My sixth grade hall locker haunts me in my nightmares. Of course, there’s a story behind that, and of course, it really has nothing to do with the locker itself.
The stress of middle school began long before the first day. Selecting teachers based on rumors; creating my first class schedule; choosing elective courses; new school; uniforms for PE; and so forth… I had less anxiety over sex. Of course all this is thrust upon you with your volatile teenage psyche washed up on the beach by a tsunami of hormones, and pecked there by the hungry gulls of pubescent insecurity.
I was such a wreck, I remember very little about that day, but I do remember the miserable discovery of desks you couldn’t put things in. By the time I’d arrived in home room, which was fourth period for us, I was lugging around several rectangular blocks of cement cleverly disguised as course literature, along with all the pens, pencils, notebooks, drawing tablets, etc.
Ms. Daines, my home room teacher, had the responsibility of giving me the good news/bad news. The good news was that I wouldn’t be required to carry all of those books around to every class. The bad news began with a little slip of paper that read: 2169 37R-22L-7R. Each of us was handed one, and Ms. Daines kindly instructed us to follow her on a brief excursion that would lead no further than the hallway, where she gestured to the regiments of steel boxes all stood at perfect attention along the walls.
I didn’t care for Ms. Daines. We would become friends later when I met her socially after college, but as a teacher, I detested her. She wasn’t very old, but she was quite prematurely grey and did nothing at all to hide it. In fact, she seemed to enjoy the image, accenting it with old-fashioned, mid-calf dresses, boxy shoes and the same pair of annoying horn-rimmed spectacles with a chain, no matter what outfit she wore. Her voice had the distinctive rasp of resignation to old age, and she drenched herself in the most ghastly perfumes that would choke you whenever she walked by your desk.
“If you’ll each direct your attention to the slip of paper I’ve given you,” she barked like a female drill sergeant, “you will see a four-digit number on the top. That number,” she displayed with her hand along the tops of the lockers, “corresponds to one of these four-digit numbers. Odd numbers are on this side of the hall, even numbers on that side. Please find the number that matches the one on your slip of paper, and stand underneath it. Now.”
There was a hustle and bustle as some kids determined more slowly than others that numbers are usually in numerical order. After some some pushing and shoving, we all ended up stood where we were supposed to be; well almost all of us.
“Are you having trouble, Flower?”
At first I didn’t even realize she was talking to me. I wasn’t used to hearing my name without the Anne. Any other day, I might not have responded at all, but I’d already had to correct four out of four teachers (including her) at roll call. “My number’s not here,” I answered.
She took the slip of paper from my hand, trotted me up the hall to a chorus of giggles, and deposited me well away from everyone else. “Congratulations,” she said. “They hand out the combinations in blocks of twenty-four, and we have twenty-five students. You drew the lucky straw.”
“Lucky like how I drew your class?” I grumbled after her down the hall.
I said it too loud. Sgt. Daines whirled on me. “Are we going to have a problem, Flower?”
Apparently, we already had one. I told her at role call my name was Annie. “No, Ma’am. I just meant… It’s Annie.” I couldn’t think of a save. I didn’t intend for her to hear the insult. No one wanted to be in Ms. Daines’ class. She must have been aware of the rumors, but I hadn’t heard about them until Missy saw my schedule just before the morning bell. I could feel the artillery fire in Ms. Daines’ glare. “Please,” I added sarcastically. “If you don’t mind.”
She took two steps back toward me and stopped.
I tried to look as innocent as I could but she wasn’t having any of it.
“Just stand under your number like everyone else,” she ordered.
I was already stood there and so she returned to the rest of my classmates. I was marooned. My locker was an island, no other kids around, just a box in the middle of a bunch of identical little boxes.
“Everyone turn to face your locker and listen carefully. The capital R means clockwise….”
I could barely hear her. I was sure she was deliberately speaking only as loud as everyone else needed. I managed to make out most of what she said anyway and her final words were loud and clear. “Take as long as you need until you have it memorized and then throw the paper away and return to your seats.”
Throw the paper away?
Within seconds, it seemed two of the other kids had already headed back to class as my new drill sergeant goose-stepped her way up and down between the banks of lockers that did not include mine.
I followed her instructions carefully, over and over, and the locker did not open. There were a few other kids who had trouble. She helped them all first, until the two of us stood alone in the hallway. She marched up and stared over my shoulder while I braced myself for the attack.
“Is there a problem with your locker, Annie?”
Her tone was soft and kind and she used my right name. I suddenly felt horrible for insulting her, but I couldn’t apologize. I just nodded. She took my slip of paper again and I watched carefully as she quickly opened my locker, repeating her instructions patiently as she executed them.
“I’m sorry, she said. Sometimes these combination locks are a little finicky. I know I said twice, but you have a thirty-seven as your first number. Just try turning it three times to start.”
I did and this time the locker opened easily.
Ms. Daines smiled at me. I realized I was about to be accompanied back to class by the teacher and that she’d politely won our little personality contest, but her smile was one of sympathetic recognition, not gloating enmity. She saw something about me she liked and it made me uncomfortable. I thanked her meekly and followed her quietly back to class.
All day and all night after I got home that first day, I was rehearsing my locker combination terrified of the humiliation I was sure to face if I forgot it. I might even have repeated it in my sleep. I was still muttering it to myself when I realized in horror that I had no idea which locker the combination belonged to. I tried to guess how far down the hall I’d been from class and then how far from the end locker I’d been.
Three spins… 37R… 22L… 7R…
Nothing. I tried it again with the same result, and then moved nervously to the next locker. The combination didn’t work there either. I looked up at the locker numbers but they offered no assistance and I decided to try the first one again. I was sure it was the third from the end. The warning bell rang and the ensuing stampede of adolescents trampling everything in their reckless path forced me into a little shell of anxiety as I futilely twisted the dial.
“What are you doing in my locker, dorkwad?” A large hand punched me hard in the arm knocking me into the girl next to me who pushed me angrily out into the hall traffic.
I didn’t know it was yours. The words formed in my head but refused to leave my mouth. My arm stung from where he’d hit me and tears welled up in my eyes, more from the embarrassment of not knowing where my locker was.
My assailant laughed at my tears. “Whassamatter? You gonna cry over a little love tap like that? You gonna cry like a girl?”
“She is a girl, stupid,” said a boy who stood waiting for him.
“I think your locker’s over there,” said the girl who’d pushed me. “I saw you there yesterday.”
The ringing in my ears blocked out anything else I might have heard. I walked to next bank of lockers where she’d pointed. Fate took pity on me as no one stood at the third locker from the end. The friendly 2169 on its riveted label never left my memory again, but the damage was done.
It’s a well-known and oft-repeated rule that boys don’t hit girls. Greg had hit me. No one who was stood around watching in the hall that morning had a single word to say about it and so somehow, in that inadvertent breach of schoolyard etiquette, I became the exception to the rule. Later that afternoon, someone bumped into me hard in the hallway, knocking me down and sending my books skidding down the hallway. I sat helplessly as random feet kicked them even further away.
“Excuse me, Sir!”
Greg and his smaller friend laughed mercilessly as they disappeared down the hall. I swore I heard my stupid locker laughing at me too.
© 2013 Anne Schilde