During the summer between tenth and eleventh grade, I moved into my first group home after a few years of large residential centers. I had lots of headaches that year. Rather, I said I had them. I just didn’t want to go to school. Eleventh grade was my first public school since I became a ward of the state at thirteen. The school was public, but only just. It was a converted elementary school where last-chance kids from around the county arrived on the short bus. We came from foster homes, group homes, and dysfunctional homes. Some of us were steps away from juvie. Others, like me, were reluctant to mix with normal high school kids while we were in the system.
The Southland Corporation, 7-Eleven’s parent company, sponsored a self-esteem program. A motivational speaker would come once a week and give us pep talks about how to avoid screwing up our lives when we aged out of the system. Each session ended with the kids standing in a circle holding hands and enthusiastically chanting I’m a winner! You’re a winner! We’re all winners! We were collectively bored by the speeches but reveled in the chanting because the word winner sounds just like wiener when you belt it out at the top of your teenage lungs. Southland also sponsored a Student of the Month program in which one lucky student would be called to the front of a school-wide assembly to receive a certificate and a stack of free Slurpee coupons.
I stayed home from school with headaches impulsively. I wasn’t skipping tests or avoiding homework. Some days, I just wanted to climb back in bed and read all day or listen to CDs. I’d put on my most feeble expression, then tell the counselor I had a bad headache and couldn’t go to school. The short bus would leave without me, and I’d be free to read romance novels in bed.
They took me to the doctor after a few unexplained headaches. I came away with a prescription for generic Aleve, which unsurprisingly failed to offer relief. Next, there was an allergist and a full battery of skin pricks. It turned out that the only thing I’m allergic to is cattle saliva, which didn’t figure much into my life in a suburban girl’s group home.
The counselors tried to suss out emotional reasons for my headaches: You’ve stayed home on the ninth for three months in a row. What does the ninth signify? or Wednesdays seem to be problematic. Can you tell me what Wednesday means to you? My headaches were arbitrary. I didn’t make up additional trauma; group home kids have files that are already long enough.
On a typical headache morning in which I hadn’t showered or gotten dressed, I was urgently summoned to school for a meeting. Meetings were commonplace; social workers, counselors, therapists, attorneys, and guardians were ordinary people in our lives. I refused the invitation. The counselors refused my refusal. Things escalated. They threatened to lower my level, which would have reduced the privileges and independence I’d worked for. I acquiesced. Anger replaced my imaginary headache.
I didn’t get dressed. I didn’t brush my teeth or hair. I didn’t put on a bra, and I left the house in slippers. I believed that rolling out of bed and attending a meeting in pajamas with morning breath would make an angry statement against authority. I planned to sneer at rather than speak to whichever adult insisted I participate in the meeting.
“We just need to make one stop,” the counselor said as we entered the school. The halls were empty. Classroom doors were closed. I followed her at a distance, staring at my slippers and hoping nobody saw me in my pajamas. I entered the gym behind the counselor, stepping into a Student of the Month assembly in my honor. Every student was there. Teachers and administrators stood against the walls. My social worker and mother, whom I hadn’t seen in weeks, sat in the front row. I remember little else about stepping into the gym, aside from uttering the word fuck and not getting into trouble for it.
I stood on stage in my pajamas, clutching a certificate and the stack of free Slurpee coupons. The Southland Corporation’s motivational speaker talked about good grades, going to college, and the value of being a good citizen. I was relieved that nobody asked me to speak. When we were properly motivated, he motioned for everyone to stand. We knew what to do. I raised my free Slurpee coupons in the air.
I’m a wiener! You’re a wiener! We’re all wieners!