Can I Sit with You?

Schooltime Story
December 3, 2007, 8:01 am
Filed under: cruelty, elementary school, fitting in, race, self esteem, yearbook

by Mariann Vlacilek
Fifth Grade

Back in grade school, in Huntington Beach, California (in the 1940s), I felt so out of place, plain and unnoticed. I was very thin, and olive complected with long, straight, dark hair plus I felt like I was all arms and legs. I was born in Panama and my mother was Castilian and French, ergo the complexion that is now called “Mediterranean.” I grew to envy all the girls at school with light skin and blue or green eyes. One girl in particular had red hair and green eyes, and I though she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

Sometimes, I was mistaken for another race and even called by a racial slur. At one point, this actually led to an altercation in the nurse’s office. I am a very laid-back person but enough was enough! This was so very hurtful and damaging to me and I became even more self-conscious, and suffered a great loss of self-confidence.

It was a custom at my school that members of the graduating class would compile a list of underclassmen’s traits that they admired and would like to have, and then publish it in the yearbook. Imagine my utter amazement and disbelief when my name appeared on their list not once but twice — it had been unanimously voted that I had the most beautiful eyes and hands! Me … the fifth grader with the long dark hair and olive skin. ME!

This was somewhat of a turning point for me. It made me realize that I wasn’t an unnoticed nobody, and that there was something of me that was admirable. I should have learned from this, but the previous hurts were so deeply embedded that I bottled them up inside me, for years.

I didn’t fully realize the lesson of being listed in the yearbook at the time. It didn’t hit me until some thirty years later, when I looked in the mirror one day, and that little girl seemed to reflect back at me. At that moment I learned from her that, although thought of as pretty, I was also someone of value. That changed my life.

Every so often, I think back and am once again thankful and amazed that these “older” girls actually wanted something of mine that they didn’t and couldn’t have!


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.