Saturday, February 21, 2009

Just Me

Awhile ago I had posted this story over at Mommy Club, and at Wet Coast Women. In one of the classes I work in at school, we were looking at the work "dignity", so I printed it off and gave it to the teacher. I'm not sure what I expected, but I was a bit surprised that the kids loved it so much. Many wanted to know more; and so, I decided to tell them a story from when I was in high school.

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"I don't want to hang out with you anymore," the note said in her loopy handwriting, "you just aren't cool and besides, everyone knows that your brown shirt and blue jeans look stupid. Nobody wears blue and brown."

I stood in the busy hallway near my locker, clutching the crumpled piece of paper in my hand and tears welling up in my eyes. The note was from my elementary school best friend; my soul mate, who was so inseparable from me that people had mistaken her for my twin. Ashley and I had shared two years of sleepovers, whispered secrets and pre-teen crushes, but now that we were at junior high I suddenly wasn't good enough.

Welcome to high school.

We had been educated about changes that would happen in our teen years, but I was totally unprepared for what would happen to me. The braces on my teeth, which made them stick out so far I could literally put my thumb in the gap was bad enough, but the whispers from the bleachers that I was "so ugly", were far worse. Glasses and my own inept ability with fashion and my hair didn't help either, and pretty soon I found myself near the very bottom of the social ladder. I didn't expect the challenges to meet out back after school "so I can kick your ass", or the girls who would throw stuff at me, write on my locker, and shun me from their cliques.

All I wanted was to be liked. If not liked, at least left alone. Was it really that hard?

In grade nine science class, some more popular girls sat at my table, and I was thrilled.

Omg, maybe they'll actually want to hang out with me! That would be so cool! My teenage brain was estatic with the idea. An entire year of social isolation, and here three girls actually wanted to sit. with. ME!

Sitting in front of us, was a girl who, like me, was at the bottom of the social ladder. Nobody really talked to her, and I'm guessing that she got very much the same treatment that I did. Only this time, I was on the opposite side of the fence. I was with the popular kids. I wanted desperately to fit in and I was almost willing to do whatever it took to direct the torment away from myself, at least, so when they started tormenting her, I followed suite.

For the entire year, we threw paper at her, called her names, and tormented this girl whenever the teacher wasn't looking. She never complained, and we were never caught. It was perfect, except for the fact that I couldn't shake the feeling that somehow, I was just as bad as the kids who had bugged ME.

Hey, survival of the fittest, baby. Right?

Grade nine gave way to grade ten, only over the summer I had developed a new attitude. Horrified by my low grades in grade nine from expending all my effort into my social life, I had a new focus and determination to make school work my top priority. There was university in my future, and nothing was stopping it.

The friends I had made in grade nine didn't share my enthusiasm and early into the year subsequently dumped me because I was "too into school.". Once again, I found myself floating without an anchor in the sea of high school social status. Once again, the sharks smelled blood in the water and the relentless taunting, the humiliation, and the isolation started up in earnest. Kids know who is on the fringes, socially, and they make sure to remind you, repeatedly, every single day. The ironic thing? Ashley, once my best friend forever, was often the ringleader.

I couldn't help but remember that what was happening to me was in some ways, exactly the same thing I had done to Jody back in that grade 9 science class. At some points, it got so bad that I began spending my lunch hours with my Dad, who was the custodian, and eating in the boiler room that served as his office. At least it was better then being alone, or risking the cafeteria and getting taunted for the upteenth time that day.

Finally Spring Break came, along with tulips budding and warmer weather, and suddenly a funny thing happened. Over the course of the holiday my braces came off, and those teeth that had earned me the name "Bugs" were now perfectly straight. My glasses were traded for contact lenses, my hair was suddenly cut into a style I could manage, I had some new clothes, and I returned to school a completely different looking girl.

I wasn't prepared for the response from my peers.

Like an 80's movie where someone goes from nerd status to suddenly being considered hot, everyone began treating me better. Popular girls would stop me in the hall with their mouths hanging open, practically tripping over themselves to say, "WOW. You look GREAT!". Boys who never gave me the time of day were suddenly talking to me, and a few times kids asked who "the new student" was. Ashley, ever my nemesis over those years, suddenly realized I was the dark horse of the popularity game, and those claws came out in earnest as she tried to direct attention back to herself with everyone in our social circle.

What nobody ever counted on, was my own internal change. What they didn't realize was that the girl who had once longed so badly to be accepted, no longer cared. I was exactly the same person that they had tormented the week before, or had dumped because I was not good enough for them . The popularity game suddenly lost it's appeal altogether.

Not long ago I was contacted about my 20 year high school reunion, which is happening this May. What many of my former classmates don't realize, is that I thought long and hard about whether I should go or not. At the 10 year reunion, I went because I had the need to prove that no, I wasn't insane because I had married an older man. I was happy, successful, and the gossip that had swirled through our tiny town when I broke up with my high school sweetheart for a man his father's age was just plain wrong.

At the reunion though, it was high school all over again. The isolation. The snide comments, the nasty looks, and the same cliques. We all know where I stood socially and so why the HELL would I put myself through that all over again? For what? Isn't that why we leave high school?

Twenty years later, I'm still the same, awkward girl who had braces, buck teeth, and glasses. I still love to read and hang out in the library, and ironically, I work with high schoolers. I'm not the most fashionable mom, definitely not a popular one, and I'm certainly not the prettiest. I still wear brown and blue because, surprise! It's in fashion! I'm just ME.

And you know, I think I'm pretty damn awesome.

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