I'm that girl from high school. The one you barely remember. She was there for a while, always lurking uncomfortably. Perpetually defiant and alone. She disappeared at some point -- sophomore year, or maybe junior -- and you didn't really notice. Later, you heard a rumor that she'd killed herself and for a couple of minutes you felt bad.
You recalled how a group clustered around her on the playground in elementary school, throwing things and taunting her with names they made up on the spot. Those names stuck through junior high: a frenetic, cruel time. She was grim in the face of most of it but grew so skeletally thin, kids got afraid to punch her or push her into the wall for fear she'd break. You were probably secretly relieved.
By ninth grade, most of the meanness had stopped but she walked through the halls like an alien just landed; no one ever spoke to her. You maybe nodded when she passed and the crowds parted to give her wide berth. She was smart so you copied answers from her tests sometimes. Other than that, she really didn't exist.
Then high school came and your days were full of athletic practices or rehearsals, worries about the prom, fights with your father over the car. When that girl slipped away entirely, it was the sound of nothing happening. It wasn't until you were maybe 30 or 35 that you even wondered about her. You have kids of your own now; they're getting ready for school. You're telling them how to behave: No hitting. You be nice to Noah's little sister. And you squirm for a moment, seeing something -- the faint image of a fist and a girl -- that you, the adult, would really rather not recall.
Not long ago, I told a close friend that I was that girl in childhood -- the one everyone in the school shoves and beats and collectively loathes. I was Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse, Carrie without the telekinesis. If I were male, I'd have been Alex Libby from the documentary Bully.
"How could I never have known this?" she asked. "How could we be friends for 12 years and you've never mentioned it before?"
I shrugged and said, "I never think about it now."
If I had one message for all those kids out there -- the ones who (perversely) can't see Bully because the actual bullying in it is so harsh and violent it's been rated R -- it would be this: I was a hopeless, miserable kid, every single day, for the first 15 years of my life. Then I escaped. And my life has been interesting and satisfying and sporadically fantastic ever since.
Now as a mother, I look back and I'm not thrilled with the method the teenage me used to get out. I left my home in the rolling hills of a wealthy suburb and moved into the poorest, darkest part of the city. Lied about my age, got a job as a waitress, rented an apartment, and eventually -- after many stupid moves that could easily have gotten me killed -- stumbled my way into a better life.
I was lucky, in that this was 1981 and you could still get away with fudging dates on a job application, a driver's license registration, and a lease. I was even luckier that I had parents who would bail me out whenever things got really bad.
So my parents knew, you ask? (Everyone does.) How could they allow me to waft around the underworld at age 15?
And I answer: How could they not?
They'd been sitting in counseling offices with me since I was nine years old. They'd brought evidence: torn clothing, gum and spit in my hair, purple marks on my back that required me to go into a stall with the school nurse and lift my shirt. But nothing ever happened. There were no rules against most of it -- kids will be kids, someone would inevitably get around to saying -- and what was off-limits, the kicking, shoving, etc., they couldn't pin on anyone in particular. Because no one would talk.
My parents had taken me to therapists, at the school's prompting, in an effort to mold me into someone who wouldn't get beaten up. That hadn't worked. They'd gone through a year during which I starved myself down to 68 pounds and required feeding by IV. They'd done what they could. They were tired.
So they lived through what must have been the most terrifying year of their lives, while I wandered through one dangerous situation after another. I lived in a building with drug dealers and prostitutes; the former were scary but I really liked the girls. I worked until midnight, serving dinner and cocktails to out-of-town businessmen at a hotel restaurant. After my shift, I hung out at smoky, neon-lit bars.
I didn't belong, exactly. But neither did anyone else. I'd left a place where the name on your jeans made all the difference and arrived in a world where the stakes were much higher. Clearer. Everyone I met was fighting to survive.
If there's one thing that saved me, it was the group of men from the restaurant who walked me to my car and took me to dance clubs and lit my cigarettes; they dyed my hair and bought me Embers omelets at 2 a.m. These waiters from the restaurant, all gay, knew the truth about me but they kept my secret -- even the dining room manager, who would have been fired if anyone found out he'd hired a kid.
Maybe because they were guys who knew what it was like to be on the outside. Most of them grew up in small Midwestern towns where jocks beat the shit out of them and their fathers kicked them out of the house for being "pansies" when they were roughly my age. They'd fled to the city, too. For a year, these men closed around me like some urban branch of the Secret Service. They protected me while I figured out who -- and what -- I was.
I emerged a brand-new girl with street smarts and stories to tell. Went to college at 16. Had an early marriage that was full of romance and drama and really pretty good until it fell apart. And quickly produced three amazing kids, just as odd and unquantifiable as I was (and I wouldn't have it any other way). I loved those kids like crazy and together we bounced around the country, committing acts of dubious judgment but great narrative value. I was remarried by 40, to a wonderful man who adores me and loves my wild progeny and we live a life so interesting and nomadic I couldn't have imagined it at 12.
And all along, I've been writing. Publishing books and essays about quirky outsiders. But I've done this under my first husband's name and the people from my high school -- the varsity captains and sorority acolytes who loved our fancy suburb and moved back immediately after college -- certainly have no idea who I am. If they even remember that girl...
The truth is, I'd forgotten them, too. Until my own daughter was in seventh grade and she came home with long, bloody scratches all over her arms. Then the phone rang 19 times in a single night and when I picked it up I heard screeches and taunts and ugly names. She was by this time -- my girl -- weeping in her bed.
That's when it all came back. I went to see the school principal once and she mentioned a seminar that would commence the following year about girl-on-girl bullying. "It's a real problem," she said. "That you plan to address next year?" I asked. And I stared the woman down, silently sympathizing with my once-powerless, law-abiding mom and dad.
The next time the phone rang mercilessly, 14, 15, 16 times on a Friday night, I pried the name of the head mean girl out of my daughter and drove, 10:27 p.m., to her house. She herself answered when I pounded on the door, a cordless phone (no shit) still in her hand. So I leaned in close to her ear and whispered, "If you ever touch or call my daughter again, I will kill you." Then I straightened my whole five-feet-plus. "Try me," I said.
The girl backed up and shut the door and I slouched guiltily back to my car. But my daughter quit coming home bloody and, like magic, the phone calls stopped.