By 1967, I was thirteen years old and even more miserable in my new school. I attended from seventh through ninth grades, during which time every day was no less than torture. I was undersized and physically immature for my age and one year ahead for my class, a situation which combined with disastrous results. When the kids were lined up for school events, I remember my embarrassment at being far shorter and younger looking than any of my mates. I was no more than 4’ 6” it seemed forever and lined up more easily with some of the third graders, than I did with those from my own class. What was infinitely worse, I was half jewish and half Italian Catholic, which relegated me in the eyes of my predominantly blue-blooded peers to the status of something less than a beast of the field. Junior high is a terrible time for so many, true, but this group of kids managed to ratchet their propensity for cruelty to new heights. How they even knew my ethnicity is still a mystery except to say that it must have been their parents who relayed this fact to their children and communicated a level of distaste which played itself out on the playground.
In seventh grade, every morning, the girl who had the locker next to mine would sneer, whispering, “Dirty Jew!” There were so few jews in Palm Beach at the time, that even my mother in later years had the experience of being accosted by a local who accused her of being “the one who brought them here.”
During my time at the school, I acquired the nickname of “Cheetah”, Tarzan’s famous chimp friend, which was an homage to my size and the fact that my mother would not allow me to shave my legs far past the time the others were doing so. The dark hair on my legs and arms a gift of my mother’s Italian heritage, I stood out in a sea of fair haired children. On the unfortunate days that I would find a banana in my lunchbox, I would sidle over to the nearest garbage can and slip the fruit in as carefully as I could to avoid being spotted by my tormentors. I never spoke a word of it at home, thereby insuring that a banana was going to turn up in my lunchbox on a continuing basis. I must have been simply too embarrassed to say something. Sadly, the name “Cheetah” lived on for my poor sisters who suffered the same nickname long after I had left Palm Beach for the northeast.
Phys-ed was also difficult too, as Florida law required us all to shower after sports activities. In true “Carrie” style, these were opportunities for abject humiliation. I began to simply go into the changing stall and run the private shower without ever going in for fear that the curtain would be pulled open by one of the heartless teens to reveal my sorry underdeveloped self. It had happened once or twice already, and I couldn’t bear the thought of it happening again. Instead, I would change my clothes as quickly as I could and wait on the seat quietly until it seemed I’d been in there long enough to justify my exit.
Added to this, I‘d had a classmate try to put a cigarette out on my arm at a birthday party and at another time, someone else took the time to spit in my face for no apparent reason. I lived in daily fear of the inevitable humiliations at school. Sadly, there was also an English teacher there who was as bad, asking me to read aloud in class. If I stammered, he would then embarrass me in front of the others telling me how stupid I was that I couldn’t seem to read the passages properly. He did this so regularly that at some point, Greg must have mentioned it to my mother, who promptly went into the school to have it out with the head master. Although much to my astonishment and relief, that teacher stopped calling on me in class, the other assaults on my sense of self esteem continued unabated.
After my sisters slept, I spent long hours into the night pouring my heart out to Greg. I knew intuitively that something was wrong with me. I’d had everything given to me. Most people didn’t have the luxuries I enjoyed every day. People out there in the world had real problems- I was spoiled and weak… I felt ashamed of myself. What was my problem? I knew I was too sensitive. My parents told me this. If not for Greg’s patient and warm counsel on those many nights that robbed me of my sleep, I might not have survived in one piece.
How she arose early every morning after those marathon sessions, I will never know. Her constant reassurances that I was not the repulsive person I was told to be on a daily basis helped to shore me up. But the torture was unremitting, and eventually, even I knew the only relief coming would be the day I could leave that school. I cannot say for a certainty whether or not my mother and father understood how difficult it was for me there, but I can only imagine that it was Greg who reported my misery to them as it was never discussed otherwise.