Can I Sit with You?


THE BOY KING

by Charles Ries
High School

Another high school exception for this frank struggle with the popularity pecking order. -Shan & Jen

“Hi, Chuck. Congratulations on being elected Ice Carnival King. It’s about time a regular human being got elected king. I am so sick of the Kens and Barbies around here winning everything. You’d think looks were some kind of ultimate blessing like ethics, honesty, sincerity, or intelligence. Why should we reward people for what they look like? What matters is what people are like on the inside,” Clara Weidemeyer said between classes. Clara was the subject of unrelenting taunts by our classmates. Her appearance became of thing of legend. A local garage band even wrote a song in her honor:

You can kiss me anytime

Clara

You’re so ugly you make me blind

Clara

You’ve convinced me dumb is fine

Clara

You’re all right

Yes, you’re all right

The song continued on through six more stanzas of rhyming humiliations. Things weren’t good for Clara Weidemeyer. She was ugly. The kind of ugly that made people who didn’t know her assume she was retarded. Short and stocky, Clara had horrible acne and frizzed-out hair that bloomed on humid days into a sizable Afro—God hadn’t given her much to work with.  No redeeming physical attribute like great legs, a wonderful voice, or beautiful eyes. She did the best she could with the considerable intelligence she was given. She excelled in every subject. She participated in student government. She had a social conscience, but despite her heroic efforts to fit in and be accepted, she was as fragile as any girl would be with a face and body no one wanted to look at.

Knowing Clara led me to the uncharitable conclusion that a person may be better off dumb and good looking than smart and ugly. The proof of this theory was all around me.

“I told everyone I could think of to vote for you. You’re one of us. You’re a regular person,” she told me one day in the hall between classes.

“Well, thanks, Clara. I’m just as surprised as anyone. I mean, I’m not a jock and I’m not a brain and I’m not one of the beautiful people. So I just figured, why even think about it? But, I think I’m pretty happy about being selected. I mean, who wouldn’t be happy about it? Right?” I said, looking furtively over her shoulder to make sure no one had spotted us.  Fifteen seconds in the hall talking with Clara Weidemeyer could have serious consequences for one’s social standing. I was trained to be more compassionate than most, but I wasn’t blind. I wanted to slip away from Clara before I was branded Quasimodo’s boyfriend. It was one thing to talk with her at student government meetings or exchange views in social studies class, but it was the kiss of death to hang with her in the hall.

“I would be honored to have a dance with you tomorrow night at the Carnival,” Clara said.

“Wow. Well, thanks. I’ll have to see how this whole thing plays out. I’ve never been a king before. It must come with certain responsibilities. So my time might be a little tight. I’m sure I’ll have to do a few turns with Molly Murphy. But maybe you could help me with my math, which I am still flunking.”

I wasn’t sure if Clara would take the bone I’d tossed her and forget about the dance. God, I can’t believe I’m being such a coward, I thought. But I can’t do it. I can’t dance with her in public. Hell, I can barely talk with her in public. It’s one thing for her to help me with my math, but dance? I can’t do it. I had told a white lie. If Clara was the epitome of ugly, Molly Murphy was the pure embodiment of beauty. Perfect skin, large round breasts, full round brown eyes, tall and thin, with hair that glistened and lips like two party invitations. Clara’s ugliness and intelligence amazed me as much as Molly’s beauty and vacuousness. They both left me speechless, but for very different reasons.

“Chuck, anyone in this school would be honored to help you. You’re such a nice person. You’ve never made fun of me. I know what I look like. I know what they say. There isn’t too much I can do about it. I mean, look at me. I’m not going to be picked for the lead in the school play unless the character is an eighty-year old woman. But you never join in. You respect people, and that’s why you deserve to be our King.”

“Hey, Clara, maybe I’m just a good pretender,” I laughed nervously while admiring her ability to just accept who she was. “I might secretly be a detestable person. In fact, I often think I am. Look, neither one of us are going to win any beauty contests, but it’s like you said—there are a lot of beautiful people who don’t have one original thought in their heads. They wouldn’t know civil rights from civil engineering. Hey, in case you didn’t notice, there’re a lot more ordinary looking people in the world than there are beauty queens. So as Ice Carnival King, I do hereby declare that every day shall be ‘Take an Ordinary Person to Lunch’ day.”

“There. You see what I mean, that’s exactly why we voted for you. You’re just so darn cute and nice to people,” Clara beamed at me as I headed off down the hall to safer ground. She had mistake me for someone else and it made me nervous.

As I walked away, I patted myself on the back for jumping into the same ordinary boat as Clara and thereby raising all ugly people to a cultural ideal. I had developed a forger’s instincts and could quickly detect and become what people wanted me to be. I went wherever social acceptance blew me. But something deeper was happening. I was growing curious about people like Clara Weidemeyer. She was hard on the eyes, but her mind was unique. I was becoming a student of slackers, eccentrics, and intellectuals—kids who didn’t fit in, but seemed to be uniquely themselves. I was tired of oatmeal for breakfast. I wanted more chocolate éclairs.

________________________________

Friday night was the Ice Carnival. It was a simple affair held in the gym, with a band and, of course the highlight of the evening, the crowning of royalty. I was invited forward with my queen. Principal Paul Hersch draped red velvet capes over each of us and placed crowns on our heads. After the coronation, we were invited to do a spotlight dance before our subjects—just Queen Molly and King Charles. I had my arms around the most beautiful girl in the world. I smelled the strawberry scent of her shampoo and brushed up against her young firm breasts. When it happened; a predatory hard-on sprang from out of nowhere. I wasn’t driving the bus any more.

Just what I need! I thought as I pulled my cape more tightly around me and distanced my hips from my buxom queen while still holding her tight. It was a rather gymnastic move, but hard-on or not, I wasn’t going to release my grip on paradise.

I was in love with Molly Murphy. Every guy in school wanted her, but I had her. Me, the people’s choice. We danced badly, rocking back and forth. Given my surprise visitor, we leaned toward each other creating a kind of dancing pyramid. I’d prepared for this moment by getting an ID bracelet—the marker by which all men would know Molly was my woman. As we rotated in the glow of three hundred worshipful eyes, I whispered, “Molly, will you go steady with me?” Her eyes opened wide. I wasn’t sure whether she was overcome with emotion at finally winning my heart or in shock that a dork like me would say these words to her. I wanted to retract my offer. I wanted to return to the practice sessions I’d been having in my head, each one ending with Molly saying, “Yes, Chuck, I will be your girlfriend forever and a day!” But her reply was not the one I’d scripted.

“Joel Stegameyer just asked me yesterday to go steady with him. Thanks for asking. You’re such a nice guy.” She replied as if she were thanking me for loaning her my stapler rather then offering her my heart. It was no big deal to her. She was a pro at going steady. Hell, she had a scorecard just to keep track of all the offers. I was no match for the quarterback of the football team.

I hadn’t realized how fleeting regal privilege could be. When the song ended, Queen Molly quickly deserted me and floated like a touchdown pass into the outstretched arms of Joel Stegameyer. Wearing my cape and crown, I walked to the punch table. My heart had been ripped out of my chest, leaving a cavernous hole. Of course, it didn’t take much in those days—young love came and went so quickly and so painfully. At the punch table I reached up for one of the two royal goblets that were set atop a fake ice pedestal for the King and Queen to drink from after their coronation dance, and ladled myself a cupful.

“Chuck, I want to dance with you a bunch. Come on, let’s boogie down!” I heard a raspy voice from behind me say. I froze. I knew who it was. “Hello there, King Charles,” she sang to get my attention. “Would you like to dance with one of your subjects?” I heard the voice speak to me again.
How bad could it get? First being denied by Molly Murphy and now being sought by Clara Weidemeyer. Heaven and hell were next-door neighbors tonight. My balls tightened up under me. The remnant of the stiffy I’d gotten in anticipation of claiming the fair young maiden Molly was now limp and racing after my balls in a hasty retreat. “Oh, its you, Clara. What was that you said…you want some punch?”

“Close. I said, ‘I’d like to dance with you a bunch.’”

I had no choice. It was the right thing do. I did the pity dance. I danced like the cornered, equal opportunity ratfink I was. I heard the occasional “woof woof woof” or the slightly too loud “I think I’m going to throw up” as we circled the dance floor.

“So, how’s it being king for a day?” Clara asked.

I didn’t want to tell her that I thought it sucked and that this kind of honor was better bestowed on beautiful people who don’t need a single original idea in their head to be happy. I couldn’t tell her the truth. She thought my achievement was what it must feel like to be popular. How could I step on her dream?  The truth was, I wanted acceptance just as much as she did.

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Karen Morley

I hated Karen Morley in year 8. She had naturally blonde hair so light it was nearly white. Her no-makeup skin revealed the colourless spots beneath to the world. When she laughed her small teeth were yellow against the red of her too-large gums; and she laughed a lot. Her clothes were boring and old fashioned, as if her gran had chosen them. She had no friends. Despite all of that, the boys seemed to love her. They flocked around her like seagulls around fish! And she had a boyfriend called Colin.

But she was so boring! She never said anything. She just laughed. She laughed at their jokes, she laughed when they teased her, she even laughed they asked her questions instead of giving an answer. But still they flocked.

Tania and I often stood frowning, arms folded, watching in disbelief. Now Tania and I – we were interesting, clever and funny. We could joke back, tease them with attitude and hold our own in any debate. We knew about football, politics, psychology and Marc Bolan. We also spent a lot of time on our clothes, hair and makeup. So why were they hanging around with her? She couldn’t even crack a joke and she had yellow teeth for goodness sake!

I can’t recall much about what we did to Karen Morley that year. I do remember Colin kicking Tania really hard in the playground for calling Karen names. I don’t remember the names that we called her but I expect being boring and yellow teeth were mentioned. We were outraged at his reaction. We had just wanted the boys to see what we saw. They were supposed to turn against her, not us.

Three years later Karen Morley and I sat together in the Form room only a couple of months away from leaving school. All animosities had long ceased. We chatted and laughed about teenage girly stuff. Then suddenly she told me that Tania and I had made her life Hell in year 8. She said we had sent her a card on her birthday and when she’d opened it “We all hate you” was written inside. I was devastated. I saw all the pain of that year in her face.

Karen Morley was a nice, pretty, not particularly clever person. She had never done anything to hurt me, but I had really hurt her. I remember that I said I was sorry and did not know what else to say. I wish now that I’d told her what pretty hair she had, how attractive her laugh was, and how destructive and powerful jealousy can be.



Go Ahead, Jump!
November 25, 2007, 9:06 pm
Filed under: eighties music, fitting in, music, popular crowd, popularity, school bus, Van Halen

by Seymour Rosenberg
Age twelve at the time

In 1983, California’s largest almond growers’ concern sent me and the rest of my Catholic School’s eighth grade class on a field trip to Sacramento. Woo-hoo!

As you know, you are the music you listen to, even in eighth grade. I liked Gary Numan, Pat Benatar, and the Talking Heads, but none of my classmates did. Even so, I wanted the cool kids to think I was one of them and come hang out with me. I’d seen them scribbling “Van Halen” all over their Pee-Chee folders and notebooks, so I bought a Van Halen painter’s hat and wore it on the bus. And it actually worked! Several people came and sat with me, saying, “I didn’t know you liked Van Halen!”

So began many fruitless years of trying to achieve coolness points through musical means.

(At least the hat matched my blue and red corduroy OP shorts.)



Free to Be You and Me
November 19, 2007, 8:01 am
Filed under: cliques, friendship, high school, musicals, popular crowd, yearbook

By Giedra Campbell
Age eight to present

In fourth grade I started going to a small magnet school. That first year it was easy to be friends with all the girls in my class—there were only seven of us, and eighteen boys. We seven hung fairly closely together, in part because of the efforts of Ms. Shainey, our teacher, who arranged special activities with the girls so we wouldn’t be overwhelmed by all those boys. She told us that women could be anything they wanted, and used us to help teach diversity workshops. She’d have us act out scenes from a record called Free to be You and Me to teach about prejudice and stereotypes. In my scene, my friend Amanda and I pretended to be babies, and to be confused about who was a girl and who was a boy (“You’re bald, so you must be a boy”). Our scene showed how you shouldn’t make assumptions about someone based on looks, nor limit someone based on their sex.

Come fifth grade, the number of girls in the class rocketed up to fourteen, and that’s when cliques started forming. Two of the new girls and five of the fourth grade group formed a group they called the Super Seven. I don’t know that they ever actively shunned me, but for whatever reason, I was not part of their group. They gathered on the parallel bars, separate and superior. Meanwhile over at the jungle gym, four of the new girls and I became the Fabulous Five. We modeled the name on the Super Seven, but we didn’t really know what our club was supposed to do.

Probably the Super Seven didn’t know either, but it seemed like the Super Seven was about boys and clothes. Those girls were the ones who were “going with” boys (and kissing! on the obstacle course!) or at least excited about the possibility. We Fabulous Five were uncomfortable with that idea. The only thing I remember from our club was talking about was how horrendous it would be to get your period, and to therefore have to carry a purse. We’d then scan the playground looking for purses so we could gossip about their owners, even as we’d just admitted that such attention would be awful.

There were three other girls in the class, too. I am embarrassed to confess that we called them the Terrible Three. Not only is it not alliterative, but I can’t think of a single terrible thing about them. They just happened to be the most different. Valentina, who had been in fourth grade with the rest of us, was the youngest in the class by over a year and had the longest hair in school. Shaleena was the only black girl in the whole program, and had a British accent. And she wore a bra. Because she needed to. And she carried a purse. And the last girl, Phillipa, well, I can’t even identify a difference in her case. She was the tallest girl in the class, but were we really that shallow? (In hindsight I see that all three also had unusual names, but by that criterion, clearly I should have been in their group!)

The groups did not stay the same for long—I don’t even remember how long those “clubs” lasted, but certainly there was shuffling of alliances all throughout sixth grade and junior high. By the time we got to high school, my best friends were Kara, a fellow Fabulous Fiver, and Shelley and Amanda—two of the Super Sevens. Throughout junior high we had cemented our friendships mostly through our time in choir and drama together, making up silly dances for talent shows and musicals, and skipping through the halls of our junior high singing “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” and “Born Free!” at the top of our lungs.

In ninth grade, we made new friends, but also stayed close to one another. Or so I thought. Until I read what Amanda wrote in my yearbook:

“..…I’m glad that us four got to be good friends last year and this year. But understand that I changed a lot, and by the end of the summer I’ll need some constant and reliable friends. I just don’t like singing in the hallway and dancing. I dunno, it’s fun at someone’s house but otherwise it’s embarrassing—pretty soon it’ll hit you and you’ll die! Sorry—this sounds so degrading, but the truth is you’re such good friends. Anyway, loosen up and learn to party…..”

And just like that, Amanda and I were never friends again. I don’t think she meant to hurt my feelings; she was only being honest. Though the words stung, she couldn’t help it that the goofy antics of a big ole drama geek made her uncomfortable. But her discomfort with me was no different from the discomfort I felt about her world of popular kids. I know I felt just as negatively about her group as she felt about mine.

By the end of high school, Shelley and Valentina were among my closest friends—never mind our having been in three separate cliques in fifth grade. The glue that held us together was in fact our shared experiences since fourth grade, and of course the fact that we all still thought singing in public was amusing.

As for Amanda? She died in a car accident, less than a month after we graduated. I was traveling at the time. When I returned, my mother gave me a newspaper containing the story, and I sat on the floor in my room reading it over and over again. The article told how Amanda had come in from riding her skateboard, had donned something for going out, and had parted from her dad for the last time, saying in her hip way, “Later days, Dad.” (The article’s next line? “There would be none.”) The article spoke of the career in architecture that was not to be, and of Amanda’s many, many friends. They made her sound so full of potential, so bright, so friendly, so loved.

I had mixed feelings. I didn’t know how to mourn someone who was apparently too cool for me, even if she had once been a friend.

Twenty years later, I believe that Amanda was all of the things the article said she was. Of course she probably would have changed her major and career when she got to college, but she probably was a wonderful friend to her friends at the time and she had a promising future. And I also believe that she would have matured out of the cliquish place she was in in high school that led her to drop me as a friend—and even to tell me so in writing!

Nowadays, I have friends who were part of the popular crowd at their high school—people I know I would have avoided at the time. I bet Amanda would by now have made friends with some drama people. These days, she might have even been okay with watching me stand in public somewhere and belt out “…and you and me are free to be, you and me.” I’d like to think so, anyway, because if no one appreciates differences, then there really is no point to being free to be YOU and to be ME.



My Right Toe
November 11, 2007, 4:56 pm
Filed under: peer pressure, popular crowd, self esteem

by Eric Thomas
Age 12 at the time

Steve Ramirez was cool. Even as a sixth grader he could dance and play any sport well, make people laugh, and talk to girls without nausea. In other words, he was the polar opposite of me.

He broke his toe playing football in his front yard with other cool kids, and was in crutches for a few weeks. At school, his injury made him shine even brighter. Teachers and students alike wanted to carry his books while he crutched from class to class. Everyone asked him how he hurt himself, when he would get the cast off, did it hurt or itch.

I wasn’t jealous of him. I didn’t dislike or resent him. I liked him as much as everyone else.

A few weeks after Steve was off the crutches, I lay on my stomach on the floor of my room, kicking my right toe against the floor as hard as I could stand. I was trying to break my own toe. I kicked harder and harder, but stopped when it was clear that I didn’t have the will to do any real damage.

As silly as it seems now, it seemed like a reasonable sacrifice to make in order to make a few friends.



Sunday Short: Left Out
November 4, 2007, 5:07 pm
Filed under: bully, cruelty, Jesus, popular crowd, religion, self esteem, sunday school, supportive parents

by Victoria Davis
Age 11 at the time

The little girl sat at the edge of the classroom — sensing the excitement but knowing her only form of participation could be observation. Squeals of delight came from the popular corner as white and pink tissue paper flew from the gift boxes wrapped in lots of curly ribbon.

Oh, she would get a gift too. But if she squealed it would be met with ridicule and various mimicking of whatever sound she made.

No, life was better for her if she was invisible. Teachers were oblivious or chose to tune out her peer-enforced solitude.

She loved people. She loved to tell jokes and laugh. But right now in this classroom — she was the only joke. What would she do wrong today? Oh, it would be something.

And she’d see these girls at church again on Sunday with their curls, angelic smiles, and stockings, looking like the apples of their moms’ eyes. Not saying anything, they would steal glances at one another as she spoke up in Sunday School — oh, what fun they’d have tomorrow about this lesson!

And yet, there was one place she could go with complete acceptance. Her mother and father adored her and enveloped her in their respect, love, and care the moment she came home.

And — in her room at night — she’d open her Bible and read of her Saviour. He was a “man of sorrows.” Enemies hung on his every word looking for their next point of contention with him. This man — this Jesus — knew what it felt like to be alone, to be made fun of even in church. To be left out and not fit in. He understands. He knows.

And snuggled under her covers beside a small lamp in the darkness, they met in conversation, talked about their day, and became best friends.



Sunday Short: Fish Face

by elswhere
Age 13 at the time

I was a nerd in junior high school, but my friend A. was even worse off. She was new in town, she wore weird clothes, and her family didn’t have any money. She looked funny, too; all the kids called her “fish face.”

In spite of these strikes against her, A. was mysteriously self-confident. In 8th grade, she decided to run for Student Council vice-president. I was aghast: everyone knew Student Council was just a popularity contest, and A. was anything but popular. What was she thinking?!

But A. didn’t seem worried. She made posters, campaigned, did everything a Student Council candidate was supposed to do. Just as if she had a chance.

On the morning of the election, the whole school gathered in the auditorium to hear the candidates’ speeches. One after another, the candidates for treasurer and secretary stood at the podium and read carefully rehearsed banalities about how they would dedicate themselves to improving the school.

Finally, it was A.’s turn. My stomach clenched. I was mortified for her already. She was sure to say something weird, and even if she didn’t, just her being who she was and standing up in front of everyone was sure to be social suicide. It was bad enough that she got teased and harassed in the halls and at lunch: how much worse could it be to see her humiliate herself in front of the entire school?

A. stood up and approached the podium. The room rang out with hoots and whistles and cries of “Fish Face!” until the principal made everyone be quiet. A. waited patiently for silence, then began her to read her speech.

“Some of you call me Fish Face,” she said.

Pandemonium erupted! Once again the principal called for silence. When it was quiet enough for her to be heard, A. calmly continued her speech. She talked about how regardless of names people called her, the important thing was whether she would get things done on the Student Council. She talked about changes that needed to be made, and about her ideas for making them. She talked about how everyone said that Student Council was just a popularity contest, but that this was our chance to prove them wrong.

Everywhere in the halls that day, you heard the words, “Fish Face.” “Fish Face!” Nobody could believe it. Nobody could believe she’d had the guts. Nobody could stop talking about it.

A. won the election.