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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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.



No-Win Scenario
March 19, 2008, 10:32 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

A. A. Matin
10 yrs old at the time

Gym Class. Most people’s memories seem to revolve around dodgeball. While I have been hit with and pelted many a classmate with those red rubber balls, my most vivid memory is of another game: Capture the Flag.

In the fifth grade there was about fifty of us and the gym teacher set up the game on a huge soccer field. In order to compensate for the size of the field, both teams had three flags. Early in the class my friend Pasquale and I decided to run across together and capture one flag and then throw it back and forth to each other as we ran back.

We made a break for it. I snagged the flag and turned around. I looked over to Pasquale who was running with me. Then I looked ahead and saw a straight shot back to our side. I didn’t even think about tossing it. I just booked as fast as I could and we made it back. I apologized to Pasquale for not throwing it to him. He didn’t care because we got the flag and were not tagged.

Later on someone got the idea for a bunch of people to run over at once and have an ambush with the hopes that one person could break through. I didn’t think it was a good plan — but went with it. They were prepared and set up their defense to ambush the crowd and captured us all.

The “holding pen” was a pole on the edge of the playing field. And we were allowed to string ourselves together by holding hands to form a chain. So many of us were caught that we almost extended all the way onto our half of the field. Then one of our team mates could safely tag the person at the end and free us all. Some guys took their shirts off so that they and the next person in line could hold onto each end to make the chain longer.

I refused to take my shirt off. I was very skinny and very self-conscious about my body. I did not feel comfortable and knew I would be picked on and ridiculed. But it did not matter. My entire team turned against me for refusing to take off my shirt.

Everyone was upset and saying that I was not a team player and refusing to help. The fact that I had captured a flag was inconsequential to them.

I didn’t want to get insulted for being skinny. Instead I got insulted for not being a helpful team player by taking my shirt off. Most would call that a “no-win” scenario. But this is not the case. No one else was able to capture any flags. We won the game. And it was all because of me. It may have been lost on them — but I still remember it 25 years later.