Jonathan is getting ready to start 6th grade, but without his best friend. Growing up is about to become all too real for him, especially with those annoying bullies. He's hoping his close relationship with his brothers, his love for his treehouse and his great comic collection will be enough to pull him through the rough patches, but will it?
Sixth grade was the worst. Jeremiah said it. My brother would know, as he was a popular track and basketball star at Stone High School. He was a junior, so I believed him. If Jeremiah said that it was the worst, then it was the worst.
Not that it had a chance to be anything but awful. A new school, the low man on the totem pole, seven different teachers and all without my best friend. David and I had been friends since the first grade. We did everything together. When he got sick, I got sick too. It was awesome. David only lived a mile away from me, but the distance was enough, along with the high population in our town for us to attend the same elementary school but different middle schools. I would be at Stone Middle School, walking distance from my house, while he would have to be bused to George Washington Middle School all the way across town.
I was not looking forward to middle school.
“Alright, Jeremiah, give it to me straight. What can I expect?”
I took a handful of popcorn from the bowl that sat between us. It was our weekly “Bro Time.” Jeremiah, Jackson, who was the youngest and we called Jacks for short, and I would all hang out together while eating junk food. We usually watched a movie or played a board game. The movie was in the DVD player, but I was too concerned with what to expect next week to show any interest in the TV screen.
“Alright, Jonathan, as a sixth grader, you are going to have the crappiest lockers in the entire building. I think it is an agreement the upperclassman make with the principal or something. You will have the first lunch period, which means you won’t be hungry since you just ate breakfast like two hours ago. You’ll want food an hour later with no way to eat.” Jeremiah popped a handful of popcorn in his mouth, mumbling through the rest of his words of wisdom. “Nothing awesome you did in elementary school will follow you. The good grades, the volunteer work, the awesome reputation with teachers, all that hard work is gone. No one knows you!”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was like I was being sent to prison.
“Ugh, I hate first lunch.”
“Jonathan, it doesn’t matter, because the food is terrible and no one eats it.”
“Okay, well I’ll just bring my lunch,” I said, but really I hated that too.
“Yeah that’s an option,” Jeremiah said, but I didn’t quite like the way he looked at me when he said it.
“I feel like there’s something you aren’t telling me.”
Jeremiah took a deep breath. I knew it wasn’t going to be good.
“The lockers are bad and the food is crap, but what you have to worry the most about are The Labels. There is no way to avoid them.” The way Jeremiah sat up and took a big drink out of his soda reminded me the way his dad looked when his favorite football team was losing. It was serious.
“I don’t understand how they form. Girls and guys who were just friends in fifth grade suddenly become another thing. They are closer and nothing can penetrate them. By the end of the first day you will be labeled. Right or wrong they will label you and there is no getting out of it. You have to do something extreme, something spectacular to change what label you get.”
Jeremiah paced around in front of the coffee table. Jacks just stared at us from my step-dad’s favorite recliner with his own bowl of popcorn with no clue about the importance of this conversation.
“But how do they know what to label me?” I sat on the edge of my seat. I had heard about these Labels. The Labels that can follow you from middle school through high school. They determined your grade, your clubs, your extracurricular activities, even your popularity.
“The clothes you wear, the way you carry your backpack, the classes you take. Everything. And it’s like everyone comes to a silent mutual agreement that you are what they say you are.” Jeremiah was standing before me as if at any moment he would take off in full sprint trying to escape the labels.
“Some people’s label makes sense and they embrace the title. The jocks are the kids in all the sports. The mean girls are always the best dressed and make the other girls sad. The nerds are in all the smart classes and can’t seem to control their asthma. The geeks are automatically labeled if they are in the AV Club. The goth label for those who like black a little too much. Then there are the outsiders, who are just considered weird. The rockers who listen to rock music, skateboard with super long hair and the teacher’s pets who are always available to help the closest adult around. They are all there, waiting to claim you in their hoards. And don’t let the adults tell you that they don’t exist. They know the labels exist, they just try to ignore it and hope that it all goes away.”
“But wait, aren’t those stereotypes? Mom says never to use stereotypes.”
It was all so confusing.
“Trust me they don’t care.” Jeremiah finally took his seat and took a deep breath like the threat had passed.
We brothers sat in silence for a long time, finally paying attention to the car explosion scene in the movie we had started. The popcorn bowl sat almost empty between us.
“So, you were the jock, huh?” I loved my brother. He never felt like a step-brother to me. He wasn’t mean to me like I had known my friends’ step-brothers to be. Jeremiah took up for me at the park, always called me his “li’l bro,” even before our parents got married. He made sure we had at least one “Bro Time” session every week. I loved him like he was my real brother.
The truth of the matter remained Jeremiah was one of the popular kids. He was great at track and basketball. He was pretty strong too. He always got the girl’s attention when we went to the mall, and he had decent grades. Jeremiah had it easy. He was nothing like me.
I was the opposite of everything Jeremiah was. I was tall for my age and way too skinny. Kevin, my step-dad whom I called Kev, tried to help me lift weights, but it didn’t go too well. I had very little athletic ability, though I did like track and hoped to try out this year. My love of video games was evident in every t-shirt I owned. I had been in both the Gifted and Talented programs since the second grade, which resulted in my sixth grade schedule being riddled with pre-AP classes all year long. I wore glasses but they never seemed to sit on my face right, no matter how often mom took me to get them fixed. It was like my nose was crooked or something.
Jeremiah had nice slick hair with waves. Mom said it was because he spent so much time brushing it. I wanted my hair to do that, but it was too thick and a curly afro. My mom said afros were always in style but I didn’t believe her. In my head I already saw the labels flying at me. Would I be put with the geeks, the nerds, or the outsiders? Black was my favorite color, so I could be goth by the end of day one from the way Jeremiah was talking.
“Humph, I don’t remember,” Jeremiah said, but something told me he wasn’t being honest with me and I didn’t know why. “Oh and FYI, try to remember your schedule before you get to school. The kid with the schedule in his hand never survives the first day.”
Jeremiah was back to his calm and cool self like he didn’t just send me into a panic attack only moments ago.
“Man this is all just too much to handle,” I said draining my soda and crushing the can in my hands the way I watched Kev do.
“Don’t worry, Jonathan, you can totally do this.”
Jeremiah was back into the television laughing at some corny joke. Jacks was asleep in the recliner, his bowl still full of popcorn and his face smeared with butter.
“Man, Jacks has it easy. All he has to worry about is making sure he doesn’t break his crayons.”
“Yeah, there is nothing like the kindergarten years,” Jeremiah agreed.
We both went back to watching the movie, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how bad sixth grade was going to be.