Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I opened a can of Campbell’s vegetable beef soup, and I was transported, abruptly and with remarkable clarity, straight back to junior high. If I’d peeked into a mirror, I would have expected to see a sullen round-faced girl in gold wire-rimmed glasses, with frizzy long hair parted down the middle.
I ate a lot of Campbell’s soup when I was growing up. When I was in elementary school, my mother used to send it to school with me in the winter, packed in a red plaid Thermos with a glass liner that had an unfortunate habit of breaking when you dropped your lunchbox down the stairs, or used it to play shuffleboard on the playground.
Mom and I ate Campbell’s soup for Saturday lunches, a can split between us, a waxed paper sleeve of Ritz crackers to crumble into our bowls. And popcorn and Campbell’s tomato soup was a staple Sunday night supper in our house, since we had our big dinner in the afternoon on Sundays, after church.
But the era I most associate with Campbell’s soup is the two years I spent attending junior high in a strange new school after our move across town when I was eleven years old.
I know my mom wasn’t deliberately trying to ruin my life when she decided to sell our big house on Marshall Street and move to a two-bedroom ranch on West River. A smaller house with a smaller yard made sense, now that the older kids were grown and gone.
Still, I’m sure that another reason for the move was to get me out of the elementary school I’d attended through the sixth grade, where I’d gradually managed to overcome my innate shyness, and had found a comfortable niche as a sort of smart mouth/class clown/eccentric kid.
I loved the attention I was getting, but Mom, who had managed to raise my four siblings without receiving a single dreaded “note home from the teacher,” and who had never before seen words like “disruptive” and “headstrong” in report card comments, was sure I was headed for a future as a juvenile delinquent.
So we moved, and I left the neighborhood where I knew every family, and the school where I knew every kid and every teacher, and started seventh grade in a school where I knew no one.
Although the schools were only a couple of miles apart, the kids at my new school, for whatever reason, were light-years ahead socially. There were cliques and alliances, romances and break-ups, constant whispered intrigue. It might as well have been another country as far as I was concerned, with its own language and a whole new set of customs.
To make things worse, my mom was the school librarian. Her position made her enough of an authority figure to get kids in trouble for acting up in the library, but not enough of one to command much actual fear or respect.
Some of the kids called me “Mrs. Wight’s Daughter” for the entire two years I was there, not bothering to learn my name, and said clever things like, “Hey, Mrs. Wight’s Daughter, do you read a lot of books?” and “Hey, Mrs. Wight’s Daughter, do you live in the library?”
Also, it turned out that I had really bad fashion sense, something that had somehow gone unnoticed at my old school. My skirts were too long, my pants were too short, I still wore knee socks instead of panty hose. And I had the world’s bulkiest and most ridiculous navy blue fake-fur coat.
The mean girls took to calling me “Fuzzy Bear,” which was not really an improvement over “Mrs. Wight’s Daughter.” I spent most of my time at school trying not to be noticed, no small feat when you’re the only kid in knee socks and navy blue fake fur.
Every day, in order to avoid the possibility—who am I kidding? the probability—of having no one to sit with in the cafeteria or hang out with on the playground, I walked the half-mile home and heated up a can of Campbell’s soup for lunch. I had forty whole minutes of freedom in the middle of every awful day, and I took advantage of every one of them.
It took me nine minutes to walk each way, counting the cracks in the sidewalk, reciting poems I’d memorized, and making up stories in my head. (OK, in fairness to the kids at my new school, it’s possible that I might not have fit in much of anywhere in seventh grade.) That left me twenty-two glorious minutes alone at home. I hated our new house almost as much as I hated my new school, but at least it was quiet and empty in the middle of the day.
I got to use my own bathroom, without the risk of encountering any of the mean girls in the school lavatory. I got to sit at our little round kitchen table, and read a book while I ate. Since my mother wasn’t home to object, I let my cat sit on the table for company. It was the best part of my day.
Although that move across town, coming as it did at exactly the wrong time in my adolescence, dealt a severe blow to my confidence and self-esteem, it’s very possible that those forty-minute daily escapes turned me into the person I became. They led me to embrace solitude, accept my quirks, entertain myself, get lost in books, and count on cats for companionship, all things that are still important to me.
And even though I eventually became a pretty good cook, and learned to make pots and pots of really good homemade soups, sometimes a mug of Campbell’s vegetable beef still really hits the spot.