The Wonder Years / by Deborah Clague

Twelve-year-old me (centre)

Twelve-year-old me (centre)

When I was twelve I said "goodbye" to Parc La Salle elementary school, where I had much developmental growth from kindergarten to grade six, and entered St. Norbert Collegiate. This institution incorporated the spectrum of learning from junior high all the way up to senior year of graduation. Twelve year olds to those legally permitted to drink. It was, of course, not an entirely academic education. As I've always been a very observant, intuitive person, I learned a lot about life early on. 

The school bus stop was across the street from my house and in this transitionary year, I recall being early every morning and watching as my fellow older classmates would arrive disinterested, dishevelled and often late. It seemed school went from being a fun social hub to the bane of our kindred existence (it took me to the age of fourteen to get to this mindset). There was a former best friend, K, who went out of her way to ignore me. She was a few years older than I and we were playmates in our younger years, my Barbie collection being the envy of the neighbourhood after all. Right now though, I was a junior and she had her own tribe. Being friends with me would be akin to babysitting. Just one look at our sharply contrasted appearance – me with clean pressed tucked-in shirts and her modelling various Metallica tees cooly draped over torn jeans – was all the reason needed why it would never work. 

There was another older girl, M, that befriended me though. She was new to the area and probably sensed that we could be losers together. I recall attending my first after-hours dance with her. I was so excited to have graduated from mimicking Janet Jackson's moves in my parent's basement to now getting to show them off to others. I ensured my outfit was perfect; a white body suit with red Guess jeans that I saved up multiple allowances to purchase. At this age – let me remind you that I was twelve – I was not interested in sexualizing myself. I didn't know how. I was simply desperate to be seen as "cool" to a group of peers and I knew that somehow involved designer jeans and the ability to sip Orange Crush like a mimosa. After dancing to the "Humpty Dance" (the lyrics of which I didn't understand), I was flattered and admittedly surprised when my new friend told me that a number of guys from her grade wanted to meet me. I very (very) shyly obliged foolishly thinking that they had heard about my high grade point average and were not simply mesmerized by the fact that my white bodysuit top had become see-through in the lighting of the dance hall and that my braless non-existent breasts were on full display. No, I learned that later. For that evening though, I was simply happy to be popular. Even K noticed the shift in high school hierarchy.

At the bus stop, I also remember observing young love. There was a boy, D, who lived the next Bay over. Outside of our morning commute, I only knew him as one of the dudes who would play street hockey in our shared backlane. He represented middle-class Canadiana right down to the hoser haircut. While his girlfriend didn't live anywhere near this particular bus stop, she would put forth the effort each morning to meet him there so that they could ride together. Her background was very different. She had come from a broken home and was weaving her way through the foster system. I knew of a number of these students. They seemed to emerge and then dissipate with little notice. I always imagined how difficult it would be to live such a transient existence during a period of life where stability is so precious. Despite this couple's differences though, they had found something. I remember how he looked at her, that deep gaze of appreciation and wonder that I always longed to feel myself because in adolescence, getting a boy to like you is profound. The pair formed a template (and expectation) for what I would desire as my teenage years evolved. 

And so it was a bit shocking, at the time, when they broke up. I was never certain of the reasons. They were probably silly and it was probably dramatic but as they went their separate ways, I observed that D seemed depressed. His demeanour a bit more sullen. His eyes a little less full of radiance. I learned the end of love and its subsequent heartache would not be pleasant. 

I never did see her in person again. 

A few years later, her picture would be on every newspaper cover and featured on every newscast. She was murdered by an acquaintance she had met; her body discovered in a forested region of eastern Manitoba. I recognized her visage immediately. Her teenage features now frozen in time, an early lesson on the darkness and unjust nature of life.