...now that was just plain wrong. Something about throwing stones in glass houses with black pots and kettles.
I addressed my bully and said in a loud voice, "Oh, yeah? Well, you have a big ol' nose that's so big you can't keep it out of anybody else's business."
A hush fell over the fourth graders. Where were our teachers? I have no idea. Probably smoking in the lounge. The two lines of the two different 4th-grade classes parted like the Red Sea. Until it was just me and Ellen, face to face.
She was shocked. "What did you just say to me?"
I walked forward until we were toe to toe, our faces inches apart. I was mad, and for the first time in my life I wanted to smack someone. Instead of hitting, I made sure she heard me. Loud and clear.
"I SAID, WHY DON'T YOU KEEP YOUR BIG, UGLY NOSE OUT OF MY BUSINESS?"
Adults came rushing out of nowhere. I was escorted one way, she was escorted another. I heard her crying and was only somewhat pleased, because I knew she was faking for added drama. Ellen was not the crying sort. I sat in my classroom with my teacher to cool off, Ellen sat with hers. My teacher didn't say a word, and I took that to mean my time on earth was limited. Within minutes, we were called to Principal Payne's office where I knew I would meet my doom.
"Okay, girls, neither one of you has ever been in trouble before, so I want to hear from each of you, one at a time, what happened today. Tell me the truth, because I'll know if you're lying. Ellen, you go first."
Ellen spun a yarn about how I came out of nowhere and called her names. She told the principal she had never talked to me before, but all of a sudden I got in her face and started calling her "Big Nose." She sobbed the whole time, but I saw no tears.
The principal turned to me for my side of the story. I took a deep breath, mustered my courage, and looked Mr. Payne in the eye.
"She has part of the story right but she isn't telling you the whole story. She's been teasing me about my clothes and about being ugly ever since I got here. Every day in the lunch line. And sometimes at recess. And I got tired of it. I didn't call her any names. I didn't call her 'Big Nose.' I said she had a big nose." I was so hoping he would see the difference.
"Why would you say such a thing?"
My voice trembled. "I'm sorry. I don't really think she has a big nose. I told her that because she won't keep her nose out of my business." And then, for the first time, I looked away from my principal and down at my lap. "I told her to keep her big nose out of my business because my mom told me to." I hated to rat out my mom this way, but he wanted the truth. And I wanted to tell it.
I looked up, ready to face my fate. Something like a smile crossed his face and was quickly gone.
"Well, this seems pretty simple to me," he said. "Ellen didn't say anything about how she has been making fun of Toni, but Toni admits that she said Ellen has a big nose and is sorry she said it. It seems Toni is telling the truth because she admitted to doing something wrong, but Ellen, you didn't."
Ellen stopped fake-crying and, for the first time, looked contrite.
"I think maybe this whole thing started with Ellen not being very nice to someone who is new to our school. And Toni got angry over it and maybe let her anger get the best of her. I think you're both the kind of girls who will do better from now on. Is that right, girls?"
We both nodded.
"Don't let it happen again. Go on back to class, now."
I felt my eyes water with relief and from the pent-up frustration I had felt for months. I wiped the tears away with my hand and as I started to leave, Mr. Payne called me back.
"You let me know if she bothers you again, you hear? And tell your mom I said hello."
I smiled. I had been to the principal's office and lived. My class was abuzz by the time I got back. Because my escapade had caused me to miss lunch, a lunch had been brought to me. My teacher smiled and patted my shoulder as she found a place in the class where I could eat, and during our afternoon work time my classmates passed me notes telling me they were on my side. I felt just a little bit like a badass. The next day it was all forgotten and I went back to being the shy and quiet new girl who was in desperate need of a neon shirt or two. But Ellen had the sense to give me a wide berth for the rest of my time there.
My mother was initially mortified that I told my principal that I said what I said because she told me to.
"Oh, Lord," she said, putting her head into her hands when I told the tale. Then she told me she was proud of me for telling the truth and for standing up for myself in my own little misguided way.
This year when Ainsley herself fell victim to harsh words from a mean-girl bully, I found myself giving unsolicited advice and telling her what to say to her frenemy. Not all of it was nice. Thankfully, Ainsley has a different way of dealing with people who aren't nice to her: she avoids them, eventually forgives them when they warrant forgiveness, and moves on. She's not the type to get in someone's face and and yell, even when greatly angered. She is, really, a gentler and more even-tempered person than I am.
But should she ever choose to, I will support her saying someone has a big nose that they won't keep out of her business. But I won't stand for her calling someone "Big Nose." Because there is a difference.