In 1987, I was 13 years old, and my family’s main method of transportation was a 1976 AMC Gremlin. It was red with blue doors and covered in rust, and as if these aesthetics weren’t enough to draw stares, it had a muffler that growled and coughed, assaulting the ears and noses of unlucky onlookers. We lived in a struggling steel town in the Ohio Valley, where the lines between rich and poor were shakily drawn. Those that had money didn’t really have a lot; they just had more than others. Even so, my equally self-conscious older sister and I strained to hide what our family lacked, and were miraculously succeeding until the Gremlin came into our lives. Once it did, anytime our family of eight pulled up to the curb, piling out one by one as if from a clown car, we had an audience. People stared. They whispered. They snickered. Along with our exhaust fumes, the noxious smell of ridicule accompanied us everywhere.
One particular morning, I’d had the misfortune of missing the school bus, thus sentencing myself to a ride of shame in the Gremlin. My stepfather drove me, and though I pleaded to be dropped off a block away, he let me off smack-dab in the front of St. Patrick’s Middle School. I dove out of the car as if from a burning building, and the Gremlin drove away, leaving a trail of smoke from my stepfather’s cigarette that paired nicely with the toxicity wafting from the muffler. Since my class’s home room windows faced the front of the school, I caught a glimpse of a few head-shaped shadows peering down on me. I swallowed the lump in my throat, threw back my shoulders, and held my head high as I walked into the Thunderdome.
Michael Delmonico, one of the most popular and obnoxious kids in my small class, was the first one to tease me. He was decent enough to wait until lunchtime.
“Your parents can’t afford anything better than that piece of crap?” he sneered, as I violently forked my mashed potatoes and shoveled them into my mouth. “I’m surprised that thing made it out of your driveway—you’re lucky you even got to school today!”
My blush crept up my neck and flared to my cheeks as a small crowd began to gather around the lunch table. Since I had already murdered my mashed potatoes, I focused on dismembering my meatloaf. Michael Delmonico, peeved at my homicidal and unwavering focus on my scrumptious lunch, suddenly ripped my tray away from me. Under it was my white lunch ticket, which I took great pains to hide every day. The white tickets were given to the kids whose parents couldn’t afford to pay what everybody else paid. I hurried to snatch mine up but Delmonico got to it first.
“She’s got a white lunch ticket,” he laughed, waving it around. “They only give these to the poor kids! Poor, poor Ashley,” he added, wiping away mock tears.
On the verge of real ones, I screeched my chair back and ran over to Father Frank, an often bored-looking monk who taught Science and barely monitored the cafeteria. I breathlessly and passionately reported to him that I had just fallen victim to Michael Delmonico’s ruthless bullying for no other reason than my parents’ abject poverty. (Maybe “abject” was a bit of a stretch, but I cared less about properly valuing my parents’ estate and more about getting Michael Delmonico thrown into detention).
“So? What do you want me to do about it?” he scoffed, looking at me like I was the conductor of the crazy train.
And that was the day I learned I couldn’t rely on adults in authority to protect me from the real gremlins in this world. That was the day I graduated from the Age of Tattle-Taling to the Age of You Want Something Done, You Gotta Do it Yourself. That was the day I picked Michael Delmonico up by the collar of his crisp, white, Catholic-school-uniform shirt that his mommy probably not only ironed but starched for him, and threw him up against the junk-laden vending machine full of deliciousness I could not afford. That was the day the boys started calling me Balboa, and that was also the day I decided there were worse people I could be than a girl who rode to school in a Gremlin. I could, after all, be Michael Delmonico.