Before seventh grade, I belonged to a clique. The most unpopular clique of them all, but I had friends. Our sole goal was social acceptance. To be acknowledged by the popular girls. To be wanted by the unattainable boys. We spoke to them as if they were our friends. They spoke to us with absolute disinterest. Dismissiveness. My friends ignored it. I couldn’t.
I couldn’t ignore such blatant snobbery. I felt every bit of it. I felt hurt, humiliated, rejected. And I didn’t understand why my friends didn’t. I didn’t understand how they could speak to people who didn’t want to speak to them and feel no shame. I thought they were stupid. Stupid for talking to people who didn’t like them. Stupid for being nice to those people. And delusional for thinking it would do any good. The popular kids weren’t going to suddenly like us because we pretended they did.
But I didn’t tell my friends that. I did whatever they wanted. I spoke to the popular kids. I endured the embarrassment of obvious dislike. Swallowed my hatred for them and acted nice. And hoped being nice would get me an invitation to one of their parties. I did want to be popular. I just didn’t want to obsess about it or be unrealistic or continually make a fool of myself. I was happy with our little group of friends and wanted my friends to be happy with it too.
It wasn’t easy for me. I was awkward and paralyzed by self-consciousness. I lived in perpetual embarrassment. I didn’t want to speak, because I thought whatever I said would sound stupid. So I never had an opinion. I never discussed my crushes like my friends did. I only responded to what they said. I smiled. I laughed. I wanted them to like me more than I wanted them to know me.
My friends were perpetual optimists and believed everything would change as soon as we started the seventh grade. I knew it wouldn’t. At least not for me. I stood 5’4” with no curves. Nothing for the boys to look at. I wore glasses and had no sense of style, so I wore what must have been the ugliest pair of glasses available. Big, round and constructed of thick, clear plastic. Acne spread across my forehead and down my cheeks. My hair was dark brown, almost black, and a frizzy mess of split ends.
My friends were also awkward. Maura and Holly were the fat girls. Danielle also wore glasses, braces, and ridiculous clothes. Tweety bird and bugs bunny shirts. And she tried to fix her hair like the popular girls but failed miserably.
And then there was Jennifer. Jennifer was a mystery to me. She didn’t belong in our clique. She had blonde hair and blue eyes. She was skinny and tall. Had good hair. Good skin. I had no idea what was wrong with her. Maybe it was a general awkwardness. Or her loyalty to Danielle as the first friend she ever had. Jennifer just didn’t belong with us.
Eventually, the first day of seventh grade arrived. Starting seventh grade meant graduating to junior high. Our junior high was small and housed only the seventh and eighth grades. But it was connected to the high school. The two schools shared a cafeteria, a track, baseball fields, tennis courts. My friends felt so mature. So excited. I was scared to death.
I was so scared I had nightmares about starting the seventh grade. I couldn’t get my locker open. I lost my class list. I couldn’t find my classes. I was late and everyone laughed at me.
None of that happened. Holly and I had the same homeroom. Maura was in my next class. Jennifer was in my third class. I felt okay. Still anxious but okay.
Lunch came next. Jennifer and I walked to lunch together. We were all supposed to meet before we went to the cafeteria, but Danielle was late. Jennifer, Maura, Holly and I waited until the final bell rang. We looked around the cafeteria, thinking she saved us a table. We couldn’t find her, so we sat down and puzzled at her absence.
After we sat down, I glanced at the stage, where the popular kids were eating and saw Danielle standing among them, talking to the most popular boy in school. I noticed for the first time how pretty she had become over the summer. Her hair shone in the light streaming in from the window. Shades of gold on light brown. She wore a short pink skirt and white t-shirt accentuating her tan skin. No wonder they liked her. I knew right then, we’d lost her. Jennifer never belonged with us and Danielle didn’t belong with us anymore either.
As the week progressed, Danielle and Jennifer began distancing themselves from Maura, Holly and me. They made excuses as to why they couldn’t talk to us. Actually, they made excuses to Maura and Holly. They didn’t even bother with me. By the end of the week, they weren’t speaking to me at all. Not when they passed me in the hallway. Not even in the classes we shared. And they didn’t invite Maura, Holly or me to sit on the stage with them.
As soon as they sat on that stage, I knew they were going to dump us. I just didn’t expect them to do it so quickly. And I didn’t expect them to treat me worse than Maura and Holly. They were the biggest bitches in the world. So willing to dump me and make a production out of ignoring me so they could be accepted. They had to know I cried over it every night.
At least I still had Maura and Holly. I sat with them at lunch. Hung out with them on weekends. Listened and agreed as they discussed how it was only a matter of time before we were all popular as if I believed it.
They couldn’t take a hint. Or maybe they were in denial. I don’t know why it took them so long to realize Jennifer and Danielle were bitches, but when they finally did realize it, they were furious. It took a month, but after not being invited to one too many social gatherings, they finally got the hint. Maura and Holly turned the tables on Danielle and Jennifer and began ignoring them. Maura and Holly even talked about what bitches Jennifer and Danielle were right in front of them. I didn’t have the courage to participate, but I loved every second of it.
It was probably my lack of participation that did me in. I didn’t have the self-esteem that Maura and Holly did. I didn’t have the confidence to intimidate Jennifer or Danielle. I was too afraid to stand up to them.
Whatever the reason, Jennifer and Danielle decided it was time to humiliate me. It happened one day in early November. Jennifer and Danielle were standing in the hallway with their group of friends when Jennifer called me over.
My heart skipped a beat. Foolishly, I hoped that they were finally going to talk to me again. I thought they might accept me. I was wrong.
When I reached them, Danielle smirked and said, “You know we’re not friends anymore don’t you?”
I was stunned to silence. Jennifer snorted. The other kids had similar reactions. I said nothing, turned and walked away. I held back tears for the rest of the day. Then ran home to cry.
At first, Maura and Holly were on my side. But then Jennifer and Danielle started talking to them. And then, a week after they humiliated me, they invited Maura and Holly to sit with them on the stage.
As I had with Danielle, I sat waiting for Maura and Holly at our table, wondering why they were late. I sat for ten minutes before I heard Maura’s distinctive laughter coming from the stage. I stared at Maura and Holly for a long minute as the realization of their betrayal sunk in. I covered my mouth with my hand, looked down at my sack lunch and felt a hurt deeper than I knew I could feel. I couldn’t help but cry. I tried to wipe the tears slyly, hiding them so no one would notice I was crying. I didn’t look up until the bell rang.
After lunch, Maura and Holly found me. I hoped we were still friends.
“I saw you guys on stage,” I said, not knowing what else to say and hoping they’d say something to indicate we were still friends in return.
Maura answered, “Yeah, we talked to Danielle and Jennifer. You told them that we hated them. That’s the only reason they stopped talking to us.”
I pleaded with them, even though I knew it wouldn’t matter. “No I didn’t!”
Maura responded, “Whatever Lana. You’re not allowed to sit with us anymore.”
Holly joined in, “And we’re not friends anymore either.”
I went to my next class and sat at the back of the room. I wiped away the tears I couldn’t stop from forming. The other kids kept looking at me. The bitch teacher ignored my tears and even called on me at one point. I manage to choke out the correct answer.
The rest of the day was horrible. The kids that had always been nice to me no longer were. They ignored me like everyone else. I had become a pariah. Universally disliked. My isolation was complete. And my torture began.
I spent my lunches, alone, at the same table at which I had always sat. Jennifer and Danielle sat on the stage. Maura and Holly did not. They sat at a different table with a couple of other girls. As far as I could tell, Danielle and Jennifer were cordial to them, but they didn’t exactly hang out. I don’t know how Maura and Holly could be so oblivious to Jennifer and Danielle’s ulterior motives. I wanted to yell at them, “You were only invited on stage once! And it was the day Jennifer and Danielle convinced you to hate me! One time you sat there! You fucking morons! One time and then never again! What does that tell you?”
I was disgusted by how willing Maura and Holly were to believe Danielle and Jennifer. Or how much they wanted to believe Danielle and Jennifer. Popularity and acceptance meant more to them than I did.
I’d cry to my dad. He’d comfort me. Tell me it was a passing thing. Every kid went through something like it. It’d all blow over and we’d all be friends again.
I hoped he was right, but I knew he was wrong. The kids enjoyed tormenting me too much for me ever to have friends again.
Apparently, it was great fun to call me ugly. To steal my purse. To write “I love pussy” on the cover of my notebook. To say I smelled like tuna and gag as I walked by. To throw spitballs at me. It was all so uproariously funny.
I hung my head and avoided looking at any of them. I felt such shame and embarrassment for who I was. I had finally been exposed, stripped of the friends I hid behind. Everyone had finally figured out how repulsive I was and they wouldn’t leave me alone about it.
There are so many little tortures that I endured every day. Some of them the teachers unwittingly imposed themselves. Like working in groups. Most kids begged to be able to choose their own groups. I would pray that the teacher would assign groups. The other members of my group would inevitably be disappointed that I was in their group and would get a perverse pleasure from letting me know about it, but it was better than the alternative. Every one would form their groups and I would sit by myself. I would have to go around and ask every group. I’d be turned down. The teacher would tell us to shut up and listen to his instructions. I’d work by myself. Then, the icing on the cake, I’d get my grade deducted for not working in a group. It was also possible that the teacher would force a group to take me. I would have rather had my grade deducted.
I hated public speaking even worse. My worst grades were given as a result of one of my oral presentations. I’d practice for hours. I’d record myself. I’d time myself. I’d make sure the report was longer that what was required, so I would be sure to reach the minimum. Inevitably, when the time came for me to give my presentation, I would never look anywhere but directly at my notes, which I could barely read, because my hands would be shaking so violently. I would speed read my notes and fail to reach the minimum required length. I would finish to a rousing chorus of snickers and sit down, my face crimson with embarrassment and shame.
The torture I dreaded most was dealt by my English teacher, Mrs. Hamm. On Mondays, we would spend about thirty minutes writing about what we did over the weekend. I composed great works of fiction. If writing were the only thing I had to do, it wouldn’t have bothered me. I liked writing. But she made us read the damn things on Tuesdays. My peers would talk about so-and-so’s birthday party or how they went to the mall with their friends. I would talk about my imaginary cousin Stacy, who had just moved to a house three towns away. Sometimes, I had to go to a wedding. Sometimes, a funeral. I never wrote the truth, that I had spent all weekend watching TV, reading books, fantasizing about a better life, and crying.
Despite my classmate’s cruelty, I still hoped that someone, anyone, would be nice to me. So I was still nice to everyone. Plus, I actually believed that if I was nice, someone actually might feel bad for insulting me. I acted as if the insults never happened.
Of course, I was insulted for being nice. Someone would usually say something like, “Don’t you know I hate you? God you’re so stupid.” And when he saw the look on my face, “Aw, are you going to cry now? Look everyone, she’s going to cry.”
In March or April, my dad took me shopping and spent more money than he could afford on new clothes from nice stores. He thought if I wore the same clothes the other girls wore they’d think more highly of me. He thought he could buy me confidence. He felt like my situation was his fault for not being able to afford nice clothes.
The clothes did give me some confidence. I was proud of them. And I thought I looked good in them. I held my head high as I waited for the first bell. I should have known better. One horrible eighth grade boy approached me as I stood alone in my usual corner.
He said, in a very matter of fact manner, “You know you’re ugly right?”
He stood for a moment and watched my reaction, enjoyed the look of surprised horror on my face, and walked away.
He didn’t even have an audience. There was no one there to impress. No one heard him. He hated me that much and he didn’t even know me.
My head tingled. My heart raced. The blood rushed to my feet. And a sadness deeper than I ever felt before crushed my spirit.
I wish that was the worst incident of abuse I endured that year, but it wasn’t. Sometime during that second half of the school year, we were forced to learn to square dancing in gym. It was absolutely ridiculous. And completely torturous for me.
Square dancing involves holding hands, walking in a circle and dancing with a male partner. I would have rather have run the entire time.
The first day I was paired with an eighth grade boy who thought I was disgusting. He found me so disgusting that he almost vomited when he had to hold my hand. And he wasn’t faking. Touching me really made him physically ill.
When it was time to switch partners, I volunteered to be the person who had to sit out to create an even number of people. I volunteered to be that person every time after that.
“Oh no, I’ll sit out,” I’d say with a smile on my face. Meanwhile, I was dying on the inside. Just dying.
Sometimes, I thought I would die. I’d be so hurt and wounded that I’d think there was no way I could live through any more insults. I thought my heart would shrivel and stop beating.
But I continued to live. I lived through each school day. Standing alone in the morning, hoping I was ignored rather than made fun of. Hiding in the bathroom at lunch. Racing home to avoid being spit on by the kids riding by in buses.
I endured the insults. The isolation. The knowledge that absolutely no one liked me. The unwillingness of anyone to help me, student or teacher. I spent countless hours wondering why no one came for me. Wondering when my luck would change. Wondering if it ever would. Worrying that it never would and I’d be alone for the rest of my life. I couldn’t spend an entire lifetime alone.
The only way I could deal with such isolation was to invent an alternative world for myself, a life I didn’t lead. I would create elaborate fantasies. I’d begin with the ending. If I knew I wanted to end up with the hottest guy I could imagine, I’d force myself to imagine a way in which that could actually happen. I had to find the way to him before I could savor the fantasy of being with him. By doing this, I made my fantasies possible, and thus, as close to real as they could be.
I sought out books, TV shows and movies that resembled my fantasies. I read book after book with the same basic plot line: girl has never had a boyfriend, girl finds boyfriend unexpectedly, girl and boyfriend live happily ever after. I had no trouble finding these books. There are thousands of them written for lonely girls like myself.
I also watched any movie that involved high school kids, their parties or romances. Revenge stories were my favorite for obvious reasons. But I also liked movies that involved turning the ugly girl at school into the most beautiful girl at school. Also for obvious reasons.
And then there was my soap opera. I found, and instantly became obsessed with, a soap that largely involved a group of teenagers. One of the teens could really play up romantic angst. He simply could not live without the love of his life. Of course, there always something, or someone, preventing him from being with her. I ate it up. Sometimes, I pictured myself as the girl. Other times, I simply made myself a part of their group of friends.
I’d actually miss the people in my fantasies. It was as if my fantasies had happened some time in the past and I was remembering what actually happened. I became so wrapped up in my fantasy life that I was afraid I would begin mixing my fantasy life with my real life. I was afraid the next insult I endured might trigger some reply like, “I don’t care what you say. I’m dating Johnny Depp.” The fantasy had become that real.
By the time April arrived, the abuse had taken a toll on my physical appearance. My skin was pale. Dark circles formed under my eyes. My acne became worse. I’d look in the mirror and find justification for the kids’ taunts. I was in fact ugly.
I felt nauseous every morning. Sometimes, I’d dry heave. Other times, I’d have diarrhea. I’d see blood on the toilet paper. I didn’t tell my dad. I hoped it’d turn into a horrible illness that would keep me out of school.
When I began to get really bad headaches at the beginning of May, I still didn’t tell my dad. I couldn’t stand the thought of going to the doctor. I had become an anxious mess.
I began counting down the days until the last day of school. I began to get excited. Summer was my favorite season. I loved the heat, the sun, and the fact that there was no school.
Plus, my dad promised to make it a fun summer for me. He promised to take me to Six Flags and camping and canoeing and to the drive-in theater. We were going to have so much fun. I couldn’t wait. I’d finally get a break from the abuse.