Juju walked casually with a group of her fellow “band geeks” to the cafeteria one rainy Spring day in 1975. The group of 7th graders walked together and in fashion; t-shirts, patched blue jeans, chukka boots or sneakers, evidently the uniform of the time. Juju playfully ribbed a girl named Gayle about her lunch box and the girl turned and pushed her.
Juju’s return, non-aggressive, shove was met instantly with a man grabbing Juju from behind and around the neck. The kids called the hold a “snot lock.” Juju felt pain and a jerk of her neck as the shop teacher yelled in her ear, “You little shit, boys don’t hit or shove girls, got it??!!” Gayle yelled, “Juju is a girl!!”
With that the shop teacher, missing his left index finger, relinquished the snot lock on Juju, as she turned and glared at him. “You all get yourselves to class!” was all he said. No apology was heard as the woodwind section trotted off to Mr. Nettles in the band hall. Juju’s face was red, a result of the hold and her embarrassment.
Juju had left her house that morning in the safe confines of her father’s car. He was retired and enjoyed driving his seventh child to seventh grade, even though it was only about a mile and a half away through the middle-class suburb. Juju’s father loved his Cadillac Fleetwood and would rest his left arm out the open window, holding his unfiltered Camel cigarette. He never said a word about Juju’s appearance, even that day when she was sporting a Roger Staubach football jersey, faded blue jeans, and white Chuck Taylor high tops. Even after retirement, Juju’s dad often got up and dressed in his starched, linen chef’s shirt. Juju wondered if her dad missed cooking for hundreds of people, he often seemed sad.
Seventh grade was the hardest year for Juju in her academic adventure. Puberty and snot locks were not making Hurst Jr. High all that fun. The next year would bring organized athletics for girls, but in 1975 Juju found herself in a band hall, holding an oboe she would never be proficient in. This will get better she thought, but when?
Juju had a 1970s “shag” haircut in 6th grade and that had helped her from rude people calling her a boy. The summer before 7th grade though, Juju’s mother had encouraged her to get a shorter style and that seemed to exasperate the problem. Juju looked in the mirror hanging over her bedroom dresser. Do they really think I am a boy she wondered or do they know my secret? Juju had become 100% sure that year that she was indeed different. A childhood of unusual thoughts had become pretty clear in her 13th year on earth. Juju looked at the poster of Starksy and Hutch on her wall and back to the mirror. She didn’t think she looked like a dude. What are they seeing that I do not, she thought?
Juju was seated in algebra the next day when an envelope was handed to her by one of the office ladies. “Welcome. Please accept this invitation to the National Junior Honor Society. The swearing in will be held this Saturday at 7pm with a reception to follow in the school cafeteria.” Juju was getting a drink from a water fountain after class when a hand was felt on the back of her head. Her head was pushed into the water stream, as she quickly released the button. “Ha, you queer!! You like that?” That was the last time Juju ever used the water fountain until 1978. Which was okay, it cut out all problems going to the girls’ restroom.
Saturday evening came and there were Juju’s parents, seated in the second row. Juju was wearing a dress her mother had made her wear, finding it wadded up in the back of her closet. Who knew her mother could iron it back to perfection in less than 10 minutes? It had been purchased for a relative’s funeral the year before and banished by Juju upon returning home. Uncomfortable in the flower print, she ambled up to Mr. Arnold, the school principal, and gladly accepted her certificate and honor society “gold-plated” pin. As she turned and walked back to her seat, she noticed the big smiles of Jim and Jewel, her parents. She hadn’t told them about the shop teacher or the fact that she spent her days thirsty. Juju knew she was smart, and that fact seemed to bring happiness to her parents. Let’s just leave it at that she thought. I will be the smart one…the one that stays out of trouble and reports none. Some day people will stop thinking I am a boy, or calling me that just because they mean something else and want to hurt me.
1976 brought 8th grade and the death of Juju’s father. Funny how when you are sad about things you don’t think it will ever go away…until something bigger and sadder happens. Grief brings focus for sure. Time passed and things got better. Juju learned to surround herself with people that liked her no matter what shirt she was wearing, or what her hairstyle happened to be. Some of her new friends were even “sporty” girls like Juju. She sat in the bleachers one day and watched the cheerleaders practice their routine on the gym floor. She was waiting for them to clear out so volleyball practice could begin. Juju noticed that even though the cheerleaders were not wearing their red and white uniforms, they all still dressed very much alike, down to the same hair ribbons keeping their pony-tails in place. We all leave the house in a uniform Juju thought, whether it was her Dallas Cowboy jersey, her dad’s chef shirt, or the cheerleaders and their halter tops. How we present ourselves is a big part of who we are on the inside.
After that day, Juju wore what she wanted and cut her hair as short as she desired. She was who she was and there was no changing it. Juju knew she was different and sometimes people would stare or comment. Their intention might be one of mistake or pure ugliness, it would not matter. Juju was going to wear her uniform with ease and self-confidence…and with that “gold-plated” pin. Thanks for the smiles Jewel and Jim.