By and large, transitioning into third grade in the new school was seamless. Then again, there was this one problem: Janet. She and I would go on to become roommates our senior year in college, and today, she and another friend Melinda, whom I wouldn’t meet for a few more years, are two close friends with whom I get together roughly once a year. Back then, the three of us didn’t hang out all together so much, although one summer early in high school we all joined up with a church youth group for a weeklong canoe trip down the Namekagon and St. Croix rivers. But those first years with Janet were hard.

The word used to describe her today would be “frenemy”: A person with whom one is friendly despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry. We’ve talked about this some as adults and she has apologized for the way she treated me. I can’t really say why she did it—that’s her book to write—but she made life in my new school very difficult for me.

Janet was, and is, very smart, and she went on to graduate valedictorian of our class. She was pretty and to my way of seeing things, always had the right accouterments. Her winter boots were the cute kind that were narrow at the top and came up to her knees. Mine were the embarrassing kind from Farm & Fleet that were wide at the top and stopped mid-calf.

Most years, she had a cute winter coat. Most years, I did not. One year she got a grey-colored coat I didn’t like. It felt like a breath of fresh air to me somehow. Janet also had a cute lunch pail, and I had an ugly one. I remember begging my mother for a metal lunch pail like the other kids had, and then was crushed when she bought me one so ugly. The plain brown bag was actually better.

Janet went for a weeklong vacation with her family during my first year living in Rice Lake, and for that one week, I felt free to dress as I pleased. I wore a sparkly green necklace with a white and green printed top and white pants that I thought looked really great. It was sheer freedom to wear it to school without fear of her sneer and snide comments. Yet she sent me a postcard from California and I still have it.

By fourth and fifth grade, my brothers had moved onto middle or high school, so I either walked the two blocks to school alone or often with Janet who lived a block from us. She and I didn’t have a standing date for me to pick her up on my way, but many mornings—more than makes sense—I would call and ask if she wanted to walk together. She always said yes. Only decades later would I begin to understand how negative pleasure works, which can drive a person to stay close to someone who hurts them.

At the time, I devised a game to play when I walked to school by myself. It began by quickly picking a number out of the air. Then I would list that number of people. Those were the people whose lives I would rather be living instead of mine.

This was the early 1970s, around the time when President Richard Nixon was impeached and the Green Bay Packers were hoping to make a comeback. Janet, whose father was a state trooper who had wanted a boy for their fourth child instead of another girl, came to school with bumper stickers on her book covers: Back the Pack! and The Pack is Back! I had no earthly idea what that meant. We didn’t gather around the TV in my house and watch football together. In fact, the only time we watched TV together as a family was when some biblical movie like The Ten Commandments was on.

My third grade class in 1971. I’m in the front row on the far right, sporting curled hair, painfully short bangs and glasses.

During those grade school years, we had a classmate named Janice who was showing early signs of being highly disturbed. She was big-boned—actually, she was just big all the way around—and was mercilessly picked on by the kids in the class. One day, she had had enough and she snapped.

I looked up from my desk in time to see her swing her right arm blindly behind her while holding a pair of scissors in her fist. The pointed end hit a girl named Sherry in her right temple, causing an arc of blood to squirt two feet into the air from the side of her head. All hell broke loose, with kids screaming and running downstairs into the gym to escape the gore.

Janice never returned to our school after that. Fifteen years later she would be sentenced to prison for life after strangling her one-month-old baby and throwing it in a dumpster. I hope she has gotten some healing for her deeply troubled soul.

Walker: A Spiritual Memoir by Jill Loree

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