Looking back, I wonder if my hometown school system was inspired by the game Pick-up Sticks. Order, chaos, order, repeat.
Kindergarten through sixth grades were at small elementary school campuses across the city. In seventh grade, we were shaken up and thrown together on a huge campus with a residential street running through it. (Inspired by Pick-up Sticks AND Frogger?) After a year, just enough time to get our bearings, we were spit up again into two junior highs, East and West. An “Us vs. Them” division perfect for sports team rivalries, petty factions and bullies looking for a reason. For our final three years, we were all flung onto the single high school campus to try and get along until we graduated. Quite the social experiment.
Prior to the seventh grade, my friends had come from three groups: church, my mom’s friends’ kids, and kids who had been seated near me from kindergarten through sixth grade. Until I was twelve, my friendships were mostly “you get what you get” situations.
So, I was overwhelmed on my first day of seventh grade at the big Dunbar Intermediate School from the moment I stepped off the bus into moving traffic. I was immediately lost in a sea of kids who not only didn’t go to my church, but who I had never seen before in my life. Who were these people? Had they been in Lufkin all this time? And they were all supposed to be seventh graders? Teased hair, acid washed denim, puff painted sweatshirts…in my memory, those kids looked like 30-year olds. At least compared to me, in my long skirt, button-up blouse and red scarf tied “nicely” around my shoulders. Dressed from bow-head-to-squeaky-loafer in Wiener’s finest that was chosen by my mom, likely with some input from my great-Aunt Lucy, a saleslady there. Thus ensuring that my only school friends would be the lunch ladies.
I don’t think I blinked once that entire first day, and maybe not the day after, either. Getting from class to class was a wild-eyed obstacle course. I kept tripping over my skirt. I regretted all previous life choices almost immediately. My elementary school friends seemed gone forever.
But then came Computer Science class, or what passed for computer science in 1988-89. I remember two things from that class: one, that I met Valeria and two, that she taught me to say “I love you” in Spanish. (Don’t get excited, she wasn’t saying it to me. She taught me so that I could say it and impress some pre-teen twerp who didn’t care.)
This is important, because Valeria was the first friend I ever made on my own. I came from the rural “bubble” and she lived in town. I was an only child and pretty isolated. My life advice until that point came mainly from people who were raised in the 1940s. Valeria had a big, busy family and lots of neighborhood kids to play with. So, we were different in some ways but we still clicked immediately. Even when we were too young to fully articulate it, we looked around this bisected city block full of future “*Lufkin bozos” and wanted so badly to fit in, and also wanted so much more than what we saw. And neither of us had any idea how to be anything other than exactly how we were, which was mostly braces, eyebrows and imagination.
We tried so hard. We passed notes by the hour, updating each other on the highs and lows of the day, a cycle of plotting and rehashing that has continued for 30 years. (Now, we text and Instagram message.) We were on the newspaper staff and made a whole column about who was dating who, who broke up, and what we thought about it. (Strangely, our sponsor never actually published this.) We made up unflattering, permanent nicknames for, well, pretty much anyone that so much as looked sideways at us. (Sorry, Hobbit Man. How are the grandkids?) We were each others’ biggest fans.
Valeria was not my only friend in seventh grade, but in general, I struggled to fit in. I ran for student council but was disqualified because I mixed up the date and passed out my campaign materials early. I was targeted by a group of “devil worshipers” who were going to “get me” at the mall. Groped in Science class. That sort of thing.
And there were other little dramas, some that I instigated, and right or wrong Valeria was there to egg me on or pick me up, whichever was called for. We have seen beginnings, endings and entire story arcs over the course of our lives together. She was there when I finally got a boyfriend, and she was standing at my side when he walked out of a school dance and broke up with me instead of inviting me to the dance floor.
At our ten year high school reunion, she was next to me when he approached us, recounted that day down to the detail. “I made a left out the door, and there you were.” He said it was something he deeply regretted. He blamed the whole thing on a mutual friend who had died in the 90s and could not defend himself, and implied that another shot would be pretty cool. I knew he had a wife at home. I never liked her, but I wasn’t going to do that to her either. Anyway, if you didn’t want me with my unibrow, then you don’t want me, mister. Valeria and I laughed it off. Our feet were hurting in our class reunion heels. (No more Wiener’s finest for me! I had since discovered Nordstrom Rack.) We were eager to go to Sonic and talk about all the people we’d seen. Maybe some new nicknames were in order.
Between seventh grade and our class reunion, Valeria and I did get the things we wanted from life, even if it hasn’t always gone how we imagined it would. But does it ever? We both muddled through junior high and high school, friendship mostly intact but our paths diverged a bit as friendships often do. She went to Nashville and I went to Austin. We found each other on Classmates.com sometime in the late 90s and resumed our “note passing” almost immediately. She eventually moved back to Texas. She got married in an actual castle! We were in each others’ weddings, our husbands get along and I saw her a few months ago with her baby. She has a little girl and twin stepdaughters who are in college. I look at them and know they will have great lives because Valeria is their mom.
As I said, Valeria was my first chosen friend. This is important because growing up in the “bubble,” it was implied that people outside the bubble were scary, and possibly even mean. Valeria was proof-positive that this wasn’t true. Meeting her, finding our commonalities, our shared goals and humor – this was the first step for me toward something different than was being handed to me. I have had someone to figure things out with since 1988 and that has been priceless. It was the first step in making my world bigger, in trusting myself a little bit, in seeing that maybe it was okay and valuable to trust in and care about things that I had to cross the street to get to. Valeria wasn’t mean – I am much meaner than she is – so maybe others wouldn’t be, either.
If not for my friendship with Valeria, I would not have had the courage to form close friendships with Courtney, Michelle, Mallory or others who came after.
Earlier, I used the term “Lufkin Bozo.” It is a given that any time something weird is in the news, it will have a Lufkin connection. Second only to “Florida Man.” The most recent “Lufkin Bozo” is the Blue Bell Ice Cream Licker. Our hometown crime blotter is famously weird. Valeria and I are fanatical about the adventures of the Lufkin Bozo, texting constantly when they appear in the news, mapping any possible connections to us, our family or friends. We know that but for the grace of God, etc.
What would have happened if I hadn’t met Valeria? Would I have erased all my eccentricities, or completely devolved? If she hadn’t met me, she would still be just fine. If nothing else, she had a pretty, popular, older sister that has no problem making people correct themselves. But I had an echo chamber. An echo chamber that cared for me, but an echo chamber nonetheless.
If I had not met Valeria, I wonder if she’d be somewhere in her life reading online about a new Lufkin Bozo, because they are definitely created in echo chambers. Or if this Lufkin Bozo would have ever had the courage to be seen at all.