[Dear Reader: it has been suggested to me by those nearest and dearest that I have been writing a number of gloomy, self-deprecating and Altogether Serious posts which might lead the casual observer to believe that I am living in a darkened room with 50 cats and a bottle of Trazodone. These pieces are, for me, compelling to the point of urgency, and I cannot apologize for the thinking or the writing of them. I can, however, tell you that there are lighter things on the horizon. Don’t give up on me, baby].
The most utterly miserable times of my life were in high school. I was always a fat girl, and later, a fat girl with acne. I never had a date, was never kissed, was picked last for every team in gym, and was called “pizza face,” among other things. To be sure, there were girls fatter than I was who were not teased, and were, in fact popular. There were also many among the Leadership of the Pack who had acne (a common occurrence in the pre-Accutane era).These facts always baffled me, and mostly shored up my notion that there was, for some reason, a target in the middle of my forehead. I recall bands of lithe, silken-haired Popular People roaming the halls of our very upper middle class high school and possessing the power to slay me for an entire day with nothing more than a dismissive look or a word whispered to a friend in my proximity.
I had been teased enough, beginning in elementary school, that I had a rational basis for believing that I was a target. This belief was bolstered by occurrences like The Sweater Incident, in which one gazelle-like beauty in her OHS cheerleader drag figured out that the sweater I was wearing came from the boy’s department of Knapp’s Department Store, because her brother had the same one. (I feel compelled to point out that I was not wearing a boys’ sweater because I was elephantine, which I was not. I picked it out because I liked the pattern). “Hey Ann,” she called from across the classroom, “where’d you get your sweater?” Unsure about whether I was being set up for a compliment or a fall, I answered her. “What department?” she asked, looking at her friends to make sure they wouldn’t miss the punchline. I was doomed, and sat, face burning, as she announced the Origin of the Sweater; much hilarity ensued. I never wore it again, and made up a story for my mother about how it made me itch.
I had good friends, and did well academically, but my school days were spent navigating a minefield. I never relaxed, and I was perpetually scanning vigilantly for the next sneer, judgmental assessment or (worst of all) look of utter contempt from some handsome, athletic boy walking next to a petite, faintly tan girl with the right hair, size 3 hiney-binders, and an expensive ski jacket with lift tickets hanging from the zipper pull. Had I been any number of things other than what I was, I might have fared better. If I had been thick-skinned, oblivious, or even ambitious and optimistic about trying to meet the standards of the Ruling Class, I might have done my own thing, unscathed, or at least had a project to keep me from rehashing every slight. Instead, I was me. I was hyper-sensitive, anxious, and certain on a molecular level that the people at school who echoed what I saw in “Seventeen” magazine were what teenagers should be, and that I was not.
Nearly thirty years since high school, I am far more comfortable with myself, and sometimes even fancy myself a “cool kid,” at least in my own circles. It would, however, be inaccurate to pass myself off as a “changed person;” nothing has made that clearer than the reappearance of high school in my present-day life courtesy of facebook. I panicked (no exaggeration) when a cheerleader classmate found and “friended” me, seriously believing that, at the age of 46, she might be planning to tease or embarrass me in some way. She suggested other potential “friends” to me, and into my life came people who I had feared, secretly worshipped, and generally viewed as an entirely different species from Booksmartus Thunderthighica.
As time passed, and I corresponded with and generally kept up with the “popular kids,” the plates began to shift. Many, if not all of them proved to have interests in common with me, to have struggled in various ways, and to be genuinely kind, tolerant adults. Most recently, the original “friend” began organizing a class reunion, and designated me as “chief party planner.” After my initial surprise (and, I’ll admit, vestigial suspicion), I recognized that the gesture was genuine, and based on a belief that I was a person who not only deserved to be included in a party, but who knew enough to make it a good one. Two paths converged in my cliche-ridden mind, and I selected the one that led me to question my identity as a scarred victim of high school cruelty. It now seems plausible, even likely that what I saw as meanness in the high rollers of adolescence was simply the expression of a different kind of insecurity from my own. I am pretty sure that I was as visibly dismissive and contemptuous of people who I believed to be unintelligent, conventional and sheep-like (by which I mean the “popular people”) as they were of the socially disadvantaged (by which I mean “me”), and none of us was particular skillful about challenging our assumptions or prejudices.
Letting go of personal mythology is a difficult thing, particularly when the stories are thirty-five years old, and have been cherished, embellished, and embroidered to the point where the Bayeux Tapestries appear to be mere hand towels in comparison. I’m pretty sure that I responded to cruelty, real and imagined, by developing layers of cynical, suspicious protection that gave out signals of rejection and moral superiority. I can’t, otherwise, explain the fact that girls heavier than I was were popular, had boyfriends, and generally believed that they were entitled to sit at the table for life’s rich banquet. They didn’t care, they laughed it off, or they were so confident about their intrinsic value that they could take a little teasing in stride, possibly giving back as good as they got. I lacked that confidence, and developed a set of defenses that could have repelled even the most determined teenager. Particularly towards attractive or popular boys, I am now certain that I directed Death Rays of pure, unmitigated contempt. It wasn’t conscious, and I don’t imagine they would have been beating down my door with invitations to Homecoming in any event, but it was a social “Stop” sign. I admit that to this day, when dealing with a particularly handsome man at a car dealership or parent meeting, I still find myself fighting the urge to cut and run because I am certain that I am being assessed and found wanting.
It seems that I probably got back from the “popular” people what I gave out, missing entirely the part where I was equally nasty in my own way. There was teasing, there was cruelty, and in Tort Law, I would be considered “The Eggshell Victim,” a term used to describe the victim of negligence whose injuries and/or damages far exceed what might normally be expected due to some inherent characteristic like hemophilia or brittle bones. Outside of Tort Law, in the natural rough and tumble of growing up, there is no Eggshell Victim rule. My sensitive, anxious and self-critical self took every blow hard, even those easily deflected by a tougher nature, but the fact that I responded by subconsciously claiming Victim status and lining up my defenses was not the fault of my beautiful and socially adept peers. It was, as a friend of mine says, “a thing;” a no-fault, no-liability mistake that caused years and years of damage.
I am not good at forgetting things, but I am brilliant at “spin.” With my adolescent years re-classified as “mutual misunderstanding” rather than “endless persecution,” I feel a freedom, a lightness that may just allow me to move around the cabin of my life a little more easily. I can choose to see myself now as perfectly adequate, maybe even a little young-looking for someone of my vintage, and capable of navigating in any social waters in which I find myself. I can also see the people who cast long shadows in high school as flawed, human equals who may have suffered in ways I never imagined while I saw them perpetually perfect and in control. I guess I’ll learn more about them when we all see each other at that reunion party I’m planning….