Whipping Girl: A middle-school memoir, part one.

By | April 19, 2010

Everything in this story is true.

Well, except for the end. There I had to embellish, as it was written before the story was truly over. The real end was very different from the one I imagined, but then life has a way of surprising you.

And except for the fate of the girl I called Kathy. Kathy is the only character who was not a real person in my life, and I think I wrote her story as a way of imagining how my own path might have taken a morbid turn. Everyone else was real, with names that I changed in sufficiently uncreative ways such that even now, twenty years later and having long since forgotten these events, I can reconnect the characters with their real-life counterparts.

Last week, I visited my mother in South Florida. When we arrived at her condo, I had barely sat down on the couch when she pulled a sheaf of papers from a box. They were from an old dot-matrix printer, the pages still interconnected, the eyelets runnning down both sides still attached. I recognized them immediately, even as I couldn’t recall what they said.

My mom said, “Do you remember this?” and I spent the next two hours rereading this snapshot of my thirteen-year-old self, the memories coming back, terribly unwelcome. I wrote this toward the end of my eighth-grade year, only after I was secure in the knowledge that I was going to a high school where I would never see any of these people again.

I know these experiences shaped me, in spite of having scrubbed them from my memory. This is how I remember it, which is no doubt different from how every other girl in the story remembers it. Some will read it and be horrified; some will read it and know that they had it worse. Nevertheless, this isn’t just my story, the story of an isolated, socially-troubled fat girl. This is the story of every whipping-girl.

Some of the writing is stilted and brazenly influenced by the YA novels I devoured, but I’ll be presenting the full manuscript here, unedited, over the next several weeks. This is a story of the bullying I suffered and the bullying I perpetrated. It begins in 1990. I was thirteen.

Seventh Grade

1: Tremors

I didn’t hear the story until a few hours later. Danelle was being pushed out. There was some conflict at lunch, one of those seventh-grade things, and apparently she said something about “going where she was appreciated” and meaning me, in the library. Of course I wasn’t in the library. I just let them think that on days when I’d had as much as I could take of their little clique. I guess, at the time, it was my clique too, at least more than it was Danelle’s. Anyway, letting them think I was being a geek in the library was better than letting them know I was crying in the bathroom again. So Danelle never found me, and I had to guess at what happened from their conversation.

“Do you believe her? She is so stupid!” Beth said. Her best friend Cindy nodded absently, a prisoner of the jewels of popularity.

Christina stood up and mimicked what Danelle had supposedly done. “I HATE YOU GUYS!” she screeched melodramatically. “YOU’RE ALL JERKS!” Her voice cracked as she pretended to be on the verge of tears. “I’m going where I’m APPRECIATED!” She grabbed Beth’s books with an exaggerated gesture and flounced comically away. They all laughed. I laughed with them, even though Danelle was supposed to be my best friend. I was willing to sacrifice her for my own popularity. The way I saw it, Danelle was on her way out. I’d be damned before I’d let myself be dragged down with her.

I had seen this happen before. It was truly a fantastic phenomenon. Life in the clique would get boring. Usually two or three members would start to stir things up. Soon the whole clique would be centered on ridiculing and mocking one other member. There are always two kinds of people in a clique: those who ridicule, and those who get ridiculed. I was always the latter. One would think that those who get ridiculed would band together and stick up for each other. But it doesn’t work that way. It’s every girl for herself.

I said before that Danelle was my best friend. I use that term as loosely as possible. I met her in the fourth grade, and with the exception of a short friendship between the both of us and a girl named Sandy, she succeeded in preventing me from becoming friends with anyone else until the seventh grade, which was an eternity at our age. We were the type of best friends who lived at each others’ houses, and knew where the glasses and drinks were and saw about as much of each others’ parents as we did our own. I can remember one time I had a friend, Lara (in my clique now) sleep over at my house. The next morning I spoke to Danelle, who had an absolute fit and insisted that we come over to the house where she was babysitting that afternoon. So we walked over, and when we arrived Danelle was so rude and obnoxious to Lara that she left. Danelle said to me, “Oh my god, I didn’t even do anything to her. I don’t see why she’s being such a bitch.”

At any rate, Danelle had always kept me at arm’s length for when she got rejected from a clique. I had never been part of these first few cliques. I was completely bound by Danelle. She used to tell me stuff like, “I think I’m in!” and would repeat all the witty little things the popular people said during the meager moments she was around them at school. Popularity was the biggest thing in middle school. It was where you sat during lunch and who you sat with that made all the difference in the world. I’m not really sure how I got into this clique when Danelle did, around the middle of the school year. It just sort of happened. Probably by mistake.

Later in the day we stood in our tight little circle outside, waiting for our buses. Danelle sat on the wall pretending to be deep in conversation with somebody, smiling too much and laughing too loud. She was trying to tell us, “Hah! You think you matter to me? I have tons of friends who like me.” We laughed and made faces and comments and laughed some more. I was standing slightly to the side, trying to edge my way into the circle. In every clique, I’m always the person there isn’t quite room for in the cluster, the one who is always asking, “Who?” or “What?” in the middle of the conversation, and the one who can be furious and nobody notice or care.

So there we stood, and Brittany was standing up for the underdog, as usual. “What did Danelle ever do to you guys?”

Christina gave the rest of us a knowing glance. “Well…” and we all burst out laughing again.

Christina was not a regular member of our clique. She was fighting with the members of her own clique and I had invited her to sit with us, which she did once or twice a week. Little did I know that when I did this I was sealing my own fate.

The regular members were Danelle, Beth, Beth’s best friend Cindy, Brittany, and me, Annie. Beth could be sweet as sugar one minute, sharp as a dagger the next. She and I had our moments. There were times when I think she actually liked me. Cindy, I was convinced at the time, had no identity of her own. Brittany was a bigmouthed prankster dedicated to the underdog. And Lara was a true comedian, but she only sat with us maybe twice a month.

Finally the bus Christina and I rode home arrived. Cindy gave me her phone number, to my surprise, and told me to call her that night. We climbed the steps and rushed to get seats in the back. Danelle was on this bus, also, and when she got on she sat in the first seat next to this geek named Lance. Christina and I laughed and made jokes about “Danelle’s new boyfriend” with another girl named Michelle. The three of us were pretty good friends, although Christina and Michelle had a tendency to argue.

We got off the bus and went to Jack’s, the frozen-yogurt place. We sat down with our wafflecones and ate with long-handled spoons. As we ate and talked, Michelle made a swoop in the air with her spoon, “This is how Christina eats hers.” She held the spoon by the every end of its long handle, scooped up some yogurt, swooped it into her mouth with a flick of her wrist, and swooped it back again.

“I do not!” Christina snapped indignantly.

“Yes you do,” Michelle giggled.

“Whatever,” Christina said, disgusted.

The day was overcast. We walked home together in the usual formation, Michelle and Christina in front, me behind. The sidewalk wasn’t wide enough to hold the three of us, and only on rare occasions did I get to walk in front with Christina. Christina was always in front. She ruled even the sidewalk.

So we walked and Michelle talked about some guy that she liked and Christina made appropriate comments, but when Michelle said, “Don’t you think he’s just so hot?” Christina giggled and responded, “Not really.” That shut Michelle up until we reached the corner where Christina and I turned and Michelle went straight on to her house.

“Can you come over?” I asked Christina when Michelle was across the street.

“Yeah, but let me go into my house first so Michelle doesn’t find out,” she whispered as she turned up her walk. I went past the next house to my own.

Christina had a puzzling nature. She would probably tell whoever was home at her house to say she was in the bathroom if Michelle called. Sometimes I would call Michelle and know Christina was over there just from the way Michelle would say she wasn’t. Christina liked intrigue, and deviousness, and lies. And now I look back and wonder why in the world I bothered with her. I still don’t know. I wasn’t the only one. She had us all in the palm of her hand.

I’m endlessly amused by my ruminations on these events as a sage fourteen-year-old (“an eternity at our age”; “I look back and wonder”), when I was writing this a long year after things unfolded.

To give some further background: “Danelle” and “Christina” both treated me in much the same way, back then – as a friend outside of school, but as a pariah inside. Danelle, in fairness, was a very good friend to me prior to the ravages of sixth grade, and I really do have many fond memories of spending time with her at her grandmother’s house, which was only a couple blocks from where I grew up, as well as at each of her divorced parents’ houses. Danelle was, however, prone to dramatics, which did her no favors trying to fit in, and every minor slight was reason for major alarm. Today I’d probably say she had some kind of social anxiety disorder, though to be honest, who didn’t, at thirteen?

Christina could also be a good friend but in general her behavior toward me was appalling; our friendship, as will become apparent, was a secret she wanted to keep from everyone else she knew. Throughout the events above and the ones to come, she and I still spent most evenings a week together, outside of school, though I wonder even now why I continued to trust her. I remember even then wondering why she had to be such a horrid bitch in the presence of company when I knew she was capable of being a true friend when she and I were alone.

And it turns out there is one name that I didn’t change: that of the “geek” on the bus, Lance. Sorry Lance; you probably suffered as much as any of us did. I’m sure you’re a great guy today.

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