I am in the process of preparing my house to put on the market. This is finally the year that I put myself first, no matter how difficult that is for me – because it is completely out of character. And this is going to involve some major changes and upheaval. I always put others first, even (usually) to my own detriment, almost without exception. I have been this way my entire life.
This change wasn’t some lameass resolution for me. I don’t do resolutions, at least not in the way most do. Life changes and extensive shifts in perspective don’t suddenly and miraculously happen simply because the clock ticked over to a new year. Time as we know it is a man made construct anyway, but I’m seriously digressing here.
The point of bringing this up was to mention I’m working on getting my house ready to sell. And this means days and weeks of meticulous sifting through thirty-five years of accumulated stuff. Some of that stuff is meaningful; some of that stuff is being donated; some of that stuff is being sold; some of that stuff is outright garbage and has been hauled straight to the bin and to the side of the road where people pick it up (you know what they say – one man’s trash is another man’s treasure), but some of that stuff is meaningful to me in some way or other and cannot simply be tossed out. Like the box of letters from my paternal mamaw. She was my penpal for a good two decades. Or my diplomas and commendations. Or my report cards and IEPs from elementary school, and the notes from teachers and little awards I received. Or the stacks of photos and photo albums. There have been lots of laughs, lots of tears, some raging and ripping up photos of that man who ruined my childhood and so much of my life and my outlook and behaviors, some quiet reminiscing, some shock; you get the idea.
One thing I came across was surprising to me. I didn’t even know I had it. A simple piece of paper brought on a flood of memories. Unpleasant ones at that. I was in 11th grade, I think, which puts me somewhere between 16 and 17. I was depressed and miserable and hated high school with all that I had. Not long after this period, I experienced some of the best years of my life until the bottom fell out of that, too. But for now, I was fucking miserable. I experienced suicidal ideation. I never cut myself, but I’ve always had this problem with picking and digging and tearing at my skin. So I’d wear long sleeves almost exclusively, in order to hide my arms.
I had changed schools that year, which is what seriously ramped up my depression and self-loathing. Those last two years of high school did a lot of damage to me, but the others did as well. Before I changed schools, I never had what you would call friends. There was simply a group of outcasts who would gather together during lunch. Some of them hung out together after school, but mostly we just clung to each other on the sidelines of life. It was our own little depressed group of grunge kids on this life raft we created to weather the storm of cheerleaders and jocks and geniuses and rich kids and bullies. It raged around us, splashing us with its venom and vitriol. The bullying had gotten so bad that I perfected this death to you glare and assumed anyone and I do mean anyone who looked at me meant me harm. I struggle with that still. And so we gathered together in this little corner at lunch. Playing hacky sack. Sneaking to the bathroom to smoke a roach. Talking about The Doors and Pink Floyd and Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Wearing the tie-dye Grateful Dead shirt I bought at a yard sale. Long sleeved of course. And that silly “Elvis is Dead. Deal with it.” t-shirt I wore all the fucking time. Mostly because it was black. And I was in a black wearing, flannel over-shirt phase. Close friends and confidantes we were not. But we needed each other. Or at least, I needed them.
So when I changed schools, I lost that. I no longer had a shield or raft to cling to against the raging tide of bullies. Especially the preps. They were the worst. Those were the ones that made my life hell all through high school. And now I had no protection. I had no wall of outcasts surrounding me to buffer me from the storm of bullying and back-stabbing. Which leads to the piece of paper I found last night.
I had an AP English class, which I would have loved (because English. Yay. My favorite subject for years.). Except there were about a dozen cheerleaders in that one class. They chose it on purpose because the teacher was the mother of one of them. I had no idea, or I would have scheduled a different class or requested a change. Such as it was, I was stuck in a very special hell of torment and glares and snickers and cruel jokes at my expense. Me, the poor girl in hand-me-downs, thrift store clothes, high-water pants and shoes held together with duct tape I’d taken a black Sharpie to on the black parts and White-Out on the white parts so the tape wouldn’t stand out so much.
At some point during the year, we had an assignment. We were instructed to write an original poem and then select one from our textbook that went along with the same theme. Then we had to buy white t-shirts and somehow paint our original poem on the front and the textbook poem on the back, then wear them to school on the day they were due and recite our poems from memory. This terrified me. I didn’t learn how to be able to do public speaking until college in my twenties. I can do it now, but I was terrified back then. Like vomiting over it a couple of times leading up to it the week it was due.
I couldn’t persuade my father to buy a new white t-shirt for me. “I don’t have the money for some fucking school poem bullshit. Use one of my old undershirts.” No, of course he didn’t have the money. He’d spent it on the twice weekly sacks of pot and pain meds from his 19 year old dealer. The shirt he gave me had the inevitable pinhole burns in it and huge deeply yellowed pit stains. I stole change off of his dresser to buy this glittery green puff paint to get the poems on the shirt. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. But I knew I would be humiliated, and I was. But this time, it was mostly in my head.
It was time. The teacher called my name. My stomach flipped and then flopped, and I felt dizzy and off-balance as I left my back-corner desk and walked to the front of the classroom. Voice shaking, I began:
You think that you are better than me
From your clothes, to your style and your hair
You think that you are better than me
But I have ceased to care
You smile and pretend that you are my friend
But I am not here for your pity
You smile and pretend that you are my friend
But I will have nothing to do with your sympathy
In your eyes, I am nobody because I don’t measure up to your standards
But I am not the one who tries to be something I am not
So before you judge me again, take a look at yourself
And face the reality that you are no better than me
And as time marches on
And your shine is all gone
For all of your glitter, you have nothing to show
Now you are nobody, and I am somebody
And you will never be better than me
To their credit, after the snickering subsided, the room got dead quiet. Not even the usual whispers and note-passing that happens during things like this. And the looks on their faces were a mixture of confusion, disgust, surprise, shame. This quiet, wallflower, grungy, nerdy weakling was speaking words of condemnation. To them. This was directed at them, and they knew it.
And then I read the poem I had selected from the textbook, and their shame and confusion turned to shock and fear. I could see it in their eyes, because I had finally worked up the nerve to make eye contact. And so I began:
by Edwin Arlington Robinson
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich-yes, richer than a king-
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
I read the paper. I re-folded it and sat there in this reverent silence. Then I opened it and read it again, finally re-folding it and tucking it away among the things I’ve decided to keep. At least for now. As a reminder of what I was, and what I’m working so hard to leave behind. The anger, the fear, the skittishness, the guilt, the distrust, the anxiety, the self-loathing, etc.
Here’s to my year of change. It will happen slowly and then all at once. And I can’t fucking wait.