Ordeals of seventh grade seems to live inside us forever
It was one of those childhood ordeals, designed, it seemed, by unthinking adults to make the maturing process even more difficult. The scene was the gymnasium of Saint Sadistic Junior High School. It was the first day of seventh grade.
The opening day of school was a breaking-in process for us young hellions, fresh from two months of running wild.
We were welcomed back in assembly by our principal, given class books by our various teachers and had our vital statistics (height and weight) recorded by the school nurse and our ape-like gym teacher, Mr. Latanzi.
For most of us, this was a painless process. We’d line up on opposite walls of the gym, boys on one side, girls on the other.
Our names were called in alphabetical order, and we went to the center circle to be weighed and measured. Walking up to the scale was exciting for those of us with confidence.
It was a time to display new school clothes as well as to promenade for the girls who you hoped were checking you out. When my name was called I approached the scale as if I were receiving an Oscar.
I remember standing ramrod straight in the many layers of clothing I wore in order to register as tall and heavily as possible. Most of us boys wanted to be big. But for those who were already bulky, especially the girls, that day was pure horror.
Young women of that era were expected to be petite and pretty as much as young lads wanted to be large and strong.
Janice Azack was a friend of mine. She lived two doors down the street. Janice was a raw-boned Greek girl with black hair, green eyes and hands like a blacksmith.
At the age of 11, Janice was as tall as some adults and weighed accordingly. Her whole family was huge; her mother was almost 6 feet tall, her father had forearms like Popeye from loading trucks at Knapp Shoe Factory, and her brother Artie eventually played football for West Point.
Janice had it better than most big girls. She was smart, had a pretty face and a brother who could pinch the heads off of those who might taunt her.
But Artie couldn’t be there all the time and he certainly couldn’t beat up the girls who would shun, mock and tease his little sister.
Children can be as mean as vipers and just as insensitive. Perhaps they can be forgiven since I don’t believe they are that way naturally; they learn by adult example.
Janice Azack stood across from me on that day in the gym. She was head and shoulders taller than those around her and stood out all the more in the bright red jumper her mother had bought her for the first day of school.
The heights and weights of her female classmates were often under 5 feet and 100 pounds. I had already been weighed and measured. I checked in at 5 feet 2 inches tall and topped the scales at around 115 pounds – most of those coming from pimples and cowlicks.
When Mr. Latanzi called Janice’s name, his voice seemed to echo off the walls. She walked toward the center of the room with the slouch of a big person attempting to look less massive.
She stepped on the scale and looked at the gym teacher with imploring eyes. Even at the age of 12, I knew she was asking with that look. “Please Mr. Latanzi, don’t say my height and weight out loud for all to hear.”
If Latanzi had the brains of a fish, he would have discreetly murmured Janice’s weight to the school nurse.
Instead he roared in his best baritone, “5 FEET, 9 INCHES; 142 POUNDS.”
The gym got very quiet as Janice walked back to the girls’ side. She was almost back in line when Danny Mario (who’s nose I bloodied a week later over an unrelated incident) let out a cow sound effect of “MOOOO.”
I saw Mr. Latanzi laugh; I could see Janice’s tears from across the gym.
Janice Azack is now married, has children and works as a fashion designer in Boston. Before that, she was a successful model in New York City. She is now almost 6 feet tall, and after having three children and nearing 50, she is still elegant and statuesque.
By anyone’s standards, she could be described as a beautiful woman. When I’m back east, I’ll sometimes meet her for lunch. One time, after a second glass of wine with her salad, she confided that despite having appeared in catalogues, magazines and commercials, she still often feels ugly.
It seems that all the carpeted fashion runways, fawning photographers and flirtatious admirers could not erase the painful memory of almost forty years ago, of a long walk across the gym floor.
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of “Biff America,” can be seen on RSN television, heard on KOA radio and read in several mountain publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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