A recent post I wrote was supposed to be about this, but ended up writing something different. Sometimes my brain just goes where it wants.
But this time, I want to write about an event that had a profound effect on my life. I haven’t thought about it in a long time, but I sent an old photo from 1986 to a friend to demonstrate my bold fashion sense, and it reminded me that it has taken many years to get back to the woman I was as an early teen.
At age thirteen, I was in a “gifted” school. I had been there for 4 years. Our classes were small and there were about 20 women in our entire year (60 men, but that’s another discussion as to why there is a discrepancy). I had a lot of friends – I remember having no enemies…I liked everyone. People liked me. I was a bit bossy, having yet learned that fine skill of leading without being obnoxious.
(Sidebar: when I was four years old, on a hike with my Mom and many of her friends, I announced that they should all line up behind me. My Mom has said she has known from a very early age that I would lead people).
I invited the entire class to parties I had. I could fit with the geeks and the jocks and the artsy types with ease. My best friend was equally tall, with big boobs, and we both really liked guys. After one year of us being in the same class, the school decided we got into too much trouble together and split us up the following year.
Life was good. I liked many boys (I guess I started early). I had a boyfriend for six months in Grade 7, who ended up on my “guys I’ve slept with list” several years later. He’s still one of the ones who got away.
I was completely unaware that some people don’t like popularity. That some people resent it. I was unaware of it, and therefore probably put it in people’s faces without realizing it. But I wasn’t malicious and mean.
By my final year before high school, my best friend had moved to a different city. My boyfriend and I had broken up. But I still had lots of friends. During a school trip there was some drama between me and my now-ex-boyfriend and another girl. I suppose I didn’t like sharing, even then.
Within a couple of weeks, I was totally ostracized by every one of my girl and guy friends. It started with the girls – I no longer remember how – but nobody talked to me. One particular boy left me horrible notes calling me a “fat pig”.
I don’t recall how long it lasted, but of course it felt like an eternity. It was probably three months. The teachers tried a mediation with all 20 girls. Nobody said anything helpful. I had two friends – both outcasts, relatively – and we hung out together behind a portable classroom.
It was horrific.
Later, when things got better, in trying to explain why the fuck they did it to me, one friend said “well, you just got a little too popular.”
I shudder to think how long it took me to really recover from that event. I don’t mean getting back to having friends and partying. I mean, get back to being my authentic self. Bold, confident, uninhibited, unafraid to lead.
It’s not always easy to know how to lead and still be liked and respected. Nobody likes a bossy pants. Being a stage manager was a great training ground for honing this skill. I got really good. But in my corporate work environment, it took a LOT longer. I said to myself I was a “quiet leader”, but that was bullshit. I didn’t ask for promotions I deserved. I didn’t stand up to other leaders when I thought they were wrong. I let things happen that shouldn’t happen.
I never really found my real voice again until my mid-30s. I am more honest with my friends. More accepting of who I am. I found the courage to take up the space in this world I deserve to take. To wear the equivalent (okay, not quite) of my fashion choices I had at 13. I wear a purple suit when I damn well feel like it, thank you very much. One of the reasons I’ve done so well the last few years at work is because I have finally accepted that I’m very good at what I do, I know what I’m talking about, and people respect my opinion (I’m also humble enough to know I have a lot to learn).
On occasion, the remnants of that experience still surface. I have an unrealistic and oversensitive fear of being excluded. If there is a club or a clique, I want to be in it, even when it defies all reason. If there’s a prize or award, I want to win it. I sometimes resent others who are the winners or the ones who are chosen – not because I think the world is zero sum, not because I’m not happy for them, but because it brings up all that old hurt and fear.
It’s amazing to me how impactful our childhood experiences can be. As I write this, I’m at a friends country house. We talked last night about how experiences with boys at a young age can permanently impact our self-worth. So not only is it important to understand these things to move past our own demons, but I also realise even more now, the responsibility I have as a parent to raise a kind and thoughtful child.