Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Puppy Option

With 97 of my Facebook friends from my high school class of 1986, one would think that I had a fairly positive experience back then, especially since there were only 125 of us to begin with.  However, my family had moved to this little Pennsylvania town in the middle of my freshman year, and my new girl exoticness wore off by the first summer.  The nice girls at my school had grown up together and had already formed their cliques; the mean ones must have seen me as easy prey, and always threatened to deck me.  I remember that phrase: “You’re gonna get decked.”   These tough girls in flannels and boots followed me, intimidated me, drew hairy wieners on my locker.  One particularly tough girl actually did hit me—a couple blows to the side of my head in a parking lot, for saying to a mutual friend that the guy I had a crush on would never go out with her.  It was the truth by far—I was just stating a fact—but it was a good reminder-lesson that I didn't always have to say everything I knew.
My point here is that I am “friends” on Facebook with eight women who used to torment me.  They’re grown women like me now; I’m sure their memories work just as well as mine, if not better.  I’m sure they remember inventing sexual nicknames for me, like one that rhymes with Kate (use your imagination, and yes, that’s a hint).  I didn’t mind that one so much as the one that rhymed with “punt” with “head” put on the end and my name, Katie, put on the front.  I know I should look back at that and laugh, and part of me does, but part of me just shakes my head for how lost I felt at the time.
I’m basically the same girl I was back then; I look inside myself, up and down the hallways, and all I see are versions of me, nobody else.  I see more troubled versions of the girl I am right now, but I love them all.  It is only now in my life that I realize my body is like my child—a wonderful and delicate and promising child—and I should treat it as such.  Just as I would not give a child a choice between a pencil, a pillow, or a puppy, I do not allow myself similar types of choices, not anymore.  Best not to have the puppies around as an option in the first place.

So I look through the Facebook photo albums of these tough girls from my high school and wonder what kind of women they grew up to be.  I see their pictures and they look fine; they look the same, to me, even after 27 years.  I recognize them instantly.  I wonder when they friended me if any of them remembered shoving me into the lockers?  Why are they all of a sudden pleasant?  What could their excuses be for making my sophomore and junior years full of fear?  The only reasonable excuse I’ve ever heard for kids bullying others at school is that the bully herself is being abused at home, but I don’t think that gets you off the hook in court anymore.  I never told anyone at the time how much these girls terrorized me; what would have been the point anyway, since my parents’ inability to do anything but punish me for drinking probably equated with their parents’ inability to do anything about their daughters’ bullying habits.  Maybe their parents were completely unaware. 

I think about the girls we all used to be, those of us who were a little prettier, with parents who made a little more money, in white leather Nike sneakers with the blue swoosh, maybe with matching blue eye shadow and a blue polo.  Maybe the mean girls didn’t envy us at all; maybe they thought we were the ones who looked strange in our rainbow shirts and mullets.  I see them on Facebook now; they look like good parents and good people.  I message one of my best friends from high school: “I find it kind of weird that I’m now friends with at least five people who physically assaulted me in high school.”

“What!?” she messages back.  She has no idea I went through any of that.  Her own high school experience was so joyous that she remembers nothing but all the fun she had.  I tell her the story quickly, and she quickly gets it: now she remembers these girls and how mean they were.  “Why don’t you ask one of them why they did that to you?” she writes.

I consider that option for a moment—actually stirring up old affairs and asking a few of these girls why they made my high school experience a living hell.  What was it about me, the new girl, that they hated that much?  Did I want to relive the face-whitening feelings of not knowing if I was going to get punched or not? 
“I don’t think I can do that,” I message back to my friend.  It sounds like a good idea, but to be honest, I am already full up with confrontation, violence, and negativity.

“Why not?” my friend demands.

Just in time to rescue me, a thought forms in my mind that comes together by way of an old and favorite Tobias Wolff essay: the idea to forgive the young versions of the people you know now, including yourself.  Let them go, and appreciate the versions who are here in your life today.  I’ve been considering this idea for a long time, I realize that now—maybe since Christmas.  But today, on Valentine’s Day, it crystallizes.  It kind of goes together with the babying myself idea.

I offer my forgiveness idea to my friend, hoping she’ll like it, but she never plays the Pollyanna.  “I totally disagree,” she says. “I mean, that’s very grown-up and nice of you, but I’d still ask.  You deserve to know.”  Hm.

We type our goodbyes, our X’s and O’s, and she is off for dinner with her husband.  I return to grading a stack of student essays, occasionally glancing at the computer screen.  I see another Facebook friend’s post float by: a political thing with cartoon boys pissing on “anti-gun groups” and laughing.  This friend knows that I recently protested at a gun show, so in his mind, I belong to those groups.  And he supports boys pissing on us.  He “likes” them on Facebook.  He shares them.  He gets a real kick out of those boys.  

How can I be friends with this person?  He still shares cute family pics and writes about the progress he’s making with weight loss—and we are all very supportive, Like!—but then along comes a demeaning cartoon of President O’bama, or a thinly veiled threat to anyone who supports any restrictions on any guns.  This friend shares paranoia and hate and ignorance, along with his kid’s homemade Valentine’s box.

The Valentine’s box catches my eye. The box is for a Jack, and I remember that one of the kids who was killed in Sandy Hook was also named Jack. I don’t have children, but that would be a name I would consider for one.  It is quite a box indeed, a very colorful monster with arms and legs made out of paper towel tubes, eyes and nose painted on, and a big open smiling mouth for lots of Valentine’s day cards from his classmates and teachers.  People might even put candy in there.  A girl might like him and today he’ll find out!  I’m sure Jack loved it.

I think of the kids from Sandy Hook Elementary who won’t ever have to suffer through the heartbreak of not having enough Valentines in the box they made in art, or—even worse—not getting the right one.

The most fun and most calming part of my day is sitting at my crafts table, carefully cutting up some photographs of me and my friend from high school into large puzzle pieces to use on her birthday card.  I’m not the artsiest or craftiest of people, but I appreciate the personal touch myself, so I try to do the same when I can. I trace around the pictures of me and my friend first, using a bare razor blade and a Reader’s Digest to slice them out.  I try not to cut over either of our faces.  That would be bad luck.  I already have a Band-aid on my pointer finger due to an earlier encounter with a sharp edge, so I am being extra-careful, using my weight to make the razor slide, not my arms with the fiery joints.  Then I tape the pieces onto the card so the puzzle comes together.  It looks cool, but it’s taking me longer than I thought it would because I’m trying to get the tape not to show so much.  I’m getting tired.  I wish I had glue.  Glue would have worked a lot better.
Arts and crafts, my mind free to wander or pay attention, my hands busy, my eyes seeing everything.  A candle burning because I’m finally old enough to have one if I want one.


  1. Interesting thoughts, Kate. I find it hard to accept some parts of some people. Then I wonder if it's better to keep the enemy close so I know what they're up to. In real life I don't allow those people in my life; I value the peace of my days and my feelings about myself too much to let them in. On the internet, it's somewhat different. There's always the option to just cut off contact.

    Love the ending, so dreamlike ... and familiar to me as I get involved in the craft mode too. I liked this essay very much.

  2. Kate, I Loved reading this! I could see every event play out in my head as if it was yesterday. I must tell you that if you are still thinking about the bullying experience 27 years later, the bully is too. We do grow up. And hopefully, we grow up to be better people than we once were. Seeing that the one time bully is a better person today opens the door for you to ask the question. You get clarity and they get forgiveness. It is a win win situation. That person will be happy to be given the opportunity to say they are sorry, but inside they have hoped you have forgotten all about it. Trust me. Ive experienced an identical situation. I look forward to catching up more! Good Luck