I’m quiet. I don’t like crowds. Women my own age give me anxiety, most of my friends included. But the majority of the time, I do everything I can to be different. I do everything I can to be kind. On the days I fail, I think of the profound value of empathy, the immeasurable affects we have on each other as humans.
I think of how two little girls changed my life forever.
I was targeted by a bitter classmate at the impressionable age of 10, among what was supposed to be a sanctuary of education, where the motto was W.W.J.D.: What Would Jesus Do.
I hear that phrase now and cringe.
From my first moments of clarity, I had worn a plaid skirt and carried a monogrammed Bible to every day of school. My family, for as long as I could recall, had been a part of the church that also schooled young Christians from babyhood to 12th grade.
Due to my shyness and unwillingness to leave their side, my parents often taught Sunday School to my friends and I while my sister attended the more mature Worship with her grade, where my grandfather was a deacon and my cousin the service singer.
My father brought me to school every morning with the promise that once I let go of his hand, I would have a joyous day filled with playmates and recess and the lunch my mother packed me, always a handwritten note on the inside.
Their wish was for my older sister and I to have a “Christian background” with the added benefit of an expensive education. Yet even with extensive ties to such a renowned establishment of faith, my family and I had always seemed a bit different, a little less obsessive in regards to our devotions. In other words, we were human, while many of the families around us seemed holy.
What I remember are flashes of plaid whipping around corridors, brick walls lined with backpacks, the birdlike chatter of preschoolers dipping into song. It was the time of AOL messaging, Sidekick phones and Palm Pilots, both of which the majority of girls carried in their enviable Coach purses.
Most of those whom attended school with me came from privileged families who often donated handsomely to the church. We stood single-file in our lines every day traveling from one courtyard to the other, while demonstrating our growing knowledge of the latest technology trends.
My neighbor was the most popular girl in our grade, and therefore, I had the honor of calling her my best friend. Kate seemed to be everyone’s darling, her hair a golden halo, which I ardently brushed for her after gym class.
She was the favorite of every teacher, every boy, and every pastor who came to visit. I, however, was not the only friend to vie for her fleeting attention: Kate and Charlotte had known each other since nursery school, and it seemed they had only gradually admitted me into their fold of brilliant popularity.
Charlotte was at her side at all times, and she watched just about everyone. She had a knack for knowing all there was to know about the people around us, students and teachers alike. I kept myself somewhere between the two of them, trying my best to please them both and remain on neutral ground.
So on a morning toward the end of our 5th grade year, when I was rushing to class having overslept, I didn’t notice the scores of staring eyes as I made my way to math.
I took my seat beside Kate as I always did, but for some reason, she refused to look at me. Charlotte was nowhere to be found, which was not uncommon for her, but I still felt that something was wrong. Before I could reach for my homework, our principal, Mrs. Owen, opened the classroom door and peered in.
“Could I borrow Kate and Alex, please?”
As we shuffled out into the hallway, I looked to Kate again for reassurance, but she turned her face away from me. What followed was a series of biblical quotes, a speech skirting around a greater issue that Mrs. Owen felt was too indelicate to voice.
I finally asked outright what it was I had done, having assumed I was being accused of something as Kate began to cry and Mrs. Owen consoled her. However, she stopped sniffling long enough to finally risk a glance in my direction and speak.
“Alex called me things. She’s been really unchristian. I thought she was my friend.”
Kate then burst into more tears as I laid my back against the wall and closed my eyes to the chaos. I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it. But I knew then that Kate would always be the favorite, the believed, and there was no chance of saving myself against a rumor that had already spread like wildfire.
Just as I began to relay my innocence, a door slammed shut across the hall. Kate and Mrs. Owen were in the throes of hysteria, but I captured every second of it I could, branding the sight in my mind where it would remain for the following decade.
Charlotte stood in the middle of the hallway, 10 feet away from us, frozen…and smiling.
I ran home to my mother that day and buried myself in her Boucheron perfume as she stroked my head affectionately, murmuring all she could to calm me down. I couldn’t understand what had just happened, why the entirety of my class acted as if I was suddenly invisible.
I ran to the computer we kept upstairs for my favorite learning games like Freddy the Fish and Muzzy. Logging into my AOL account, I searched for Kate’s screenname, a hybrid of her birthday and candy of choice. All of the virtual friends I had once clicked on had vanished, their screennames deleted with only my sister’s left on my chat list.
I began to cry, racking my brain for a memory of accidentally purging my social network online. And then I clicked “History.”
What popped up onto the screen were a series of conversations I’d never had: every single person in my address book I had seemingly chatted with in the course of one day.
I was horrified upon reading them to find each virtual exchange consisted of my betrayal of Kate. My screenname gossiped about her, painted her with words I’d only heard on MTV, and conveyed such a profound hatred for my closest friend that anyone receiving the messages would’ve thought I was possessed.
I scanned each box for the date, which confirmed my suspicions. It was the date of a sleepover I had hosted at my house the previous weekend…a sleepover with exclusively Charlotte.
I knew then that I had lost a tug-of-war I didn’t realize I’d been fighting, the jealousy of a powerful little 10-year-old winning out over my shy adoration. It was astounding for my young mind to comprehend: that I could be betrayed so easily without cause.
I walked to every corner of that playground for weeks, approaching each clique of uniformed pre-teens and trying to gain their attention. I tapped on shoulders, called out affectionate nicknames, and offered my lunch to anyone that would talk to me.
Even in chapel, when all of us morphed into pretty hummingbirds for God’s ears, I would rush to my pew at the front to find another girl had taken it, any others laden with place-saving hymnal books.
Despite having attended church services all throughout childhood, having been lulled to sleep with Bible songs for lullabies and continuously taught the virtues of Christianity -- kindness, charity, and love -- while most students our age learned the alphabet, the kids around me acted as if they were above reproach.
I found it incredulously ironic: that my parents’ belief a Christian school would be different, would be less capable of cruelty, was entirely false. Perhaps, even, I would’ve been better off at an institution that did not command such spiritual refinement of its students.
After three weeks of silence and exclusion, begging my parents to allow me to skip school, and witnessing my name cruelly etched into the girls’ bathroom, I arrived at what I didn’t know to be my final day at school there.
As I reached for my backpack in the trunk of my father’s car, morose at returning to my ghost land, he pulled me into a hug.
“Do you want to move?”
I looked up at him, knowing the place I had spent my entire childhood would soon be just a part of my past, and nodded.
Five years and three schools later, I found myself on various podiums all over the city speaking out about my experience with bullying as an intern for the Anti-Defamation League. I spoke at press conferences, bright lights angled in my face, more microphones than I could count waiting to pick up every syllable I uttered. I visited radio and news stations, where my name lit up TV screens above the phrase “bullying victim.”
Elementary and middle school students were pulled out of class for special assemblies to hear me speak, but I would never be any more popular than I had been at age 10.
I drifted through junior high in a trance, waiting to be old enough to let it all go. But considering Kate, Charlotte, and I all moved to the same public high school, I was never able to leave it behind.
Knowing it was too late to stand up for myself, too late to rehash all that had happened between us, I turned within myself and stayed there.
Eleven years after I saw that smile, I am reclusive, abhorrent of anything trendy or popular, maintain incredibly high expectations for those I call "friend," and rarely trust a person who does not share my last name.
In other words, I’m really good at being alone.
I still think of my 10-year-old self in that ridiculous uniform, curls untamed, gap-toothed, much too eager to share her Fruit Roll-Ups at the lunch table in order to belong. And as strange as it sounds, I am to this day defensive of her and all she represents, fiercely protective of that easy trust, the all-encompassing hope of children.
Like I said, I’m quieter than most. I don’t like crowds. Women my own age give me anxiety, most of my friends included. But if I could talk to Charlotte now, at the ages we were back then, I would say: “You can have her. I won’t fight you. It isn’t worth all of this.”
But the three of us are scattered across the country, burrowed into adulthood, strangers in every way. The last I heard, the two of them still keep in touch, what happened at our Christian private school never spoken of out loud, most especially my name.
I am nearly 21, and everything I do is in defense of who I was. But what neither of them knows is that I’ve never been silent, and for the sake of who I am, I never will be.