In elementary school, everyone is invited to birthday parties. Games of foursquare are open to all, and a lack of academic focus keeps everyone in a single group. But as the first eight o’clock bell rings through middle schools across America, new sixth graders begin to form concrete ideas about who sits atop a social hierarchy. For me, certainly, middle school represented the first foray into the complex jungle of adolescence—something a bookish eleven-year-old wasn’t prepared for.
Excluded from slumber parties and group Halloween costumes, I began to hate school. School meant spending lunch eating in the corner of the leftmost stall of the women’s restroom, reading graffiti and comics while the other girls joked and gossiped outside.
Superheroes have always been a part of my life—what young person doesn’t dream of discovering a secret talent, one to distinguish them from the crowd? In sixth grade, however, my penchant for powers went from a hobby to a compass, guiding me through the trenches of gym class and across geometry’s barren plains. Every night, the posters above my bed—faded prints of Marvel’s X-Men and DC’s Wonder Woman beside science fair medals and a framed Periodic Table—lent me the strength I needed to wake up. Though I doubt any of my peers realized it, they attended school with an invisible army of heroes who followed me throughout the day, sitting next to me when nobody else would.
There was one day in particular, when I went to a girl in my class’ birthday party. We danced to Taylor Swift and then ate chocolate cake with white frosting and wax from the burning candles. My parents picked me up at 9 o’clock, but not before I had stumbled into the girl’s bedroom and found twelve overnight bags nestled in the corner. Everybody had been invited to sleep over but me. On Monday, I hugged my comics close and refused to speak when called on.
My parents searched desperately for a temporary solution, something that might build my confidence or earn me friends outside of school. Eventually, they landed on self-defense, taking inspiration from the pictures of karate-chopping heroes plastered across my wall.
On the first day of Taekwondo, my feet flopped like cod across the blue mats, and I jumped every time the teacher shouted an instruction. But with every class, my kick grew stronger and my voice louder. I fell in love with the sounds of bare feet against the hardwood floor of the studio, with the battle cries that echoes off its whitewashed walls, and with the stiff white cloth of my dobok. More than anything, though, I fell in love with this new version of myself, a girl who carried with her an enviable power. Like Wonder Woman’s indestructible bracelets, my new skill set gave me the courage to dodge the daily snubs of sixth grade. I stopped bringing comics to school and eating in the bathroom—I didn’t need to anymore. The next year, I moved to a much larger public school and found a close-knit group of friends. Pictures of us at dances replaced my hero posters, and my comics became novels or biographies. And though I never quite found harmony with that peer group, looking back, I find myself pitying them. We all struggle as eleven and twelve-year-olds, faced for the first time with the inequalities of life. The girls I made out to be supervillains probably needed a hero just as much as I did, as much as anyone does, and I hope they found them.