My Never-Before-Shared Story of Middle School Love and Death
Once upon a time (the mid-90’s) in a faraway land (Rochester Hills, Michigan), there lived an awkward 12-year-old Asian girl with metal braces, bad skin, and a perm that was supposed to be cool but turned her head into the shape of a trapezoid.
Artist’s rendering (this is as good as it’s going to get since all photographic evidence from this era has been destroyed):
Actual pre-perm photos, so you can get a general idea of the extreme awkwardness that ensued:
I was a lonely kid.
Ultra geeky and extremely shy, I begged my mom for a perm since all the popular girls were doing it and looking ah-MAY-zing, a’la Jessie Spano in Saved By The Bell. Maybe a perm was the magic solution to make everything better: Instant volume and instant friends!
As my nostrils stung from the stench of chemicals and my scalp burned from sloppy application of the solution (we saved money by seeing a hairdresser who worked out of her basement and perm-ed me for only $30 — bargain basement indeed), I prayed that I would emerge from the curlers with full, luscious, wavy locks (and if I unexpectedly changed from Chinese to Caucasian in the process, that’d be okay too — maybe then the “ching chong ding dong,” “you eat dogs!”, and incessant direct and indirect racism/ignorance from kids and grown-ass adults would come to an end).
It was rough growing up as a minority in the Midwest. Especially when you are an awkward Asian trapezoid-headed nerd with a crush on the popular blonde-haired, green-eyed star of the wrestling team.
His name was Jimmy Fletcher (name has been changed to protect privacy and confidentiality), and he was beautiful.
He was also a total asshole to me.
To be fair, he was an equal opportunity asshole to almost everyone who wasn’t in the Cool Kids Clique.
I admired him from afar, dreaming of the day I would have my Tai from Clueless or Alison from The Breakfast Club moment.
It never happened, so I got impatient.
Before swiping and Invisalign, there was *67.
When you dial *67 before dialing someone’s phone number, the recipient of your call can’t see who’s calling. Ideal for prank calls made during Truth or Dare sleepovers.
And the perfect way to catfish a cute wrestling crush.
To this day, I’m still not sure why I did it. Maybe it was in the middle of an especially dull stretch of homework. Maybe it was an “oh well, what the hell” impulsive instinct to connect. Maybe my daydream accidentally manifested itself into real life, looking up his name in the school phone directory and picking up the phone and dialing *67 and then his number and…
It was him. His unmistakable, angelic asshole voice.
“Hi. Is this Jimmy?”
“Yeah, it’s Jimmy. Who’s this?”
“This is… Stephanie.” Stephanie??!!
“Stephanie… Jones. I go to another school.” Another school?? “I was at your last wrestling match since I was there watching my brother and I saw you there. I thought you were cute so I asked some friends for your number.”
A pause. “Really? What do you look like?”
Oh, Jimmy. Asking all the important questions.
“I… um… have long strawberry blonde hair and green eyes. Sometimes they’re a little blue. I’m 5'1” and 90 pounds. I have some freckles.” Freckles??!!!
“Wow. You sound really pretty.”
“Thanks. You too.” You too??!?!?! I was officially dying inside, but Jimmy didn’t notice, already caught up in the fantasy of a strawberry blonde dreamgirl from another school thinking he was cute.
Down the rabbit hole I went.
I *67-called him again the next day. And the next. And the next.
Eventually we moved on from hair and eye color to what we wanted to be when we grew up (Olympic gymnast/police officer), subjects we liked/hated (English, Art, and PE/Math), and things we liked to do (read/skateboard).
He asked me if I would meet him at the local McDonald’s on Walton Blvd. I said no, because I had cheerleading practice. Or tutoring. Or something else. Anything else.
Sometimes we talked about not liking our parents.
Sometimes we talked about when we felt scared.
I told him about the time two years ago when I was ten years old and went downstairs into the kitchen and took a knife out of the drawer and looked at it and thought about cutting my wrists because I didn’t want to be hit or screamed at for being a stupid idiot anymore.
He told me about a time he thought about dying, too. And about times when he felt angry. He felt angry a lot.
He told me things that he’d never shared with anyone before. I shared things with him about me — not Stephanie — that I’d never shared with anyone before.
He wasn’t an asshole anymore. He was a human. Thoughtful. Kind. Caring. Curious. Interested in me/Stephanie. Nobody had ever been interested in me before. I loved him as much as my middle school-aged heart was able to love anyone.
He seemed to like me, too… at least the imaginary me with green-and-sometimes-blue-eyes.
The Day It All Went Down In Flames
One day several weeks into our daily phone dates, I forgot to dial *67.
My number showed up on his Caller ID, and later that night he called me back. I picked up the phone in my room as my mom picked up the phone in the kitchen and sat frozen and helpless as the following exchange went down:
“Hello?” asked my mom, in her heavy Chinese accent.
“Hi, Mrs. Jones? Is Stephanie there?”
“Um, your daughter Stephanie?”
“My daughter — Ivy?”
“No Stephanie. Just Ivy. Ivy Kwong.”
A long pause. And then… click.
I could hear my mom shrugging on the other line as she hung up the phone.
The dial tone hummed from the receiver in my hand.
My twelve-year-old heart broke, shattering the fantasy that I would ever wear Jimmy Fletcher’s junior varsity wrestling jacket and destroying the illusion that I might be liked, wanted, or accepted for who I really was.
The Next Day At School
I didn’t have any morning classes with Jimmy, so the first time I might see him would be a chance encounter in the hallway or walking through the cafeteria at lunch.
I managed to avoid him until lunchtime.
He was sitting on a long rectangular lunch table. Pointing at me. Laughing with his Cool Kids Clique friends who jeered, “Hi Stephanie!” “Hey, Stephanie Jones!” “What a loser!” “Weirdo.” “Psycho!” “Stalker!”
I kept my head down and my eyes superglued to the ground as I grabbed my styrofoam lunch tray and headed straight for my math teacher’s class. He opened it up to any outcasts who wanted to eat there instead of the cafeteria, pretending to get math help in exchange for a place to hide.
I ate my lunch in that math class every single day for the rest of the year, trying to put the pieces of my heart back together again.
Why Share This Story Now?
Over the years, I randomly thought of Jimmy. From time to time, I wondered how he was doing. If he ever moved out of Rochester Hills, Michigan. If he ever became a police officer. If he had someone to talk to when he felt scared.
A few days ago, I received a FaceBook notification that tickets were available for my high school reunion.
I clicked the link and noticed the last sentence of the event description:
Any funds not used for the event will be donated back to Adams High School in the names of our classmates who are no longer with us.
Jimmy Fletcher. No longer with us.
It had never crossed my mind to search for “Jimmy Fletcher obituary.”
With trembling fingers, I did.
He died less than a month after his 24th birthday.
No other information exists about him online. No photos. No details.
All that remains of Jimmy Fletcher is an empty obituary page on the internet.
And my memories of him.
Those middle school phone calls, when I made him laugh and he made me smile.
The long after school talks, when he heard and comforted me and I heard and comforted him.
Strange and precious moments forever captured in time, when the veil dropped and we were able to share our hearts and hopes.
Through a phone and strawberry blonde-haired filter, we saw and recognized parts of each other’s real selves. At twelve and thirteen years old.
Eleven years after our phone calls, Jimmy would be dead.
As I was driving to my yoga class yesterday morning, I unexpectedly burst into tears on the I-90.
For all of the middle school kids out there who feel scared. Sad. Angry. Alone.
For all of the adults who have a scared, sad, angry, and lonely middle school kid inside of them.
For all of the pain and suffering that we cause each other. That we inflict upon ourselves. That we get stuck and lost in.
How do we heal each other and ourselves?
The most important human need is not to love. We can love someone but not like them very much.
The most important human need is to be seen. Understood. Accepted. Embraced in all of our imperfections and ugliness. Loved in all of our insecurities and fears. To be heard in our moments of greatest vulnerability and to be responded to with compassion, with kindness, and with love.
I guess love is important after all. But not the conditional, strings attached, if-then kind of love. We need the unconditional, no strings attached, no-matter-what kind of love.
For a few weeks back in 1993, I saw Jimmy. And he saw me, the raw and real me who the shell of Stephanie couldn’t contain. We were lonely, hurting middle school kids who just needed someone to notice us. To feel kindness. To know there was someone out there who cared.
The things that children say to each other can be cruel. I know that mocking insults, jeers, and careless mean remarks hurled my way all those years ago got stuck like barbs in my soul and psyche. It took a long time to remove them. Sometimes things happen that reopen and sting old wounds.
Some of my high school classmates now have children in elementary and middle school. If you’re a parent, I hope that you can take a moment to ask your child how they’re doing. How they’re feeling. What they need from you. And just listen.
If you’re not a parent, I hope that you can take a moment to ask your inner child how they’re doing. How they’re feeling. What they need from you. And just listen.
Please teach your kids to be kind. You can do this by being kind. Talk instead of scream. Forgive instead of punish. Hug instead of hit. Listen instead of lecture. Help instead of hurt. Teach and model inclusion instead of exclusion. Reach out to those who are different from you.
I’m sorry I catfished you, Jimmy. I wish I had been brave enough to walk up to you in person to tell you how I felt. I wish I’d known my worth then, and had the courage to speak the truth:
You are worthy of being seen and heard. You are precious and loved. You are enough, exactly as you are right now.
If you’re reading this, read that last paragraph again. Because you are.
If reading this made you think, feel, or somehow connect with your aliveness, click here and I’ll keep you in the loop for more.
Sometimes things happen in the past that prevent us from being able to move on and truly, fully, deeply live. If you’re ready to heal the past in order to be in the present and create a more vibrant future, reach out and send me a message or request a complimentary 30-minute call. We’re not meant to walk this journey alone. Let’s talk. -Ivy Kwong LMFT, BareIvy.com