I was not the only new student at Seymour High School in the fall of 1969. There were a few other kids who had moved to Baylor County, and of these there were even a couple of students who were not through-and-through Texans, so I was not the only kid who didn’t have a Texan accent.
Still, there was a sense of disconnection, unfamiliarity, and uncertainty on my first day in high school. I was the only sophomore who was just starting high school, because in California at that time high school started in the 10th grade, whereas in Texas it started in the 9th grade. My friends from Curtis Junior High School would also be starting high school now, without me. Curtis Junior High School was the school I had attended in 7th grade and I had known a few of those kids since elementary school. I still thought of San Bernardino as my home and felt that I should really be going to school there. But where would we have lived? We had lost our old house, which was sold off to pay debts. We could no longer afford to live there, especially since my mother was separated from my dad. We were living on her salary and tips, which was barely enough to get by on, even in a town as inexpensive to live in as Seymour was.
On the first day of school we all went to a big room where our class assignments were handed out. The school was located in a three-storey brick building and the top floor was occupied by the junior high school, so it was not too difficult to find my classrooms. School started at the end of August and it was still blazing hot. The air conditioners in the classrooms did not help much unless you were sitting near them, and then it was difficult to hear what the teacher was saying.
Going to class was not so intimidating, but lunch was another matter. There were about 70 students in each grade, so the handful of newbies must have stuck out. When I went to find a place in the lunchroom to sit down, there were a few greetings and inquiries that seemed friendly or at least innocuous, plus one that set off subtle alarms.
“You remind me of [so-and-so]. Do you know her?” I shook my head no. There was just the faintest hint of a smile of amusement on the faces of one or two of the girls sitting next to the girl who had asked the question and I had a feeling that her remark was not meant as a compliment. I quickly went through the process of memorizing and mentally filing away the faces of the coterie of girls sprawled at the table where my interlocutor sat, noting them all as possible future sources of harassment, to be avoided when possible and to be treated with caution when avoidance wasn’t possible. After five junior high schools this was a reflex reaction; only at the last school had I suffered from any form of harassment, but it was a useful trick that had developed naturally to deal with the need to continually navigate unfamiliar adolescent environments.
“Are you sure you’re not related to her?” I nodded, using a slight smile and ever so slightly prolonged eye contact to express a confidence I did not feel (and hoping that my quick-to-blush face was not betraying me).
This little “thrust and parry” dance would become familiar to me over the next few years, not as a tool for insulting people, but rather as a regular Texan social ritual for testing out new acquaintances and confirming “in jokes” with established friends. I later met “so-and-so,” and my suspicion that the remark had been meant as an insult was confirmed, even as I realized that there was a certain physical resemblance between “so-and-so” and me.
The girl who had asked the question did not pursue it on later occasions, nor did the other two “alpha females” with whom she tended to hang out. Oh, there were plenty of other testing jabs – with me and with everyone else with whom they came into contact. They did not become friends exactly, but they were friendly enough and I came to appreciate their sharp sense of humor. And I learned how to turn these jabs right back. The trick is not to let on that the arrow may have hit its target, that is, to give no sign of irritation or offense. A reply may be given, but it must be absolutely neutral in tone and expression and must give the impression that you are totally unaware of any malicious intent on the part of your interlocutor. But the most important thing is to look that person in the eye for just a second longer than usual and smile ever so slightly.