life, writing

Hallway Angel

(Originally posted on May 21, 2012)

Hallway Angel

by Lori DiNardi

Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here.”

Fleetwood Mac blared from my radio right as I tried to forget about tomorrow. I clicked off the lamp on the nightstand and climbed into bed. My first day of high school loomed like a monster hiding in my closet.

Middle school, or junior high as we called it, left me timid and unsure of myself. My mind drifted back to painful memories of shameful experiences I endured there.

“Did anyone ever tell you that you look like a boy?” Jeff Zimmer insulted me in Social Studies class.

Ouch! I thought my face looked droopy, but resembling a boy never occurred to me. I kept my tawny hair feathered and flowing, wore dangly jewelry and hip-hugger pants with floral shirts. Mom even let me wear blush on my cheeks in the eighth grade. She always knew of ways to make me look nice, and showed me how to use a device to curl my naturally long eyelashes. How many boys’ eyelashes fluttered as pretty as mine?

“Yeah, she just might really be a boy,” Randy Black joined in on the teasing, “cause I heard she stuffs her bra.”

“Ha! DiNardi stuffs!” Jeff shouted.

Our teacher, Mr. Martin, clomped into the room on his clown feet, belly hanging over his belt. “Okay, guys, sit down. DiNardi isn’t clever enough to think of such a plot to fool you all. She can’t even get simple geography questions answered correctly.”

I shook in my seat a little and remained quiet, knowing full well if I agitated the teacher he’d make things worse. He might throw his softball-sized masking-tape ball at me. He played catch for fun during class sometimes, and also used it for taunting on occasion.

After Social Studies, I skulked through the ancient halls of the amber brick building. The high walls needed a fresh coat of eggshell, and the mustard tile was almost worn right through. An overcast sky outside the large windows of my next classroom added to the gloomy mood of the school. Mr. Tison, with his under-bite and mocking eyes, also seemed to take pleasure in intimidating students like me. “DiNardi, I don’t want to hear a peep out of you and your friend Looney during study hall,” he warned.

He used the rhyme for my friend, Lisa’s last name, Rooney. The kids latched on and we became Looney and Stuffy. The name-calling didn’t stop there. They teased Lisa for being “flat as a board,” and my height brought on Wizard of Oz munchkin jokes.

Between teachers without dedication or compassion, and daily belittling, my grades suffered.

When I got home from school that day, Grandma visited. She commented how my new hip-huggers with the wide, white belt hugged my “cute little figure.”

“Yeah, right,” I groaned. I knew she just wanted to cheer me up after seeing my mopey face. “I’m ugly.”

Grandma turned her head toward my dad. Her teased hair never moved under layers of hairspray. “Did you hear what your daughter said? She thinks she’s ugly.”

Dad peeked up from his newspaper and spoke in his thick Chicago accent. “Just wait’ll you get to high school, kid. All the boys’ll be going after you.”

I rolled my eyes. “You have to say that, you’re my dad.” I’d never find a boyfriend with my stubby, munchkin body.

I broke myself out of those humiliating memories and switched off the radio playing Fleetwood Mac, but the silence made it worse. Rabid thoughts grew like vines and wrapped hold of my brain. High school held hundreds more students to point and laugh.

Though I got little sleep, sparked nerves kept my body moving the next day. I wasn’t alone. My best friend and neighbor, Nancy, and I shared our first-day fears on the ride to school.

Nancy and I on our 8th grade graduation day.
Nancy and I (on the right) on our 8th grade graduation day. I’m as dorky as Sue Heck from the TV show The Middle.

The bus jerked to a stop, and the doors folded open. We didn’t use backpacks, so a purse strap hung over my shoulder and notebooks rested on my hip. One slow step at a time, I planted my feet on the sidewalk. My eyes widened as the school towered before me like a mountain. Would I remember how to get to my classes?

The building was also old but cleaner and more modern than the junior high. The off-white tile and light-green lockers brightened up the alleyways. It didn’t feel dark and dingy at all. It even smelled of books instead of mildew, like the other place.

Wearing a crew-cut, plump Mr. Weslowsky glowed with enthusiasm in my first class, Algebra. Patient and perky, he made sure every single student understood the problem on the board, including me! How different from those mean and insensitive teachers from my last few years!

After Algebra, the crowded corridors both frightened and energized me. I soaked in the sights of students … noisy, shy, fashionable or gaudy. Some looked like adults too old for high school, others seemed small enough to be in grade school.

Around the corner to my locker, I carefully dialed in my code. The first bell rang, reminding us to get to our next class. Murmuring students shuffled by, as I switched out folders and clanked my locker shut. I spun around to head toward English class and almost bumped into someone. The boy stood there in front of me like a wall, staring. Folding my arms around the books at my chest, I stepped past him. He followed alongside, his steady glare fixed on me. This is all I need, even more boys from a new school picking on me.

His serious gaze changed into a grin. “Hi, my name is Joe Fontana. I’m a sophomore. What’s your name?”

“I’m Lori.” I smiled, trying to hide my uneasiness. Boys didn’t tend to seek me out for friendly chit-chat.

“I think you’re a pretty girl, but I’m sure you’ve heard that before,” he said as if it were a fact.

Aware of my face turning red with heat, my mind blanked out. I couldn’t think of what to say next. By the time the words “thank you” popped into my head, I feared I might choke on them and remained silent.

He didn’t seem to take notice and sounded friendly. “Nice to meet you, Lori. Guess I’ll see ya around.”

Watching him disappear among the teenagers, my cheeks cooled down. He was cute! His wavy black hair swooped down over his forehead like Sylvester Stallone in the movie Rocky. He wore a tight black Rolling Stones tongue t-shirt with jeans. His warm, dark eyes expressed genuine interest. Could Dad have been right?

In the following days when Joe passed me in the hallways he’d say, “Hi, Lori, how ya doin’?” or “Hey, beautiful.” He didn’t stop to talk with me again, and nothing more came of it. But his frequent compliments boosted my self-esteem.

Joe’s simple acts gave me the courage to bat my curled eyelashes at the boy in Science class who always looked my way. Tom’s eyes were like blue crystals. I even flirted with him when he finally spoke to me. He became my first boyfriend and first kiss. The poor guy never stood a chance once I got my groove. It wasn’t long before I dumped him for a different Tom, and then a Chuck. Dad was right!

I should’ve listened to more of the prophetic lyrics of Fleetwood Mac’s song on the night before my first day. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here. It’ll be here, better than before. Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.

It did turn out better than before, because my teenage life exploded, and my grades improved too. I’m pretty sure it all started with an angel named Joe Fontana.

Sorry, never got a pic of Joe. This is Tom and I going to 9th grade homecoming. (Yes, that’s the same dress from graduation. Who had money for another new dress?)

If you’d like to read more stories like these, check out my memoir anthology, here.

I’m not available to respond to comments, but you are welcome to share your stories too.

4 thoughts on “Hallway Angel”

  1. I remember a few teachers who lacked compassion and thought nothing of teasing a student in front of the class. It happened to me a time or two. And the kids could be SO mean! Personally, I didn’t come out of my shell until after high school, but it sure felt good when it finally happened!

    Looking at your two pictures, I can’t help but notice how much more mature and confident you look in the second picture. Your dad must have been right!


  2. It’s terrible enough how cruel children can be toward one another, but those middle school teachers should have known better. And should have been officially censured in some way. I’m glad high school was such a better experience for you!


  3. I just got tears in my eyes thinking of that junior high cruelty. How vicious kids can be–and even teachers, it seems. So glad that you had an angel waiting in the wings! Great post.


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