Monday, April 11, 2005

Dating the enemy

By way of background:

I had a tricky transition in middle school.

My family lived in Indonesia for three years, until I was 11. Then we moved back to the States just in time for me to start eighth grade. My family travelled around a lot and I always enjoyed it, but if I'd known about the culture shock in store for me with that particular move, I would have jumped out of the airplane's emergency exit while it was still on the runway in Jakarta, and spent my life scrounging for leftover coconuts and giving people tricycle rides for a few rupees, rather than face the American Middle School Experience.

I was completely unprepared for it. I was sincere, enthusiastic, studious, and respectful of authority. I didn't like to watch television; I hadn't seen any recent movies from the past three years; I hadn't heard of any pop stars (I really liked Leonard Cohen and Beethoven, though). I liked to read books (and kept lists of all the books I read, as a personal record of self-improvement). I had no concept of fashion - in fact, I tended to wear the same outfit every day: a tie dyed tshirt and a pair of pumpkin orange, three quarter length spandex leggings. I'd spent the past three years in Jakarta eating mangoes, writing poetry, and playing with our family's menagerie of pets. And I was two years younger than most of the people in my class, having skipped some grades - so I was emotionally and physically underdeveloped.

My first day in school, sitting on the bus and listening to peoples' conversations - pop culture references, slang, and gossip flying around - I realized that they might as well have been speaking a foreign language.

But even so, I might have avoided the worst of seething teenage inferno that befell me, were it not for the psychological nail in my coffin: I was arrogant. I knew I was smarter than most kids my age, and I was proud of it. Walk into an American middle school with an attitude like that, and you'll be eaten alive faster than a goat falling into an Amazonian piranha river.

That's the subtext of all those cult 80s movies with the scenes where the jocks beat up the geeks: the geeks think they're better than everyone else. They might not say so when they know they'd be beaten up for it, but if there's one thing that a homo sapiens is an expert at sniffing out in another homo sapiens, it's a superiority complex. And there's nothing that pisses us off more. Unfortunately, when you're a smart kid being tormented by everyone around you, and you spend all of your time alone hiding from the jeers, it only reinforces your solipsistic self-aggrandizement.

So, middle school was hell. I was even more sensitive as a child than I am now, and I felt afraid everywhere I went. I was so stressed out and full of self-hatred that my face erupted into violent acne. Whenever anyone looked at me, I thought they were imagining something mean to do to me. And often, I was right. When I walked into classrooms, I'd always check the blackboards with a lump in my throat to see if there was a chalk caricature of me waiting there - complete with little dots for the pimples And during recess, I used to sneak out into the woods behind school to eat my lunch so that I wouldn't have to sit alone in the cafeteria.

Seeing as how I had no friends, I wasn't privy to any of the girl gossip about menstruation, although I was well educated on the mechanics of it (my mum was a biologist). And although I was pretty sure that most of the girls in my class had gotten their period, I didn't think about it much until one day, in social studies class, when I went up to the blackboard to write something down. People in class started snickering.

I was used to people laughing at me, so as usual I didn't respond, and hung my head as I walked back to my seat. At the end of class, one girl pulled me aside, and whispered with the utmost pity, "You've got your period, Zoe, you bled all over your skirt. You should go in to the nurse."

I went to the bathroom to check and, sure enough, red everywhere. If I'd been sensible I would have gone in to the nurse and asked her to call my mum and take me home. But for some bizarre reason - I can't remember why, but I think the effort of human interaction seemed too much, or perhaps I was ashamed to ask my mum for help - I just tied a sweater around my waist and went through the rest of the day like a zombie. The news travelled fast about what was up with me and people stepped aside as if I was a leper. I wish I could recount some juicy insults but I can't actually remember many details of the afternoon.

(If I ever have a daughter, one thing I'm gonna be sure to do is have lots of nice feminist pagan-type rituals to celebrate her first menstrual cycle, so that she associates with with joyful transitions and pride in her womanhood, instead of shame, dread, and terror.)


***************************************************

From the happy present, this all seems so banal, the stuff of the aforementioned 80s movie cliches: a big move, being picked on in school, an embarassing period incident. I didn't live through a war; I was never sexually abused; nobody important to me died. But at the time, and not having any wisdom or perspective on life, it felt as though I was in a small black room with the walls closing in on me. I wasn't getting along well with my parents, so I spent about three years without having a meaningful conversation with anyone about anything. And human beings need to have relationships with each other; we need constant reminders that there's a solid world besides the one in our heads. An outside perspective is a bit like a buffer in a chemical solution, keeping it in equilibrium. Without it, we can go crazy. I think that my years of profound loneliness warped me in ways that I'm only now beginning to understand.

And, not to sound like a Luddite, but I would have traded in cars and electricity and appliances and running water and heat for just one friend. In a second. Wouldn't have even had to think about it.

Anyway, things got better through high school, and even more in college, and I started to learn some social skills, and one day it dawned on me that people actually considered me to be charming and socially desirable, if eccentric. But during those lonely lunches, I'd made two fierce vows to myself: I'd never take part in a clique or exclude anyone who was lonely, and whenever I met anyone, I'd ask myself one question, "If they had known me in eighth grade, when I was ugly and pimply and a social pariah, are they the type of person who would have been mean to me?" If I thought the answer was yes, I'd never accept them as a friend. And whenever I do become close with anyone, I feel the need to tell them the stories about my time in school. It was long ago, but it still feels very relevant to my identity.

I was having some pillow talk recently with a guy I'm dating, as lovers do, and we were swapping stories about our childhood - nothing heavy, just silly stuff. Then he told me a story about a girl he used to pick on when he was in middle school. "One time she left her bag out, and I saw a box of tampons in it. So I stole a tampon, and I dipped it in some ketchup and left it on her seat. Then I yelled to the class, 'Look there, what's that?' People were teasing her for months about it."

My skin turned to ice, but I didn't say anything about it then. And when I thought about it later, it got me to meditating on human beings' remarkable ability to change. This guy is no longer a bully; he's sweet, open-hearted, and generous. He no longer takes pleasure in other people's pain.

And my changes have been no less dramatic. I'm not a sulky teenage girl anymore. Besides the modicum of social grace and the absence of Vesuvian pimples, I don't believe that the world is out to get me, and I've realized that the pinnacle of human accomplishment is not being smart. Being smart is a nice trick, sort of like being double jointed - although occasionally more useful. But the human being truly worthy of respect is someone who is good, and who has an open heart. It was a dramatic priority shift, when that dawned on me, and perhaps my school tribulations were all worth it, if that was what it took to drive home such an important lesson to me. (Although I must admit, if you sent me back to 1991, with foresight, I'd still be sorely tempted by the tricycle and the coconuts.)

But if I can admit such change in myself, how can I deny it in another? In yoga teacher training one weekend, I remember that we were talking about the concept of non-attachment: to material objects, to habits, to people. Our teacher said, "And over time, we learn that one of the things we must let go is our attachment to our personality. We are not the same as our thoughts, or our personalities."

So I broke my vow. I'm dating the enemy.

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I really enjoyed reading this post!!!! I can totally relate to the middle school traumas. Being this tall (I was 6' in 8th grade), not brought up with mainstream TV, and pretty smart. Well, yeah I, too, had the bitter zits!

Cheers to the beautiful, inspiring woman you've become, Zoe!

"Dating the enemy" -- Tee hee :-)

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