First Bitches, Then Satan

The Family Simmons’ landed in Texas, two weeks before Hurricane Alicia rolled through, in the early August of 1983. Coming from New Jersey, it felt like we had moved to a tropical rainforest with the most incredible heat and humidity. That’s because we did. Unlike in New Jersey, at least this house had air conditioning. (I feel like it should be a state law to have it).

Timing is everything, and we had already packed our bags once again and headed to Ft. Worth to drop my brother off for his freshman year at TCU. While we were there, our new neighbor, Mrs. Lang, had called and warned us not to come home yet because of Alicia. We ended up staying in Ft. Worth for a week, until Alicia had packed her own bags, and vacated the premises.

When we returned to Houston, the streets were in shambles, windows were blown out of neighboring houses, and a tree had gone through a neighbor’s roof. We learned a lot about Texas in a short period of time. Tropical storms, small lizards and cockroaches were much better equipped to flourish here than us.

We set up camp in our new home as soon as we cleared away the remnants of Alicia. I was busy following around all of the little green lizards (green anoles). They ran across our driveway and scaled the house. They were everywhere, and there were plenty of them. I tried to grab a few by the tail, only to have the tails break off, leaving it whipping back and forth between my fingers. I was relieved to discover their tails grew back when necessary. I stopped grabbing them nonetheless, because there was something very unnerving about holding a severed body part, flapping about on its own.

Not long after we had settled in, I received a letter in the mail. It was from my #2 BFF, sort of a newish friendship that had blossomed the previous two years. I’m going to call her “Samantha.” This is how the letter went:

 

Dear Jenn,

I hate you. I’ve always hated you. I pretended to like you, but I didn’t. I wish I had never met you.  I’m so glad you moved. Don’t ever come back. You suck.

Samantha

 

Yep, middle-school aged girls….are bitches. I cried and didn’t share the letter with anyone, which at that time, meant my mom. I felt like a complete loser because…maybe she was right. What if I did suck and was a loser?

It was a great confidence boost, as I headed to my new school, in my new neighborhood, in my new state.  This school was three or four times the size of my old school in New Jersey, the only school I had ever known. That school was in the middle of a field, across from another field, full of dairy cows.

This one was not.

When I showed up on the first day of middle school, I quickly realized I had landed smackdab in an episode of “Dallas,” the kid version. It was all “made-up” hair, “made-up” faces, boobs, and having the “right” clothes. I didn’t have any of these.

Even worse, we had to dress out in school-issued uniforms for P.E.

In New Jersey, we wore one “outfit” for the entire day, for everything.  I dreaded my new locker room at school. It was a daily reminder of our differences, or specifically, my differences, with all of the other girls. They wore bras and I didn’t (see above). With great embarrassment, I asked my mom to buy me a bra (because at that age, you’d rather be embarrassed asking your mother than getting called out by “the new kids on the block.”).

She didn’t understand this request (because there were no boobs), but off we went nonetheless. I came home with a ‘training’ bra. It was the best we could do considering the parameters. Once again, I felt like an imposter—a chicken trying to pass as a duck.

They shaved their legs too, so I stole a razor from my mom and tried it out. She was not happy about that one. Wagging her finger at me, she said, “You are much too young to be shaving your legs!”

She didn’t understand.

I was a minnow swimming in shark-infested waters, just trying to stay alive.

 I stole some of her make-up, too—an imposter’s first mask. This didn’t go unnoticed either, but Mom was swimming against the current on her own with this fight.

There is nothing middle-school aged girls want, or need more, than to fit in. This translates to “do not stand out, at any time, for any reason.” Unless you’re totally awesome, which I already knew, because Samantha told me, I was not.

My mom always pushed us to play a sport, or join a club, and be “hooked in.” Rightfully so. At this crossroads in my life, namely middle school, I resisted. My introvert was showing up more and more in those days and tried to have a say in the matter. Ultimately, Mom won that battle, and I signed up for extracurricular volleyball. This ended up being more of a crappy pit-stop than anything else, because I really sucked at the game. Apparently you need to keep your eye on the ball at all times in order to hit it, especially when it is headed directly for your face. I had a bad habit of squeezing my eyes shut.

It was during this “pit stop” that I met a girl who took riding lessons. This was a huge stroke of luck. I was inching closer to having that “pony in the backyard.” (Not my backyard, which was the size of a quarter, but hypothetically, someone else’s backyard).

As far as my middle school career, I didn’t learn anything except how to survive and not be eaten alive. End of story. I consider this a huge success now, but back then, I knew I was hanging on by a thread. I still had high school to go. That was going to be like middle school, but on steroids. I wasn’t so convinced my odds were good.

Side note: One thing I mastered in middle school was how to change into, and out of, my P.E. uniform without really showing any skin. Turns out, this would come in handy later, when changing clothes next to the side of my truck at horse shows. (Even though, by then, I cared a lot less who saw what).

I started taking lessons where my new, volleyball friend did. It was the greatest start to a riding career a kid can get—a field full of horses and honies, full of their own quirks and personalities, waiting to be ridden.

It was a gold mine.

The first horse I ever rode, after riding Domino the Shetland pony in New Jersey, was named Satan. At the time, I didn’t know that was the devil’s proper name. I’m not sure how Satan, the horse, ended up with that name, but I’m sure there is a good story there. Maybe that’s what earned him the short straw of giving “up down” lessons on the end of a longe-line.

Eventually, I earned the privilege of being cut loose from the end of the rope, but I didn’t get very far. Satan jig-jogged over to the first corner of the arena, while I posted my little heart out, and promptly slammed on the brakes. Satan had his limits and he was done being a babysitter for a dope.

I thumped him with my little stick legs, but that didn’t even register so much as an ear flick. The instructor shouted, “Kick him harder!!” She had to shout this several times before I got enough gumption to pull my legs away, as much as I could muster, and slam them back down, as hard as I could.

Satan was no rookie. He knew this was far from checkmate. He grunted at my effort, but remained unflustered. In other words, he didn’t move. Eventually, the instructor rescued me, and sent us trotting down the long side of the arena. At least until the next corner, anyway.

We spent a lot of time together in all four corners of the arena. (And this is how riding instructors keep such slim figures—chasing their student’s horse around the arena all day).

I graduated enough to ride some of the other mounts, starting with the slower ones and working my way up to the faster ones. This also meant I got to ride in the group lessons, which was a big deal. Our instructor chose which student was riding what horse. If you drew “Tryon,” you had hit the lottery for the day. Tryon was a short, blue roan of unknown origin. I remember he always wore a Pelham (with a converter for the students), and didn’t really have much of a “mouth.” In other words, you could pull on that Pelham all day, but nothing special really happened. It didn’t matter. Tryon was a seeing-eye dog to the jumps, balanced himself accordingly, and came into this world with a good canter that conveniently didn’t really ever change speed.

Conversely, if you were assigned Flicka, you drew the short stick. Flicka was the resident “hony,” and fast was her middle name. The short-coupled, little bay mare cantered on the spot…until she saw her next jump. Then, it was off to the races. I learned the hard way, the faster Flicka ran at the jumps, the more likely she was to slam on the brakes when she got there. I ate a lot of turf because of Flicka.

But this is the magic of overcoming the hurdles in your life: once I learned how to stay on (it took a while), my biggest challenge became my greatest joy. I loved riding Flicka. I still never knew what was going to happen, or how it was going to turn out, but I relished the challenge.

I am so grateful to all of those lesson horses who had the tough job of teaching us kids how to ride. Most especially, for the tiny and brown, fast one.

This was my first inkling horses are some of the world’s wisest, and most generous, teachers.

 

 At the very least, they had started to become my best teachers….

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