I was probably the epitome of an average kid – at least in my corner of the world.
White as can be, I was the first of three kids with two working middle class parents who were still together, living in a classy 80s style range home, with two cars in the driveway and food on the table. It wasn’t always great food and generally did not contain vegetables or, for the most part, actual cooking, but we were never hungry. And other than the widespread misconception that we were the neighborhood diversity as Jewish (we weren’t), we were a pretty normal family… on the outside, anyway.
Well, the outside was pretty awful, actually, due to general neglect of the house and yard, and an open garage in the summertime that was a portal in the mess and hazards contained in the rest of it. With the cars usually gone, it was a safe bet there was no adult supervision, and on peek inside was enough to prove that I wasn’t as responsible as many people thought I was. The counters were full of dirty dishes, the dinner table piled high with bills and newspapers and probably one of my half-finished popsicle stick structures glued to everything else, piles of laundry waiting their turn to be either washed or put away. (Not my laundry, though, I’d learned early on it was best to do my own), and a sea of junk and toys that we had accumulated over time, largely as peace offerings from our parents to make up for their frequent absence.
My idea of fun often involved property damage, exposure to chemicals or sharp objects, lots of rusty nails and glass, and landed me my fair share of black eyes, bruises, and lacerations over the years, but there wasn’t anyone to really ask me to stop and think about my actions.
Bouncing through the halls was the incessant yelling and rough and tumble of the constant battle between my brother and I that was, I have come to understand, more or less an attempt to get our parents’ attention.
And I don’t just mean a squabble over the television remote control. I mean a long series of grabs and bites and kicks and hair pulls and punches that lasted into our teens. A nonstop barrage of bruises and scratches, teasing and pranks, stealing and lying. There were literal holes in the walls where fights had gotten out of control and my bedroom door was missing the lower half after it got kicked in so many times. We both showed up at school with bruises and scratches and blotches, and at one point someone did call child services, but neither of us remember who made the call or for what reason. But our story was the same, and mostly truth – we were each other’s punching bags. No need to involve my mother.
So, I guess, maybe not so average… but you know, nothing spectacular either.
It didn’t bother me too much as, by that point in my life, I had little to aspire to and a self-worth that caused me to doubt if anyone cared. I had to look out for myself because nobody else was. I had to fight for myself, because nobody else would. And I had to try to believe in myself, because nobody else did.
I believed that so much that it bled into my friendships, into my schoolwork, into my play and hobbies. I struggled to trust my friends truly liked me. I didn’t believe teachers when they said I was doing well. I couldn’t imagine myself being able even having a future, let alone one that would impact others and make a difference in this world.
As time went on, I didn’t want anyone taking too close a look at the sinking ship that was my life. It was best if I just flew under the radar to avoid too many people asking questions.
So, for the most part, I worked very hard to stay as average as possible, especially at school.
I was never a particularly wonderful student to begin with. I mostly averaged B’s – which is fair, as my effort was generally undeserving of anything higher than a C. I had learned ways to take the path of least resistance in almost every aspect of life… if there was a short cut, I took it. If I could get by on minimal work on my part, I did. If I could skate by on creativity alone, I would. I never finished a single book we were assigned, and for the most part my teachers never suspected a thing.
About halfway through fourth grade I took a turn for the opposite of outstanding.
I was failing.
One of my wild ideas had earned my first backhand to the face by my mother, followed by a threat that she would kill herself to make me happy; my father grew angry with me for making her so emotional.
The stress from home seeped into my schoolwork. I fell behind, and unable to really focus or convince myself it mattered, I started to outright fail. Math I could at least justify because I’ve never been able to read numbers well. Flunking history was more a matter of just being lazy. I basically fell into a pattern where F’s were commonplace that they didn’t faze me. The poor grades were never mentioned at home.
Despite trying to sort of blend in, particularly when failing miserably in three subjects, I couldn’t avoid the watchful eye and care of my teacher. She made it a point to call on me multiple times during class, and quite often at least once after a few students had answered incorrectly or the class was stumped. Any time we had a speaking event, the bane of every kid in speech therapy (at that point in time, I could hardly say my own name unhindered), she would draw the class’s attention to how I stood, made eye contact, and had clearly practiced ahead of time.
Sometime in early April, during our weekly progress report meetings, I first heard the words ‘you’re lazy, not stupid.’ I’d hear them a few other times in my educational career. She never offered many second chances, but dared me to do better in the final quarter of the year. I’m worth more than my report card, she told me, but I was capable of more as well. My friends and classmates, even some other teachers, she explained, saw me as a leader even if I didn’t feel that way. She believed I would do amazing things with my life, even if I didn’t think so.
“I am very proud of you,” she said. “Even if you feel like there’s nothing to be proud of.”
I wasn’t sure I believed her. After all, she had accused me of cheating on many occasions, and wasn’t always wrong. I gave her no reason to be proud or even like me, for that matter. My class was full of memorable children who were smart, musical, athletic, talented, popular… I was just some kid with frizzy hair who could type fast, could spout out movie quotes without a hitch, who got picked third for one of the racing games in gym class, and who managed to have only a single steady friend. I was the kid who had no potential.
But I wanted to believe her. So I took her up on her dare – not so much as I wanted to prove to anyone that I could do it, but because I felt like I’d be letting her down if I didn’t. I wanted her to be pleased with my efforts, and she seemed to be as I started turning my grades around.
The last days of school were always hard on me. No structure, sensory overload, plus the emotional rollercoaster of summer’s imminence. Field day was a lot of playing outside and me not earning any ribbons. Cleanup day was chaotic. I had learned to sort of just day dream through the awards ceremony, wondering who got the class award for best history student or excellent at art, maybe even counting the field day ribbons kids got for throwing basketballs the farthest – which is exactly what I was doing when my friend shook me and told me to go up front and receive a certificate that stated I had been elected by my peers as the individual in the fourth grade who was most likely to succeed.
I hugged my teacher before it was time to load up the bus one last time that year.
“I didn’t give you this award, do you understand that?” She said quietly. “Your peers did. Your classmates, kids in the other fourth grade classes, even ones who don’t like you, gave it to you. Do you understand what that means?”
I nodded, but she explained anyway.
“It means they think you are going to be the person who looks back on their life years from now and know that they are a successful person. Everyone tries for success for different reasons. What will make you successful in this world?”
I told her I didn’t know.
“Be successful because you are worth it. See you next year.”
That evening I had the idea to organize my desk – because, I thought, my desk should reflect my status as an esteemed student – my mom came quickly into my room and asked to see the piece of paper that called me a success. She said she was proud of me, and that both surprised and encouraged me. But she left just as quickly saying something about being glad my teacher called at half time of something more important than me: the NBA finals. Portland versus Chicago, Game 6. It was her true passion.
I was unable to figure out if I should be thankful for the notice, or hurt it was so underwhelming.
But I was worth it, I thought.
I did resolve to change how I went about school. I decided that if there were things I liked, I would do my best to excel in them. If I couldn’t impress my parents, my teachers made for a close second, and I was starting to feel the strange sensation of even being proud of myself.
In fifth grade I took a chance at something new and signed up for the school band. Trying new things was not particularly characteristic of me, but I thought it might give my rather dull life some variety. Unlike a lot of activities, it could mostly be done during school hours and didn’t require transport to/from practice or activity fees. My dad encouraged me in the saxophone, which I grew to like. I managed to land a very secondhand one just in time for the first class. My dad said it was vintage. I didn’t know what that meant, but I started saying that when kids made fun of it. I named it Snort.
I was actually pretty good, especially considering I could barely read music. I played mostly by ear. The first time we were rated I landed first chair, and I kept it for almost two years. My band teacher even tried to get me in a competition, but it required too much out of school hassle that I had to give it up. I had my fair share of concerts my parents couldn’t attend, but my Dad managed to make it to the Christmas concert year two in which I had a rather large solo.
I almost couldn’t play at all for my big night as my sax was in need of repair and, again, there was fighting over the cost of fixing it. I approached my band teacher the night of the concert explaining I couldn’t hit certain notes. He removed a twenty dollar bill from his wallet, wrapped it around the corking, and said a cheesy teacher joke: “You’ll have the richest sound in the room.”
Worried that the bill might tear and I’d be unable to pay him back, I asked if it would hold up or the get ruined, and he said without skipping a beat, “You’re worth it!”
There it was again.
Now, don’t get me wrong, my overall effort was still rather minimal. While I did practice and work hard in things I enjoyed, the rest of my success was more or less predicated on making it look like I exceeded the bare minimum, often toeing the line of what might have amounted to cheating.
But my success with the saxophone gave me something I hadn’t had in my life in a long time: courage and goals.
I liked being first chair. I liked having solo numbers. I liked that I was considered talented and special. And I liked applause… especially if my parents were in the audience. Each concert gave me something to look forward to. But to succeed meant I needed to first take a chance at something I had no idea I’d be good at unless I tried, and once I started, had to practice and work toward achievement.
While I still never dreamed of getting straight A’s, I started to set other goals that weren’t necessarily lofty as they were specific and far beyond the scope of elementary school, especially for a ten year old.
Just before Thanksgiving, we had the annual career day that included several members of law enforcement, including the new school resource police officer who decided to sit with me at lunch… probably at the request of my teacher for issues described earlier in this post… but no matter. She was a cop, and I liked cops.
The centerpiece of our home was the television. At ten years old, my day revolved around the cartoons and superheroes that aired right after school; like many girls who watched the show, the Green Power Ranger was my first real love. But I was also a fan of prime time crime shows, specifically Law & Order. The police (who investigate crimes) always got the bad guy, and the district attorneys (who prosecute the offenders) put them away.
After the career day presentation, I remember remarking to my six year old brother as we walked home from the bus stop that I wanted to be a cop one day. He said he’d one day be the same, but then, without even looking at me, said “But you talk too much so you’d have to be the lawyer.”
Oh but yes!
I hadn’t even thought about that! Oh, that’s it, I’m going to be a lawyer. And not just any lawyer.
Our homework was to reflect on Career Day and how what we learned might fit into a course we could plan for our life. As soon as I got home, I booted up the trusty IBM and waited for Windows 3.1 to load, briefly skimming a hardback encyclopedia for an article on the legal profession to get an idea of what it might require. Then I cracked my fingers as I started a new blank document:
I would go to law school and pass the Bar Exam with flying colors. I’d get some gig as a young prosecutor with a legendary conviction rate, who’d work her way up the ranks like no one had ever seen before. I’d be the ADA who had her own proper briefcase with her initials etched on it, and a smart pinstripe suit. I mean, yeah, I’d have to be able to pronounce “prosecutor” or “remand without bail” first, but then… then I was going to be the district attorney of Multnomah County.
It didn’t stop there. I’d also spend a little free time moonlighting as a jazz musician with a big band in some club downtown. My notoriety would be so great that when I sat down in my regular spot to pour over a case or start a brief, the waitstaff would ask if I wanted my ‘usual.’
I’d also one day have a working dishwasher… and probably a cat. And, of course, one day I’d make it to Switzerland.
I would get out of this stupid, sleep suburb, beyond our shabby house and box dinners, out from under the low expectations I felt the world had for me… I’d be more than average! I’d be the success that a piece of paper now tacked to my wall said I’d be one day.
This dream became a little spark deep in the heart I had spent so many years feeding ugly lies about how unloveable and untalented and unremarkable, and over time the flame began to burn away some of those beliefs. I was driven. Motivated. Not motivated enough to care about getting B’s and C’s in math or science, but I had a picture in my head of a future I wanted and would do whatever it took to make it happen. There was no stopping me.
My teacher gave me an A, and in the margins was a cursive memo: “Your writing is wonderful and beyond your years.”
She me I’d need to make sure I kept up my grades in Social Studies and keep refining my writing skills, something she always encouraged me in. She also asked me to promise I’d never take up drinking hard liquor like so many TV lawyers did. I promised.
The ensuing year and a half saw me engage more with school but threw in a completely new set of challenges as I became one of the key players in a school-wide social dynamic worthy of its own television miniseries.
While I had grown far more academic and responsible in terms of actually doing and turning in homework, my social skills were a bit lacking.
Because I was pulled out of class during hours usually reserved for more socialization, like art or library or even recess, so that I could improve my speaking, reading and my confidence in both, I missed out on how to read certain cues. Though often outgoing and vivacious in some settings, I was generally pretty shy, especially around boys. I was better at tossing a football than socializing, my frizzy curls were usually stuffed under a ball cap, and I stuck to the same trusty sweatshirt every day while the other girls were wearing Guess jeans and makeup.
Additionally, I was extremely emotional, fickle, and could be very hard to get along with, which meant I generally only had one or two actual friends with whom I regularly interacted with. I certainly wasn’t popular among other students. I had thrown my lot in with kids who understood what it was like to come from a home like mine and generally resented, sometimes vocally, the kids who had no clue what it was like to be in my shoes.
I might be most likely to succeed, but I wasn’t winning any popularity points among the masses.
District Attorney is an elected position… but, hey, I’d have a few years to get the social piece figured out…. So I thought.
The summer before sixth grade I had been selected by the upper echelon of popular girls for what I can only guess was some sort of trial or test to determine where I’d land in the pre-teen inner circle. I was to attend a birthday pool party for Britney Richardson, the undisputed ruler of the upper elementary. The other girls laughed at me when they discovered I had worn my swimsuit under my clothes so I wouldn’t have to change in front of them. My face burned with embarrassment, and I decided I didn’t like her very much.
Of course, she didn’t like me much either, and possibly for good reasons. Two weeks into the school year, I reported to the teacher that I had seen Britney sniffing rubber cement. She denied it, of course, but a shy, but popular, boy named Greg backed me up.
One fateful Friday early in my sixth grade year, though, turned me into a real contender to be reckoned with when it came to being anybody who was anybody as we headed into the world of adolescence. Sixth grade was just training ground for Middle School, after all.
While shooting hoops with a friend at recess, Britney Richardson stole my basketball and bounced it a few times with both hands. I told her that was a double dribble and the ball needed to be turned over to us.
“That’s funny, Quinny. I guess you heard about the contest this year.”
Contest…. Contest…. Conte—oh yeah. The annual why Richardson was a top model and other girls kissed her crystal-coated you get the idea contest… I knew very little about the actual ordeal, but there was a sort of checklist on a piece of paper ripped from a notebook that floated around the popular kids in all three grade six classrooms.
“I imagine you handed out your usual bribes,” I smiled. “Now give me my damn ball.”
“Prettiest girl, Liz. You got marked. And I know who did it. But here’s the thing, Quinny – there are rules. You are not allowed to get votes. You’re not allowed to be on the ballot.”
She stepped toward me. My friend started to get between but I pulled her back and mumbled a ‘let’s go.’ As I moved to the wall to grab my sweatshirt, I felt a dull but painful thud between my shoulders and the sound of my ball hitting the ground mixed with the sort of evil laughter that only comes from pre-teen girls. I turned around to find Britney standing behind me with her arm pulled back and read to swing. I quickly put my arm up to my face, caught her fist, grabbed her shirt and pulled her close to my face.
“I’ll show you where you can put your two votes,” I smirked. I looked over at my friend who had already swung at Richardson’s sidekicks.
The chanting of “Cat fight, cat fight!” had started around us and in the distance I saw a couple other girls get involved and the playground assistant running in our direction.
I spent the better part of an hour watching pink referral slips doled out to about seven other girls as a result. I was informed that enough witnesses said I hadn’t provoked her to warrant me any sort of official consequence, but no one was standing close enough to know that I said enough not nice words and twisted her arm hard enough to warrant my landing a pink slip, too. I managed to earn just a few claw marks and a bruise from blocking the punch to the nose from Her Majesty, but she had limped away with very wounded pride, a new nickname of “Bratney” and loss of status among the popular boys, and a grudge that wouldn’t relent for years.
War was declared.
I’d spend the next couple of years regularly standing my ground against a gang of teen girl vipers who relished in making my life hell.
Privately, the battle wounds were deep, cutting and serious, enough to cause such anxiety and frustration that I’d eventually develop self destructive coping mechanisms. But nobody, other than maybe my closest friend, ever saw that side.
No, everyone else saw the quick, witty, sarcastic, biting, and brave fight I threw back. I officially earned a reputation among the spectrum of students from the popular to pariah.
Forget most likely to succeed – L.J. Quinn was a tough, independent, likeable, smart ass.
Maybe even cool!
So, with the masses behind me and my bright future ahead of me, I wasn’t just special or outstanding or beyond average – I was confident and sure of myself and ready to take on the hell hole that was junior high school. I was unstoppable.
And not even the queen of the teenage realm, the disinterest and lack of encouragement from my parents, or the lies I believed about being stupid, worthless, and unloveable could bring me down!
No, that feat belonged to the boy next door just a few months later… but that’s a story for another day.
I sometimes think about that certificate that said I would one day succeed in life. I wonder if the kids who voted for me would look at my life now and suggest that I’ve indeed made something of my life. I never made it to law school, or took the bar, but I did manage a stellar career in education and eventually got a job in law enforcement. My passport is full of stamps for countries many people can’t even find on a map. And though I’ve never performed in a jazz club, there is a local restaurant who asks if I want “my usual.”
I like to think I’m on track.
Now all I need is to own a dishwasher and get to Switzerland.