Zoey Paulsen, 7, at her Brownie troop’s spring talent show in Farmingdale. She...

Zoey Paulsen, 7, at her Brownie troop’s spring talent show in Farmingdale. She enjoyed the location more than her "Aunt Cindy." Credit: Cindy March

The scars of junior high school have not healed even though I’m now 62. I thought I was over the horrors of the hallways of Mill Lane Junior High School in Farmingdale. I was wrong. On two recent evenings, a good friend’s daughter, Zoey Paulsen, performed at a Brownie troop talent-show fundraiser at Saltzman East Memorial School.

At first, I got caught up in Zoey’s excitement of being onstage. She’s like a niece to me. We rehearsed for weeks. So, I have the lyrics of “Fight Song,” by Rachel Platten, the one that Zoey sang, committed to memory. It’s empowering, perfect for an up-and-coming, independent woman even though Zoey is 7.

Her elementary school, though, is housed in my old junior high school, goes to fifth grade. In my day, we had two junior high schools and four elementary schools, which went to sixth grade, in the Farmingdale school district. Then, we were unevenly split into two junior highs, now called middle schools, Welden E. Howitt and Mill Lane.

Most kids I knew went to Howitt, the bigger school. Not only was I separated from my tribe, but I had to negotiate the perils of lockers and changing classes. I was lost from the first day and never found my way.

Just walking into the school lobby put me in a panic. In an instant, I was back in 1973, with my bad shag haircut and insecurity. The lighting, the noise, the smells, and the institutional gray walls suffocated me.

Although I am a successful career woman who has survived surgeries, illnesses and burying my parents at a young age, returning to my old junior high caused my mind to disintegrate. The bathrooms haven’t changed either. They’re the same putrid pink.

A lot happens in the two months between June of sixth grade and September of seventh grade. People change. Blame it on periods and pimples, but the people I knew in sixth grade did not seem like the same ones greeting me in seventh grade. Cliques had boundaries so strong that a Navy SEAL couldn’t penetrate them.

My best friend since fourth grade had become a stranger. She now had a boyfriend and sneaked cigarettes in the bathroom. I was an outlier. The curriculum had no anti-bullying programs. The “cool kids” tormented me, calling me names, hiding my books and throwing things at me.

When my other good friend’s kids started middle school, I couldn’t breathe. I was afraid they would share my same fate. They also came home overwhelmed with the number of kids in school, the challenges of lockers and changing classes. For the most part, they came out unscathed.

I don’t talk about my junior high / middle school experiences with them. Let them think their “Aunt Cindy” is one cool chick who sailed through school like a rock star.

I have friends who teach middle school. They confess they see struggles of the “outcasts” but couldn’t imagine teaching any other age groups.

Zoey will enter second grade in the fall, so that means four more years of shows, concerts and other performances happening in my own personal purgatory. Perhaps by her fifth-grade graduation, I will develop a thicker skin and be able to cross this minefield of memories and enjoy all that she will become.

Reader Cindy March lives in Farmingdale.

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