From Kindergarten through eighth grade, I went to the same Catholic school with the same kids.
There were about 60 of us in a grade, so we knew each other's first and last names, siblings' names, parents' names. Even the names of people's pets. But this didn't protect us from the typical high school hierarchy of popularity. Despite (or maybe because of) the familiarity, climbing the social ranks was near impossible.
Still, going into the sixth grade, my best friend Miranda* decided that she wanted to try and rise in the pecking order. She couldn't do it through fashion or buying the latest Delias outfits. We wore uniforms, plaid blue jumpers for the girls with pale blue blouses underneath.
And we lived in suburbia, so unless you got an invitation to someone's house, inter-clique socialization remained limited to school.
So, in that situation, how do you become someone that other people want to talk to? You present information they want to hear. Rumors, gossip. But Miranda didn't know any of the popular kids—she knew me.
I can't pinpoint the exact moment when things changed. There was just a subtle shift, like the seconds right before the other person on a seesaw springs into the air, dropping you hard on the ground. Miranda stopped talking to me. She didn't want to make plans or take my calls. She started sitting at the very edge of the popular table at lunch.
Then the whispers started. At the beginning and end of class, the boy and girl who sat on each side of me would whisper to each other—and sometimes to the other students—intending for me to hear.
"She's so ugly."
"Does she have a wart on her nose?"
"She's a witch."
"We should burn her. Tie her to a pole at recess and light her on fire."
They frequently compared me unfavorably to the green-skinned, wart-nosed witches frequently seen in Halloween decorations. And while they never went through with their threats to burn me, I’d sit there shaking every time they talked about it.
At recess, I’d stand alone in the corner, far away from the crowds. I should have told the teacher, but I was afraid of the consequences.
The thing is, they were sort of right about the witchcraft. Miranda and I had found my mom's old magic books from the 70s. We had both eagerly paged through spells for good fortune, prophetic dreams, and making someone think about you.
I wanted to be a witch. But as it happened, I hadn't yet managed to transform any of my classmates into frogs.
I was only 12 and wanted to believe I could have that kind of control over my life. That I had the power to influence whether or not I grew up pretty, or the power to stop the Cold War-level tension between my parents that had swapped our hardwood floors for eggshells.
My parents circled each other constantly, looking for any weakness. If I didn't understand a subject and got a B on my report card, their hawk eyes and verbal talons would be turned on me, giving each other a respite. They'd yell, tell me how disappointed they were. I'd be grounded.
Then they'd turn on one another again, using my grade and the other's treatment of me as ammunition in another fight. I did all of my homework and all of my projects quietly, without asking for help. I learned not to ask for anything.
When I went to school, people thought I was strange. They teased me when I said something odd. They made fun of the fantasy books that I read. The boys I liked didn't like me back. So even at school, I tried to stay extra quiet. To make myself smaller and unnoticeable. To be absolutely still and perfect so they couldn't find any rough edges to latch onto.
Between home and school, if I'd had any magic, I would have certainly turned invisible.
Miranda was having problems too, but I only saw them from the outside. One day, Miranda walked into the classroom late after recess, the popular girls just behind her. Everyone had red-rimmed eyes, like they'd just had a good cry together in the bathroom.
Of course, I found out what happened through more rumors. Someone told me that Miranda had overreached with her popularity strategy. When people no longer cared about my feeble attempts at witchcraft, she moved on to telling stories about her new friends. She'd tell Judy that Julie said she was a slut. Then tell Julie that Judy said she was a bitch. Then Judy and Julie would fight, while Miranda would benefit from the attention.
But eventually, Judy and Julie would talk. They'd find out what Miranda said and both realize it wasn't true.
In the middle of the year, Miranda transferred schools.
And I was left behind in an awkward wake of quiet. I was relieved she had gone—and almost vindicated by the idea that she had fallen so low, she had no choice but to slink away into oblivion.
Of course, while her rumors and the consequences were easily forgotten by my peers, I didn't forget what they'd said to me. I couldn't forget how scared I felt. I had forged a layer of armor around myself, and instead of taking it down, I built it thicker and thicker over the ensuing months.
I learned the joys of sarcasm. I also learned that when you openly dislike people, they think you're interesting. When you are dismissive, people want you to notice them.
I also learned how to sneer, how to make someone feel stupid with a well-timed remark and an eye roll. This change in appearance and behavior was finally like my own personal brand of magic. But it was a dark magic. One I'm still trying to shake.
When I went to public high school, leaving my old classmates behind, I still wielded my magic of indifference and a sharp tongue whenever I felt vulnerable. No one teased me—at least, to my face. I had friends. Some boys liked me. I grew my hair longer, wore makeup and felt pretty. My parents separated and their fighting now went through lawyers.
What I hadn't realized when I went to public high school was that I would see Miranda again. We had some of the same friends, a few of the same classes. But she avoided me in the halls.
I didn't know why. Did she feel guilty seeing me? Did she just hate me? Did she worry that I'd tell all her new friends what had happened at her old school? Did I have power over her, too?
I never found out.
Somehow, we ended up as Facebook friends years later. Miranda added me, and I accepted because I was curious. Her life is very different from mine. She lives on the other side of the country in an area surrounded by trees and wildlife. I'm in Washington, D.C.
She has a husband, house, dogs, and several children. She seems happy. I work in communications and live in an apartment that's walking distance to everything, grabbing drinks after work with friends and reading in coffee shops. I'm mostly happy, too.
I don't begrudge Miranda her childhood attempt at popularity. We were 12—to hold that against her now, nearly two decades later, would be stupid of me. If she wrote an essay about that year, if she even remembers it, I’d want to read it and know what had really been happening across the cafeteria.
But I do still think about how that environment—from sixth grade until I left that school—changed me. It started me down a path that shaped my personality into what it is today.
If I am a witch, my biggest magic trick has been learning how to transform myself time and time again, each time getting closer to the person I want to be.
(*Not her real name!)