Something happened between sixth and seventh grade, between Topeka Drive Elementary and Nobel Jr High. The rules changed. We had an orientation day to explain that we had to go from class to class; that we had seven minutes to change for PE, green shorts, white T-shirt; and that we got lockers with combination dials that you had to spin left twice to 4 then right once to 16 and left once to 8. I understood these rules well. I helped other kids find their classes and open their lockers.
But other rules changed, too, and there was no orientation for these changes. I left Topeka Dr a cool kid, a great kickballer, one of the smarter kids, with thick bifocals that all the kids at the school were used to and accepted.
I entered Nobel the same kid who left Topeka, but soon learned that kickball and math skills meant nothing for social standing. Big glasses and collared shirts, even nice looking red-striped collared shirts, made you nerdy.
Nobel Jr High based its social hierarchy on who your friends were, on whether you went to the dances, on which girls you liked, and, most importantly, which girls liked you.
The first few months were a hodgepodge of awkwardness and shyness as I learned my place and found and bonded with others like me. I wasn’t happy with my social station, but I accepted it while I schemed for a way to move up.
And then it happened. My last connection to cool, Robbie, my Topeka Dr friend who could talk to girls as if they were younger siblings, was turning 13. And I got an invite to his Bar Mitzvah; where all the cool kids would be.
I thought and thought about just the right gift, one that would show all the Nobel kids that despite the untied shoes and cowlicky hair, I was right with them. I’d never been to a Bar Mitzvah, but knew they were like birthday parties at Temple and being a cool kid from my elementary days, I had been to plenty of birthday parties. In fact, I had been to plenty of Robbie’s birthday parties, including the first one he threw, as an eight-year old at Matador Bowl where Robbie won every game, but was impressed that I got two spares in one game and almost beat him.
That was it. A bowling ball would be the perfect gift. I went to the store and picked out a yellow, yet masculine bowling ball, and I couldn’t wait until the day of the party.
The morning of the Bar Mitzvah came and I dressed in my corduroys and red-striped collared shirt. Mom told me that Bar Mitzvahs were fancy and to change. I went back and put on my sixth grade graduation outfit: gray slacks that barely reached my ankles and a long sleeved shirt that was too tight at the neck and too short on my wrists. Dad helped me with the tie.
I grabbed his present and went to Temple. I saw the cool kids hanging out. I rested Robbie’s present up on my hip and walked up, now part of the group. One girl saw me and smirked. “Yeah,” I said, “my mom doesn’t realize how much I’ve grown. She bought me clothes that were three sizes too small.” The kids all laughed, impressed with my coolness.
Robbie’s mom walked up. “Hello,” I said, “where should I put Robbie’s present.” She looked at me and smiled. “The gift table is right there,” she said, pointing.
I walked over to the table with my present. I heard the kids laughing as I walked away. I reached the table and heaved my 12 pound gift up on it.
I stepped back to look at the table. There were probably 150 or so gifts there. 149 cards with money and one bowling ball.
I still heard the kids behind me, laughing. I wished I was wearing my corduroys.
I got an invitation to go to a banquet last month. I jumped at it, eager to show my coworkers how cool I am.