"If writers possess a common temperament, it's that they tend to be shy egomaniacs; publicity is the spotlight they suffer for the recognition they crave." Gail Caldwell, from her book "Let's Take The Long Way Around"

"To look life in the face, always to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it, to love it for what it is, and then, to put it away. . .always the years. Always the love. Always the hours." From the movie "The Hours", based on the book of the same name by Michael Cunningham

"Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly." Baz Luhrman, "Everybody's Free (to wear sunscreen)"

"A writer can do nothing for men more necessary, satisfying, than just simply to reveal to them the infinite possibility of their own souls." Walt Whitman

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant or talented?’ Actually, who are you not to be?” Marianne Williamson

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tale of a Fifth Grade Nobody

In the Fall of 1980, in the wake of all that was going on at home, I was in fifth grade in a new school, Grant Elementary.  My teacher was Mrs. Hoyt, and I liked her.  I was quiet, suddenly shy - anyone who knew me back then would have called me withdrawn.  Like I said before, I had never been that shy before.  No one knew anything about my home life, except the basics.  I started out being friends with a girl named Stacy but it didn't really stick and there was some jealousy on her part over a boy in our class who liked to follow me home after school and tease me.  I was definitely not ready for boys even though I could admit that some were cuter than others.

No, the friend I really bonded with was Melinda Lee, a smart, fun Asian girl (although we didn't say "Asian" back then and more specifically, she was Chinese).  She had great imagination and was a lot like me in some ways:  the way she liked to put on plays and create parties and be the leader of fun games.  This part of me had faded a little in the wake of all my uncertainty and insecurity.  It is what attracted me to her and why we became best friends.  Every now and then I would get a warning from someone that she was going to "burn" me but I didn't really know what they meant and found it hard to believe anyway.

Melinda and I shared a desk in our classroom.  Another girl we were friends with, Michelle, sat on the other side of Melinda.  She, in fact, was one of those who'd warned me about Melinda, but suddenly it seemed that we were in competition for Melinda's attention.

Things were okay for a while.  We ate lunches together (mine were always weird because I had to make them myself; I remember once I brought sauerkraut and cinnamon toast).  We played handball, 4-square (one of my favorites because I was good at it), hopscotch, and on the high bar where we would spin on one leg and try tricks like a cherry drop.

Then Melinda began to be critical.  She would comment on my "weird" lunches that were either brought in an "uncool" lunchbox or a too big paper bag.  We couldn't afford the nicely sized brown bags and were lucky if we happened to have sandwich bags, but never the Ziploc kind.  I was usually pretty grossed out by my lunches, too, which explains all the after-school foraging.

One of the more hurtful things she did was when she used her index finger and thumb to make a circle to demonstrate the size of our waists (me, Michelle and Melinda).  Michelle was a tall beanpole; Melinda was a little shorter than me.  Here's how it went in her exact words:

"This is Michelle":  circle small, thumb and index finger overlapping;
"This is Shelley":  circle big, thumb and index finger not touching;
"This is me.  I'm normal":  a perfect circle, just the tips of her thumb and index finger touching.

That hurt.  Actually, that doesn't even describe how it made me feel.  I think I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to move on to the next topic of conversation or activity, pretending it didn't hurt.  Despite the designer jean debaucle, it was really the first time anyone ever came even close to calling me fat, much less suggest that I was not normal.  In fact, I knew I was not normal because of my mother and father and Direll and the rampant drug use and chaos in my home.  But I thought I hid that pretty well at school and tried to fit in with every other kid.  It was the first time I felt not okay about who I was, just being me.

Then one day, suddenly out of nowhere, Melinda hated me.  I don't remember the exact day, how long we had been best friends, but suddenly I walked into the classroom, sat at my desk and Melinda hated me.  Maybe she just wouldn't talk to me, her chair turned fully to face Michelle.  Maybe she just kept saying mean things to me.  Maybe she excluded me from conversations.  I just knew somehow that she wasn't my best friend anymore.

She would accuse me of trying to cheat off her and would cover her paper with her arm in such an obvious way.  As if I needed to cheat off of her.  We were both smart, two of the best students in class, but she accused me nonetheless, made fun of me any way she could. 

One day, I came in and she had drawn a line with her pencil down the center of our desk.  Everytime my elbow happened to cross the line (she sat on my right; I'm right-handed), she would draw a star right next to the line.  It was just so petty.  I tried to ignore her.  I really did.  I knew it was stupid and that I should rise above it and not get my feelings hurt.  I tried to tell my teacher, whom I think cared, but in the end just wanted me to grow a set and get over it.  I hardly had any other friends in the class.  I became something of an outcast.

Even though at this point we were clearly not friends, Melinda would do weird things like invite me to her birthday party; or one time, she decided that the three of us - Michelle, Melinda and me - should have a "dinner party" with boys, like a triple date.  I vaguely remember who might have been there.  I wasn't exactly interested in boys at that time, although I was starting to think some were cuter than others, but that was it.

One time, earlier on, she wrote me a letter - one of many - wherein she listed all my  negative traits and compared them to all her outstanding qualities.  I remember she said that she was a "jack of all trades" compared to something like I wasn't good at anything.  The letter was downright mean.  I showed it to my mom who called Melinda's mother, but nothing really happened to change anything. 

I started to act out.  I didn't want to go to school.  I tried to be sick and ask to stay home.  My mom had a firm rule that unless we had a fever, we couldn't stay home and miss school.  (Interesting fact:  throughout my life, I have rarely been feverish although there have been plenty of times I have been legitimately sick.)  One time, I left, pretending to go to school.  I must have sent Julie off with Matt, or maybe I walked her to a point.  Then, I waited for my mom to leave, and I came back home.  I called her, of course - or maybe Direll called her because I was supposed to be at school.  An argument ensued, but what could she do?  She was at work, I was at home.  She let me stay.

Another time that I fought with her about going to school, I left the house in a tantrum, probably saying I was running away or something, but I was definitely not going to school.  I walked around, then down to the park.  I wanted her to find me.  I wanted the attention I was so lacking.  I wanted someone to understand how desperate I was, how terrible it was, being at school with Melinda.  She found me and scolded me for leaving without saying where I was going.  She sent me home.  This went on and on.  At one point, I think she gave up.  Maybe we had a heart-to-heart.  I cried all the time.  Everything was so wrong in my life - Direll, the drugs, Melinda, Mom paying no attention except to the drama that Direll created.  The only way to get her attention was to create my own drama.  But I desperately needed someone to address this situation with Melinda, and no one would.  My teacher, Mrs. Hoyt, gave up.  I think every adult's response was to just "buck up" and fight back.  I was being overly sensitive, wimpy, a sissy.  Just ignore her, they said.  But it's hard to ignore someone who is constantly in your face telling you that you are lower than low.  This was 1980, long before "Odd Girl Out" and "Queen Bees and Wannabes" were published, long before Columbine and long before anyone really addressed the issue of bullying at school.

I ended up staying home for like two weeks.  Mom finally ended up talking to Mrs. Hoyt who called to see what was up.  When I finally came back to school, Melinda and Michelle were moved to different desks.  I can't even remember who ended up next to me.  Maybe some boy.  I don't know, but I was relieved.  Melinda still tried to torture me from her new desk, but the letters stopped, and I managed mostly to ignore her.  The rest of my fifth grade year finished uneventfully, at least as far as school was concerned.  I had no friends, but I was left alone, which is how I wanted it.

In the meantime, home life sucked.  It was clear that Direll was not leaving.  He would take Mom's car and go out all night and sleep all day.  They would fight.  I think I mentioned the laundry room episode.  I guess I didn't.  I was eleven, in sixth grade by this time, so he'd been living with us for about a year.  They were fighting, as usual.  He backed her into our tiny laundry room and shut the door.  I knew instantly that was wrong.  I ran to the laundry room and opend the door.  I don't remember what I said, but I wanted him to know that I was going to protect my mom at any cost.  Mom always told me not to get involved.  She was probably trying to prevent us from getting hurt physically.  That laundry room incident was the first time there was any indication that he was physically abusive, but it wouldn't be clear to us for several years what was going on.

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