Call Me Barbra

In high school I had a perm. It was the ’80s, what can I say? It looked good on me, my hair takes a perm well, and it doesn’t relax much. It always felt natural. In fact, when a free haircut went bad and the novice haircutter snipped all my curls away my senior year, many people commented that they always thought it was natural.

Pretty hot for the eighties!

Pretty hot for the eighties!

The perm had been part of my plan to reinvent myself. I started a new high school in my sophomore year, a lucky break because of my middle school’s longer schedule. Transferring to a new school district let me bypass the dreaded freshman year. I was determined that I would not be the shy, nerdy outcast I had always been. While it was nice to miss the freshman hazing, it wasn’t so nice trying to join an already established tribe of teenagers. I was friendless, and surrounded by people who weren’t. Still, a fresh start is a fresh start.

To that end, one of my more daring moments was on my first day at the new school, in PE of all things. We didn’t have uniforms yet, and could do whatever we wanted to pass the time. So when a few upper class students asked me to play touch football, I steeled myself for humiliation, took a deep breath, and said OK. The bravest thing I’ve ever done in my life. Okay, maybe not, but at 15 it sure felt like it.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized I’m actually quite well coordinated, but since I detest almost all sports, I had convinced myself that I sucked at them all. So when the first play commenced, I ran for all I was worth, turned to see the ball headed straight for me, assumed I was about to prove to everybody involved what a complete nerd I was, and jumped to catch it! Unfortunately, instead of the awesome catch and touchdown I  silently begged for, I stumbled, fell, and slid forward on my knees, shredding my pants, and the knees inside.

I was a bloody mess, but despite the pain, I was mostly amused and embarrassed. I was also – surprisingly – a hero. The other players were in awe that I was so dedicated to the game! Blood was pretty much the coolest thing to adolescent boys of my generation (probably all generations). What a great start for the new me!

That hero cape was quickly ripped away after lunch. I looked forward to band, in years past it helped me get through the day. That was then.

This band class, however, came with a bully. The girl’s name escapes me, but though she was pretty, she was not nice. A fairly cliché, bitchy teen who probably had deeper issues. For whatever reason, she decided I was her target, and, believe it or not, this is not the first time I’d been bullied by a girl, so I wasn’t surprised.

I think these things are usually triggered by jealousy, but I can’t imagine what it was she coveted. Nevertheless, the one downside of my perm was my undeniable resemblance to one of my lifelong idols: Barbra Streisand. This teenage ball-breaker noticed that with my curly hair and rather pronounced nose, I looked like the über-fabulous Barbra. And so Bully Girl nicknamed me Barbra, with no thought to the consequences of a teenage boy’s high school image. In a fateful second, she changed my life forever. Of course, the only thing you can do to combat a bully, they tell us, is to ignore them.

Now I have to take a timeout here to discuss this option. IT BLOWS. Nobody should ever ignore a bully. If nobody will help you, talk. Try to befriend them; don’t run away. If they won’t talk, jump their ass and try your best to beat the hell out of them. I don’t give a crap what anybody tells you, your self-esteem is more important than your physical health. If you get nocked down, get up until you can’t. They will never bother you again, and you will respect yourself. (If they have a knife or a gun, you live in a shitty neighborhood and should talk to your parents or guardian about home schooling.)

So I ignored Bully Girl, and the others who laughed with her, but the damage was done. From that day on, some random jock, or group of popular kids would smile and say, “Hi Barbra,” when passing me in the halls. I would act as if I heard nothing; You always ignore a bully.

High school passes quicker than you expect – or in some cases fear – it will. The magic of college is once again the promise of re-creating yourself. Hopefully by this time, you’ve learned the lessons that adolescence burns like scars into our soul.

Or at least you’ve learned it never pays to be a weeny.

So, on my first day of class, who should walk in, sit down beside me, and say, “Hi Barbra” as if he was relieved to see me and we would surely be the best of friends? One of the popular people I hated in high school. One of the most persistent of the “Hi Barbra”, one of the very boys from that very first day of touch football. One of the “popular” kids whom I had come to hate.

Well, it was more of a love/hate. He was handsome — voted best dressed (an honor I coveted but was too monetarily challenged to attain) — and I had had a crush on him for the past three years.

Recapturing that New Me bravery from PE class, I decided this Barbra was not going to continue “The Way We Were.” This was my very first college class, my “new” new beginning. Crush or no crush, Mr. Best Dressed was not going to ruin my college experience too!

In a rare moment of chutzpah, I looked straight at him, and said, “Don’t call me that.”

“What?” He asked.

“Don’t call me Barbra,” I said.

“Why not?” he responded, puzzled. He sincerely could not seem to fathom what I could be upset about.

“Because it’s not funny. Why would I think being called Barbra was funny?”

“Isn’t Barbara your last name?” he asked.