Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Story of Shame

Did I ever tell you about the time I got sucked into the cool kids' club in high school? Did I ever mention the act that still shames me today, 25 years later?

It was 1984. I was a newbie in a posh boarding school. Read: SNOBBY. I was in school with girls whose last names were on the back pocket of the jeans I wore and the stock certificates my parents squirreled away in the safe deposit box. I was on scholarship.

I was a runt, shy, and lacked self confidence. I wore madras plaid Bermuda shorts and a cable knit sweater with Tretorns and pulled my hair back in a french braid that I painstakingly did myself, craning my head to look in the bathroom mirror behind me. I wore no make up. At the time I regarded Dr. Pepper Bonnie Belle Lip Smackers as makeup. I thought I had a chance of fitting in. I thought those shorts I bought with my allowance in Hilton Head would be my ticket to looking the part.

No chance.

I was still a runt, shy, lacked self confidence. Plus, and even worse, I wasn't rich or fashionable. I was not a somebody. My dad was not a somebody. I did not have hired help. I was mocked. Teased incessantly. To my face. I buried my face in my pillow every afternoon when my roommates were in their riding lesson. I soaked that pillow to its deepest fibers. I blamed my puffy eyes on allergies I did not have.

But I was smart. I got excellent grades, barely opening a book. I got on well with my teachers and knew quickly which ones to avoid. I dabbled in the popular hobby of rule breaking. I got caught drinking wine with some other geeky girls. Together we made the Island of Misfit Toys inhabitants look like red carpet stars. I smoked in the corn field. I left my room after lights out to visit a friend in another dorm. I passed notes in study hall and refused to clean my room. I found myself making friends and silently eeking into the in-crowd.

By no means popular, I at least escaped the blatant teasing and pestering. For this small gift I was thankful. My allergies suddenly cleared up.

Then It happened.

I was in the swing, enjoying my new groove, being invited out over holiday breaks with girls who lived lives I read about in the Style section. I laughed easily with the girls and even ventured out to mixers with neighboring boys' schools. On a field trip one day I got the nod to come sit in the back. A universal rule, no? All the cool kids sit in the back of the bus. I was giddy with delight.

Chanting ensued when Carol, the last girl in line, was taking her first tenuous step onto the rented school bus. Stomping feet chimed in with the chanting. Laughter and jeering broke out in a chaotic din. And I jumped in.

"I feel the earth move under my feet."

50 well bred high school girls were chanting Carole King's words to a fellow student who was less popular than even me. Carol was an exchange student from Kenya. Large by every stretch of the imagination. Amazonesque in her stature, rotund in her girth. Deliberate in her movements.

And we kept on chanting, "I feel the earth move under my feet."

Carole heaved herself up that last step that was a few inches higher than the previous one. She sighed heavily. Maybe even panted.

"I feel the earth move under my feet."

I recall being struck at the horror of such sheer cruelty. Yet I was one of them. My lips were moving, my eyes darting from face to face. While not chanting whole heartedly, I was still among the same filth that made me bury my head in shame and pain all those months. Coming full circle never felt so bad. I ache today at the thought of that scene. Even Hollywood wouldn't do it justice. It. Was. Ugly.

And Carole? She got up on that bus. She looked around, and I swear, she looked every single one of us in the eye before she took her seat. Time slipped to a slow motion cadence. Her look was not cold or distant or sad. She looked at us with pity. She was wise. And confident. And a better girl than I.
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Anonymous said...


Take consolation in the fact that Carole is most likely a healthy, well-adjusted human being living a happy and fulfilling life.

The Trust Fund Babies, on the other hand ... I shiver to think.

Unknown said...

I was also a scholarship girl in a posh boarding school so just reading the beginning of your story was a little close to home. Thank God I was pretty clueless about social hierarchies and just happy to not have to sit in a classroom full of juvenile delinquents. But I do agree with the last comment....you are solid, I am solid, but I wonder today about all those girls who went around saying unthinkable things like "I'm soooo depressed." They were the truly clueless ones.

And re. your torment of Carol. You did it once. You learned. You moved on. That's what adolesence is for. Some people grow up then. Some do not. You did.

The Over-Thinker said...

Great post--isn't amazing how girl-world, regardless of the generation, is always vicious...yet enticing? Totally been there. Thank God that those WERE the days and that they're far behind us. But boy, the scars from those days still smart from time to time.

Anonymous said...

Amazing post. Thanks for sharing, although I can see why it would be painful.

You capture so well that teenage angst of wanting to fit in so badly and doing anything to fit in.

(It's so weird you're blogging about this today. Yesterday, I blogged about meeting up with former elementary school classmates on Facebook -- including one who brought me to shame by telling all the boys in my 7th-grade English class that I had a maxipad in my purse.)

Must be the week for painful nostaglia.

Caroline said...

Well done. Wow. This is an excellent post. My heart broke for you and related 100%. Do you know where Carol is today? Something somewhat similar happened in HS for me, I tracked him down on FB and apologized. He didn't even remember what I did but making peace with it felt really good.

And guess what I got in my stocking (bought by me) and is my daily makeup when I can't quite muster up putting on the rest of it? Bonne Belle lipsmacker. Strawberry for me. And I started wearing it in 8th grade. :)