There’s a well-known film clip in which Queen Elizabeth is telling a gathering of dignitaries, "Nineteen ninety-tew is not a ye-ah on which I shall look back with un-dye-lew-ted pleashah. It has turned out to be an Annus Horribilis.”
Loosely translated, the term means "a year that stinks”, and believe me I know just what she was talking about. For her it was 1992. For me it was the seventh grade. I can hardly bear to think about that first year of junior high, back in the fall of 1966 without a little wince of pain, and I’ll bet a lot of you can relate.
In my case, seventh grade really didn’t start out all that badly. Despite being only twelve, I wore self-confidence like a sandwich board. After all, I was shaving my legs, I had a mouth full of gleaming silver status, I owned five new "Hang Ten” outfits, and my older sister, Jeri, took time out of her busy ninth grade life to roll my hair every night. It was, so far, my annus grandis.
But then things began to go wrong. First my orthodontist added thick rubber bands to my braces, making lunchtime in the cafeteria a nightmarish ordeal of pain, spit, and stray food particles that would fling from my mouth without warning.
Then Jeri and I had a fight over whose turn it was to wear the fishnet hose, and she vowed never to roll my hair again. My clumsy fingers struggled with those enormous brush rollers, which in the end always fell out on my pillow at night, and I awoke the next morning with thick damp, bobby-pin-creased, horse-tail-straight hair.
That wasn’t all. New pimples bubbled up on my face like pudding just coming to a boil. My gloopy eyeliner resembled Rudolph Valentino more than Cheryl Tiegs. And I discovered to my horror one day in the P.E dressing room that I had forgotten to wear my bra – not that it mattered. My "training bra” had little more to do than provide visible straps for status, and alas nobody ever even noticed its absence. Still, this annus was getting more horribilis by the minute.
Nowhere was the awful downward spiral any more evident than in the end zone of the high school football stadium on Friday night, where the junior high kids congregated to see and be seen. No one knew (or cared) what the score of the football game was. It was the dating game that mattered here, and if you hadn’t disappeared underneath the bleachers with someone by half-time, you were nobody. I desperately wanted to disappear. Unfortunately, I was still standing in the bleachers at half-time, as well as at the end of the game. In other words, I was nobody.
Back at school things were no better. It was time for those horribilis class projects. My first attempt was a salt map in the shape of the United States for geography class. I constructed it on a flimsy cardboard base, and the minute I picked it up, the whole thing buckled, creating an enormous Grand Canyon right between Kansas and Missouri. Next I made an igloo out of sugar cubes, only to have it covered with ants. In art class, my beautiful little unicorn blew up in the firing kiln.
Certainly the most frustrating assignment of the whole annus was the Rock Display, simply because of where I lived, Midland, Texas. You try competing on that project when ninety three percent of your classmates have fathers who are geologists! They turned in exquisite samples of Igneous Quartz and Granite Gneiss. I turned in a handful of driveway gravel.
But finally, the Science teacher announced an assignment that I hoped would put an end to my annus horribilis once and for all. It was a bug collection, due the last week of school. "At last”, I thought, "here is something I can do!”
For weeks I scoured the vacant lots of arid west Texas. My efforts were rewarded with an impressive array of Grasshoppers, Stinkbugs, Dirt Daubers, and Red Ants (their scientific names, of course).
Painstakingly, I stuck straight pins through their little thoraxes, and meticulously labeled each specimen. And on the day it was due, I carried my styrofoam board up to the school in triumph. It was finally going to be my momentum grandis.
And then, somehow, on the way upstairs to the science room, I DROPPED it. The board landed upside down, before bouncing backwards down the stairwell. When I caught up with it at the bottom of the landing, there was nothing left but my lovely labels and a few pitiful bits of broken wing, random abdomen, an occasional dismembered head, and a hairy leg or two.
Sobbing, I carried the carnage in and laid it among the other collections – collections gathered by fathers who traveled to South America, or at least South Texas, for exotic Spicebush Swallowtails and Buffalo Treehoppers. I have never known such humiliation, and just like at the football game, I desperately wanted to disappear.
But I didn’t. Instead I took a bad grade. Just like I took the pimples and the creased hair and the smudged eyeliner. Just like I took the broccoli in my teeth and the ants in my igloo. Just like I took the embarrassment of being bra-less and being left on the bleachers. I just took it.
And so, Queen Elizabeth, I guess when you put your annus horribilis up next to mine, it really doesn’t look so bad, now does it?