I was once in a gang. It was an accident. For Christmas, 1979, I received a bitchin’ yellow jacket with Egyptian blue accent stripes on each shoulder and graduated blue stripes on the back. It must have been a sale item from the local Fred Meyer as once we returned to school from Christmas break it was discovered that another friend and an eighth grader had the same jacket. Being in seventh grade it wasn’t immediately embarrassing to be wearing the same jacket as one of my best friends, we had options. We used the serendipitous occasion to form a gang and claim the incident deliberate. Another friend in our little group quickly went out and bought the jacket and yet another, whose parent’s would not surrender to the peer pressure, decided she would maintain her autonomy, to throw off our rivals. Renee, Rene, Nina and myself; we called ourselves the Blue Angels, and ignored the jacket’s dandelion hue.
At the Gordon Russell Middle School cafeteria, we had lunchtime meetings to decide our angle. We had all recently seen “The Warriors” and knew we had many options from which to choose. We could be the gang associated with a sport, like the Baseball Furies who wielded bats and ridiculous face paint for battle, but the only sport the majority of our group participated in was 7th grade volleyball and that didn’t seem so tough. The all female gang, the Lizzies was a bit closer, but the use of their main weapon, their sexuality, was beyond us and left us a little confused. We had our colors, now we needed a purpose. Brainstorming over fish sticks, applesauce and small cartons of milk helped us define our struggle. We were a mismatched group of leftovers, except for our jackets, kids who didn’t quite make the cut into other self selected cliques. We had all participated in the junior high drama of trying to be popular and all deemed unworthy of any top shelf clique. This was our salient characteristic, the distinct ability to NOT fit in. We decided we would be the loners, the rebels (in our group of course) and try our best to disrupt the seventh grade social order. Fuck Catherine Williams and her well-coiffed minions, we were here to rumble.
A ragtag group we were. Renee, the natural leader of the gang, was a tall, lean, pretty redhead. She had pale freckled skin and a surly disposition. She was tough and led the volleyball team in kills. I liked her especially because, like me, she followed an older sibling who had taught her how to party and her parents mostly ignored her. Her family was well off and lived on the other side of the school, in the neighborhood of large houses with lawns. Renee was the one to formulate the plans or the first to second my own.
The other Rene was a tiny, dark haired girl with flawless porcelain skin. I’m certain she grew into a classic beauty as she had all the required elements at twelve. She was a good student, in the advanced classes and shorter than me, which was unusual, even in seventh grade. She too lived in a nice house on the opposite side of the school, which had a small Asian themed backyard complete with miniature Japanese maples, a trickling stream and a small stone bridge. She was the one in the group who always felt like she had the most to prove, because she was the closest to making the cut. Because of this she was quick to follow and contribute, usually with strategically interjected curse words.
Nina brought the edgy, bad girl element was to the group. She was a year older than the rest of us, having been held back in an earlier grade and she still struggled with school. She was handsomely plain and tough and was the one to always bring the cigarettes. Like me, she was poor and lived in a sketchy neighborhood off of Stark Street with her father, who gave me the creeps because of the rancid alcohol and stale cigarettes that wafted from his breath, regardless of the time of day. She had an older boyfriend with a car and sadly ended up getting pregnant and dropping out of school before the start of her eighth grade year.
I perhaps, was the connector, the common denominator that tied the group together.
Like the New York gangs that tussled to claim their territory, we too needed to stake out our own. We were so like the Warriors. Truly, it wasn’t much of a conflict as there were excess tables in our new junior high lunchroom, but we claimed the round table next to the gym doors, nonetheless. The matching bright yellow jackets were immediately noticed and the turning of heads momentarily shook my confidence. Renee snarled something sharp and witty at the popular table that caused Catherine Williams and her crew to stop gawking.
I had spent my sixth grade year under the clutches of Catherine Williams bidding for access into this elite group, feathering my hair and trying to be cool. After faking for as long as I could, it soon became clear that my hair was much too thin to pull off a Farah Fawcett look I couldn’t even afford one pair of San Francisco Riding Gear jeans yet alone the entire collection that many in the group owned. For some unknown reason I fell from grace and without telling me, I was released from the group. Catherine ignored me at school and her mother began to intercept all of my phone calls, certain that I was a bad influence on her daughter. I caught Catherine’s eye and flipped her off as I sat down to eat my lunch. War on.
Around the circular plastic table that, by at the end of the day, would be folded into narrow half circles supported by the attached seats on wheels, the Blue Angels sat eating our lunches and collaborating. The lunch area buzzed with fluorescent lights and the high-pitched voices of girls and prepubescent boys. Tables were implicitly assigned by a strong set of rules that no one had ever read yet were well known to all. We had many of the ingredients of a nascent Occupy gathering, young minds ready to buck the system and overthrow the power structure with no clear plans on how to do so. Our only plan was to disrupt with our own form of social anarchy.
Our disruption came in many forms but had only one target, the popular girls. Snide remarks intended to cause humiliation and eating disorders began to backfire as we gained the confidence to throw that shit right back and sling it ourselves. The social royalty were surprised when the commoners in matching yellow jackets began heckling them as they walked through the halls. I was quick to learn that comments about hair, breath or pant size were the best at getting a response and discovered that I was good at being a mean girl as the insults and angst flowed naturally. These little victories were short-lived as I was too familiar with the sinking feeling that these types of hurtful comments caused and I aimed for defense rather than offense. Learning how to ignore one of the most important 7th grade social constructs and be as mean as needed was an empowering and important lesson. Still today I am quick to tell an obnoxious colleague to shut the fuck up and have moved on to a new life lesson, tact.