As I Am.
“I wish they would only take me as I am”
— Vincent Van Gogh
When I was 12, my four closest friends decided to stop talking to me. No seat on the bus. No spot in the cafeteria. No lab partner. Last pick in gym class. The whole shebang.
The reasons aren’t important. What reasons do tween girls really have for doing this kind of thing? It’s built into seventh grade wiring, but at the time I believed I was a loser- and these girls were Goddesses of Truth or some ridiculous thing such as that.
I clung to bits of attention granted to me until my Freshman year of high school when I met Nicole. She sat next to me in Earth Science, and I grew fond of her sharp tongue, and inclination to protect her friends. She loved me exactly as I was, and I became fiercely loyal.
We were partners in crime for 2 years, and grew apart as quickly as we had grown together. I imagine it was because of our vastly different upbringings- while I picked out a prom dress, she had her first child. I went off to college, she worked sixty hour weeks. I learned how to make jello shots, she learned how to mow grass. You get the idea.
By the time we came together again in 2007 she had 4 children and was trapped in an abusive marriage- doomed to repeat the same dysfunctional parenting habits of her own mother and father. I presume out of desperation, she threw a wrench in the wheel by having an affair with her best friend’s husband. She moved out of her house and in with her mother. She crumbled while she said goodbye to her children- while her parents and siblings branded her an unfit mother and whore.
Hardly able to stand idly by, I jumped cliff without a parachute and asked her to move in with me for a little while. I imagine I was as shocked to be offering as she was in accepting. Her son stayed with his grandmother and she reluctantly packed one garbage bag that very night. I’ll never forget the look on her face as she dumped the Hefty sack into the middle of my spare bedroom floor. Truly I don’t know what I was thinking. We were in entirely different worlds by this point.
I had work cut out for me. Nicole hadn’t worked in nearly 6 years, and the first job she felt inclined to take was cocktail-ing at Christie’s. As in Cabaret. Our first all out battle was over her refusal to take the city bus to a hostessing interview I set up for her.
She shrieked at me and I will never forget:
“You have no fucking idea how scared I am!”
That was when I got it. Nicole was tired of being told she was a loser. That she was trash. Getting rejected by her children, husband, parents and siblings was enough. Let’s not add ‘rest of the world’ to the list as well.
Everything changed for me after that. I swore to let Nicole be herself. I bit my tongue bloody as she plowed through bad choice after bad choice-nodding my head and loving her as best I could while she chain-smoked on my balcony and sobbed into her cell phone until 3 am each night.
But somewhere in the middle of the all the nodding and lip biting, Jiminy Cricket it began to work.
Over the 3 months she began to love herself again. The transformation was stealthy… until it wasn’t. Suddenly one morning I noticed she had lost 30 pounds. She worked a job at an upscale restaurant where she was loved for her hard work and humble outlook. She served her husband with divorce papers, got a car of her own, and found a job teaching preschool. Next came her own lease, then her kids moved in, and before I could blink she was moving out.
She hugged me tight that day-
“You’re the only one who sees me this way. Damn near makes me think I could have whatever I set my heart on.”
I recall crying pretty hard.
Even those outside of education have heard the ancient study about the teacher who believed half of her students were gifted, and half of them were average… when in fact they were all average. Not surprisingly the half she believed to be superior, ended up performing noticeably better than the rest of the class, tying her expectation to their performance.
I get it, I get it. You get it, you get it.
Or do we?
One of my fears on this blog is that I come across sounding pompous. I’m afraid that perhaps I forget to show you that I stink at this life thing too. Maybe Nicole’s mother called her a whore, but Lord knows I do the same kind of thing to my own students. Not literally… On a different level of course.
I’m starting to think the word “level” is a term coined by college educated people (like me) to keep from relating to those who don’t have money, education or influence to hide indecencies.
I got to play the hero in this story. Tomorrow I might be Nicole’s mother sumbitting to shame tactics while reprimanding an impossibly disrespectful third grader. Some days I wish I could run away from the Nancy Know it Alls… the teachers who terrify me with Crest White Strip smiles, and vanish behind doors to gossip, judge and backstab. Some days I terrify myself knowing full well I am just like them.
Nicole lived on her own as as a single mother for six months before succumbing to family pressure and moving back in with her ex-husband. She wouldn’t return my calls for nearly a year. Sometimes I look at her “well-intentioned family” as I look at Public Education… an entity trying to cram children into a socially acceptable pudding mold.
I told her voicemail calmly dozens of times she needn’t be ashamed. I found it impossible to be mad at her. Perhaps it’s because she was one of the first girls to love me for who I was, even when no one else seemed to. I think that’s all I’ve ever wanted in my whole life. I think that’s all any child wants.