When I was in the second grade at Lewis Cass Elementary School in 1977-1978, there was an unpopular girl by the name of Kelly Biega in my homeroom class. For the most part, she was just ignored. On Valentine's Day, she was the only person who didn't receive a card. Not a single one. After school, on the sidewalk walking home, "Step on a crack and you love Kelly Biega" was the boys' constant, taunting refrain. "Step on a crack and you have to kiss Kelly Biega." I'm sure I said those things myself. I'm sure I made avoiding those cracks in the concrete a mission in my life. To do otherwise would have made me a pariah. And who could bear that at the tender age of seven?
One day in class, without anybody particularly noticing, Kelly Biega slipped into the girls' bathroom that adjoined our classroom. Minutes later, our spelling lesson was stopped cold by the sound of her voice -- high-pitched and shrill -- "You're ugly! You're ugly! You're ugly." Though we couldn't see her in there, the picture was clear. She was shouting at herself in the mirror. Over and over and over and over. "You're ugly!"
I remember the teacher (Miss Magda) going in, quieting Kelly Biega down, leading her out. Out of the bathroom and out of the class. I remember that that was the last time we ever saw Kelly Biega. The rumor was that her parents had pulled her out of school and moved to a different city. Just like that. Gone.
A few years ago, I was glancing through some old photographs when I came upon my second-grade class picture. I remembered all of the names and faces -- 15 boys, 15 girls, give or take. And there was Kelly Biega, smiling shyly, light brown hair with a barrette in the shape of a daisy. I looked at the other girls in the picture. I looked at the other boys. And it was so incredibly clear that it stunned me: Kelly Biega was beautiful. By all rights, she should have been the most popular girl in the class. She should have been drowning in Valentine's Day cards. She should have been our lodestar. Instead, we made her our pariah. The butt of our jokes and the myth and monster at the heart of our games. We drove her to that bathroom mirror that day. We drove her away.
Around the time that all of that was happening, JANIS IAN had her biggest hit -- the sad-sack, melodramatic-to-the-point-of-parody smash "At Seventeen." Listening to it now, my head thinks it's an awful song; my heart feels it's a work of genius. And I can't help remembering Kelly Biega. As the teacher led her out of the classroom that day, was she about to embark on a new beginning or had she reached the end? Was it all just a cry for help or a declaration of surrender? Did she even make it to 17, in that new school, in that different city? I'm sure I'll never know, and it's the not knowing that haunts me, even 30 years after the fact....
[MP3] "At Seventeen"
[MP3] "In the Winter"
[MP3] "Lover's Lullaby"
[MP3] "Tea and Sympathy"