Can I Sit with You?


Once Upon A Stairwell

by Pat Gallant
10th Grade

We have made an exception to our usual elementary and middle school time frames for this lovely high school tale. -Shan & Jen

I had made it through first period at my new school without incident.  But there was still a whole day ahead of me and I knew all too well that a new student is a likely target.

I slinked up the stairs, heading for my next class, staying as close to the wall and as invisible as possible, as I had done for so many years, at my former school.  Frankly speaking, I was not popular.  I was the youngest in my grade, the smallest, and perhaps not so much shy as intimidated by the popular girls in my old school. My hair stood out in a bunch of corkscrew curls. The same curls which adults ogled over, fellow classmates teased me about. I was painfully skinny but finally, at fifteen years old, beginning to “develop.”  But as my best friend pointed out, she and I were already pigeon-holed, having been classified for too many years in the unpopular group.

My mother said many times over the years that she regretted her decision to put me ahead one year. My birthday falls in the summer, so I could have been the oldest in the class behind, or the youngest in the class ahead. My mother opted for one year ahead, remembering her school days and figuring I would like one year less school better than one year more. I agreed with her on that and despite my reassurances that she meant well and did the right thing, she felt badly about it.

A “good” school day was one in which the unpopular group was largely ignored. A bad school day was one where we were picked on mercilessly.

During breaks, I hid in the ladies’ room rather than have to walk past the cliques of taunting girls. After lunch, when all the kids went to the rec room, I was back in the ladies’ room. It was too daunting a task to have to face all of them at once; worse if they taunted me in front of the boys.  It was just too embarrassing.

****

It was the first day of 10th grade. All my friends had changed schools for one reason or another. I was now a posse of one in a school I hated. The workload was nearly unbearable. The pressure to succeed ever-present. And the cliquey girls had teasing down to a science. Worse still, this was the year we were required to put a live frog “to sleep,” for dissection. No excuses. No doctors’ notes. No parents’ notes.  This was mandated in order to stay in this very prestigious New York City school.

So, this posse of one sat in the first class. The teacher was nasty. Really nasty. Sarcastic, tough, and ranting that next semester, frog dissection was a must and that no one could get out of it.

It seemed counter-intuitive to ask students to kill a frog.  I glanced over and watched as the frogs hopped gleefully in their tanks. I looked out the window at the sunny day, the smell of grass filtering through the open window. I knew I wasn’t going to kill one of the frogs. They deserved this beautiful day, too.

At the end of the day when I got home, I told my mother I wouldn’t go back to that school. All my friends had left. The teacher was mean. My arms were stiff and back aching from carrying the eight heavy textbooks that held the five-plus hours of homework that awaited me. She saw how distraught I was and began phoning schools the next day, to find a new one for me.

We opted for the school my best friend had changed to. But I wasn’t relieved when I got word that I was accepted. In fact, I was terrified. I hated school. Or at least I thought I did. Another place to be teased.

****

So, there I was, halfway up the stairwell of the new school.  A tall, handsome, upperclassman came lumbering down the stairs. He stopped a few steps above me.

“Hi,” he said.

I looked behind me. No one was there. In fact, we were the only two people on the stairwell. He couldn’t possibly be talking to me.

“You’re new here, aren’t you?”

I nodded, pushing myself further into the wall, waiting for the taunts to begin. He introduced himself and then added, “Would you like to go for coffee after school?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I was almost afraid to say yes. Was this a set-up? Was he joking?

He continued, “We can meet at the lockers at three o’clock.”

A small voice responded, “Sure.” It was mine.

“See ya later,” he said, and he was off.

And in that moment, I had an epiphany. He had no idea I was unpopular. He had no idea I was shy or scared. In fact, he knew nothing about me. It was a defining moment. I moved away from the wall, straightened up, and walked up the stairs a new person.

I could be those popular girls. I knew how to do it. I’m a good study. I had watched from the bleachers for so long. At last, maybe it was my turn. But I wouldn’t be mean. Not to anyone. I promised myself that.

I couldn’t wait for lunch to call my mother and tell her why I would be late coming home, that I had a date with an upperclassman after school. It took her about one second to know she had made the right decision in allowing me to change schools.

The date wasn’t a setup after all. In fact, we had a great time. And many more after that. So, I began my performance as a “cool,” popular girl; a performance worthy of an Academy Award.  I bought new, more “grown-up” clothes, changed hair styles, and bought the very trendy yet delicate Papagallo shoes. I forced myself to walk with my head high, to speak up in — and out — of class, even if I was shaking inside, and even if I wasn’t taking a popular viewpoint.

Eventually, I found my own voice and I didn’t have to “act” the part anymore. Heck, I had become cool for real! And popular! A cheerleader. Secretary of the whole school. I had plenty of dates. But I never forgot to extend a hand to the “unpopular” kids and to stick up for them, even if that was the unpopular position to take — even if that meant risking losing friends. I stuck to my guns and to my surprise, was respected for it. Most important was the change I felt inside. I didn’t hang onto people’s opinions of me anymore. I did what I thought was right and stood by what I believed in. I began to like me.

Another big surprise was that I loved to study and loved school. It wasn’t school I had hated after all; it was the other school that I hated. I loved this school. It was a good fit. The B’s, C’s, and D’s of my old school were now all B’s and A’s, using the same text books. The work wasn’t easier; it was because I was happy and motivated. The pressure and workload was decidedly less but it, too, was a pretty hefty load. But I loved the teachers and environment as well, and that made all the difference.

****

In senior year, there was still one stone left unturned. Could I cut it in my old school or would I regress to my former self? Would I once again slink around the halls, afraid of my own shadow, scared to talk, no dates, intimidated by those girls? But I was a woman now, I reminded myself, albeit a young one. I had straightened my hair and it blew willingly in the wind. I dressed the part, talked the talk — but could I walk the walk? I had to find out.

My same best friend and I both got permission from our mothers to cut class and visit our old school.  We arrived during lunch hour; the hour that had intimidated us the most when we were students there.  The hour where everyone congregated in the rec room. Nonplussed on the outside, hearts in our throats on the inside, we sauntered into the rec room. We walked center stage and propped ourselves up on the ping-pong table, something I wouldn’t have done for a million dollars some three short years earlier.

And then we were noticed. There were whispers. We overheard, “Is that really them? Oh, my God, they’re beautiful. Can you believe it?”

We still got glares from some of the clique-girls but they were glares of jealousy because we were surrounded — by the guys and many of the popular girls. We were invited to classes. Asked out for dates. We even became life-long friends with some. They, too, had grown-up.

****

Now, some 40-plus years later, there is still the little girl inside with the corkscrew curls. And I like her.  She has her place. She keeps me centered. She is the holder of memories.  But there is also the woman, the wife, the writer, and the mother. And if I ever feel intimated by someone, I smile at the little girl and remind her of that day on the stairwell when she became a woman — and I walk with my head held high, speak out, and don’t allow anyone to intimidate me. But when I return home, I give a secret wink and a High-Five in the mirror — to both of us.

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2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

thanks i learn more!!!!!!!!!

Comment by rafael mendoza

OMG…reading this:

“Now, some 40-plus years later, there is still the little girl inside with the corkscrew curls. And I like her. She has her place. She keeps me centered. She is the holder of memories. But there is also the woman, the wife, the writer, and the mother. And if I ever feel intimated by someone, I smile at the little girl and remind her of that day on the stairwell when she became a woman — and I walk with my head held high, speak out, and don’t allow anyone to intimidate me. But when I return home, I give a secret wink and a High-Five in the mirror — to both of us.”

That is exactly, exactly how I feel.

Thank you for sharing this story! It feels like something I could have written myself.

Comment by myformerlife




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