The Battle Ground of Middle School

I come from the town of Battle Ground, where the battle that never happened is still being fought. Everyone in town knows the story, but everyone tells it differently. Here’s my version. In the year 1855, Chief Umtuch met with Captain Strong from Fort Vancouver. They reached a peaceful agreement, despite the Indian wars happening in other parts of the state.

Upon returning to the Fort, however, the people of the town berated the captain for using diplomacy and not force. They flew a red petticoat on the fort’s flagpole in recognition of his valor. He should have been vindicated – the agreement was successful – but from then on, the area of their meeting was known as “Strong’s Battle Ground,” to mock his perceived lack of courage.

If you ask my dad, the battle is still being fought. It’s a cultural battle, a spiritual battle. The most important battle in the history of the county. Is Battle Ground a place of mocking or a place of peace?

Battle Ground is my hometown, but I only lived there for about four years. I grew up forty minutes away and in another state, in the town of Gresham.

1. A phone call, 2014. Dan Russell talks to Ryan Russell

You know, as a dad, I watched you struggle through middle school. Sixth and seventh grade you dealt with bullies and didn’t turn in assignments. In eighth grade, you really started to gain confidence, but the school was still not the right environment.

My first day of high school, the rumor started that I had a mental disability. Your first day, you got an award for winning a Cross Country race. That’s when I knew that making the move to Battle Ground was the right choice. That environment let you thrive.

My freshman year in Gresham was full of mocking. For you, Battle Ground was a place of peace. As a dad, that blessed me.

I didn’t know that to say. My dad has a different perspective on things, and I might still be too close to middle school to really see what happened. I finished up the conversation non-commitally. “Yeah, I hadn’t thought that before.”

2. Scattered. Gresham Oregon, Spring 2007. 7th grade.

I get back from lunch, and there are papers scattered all over the ground by the lockers. They’ve been trampled underfoot by the second-lunch crowd, ripped into bits and covered in footprints. I make my way to my locker. As soon as I open it, my binder falls out, and it explodes in a cloud of worksheets. My binder was really just a folder full of loose papers, I really didn’t care for organization. I pick up what I can.

I realized where all of the papers on the ground came from. My locker partner had opened the locker during his lunch, and my binder had fallen out. He picked up some of the stuff, and threw it back into the locker, but the rest now sat like confetti on the floor. I checked again, and I found a scrap with a “Ryan Ru-” across the top. I didn’t tell anyone what happened, but there were a lot of papers I didn’t turn in that semester.

3. Presidential Campaign Speech. Fall 2008. 8th grade.

An eighth grader wearing his band tuxedo steps up to speak. He pulls the microphone from the stand, and steps in front of the podium, leaving nothing between him and the assembled student body. He shifts his weight to one foot, because if he stands on the other, it will shake, and the shaking will spread to his whole body. He has the speech memorized. He takes a deep breath, and reminds himself to speak slowly. He says:

Ladies and Gentlemen, Staff and Faculty, Custodians, and others:
Your kindness and generosity shall never be obliterated from the golden epitaphs of my infallible memory.

Thank you.

Let me rephrase that: All of this antidisestablishmentarianism is running rampant through the pseudopodian minds of all these irate Homo sapiens.

Let me clarify: Can you square a pi faster than you can cube a root?

Let me be clear.

I’m running for president…

After very seriously delivering this part of the speech, something my grandpa wrote and delivered when he was in school, I got blank stares of confusion from the audience, but I went on to describe a time earlier that year when some girls in my grade mistook me for a new student, even though I had gone to school with them for two years. I promised that I would be someone who noticed and cared.

I’m not sure why I ran for student council president in eighth grade. Maybe I was inspired by my dad running when he was in middle school. I did have the hugest crush on the girl running for VP – that might have been it too. I was quite proud of my speech. I spent days reciting it until I had memorized it completely.

I got a lot of reactions to the speech. These are a few that I remember:

4.1 What the parents said:

“Everyone else was hiding behind the podium, but you took the microphone and stood in the front. It looked very presidential. I’m glad you had the guts to go up there and say that.”

– Mom

“When I ran, everyone got into the student council. Whoever won became president, and everyone else, vice presidents. I ended up losing to the grandson of the man the school was named after.”

– Dad

4.2 What the students said:

Student Council Election Results

Dexter McCarty Middle School ‘07-‘08

President Emma B Ryan R
VP Brian K Cassie F
Secretary Keiko D Kelly T
Publicity Clay M Stephen C

(winnersPopular Students highlighted)


I didn’t win. Apparently, though I had the sixth and seventh graders, Emma won the eighth grade vote. Cassie, my crush, won as VP. I honestly didn’t remember all the results – I had to dig up my old yearbook to find them. During the end-of-year signing frenzy, someone must have scribbled in their opinion of the election process. I don’t think it was me. I imagine someone might have scribbled in my dad’s yearbook as well when he lost to the grandson of Dexter McCarty himself.

I did join the student council as a class representative. The only decision we ever made was the color for the student council sweatshirts. Lime green. They misspelled my name on the back, but I didn’t mention it.

Actually, I know the writing in the yearbook isn’t mine, because I have a log of my handwriting from that year. Three composition books, full with the pieces of an unfinished novel. The writing doesn’t match. Besides, I told everyone who asked that I didn’t care that I got second place.

5. Notes from an unfinished novel. 2008

So maybe I was a bit disillusioned by government. Perhaps, unconsciously, thoughts of the election leaked into my writing. Flipping through the pages now, I see through the awkward syntax and poor handwriting to the story I wanted to tell. A technological world full of superstition. A magical world full of skeptics. The worlds try to destroy each other using quantum physics or magical WMDs, but the main characters convince them to get along and learn from each other. It’s full of invisible cameras and magic tricks and sentient security systems and not-so-subtle Christian undertones. It’s an allegory of middle school. I saw myself as a bridge between different cliques, just as the main characters bridged different worlds.

6. Moving

For many years, my dad had been a youth pastor at a mega-church – he was the main pastor for middle-schoolers and high-schoolers. Five services a week and four family moves later, he realized that he was trying to sacrifice himself for God, not giving Him his heart. He took a year off to read his Bible and reflect. A local coffee shop became his office. Eventually, the higher-ups in the denomination offered him a job. There was a small church across the river in the city of Battle Ground, Washington. It was what we call a “holy huddle.” Everyone was very sincere, but the community was so tight-knit that outsiders were scared away. We sent some friends to check it out. After dodging the people waving banners in their face, they counted twenty-seven attendees, including themselves. Quite a step from a church with ten thousand registered members.

We took the job. December of my eighth grade year was my dad’s first month as pastor. Every week, we drove up to attend services. In the meantime, I made plans. I would be attending the same high school my parents had attended. I had already registered for classes and transferred my algebra credit. That was not be.

A pastor, my dad said, needed to be a part of the community. It had worked so far to commute, but we were going to have to make the move. He talked to my two youngest sisters, and they were fine with the move. It didn’t matter to them. But I was ready to start high school, and my other sister had just finished her first year of middle school. We had friends and lives that we didn’t want to uproot.

In a park, my dad discussed with us. I said the only thing I could think that could stop the move. The reason I didn’t want to leave my friends is because I hadn’t told them about Jesus yet. Yeah, that was why. When we go to Battle Ground for ministry, won’t we be leaving ministry here? We ended up moving anyway.

My dad tells a story of his first year of high school. Everyone got the idea that he was mentally retarded. He was socially awkward enough to confirm their suspicions. He dressed and acted socially awkward on purpose because then at least the person everyone rejected wasn’t the real him. He spent a lot of time at home sitting by the phone waiting for people to call him to hang out, but the calls were always for his brother. Finally, his brother told him that the secret to talking on the phone is picking up the phone and making calls yourself. You can’t always wait for people to call you.

The summer after his freshman year my dad went to a church camp and had an experience. He realized that God loved him, and if God could love him, he loved everyone at the high school. He made it his goal to shake the hand of everyone in the school at least once every week. He stood at the entrances and welcomed everyone to school. By senior year, he was student body president. At reunions, people tell him he was their only friend in high school.

I know I wasn’t sincere about wanting to tell my friends about Jesus. I mean I wanted to, because that was the right thing to care about, but I couldn’t see myself doing it, just like I couldn’t notice and care for my whole school like my dad did. But I thought I could fight ministry with ministry. That seemed the only way to stop the move. It had taken me three years to figure out the middle school thing. I had finally made friends and I was going to go to the same high school as my dad and maybe become student body president senior year and I had already signed up for classes and I didn’t want to move.

As the next few months went by, my dad loved to tell the story of what I had said. When I found out we were moving, my first thought was that I hadn’t told my friends about Jesus. It made a great sermon illustration on Sunday mornings. Whenever he brought it up, I sunk quietly into my chair.

By August before freshman year, we found a house with five bedrooms, and the six people of my family and the four people of my best friend’s doubled up to fill it. He went to football camp. I went to cross country practice. Just like in sixth grade, I went to the first day of school with only one good friend, but I was already starting to make friends on the cross country team. In November I got a Facebook message from my middle school crush. She said, “Why’d you move? Gresham high school could have used you. You were a pretty cool kid, I really respected you.”

Is my dad right? I don’t know. My life would not have been the same had I attended Gresham. Would it have been a place of mocking for me? The perspective he gave over the phone was something I hadn’t thought about, and finding these artifacts doesn’t tell me the answer. Maybe I meant it when I responded to her and said “Thanks! I’m sure Gresham is great, but I feel that Battle Ground is my home.”