Sixth period was about to end. Jenny's stomach clenched harder with each loud click of the wall clock. She never jumped when the bell rang. Although she prided herself on her good grades, Jenny stopped paying attention five minutes before class ended. Still, at 1:58 her heart started to race. By 1:59 she was short of breath.
Through the cracks between her straight brown hair she watched the other seventh graders get up. As usual, she pretended to be slow and preoccupied. She shuffled her pencils noisily in the cool metal air inside the desk, buying time. In a moment she would be free to leave.
Ever since Jenny arrived two months ago from San Diego, the popular clique at Mason Middle School had decided two things: first, that she was a major threat to their status, and second, that they were going to make her life miserable.
She had moved reluctantly with her family to the small ranching community in Wyoming four days after the end of sixth grade. In San Diego, Jenny had gone to a huge city school and had mostly Mexican friends. She spoke fluent Spanish and loved the warmth and friendship of Mexican culture. She never minded being one of the only white students in school.
That everything was different in Mason was an understatement. There were eight hundred white people in the whole town. Everybody knew each other's business, and outsiders were unwelcome. So it didn't matter to Brianna and Mackenzie that Jenny's entire family had grown up right in Mason. Even though Jenny spent her summers riding tractors through their families' fields with her grandfather, the town alderman, she may as well have been born on a spaceship.
Brianna and Mackenzie were the queen bees, and they presided over the seventh grade. Brianna was the prettiest, Mackenzie the best at sports. Their favorite hobby was having a boyfriend. Jenny wasn't really interested in a boyfriend, but she still liked hanging out with the guys. Mostly she liked to play soccer and basketball with them after school. She liked to wear jeans and T-shirts instead of makeup and miniskirts.
She had barely introduced herself when Brianna and Mackenzie gave her a code name and started calling her Harriet the Hairy Whore. They told everyone Jenny was hooking up with the boys in the woods behind the soccer field. Jenny knew that being called a slut was the worst thing in the world, no matter where you lived. No one was even kissing yet. It was the lowest of the low.
Brianna and Mackenzie started a club called Hate Harriet the Hore Incorporated. They got every girl to join except two who didn't care. All the members had to walk by Jenny in the hallway and say, "Hhiiiiiiiiii...." They made a long sighing noise to make sure she knew they were sounding out the initials of the club: HHHI. Usually two or more girls would say it and then look at each other and laugh. Sometimes they couldn't even say the whole thing, they were laughing so hard.
Then Brianna got the idea to charge into Jenny as she walked the hallways. The other girls followed suit. Wherever Jenny was between classes, a girl would body slam her, knocking Jenny's books, and sometimes Jenny, to the ground. If someone was watching, they'd pretend it was an accident. Even though Jenny was small for her age, only four foot eleven, she decided to start smashing the others first, figuring they'd stop. They didn't. She ended up with a lot of bruises, missing papers, and an uncanny ability to predict when the bells would ring. There was no teacher in the hallway to see.
She tried to shrug it off the first few days, but by the end of the week, Jenny burned with embarrassment and fear. What had she done? It seemed like Mackenzie and Brianna had suddenly made it their goal in life to ruin her. Nothing like this had ever happened before. In San Diego, she had three best friends. She had always been good at everything but not because it was easy. She strove for success in everything she did. In her head she heard her father's voice: "If you try hard enough, you can do anything." This was her first failure.
It was her fault.
She knew she'd never touched a boy, but maybe there was something really wrong with her. There were two other new girls in seventh grade, and they were doing just fine. They worked hard to fit in, and they did. They bought the same clothes and listened to the same music as everyone else.
Jenny began to weep quietly in her room not long after she realized there would be no end to her torture. She managed to wait until her homework was done, and then she cried, silent always, her sobs muffled by her pillow. There was no way she'd tell her mother, and certainly not her father. She felt nauseous just thinking about telling her parents she was such a reject.
Every day was an endless battle. She was exhausted trying not to cry, stiffening her body against the hallway attacks, sitting through lunch after lunch alone. There was no one else to be friends with in the grade because everyone, the few that there were, was against her.
One night Jenny's sadness left no room for her fear, and she picked up the phone. Jenny called Brianna, Mackenzie, and a few other girls. She asked each of them, "Why do you hate me?" They denied everything. "But why are you doing the Hate Harriet the Hore club?" she pleaded.
Their voices were light and sweet. "We don't have a Hate Harriet the Hore club!" each one assured her, as though they were telling her the earth was round. They were so nice to Jenny that for a second she didn't believe it was really them. Then she could almost feel her heart surging up through her chest. The next morning, she actually looked forward to getting out of bed. It would be different now.
Then she got to school.
Jenny blinked back tears and locked her jaw. She hated herself for being surprised. She should have known. The strange thing about it was, even though she was used to it, this time her heart felt like it was breaking open. Brianna and Mackenzie had seemed so genuine on the phone. And Jenny, stupid, stupid Jenny, she muttered to herself, had imagined herself at their lunch table in the back of the cafeteria. "Stupid, stupid, stupid," she repeated through gritted teeth, raising her books as a shield as she made her way into homeroom.
One day, months later, searching through desks after seeing the girls pass it around in homeroom, Jenny found the petition. "I, Mackenzie T., promise to Hate Harriet the Hore forever," it said. Every single girl in the class had signed it, and it was appended with a long list of reasons why everyone should hate her. Jenny's eyes bore into the paper until the words blurred. She suddenly felt dizzy. The weight of her anguish was too heavy. She couldn't take it anymore. Jenny felt like her world was crumbling. She went to the principal.
Mr. Williams called Brianna, Mackenzie, and some of the others into his office. They glared at her for weeks but said nothing. HHHI was officially disbanded.
Jenny struggled through seventh grade alone. Because the meanness of her peers was almost invisible, not one teacher had noticed or intervened on her behalf. Because she was a new student, it was difficult to observe changes in her behavior and character. Her parents had known something was wrong, but had they asked her how she was, Jenny told me, "I would have told them, `Fine.'"