The Cruelty of Plaid Skirts

A. C. Bohleber


We were young then in our plaid skirts, pulled up to our navels and rolled. We felt older. We evaded guilt despite the warnings of hell. The inevitability of death generally escapes middle schoolers. I watched Annie push her into the sandbox full of water. We were all friends, right? It was unintentional. I looked on laughing. I want to say I was disturbed by it, but I’m not sure. Then I think of all the arguments I had with teachers. The look of bewilderment on their faces as I continued to push. Asking questions without answers while hands rested under gum covered desks. The plaid skirts are gone, but I feel the same. Same lies and same questions, same stories. I want to flip it all over and see what the gum has to say, let all those other mouths speak.

I’m not sure what mouths I’m wanting. Not the ones of boys or even men really. I’m over that, too. Sex is dull after a while when the only push I feel is on my lips. I need something against my throat now. To shut my mouth against the questions of why I feel this way, or why I feel anyway at all.

At thirteen, I was already sick of the constant question of why good things happen to be bad people. I would have loved to have jumped over the desk behind me and wrapped my hands around the throat that asked it. Told their purple face that these people have no answers. They are just as vulnerable and collapsible as you. I really hated all of them. In a way. In our adolescent minds we thought we were better than them. We knew everything they tried to teach us. No one in the class tried to stop the game of chop, chop, timber we played with the Spanish teacher who’d come in after eye surgery. No one tried to tell her we were lying about it being lunch time. It was her fault anyway. She should have known better. She shouldn’t have given us the opportunity. We laughed at her as we laughed at God and anyone who spoke about him. We became the fire and brimstone.

Enacted violence on one another. Girls against girls. Talking more trash than dumpster divers except, we never found anything worthwhile. It just made us feel good despite our bumpy faces and hairy legs. Anna decided my legs, which had just started to sprout with light brown hair, needed to be a spectacle. She shaved in sixth grade. I guess that’s what girls with older sisters do. I had brothers and had to wait until eighth grade.. That conversation with my mother was a prelude to what we would have when I wanted to go on birth control at eighteen.

It was an awkward speech of why the pill would make it easier to have a vagina. My mother had agreed that birth control was perfectly acceptable in the abstract, when there was no concept of me participating in sex. So I told her I wanted predictable periods, lighter periods, and a reprieve from cramps. I told the gynecologist I wanted it so I wouldn’t get pregnant, but I also needed something that wouldn’t make me fat.

As vain at eighteen as I was at thirteen. During my eighth grade year I was saved from hairy legs, but not from new, shiny braces and glasses that I had picked out myself. My mother acted like it was a treat to pick out new glasses. I wasn’t convinced, and the lisp I received from the new piece of metal in mouth that was pushing my upper jaw forward had shut me up.

I was still mean but in a quiet way. I watched it all with a blank stare that let the kids in on my secret, “they were meaningless and boring.” No one was special, and I especially not so. I wanted everyone to know how unimportant they were despite what their wealthy parents told them. I punished them by telling them they were irrelevant. The teachers got it, too.

The day every girl in my class was called to the principal’s office, for a “come to Jesus” meeting I had sat expressionless. The principle and her minions talked from chairs while we all sat on the floor in her tiny, brown office. We were packed in together like dogs that hadn’t behaved. I knew I participated in the onslaught of girl drama and gossip, but I also knew it was par for the course. It was Erin this week. It would be Sharon the next. I didn’t feel sorry for them because at least they weren’t always the blunt of bullies as some of the girls were. We weren’t concerned about them then, we only thought of the girls who had run their mouths to the teachers and not just the girls who had tattled.

It was the Principal, too, and all her little, beady eyed office women she kept around. It was the overweight school counselor who tried to make us friends. These were the people we were against. These were the people that bonded us together, who forced us to be friends, but not in the way they had hoped. I don’t feel bad for the teachers now. They were as petty and cruel as us, most of them. Making a third grader feel like a freak was something I couldn’t forgive. That was the principal. She had looked at me with as much disdain in third grade as in eighth grade.

I wanted to scream at the principal that I didn’t piss my pants just to torment her. I didn’t write my words backwards to give her a chore. I was eight. You can be weird at eight. But I was already fucked up to her, so when I came to the office that day she thought she could bully me into submission but not into change. She, like the world, had asked me to pretend to be something I wasn’t. I held my grudge firm, too, and I talked shit about her character, and I wrote words that were twisted and vile.

The hatred I felt for those teachers I could not express, so I was mean to everyone under the pretense of friendship. Cut someone else down to raise myself up. To show everyone I was strong, tough, not to be fucked with. The teachers could say what they wanted and report me to my parents, but friends, kids, could be manipulated. I could love them and despise them, treat them well and poorly, say whatever I wanted without fear of retribution because we were friends, right?

The exclusion and hurt the girls who I ridiculed, who were always ridiculed never touched me. I was cruel, and I got along with the boys. I responded to anger with laughter. I knew the words that would haunt someone as they lay in bed at night. Only once did I shock my parents and brother with a rebuttal that was physical. I jumped on him with slaps to the face, grabbing his arms until finally he threw me down the short steps into the dining room.

It was an abrupt jolt of anger from me that I had usually kept tucked down like the polos tucked down in our skirts. We reached underneath and tried to smooth them out in the girl’s bathroom where even there girls were not free from belittlement. I egged it on, too. I was an enabler and an instigator. When Kara called me a bitch, I turned all the kids against her. I just gave them a new target. I suppose I played victim and then avenger then politician.

Don’t think for a moment I was a queen bee, though. I was just the side bitch who talked shit, but whose heart wasn’t in it. It was pure entertainment, and most knew that to be a snitch would make the onslaught of rumors even worse. We were such brutes with our petty rivalries and puffed out chests, stuffed bras and Razor cell phones. The idea of bullying via phone hadn’t occurred to us then, so we just talked to our friends and sent nudes and oh, what a fun “come to Jesus” meeting that one was. Sending naked pictures wasn’t routine then, and they tried to scare us out of that, like everything else we thought was fun. No masturbation, no nudes, no cussing, no drugs… on and on. Inundated with “no.” So, we took the restrictions we were given and twisted them, placed them on everyone. They weren’t the same restrictions. The policing was about looking pretty and putting out, texting boys, getting alcohol. If you didn’t do these things you couldn’t be cool.

Maybe I was cool in some of these respects, but I pretended it didn’t matter and scorned anyone who did and my skirts were above the knee, and I stole alcohol when I could, and I made desperate attempts to kiss the right boy during spin the bottle. We made it a goal to be the stereotypical, catholic school girl, and we had help from older sisters and older friends. The boys were a side show to us. We wanted high school boys.

The girls, we hated one another in the most passionate way. Brought each other down with agile motions. Didn’t matter if you were friends or not. We swept their legs out from under them and sent them reeling into the wet sand box. Skirt soaked and the knowledge that it was their turn to be rejected, humiliated.

I don’t regret much, but I regret that.

I tell people even now “everyone is mean in middle school because they are lonely and ugly.” And I do believe it. I do.

But I don’t think it saves me from my sins.



A.C. Bohleber is a writer located in Nashville, Tennessee. She graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga where she received the Ken Smith Fiction Award and a degree in Creative Writing. She has published work with Treehouse Magazine and Weasel Press. She now works a full time job to pay for books and cat food.