High school was pretty much like this huge party I wasn’t actually invited to, but I still had to show up to every day. Awkward much? Have you ever had one of those days when from the second you woke up you just knew everything was going to go wrong? Yeah, that was every single day of my life during freshman year at Hamilton High. I wish I could tell you I was exaggerating. I wish this was a case of me being the “ugly girl” in a teen movie who wears glasses and overalls and has her hair in a ponytail, but as soon as she changes her clothes, takes off her glasses and lets her hair down—OMG, she’s gorgeous, how did we not see it before?
Yeah, that’s not me.
I’ve always been one of the Invisibles. I’m not a misfit. (Although admittedly I did go through a goth phase—and still have the tiny hole in my nose to prove it. Unfortunately.) I can put an outfit together without getting laughed at when I roam the halls among the fashionistas (the girls who wouldn’t be caught dead in last season’s clothes) and the trashionistas (the girls who majorly slut it up). My clothes are cute enough to keep me from hating myself when I catch my reflection, but nothing so great that anyone ever says, “Where did you get that?”
When it came to me and my friends, we were invisible enough not to matter in the grand scheme of the high school hierarchy, but not enough to escape the ridicule of the cool kids when they did happen upon us. More important, this was the inspiration for a comic strip character I’d been working on for at least a year—Abby Invisible, the New Kid at School. I’d been scoffed at by haters and called every name in the book at one time or another. (Well … maybe every name except “popular.”) I had plenty of material.
I guess that’s the trade-off for having grown up relatively well-adjusted with two parents who loved me. Because if you put your ear up really close to the girls who are extra mean, you can actually hear their daddy issues. Oh, what a difference a hug would have made. (Except for the girls who got too much hugging from their daddies, but that’s a whole other issue.)
My mom said I’d ultimately find my “groove” at my new school. Oh, yeah, I guess I left that part out: That’s how it really started. My parents announced that we were moving across the country. The move and packing for it was what led to me finding the diary … which is what led to everything else.
I was freaking out about the move. My mom was trying to spin it, to get me excited about having a fresh start—but show me one kid in the history of high school who’s overjoyed to hear she has to move and switch schools, and I’ll show you a leprechaun eating calorie-free chocolate cake while riding a unicorn. Mom said things would be different at my new school. I’d “make new friends” and “find my Jake Ryan.” I don’t know if he’s some guy she dated before she married my dad or what, but a) I liked the friends I had, and b) whoever this Jake Ryan is, he has two first names and I never trust a guy with two first names. (I’m looking at you, Kevin James.) She’s a total optimist, my mom. If life hands her lemons, she’s not just making lemonade—she’s gonna turn her lemonade business into an empire.
My dad’s more of a realist. He’d tell me things like “Always follow your head and not your heart. Hearts tend to be idiots.” I’ve always loved that about my dad. There’s way too much encouragement from parents in today’s world, and most people could use some honest criticism. If parents praise every single idiotic thing their children do, how will kids learn what they’re good at? What will make them want to try harder? Think about it. Every time you lie to your kid and tell her that some dumb thing she did is “great,” you’re potentially creating the next Ke$ha. Half the songs on the radio these days sound like I did when I was eleven years old, singing into a fan.
I respect my dad for his honesty and pragmatism. That said, telling a teenager not to follow her heart is like telling a dog to meow instead of bark. It’s, like, physiologically impossible. How else are we supposed to relate to sappy songs on the radio and make the mistakes that shape us? (Although if mistakes are supposed to shape you, which is what I hear, by this point I should be in much better shape—like forget six-pack abs, I should have a solid eight-pack.)
You know that saying “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”? Well, in high school, your own worst enemy is often yourself … which makes sense, because when all is said and done and you’ve screwed up enough times and you have no friends left, the only friend you have left is you. And you have to count on yourself to get it together and make better decisions and become a better person. Or at least a better person than you were yesterday. That is, of course, until you screw it up again in some spectacular new way tomorrow.
It was my last week in Westchester and I was already feeling nostalgic. The cerulean blue lockers lining the corridors, the clusters of cliques with girls shooting sideways glances to make sure the target du jour of the current “breaking” gossip wasn’t nearby, the paired-off boyfriends and girlfriends who’d completely forgotten what it was like to roam the halls alone, BC (Before Coupling).
My friend Amy cruised up to me with a huge smile, like we were in on some secret, but I had no idea what the secret was or why she was grinning like a crazy person.
“Like my necklace?”
I looked at her neck and saw a cool metal chain with one of those friendship hearts made of brass. Of course, only half of the heart dangled from the chain. The other half was to be worn by her “best friend.” As I looked closer I saw her heart had engraved on it:
“Very cool,” I said, with equal parts hope and sadness, hope stemming from the idea that the other half was for me, sadness from the worry that she got the necklace with someone else. And why not? I was leaving, after all. I’m not the smartest investment to make at this point.
So I was flooded with relief when Amy held out her fist and opened her hand, palm up, to reveal the other half:
Oh, that’s my girl. Seriously, that warmed the cockles of my heart. And I’m not even sure what cockles are. (Though they sound kinda dirty, huh? Amy made my cockles warm.)
“Really?” I exclaimed. “For me?”
“Doy,” she said, making the idiot face that went with all variations of “duh,” “doy” and a great many other utterances of that ilk.
“I love it,” I said. “It’s so cool.”
“Well, we’re cool like that,” she said. “So don’t forget about me when you’re busy hanging out with, like, Demi Lovato or whoever in fancy LA.”
“Yeah, right,” I said with an eye roll so big you could probably hear it.
Just then, my art teacher stopped me in the hall. Amy tossed me a “catch ya later” and went on her way. She’d never been one for fraternizing with teachers, but here’s where Amy should have made an exception: Lana was very different from most teachers. Lana insisted we call her by her first name. She usually wore combat boots and long skirts paired with long-sleeve thermal shirts. She definitely had her own sense of style, and everyone thought she was a cool teacher. But she was more than that to me. She was the first person who really encouraged my artistic talents—so much so that I would eat lunch in her classroom at least a couple of times a week. I’d work on my art projects and she’d tell me about her husband, who was an art director for music videos, and I’d secretly hoped one day he’d show up when I was there so I could ask him if he’d ever met Gwen or Rihanna or Nicki Minaj. Part of me believed I was spending lunches with Lana because it gave me more time to work on my art … but the rest of me knew it was because the school cafeteria was a battleground—who sits with whom, who’s judging whose eating habits, who fits into what clique and who is a total outcast—and this was a prime opportunity to avoid it.
“I have to tell you,” Lana said with the proud smile usually reserved for a parent, “your caricature the other day was truly spectacular.”
“Thanks,” I said, staring at my shoes, because I was never very good at accepting compliments. There was a spot on my left sneaker. I squinted at it as if I had the power to will it away with a dirty look.
“I mean it, Hailey. I know high school is the time to get caught up in clothes and boys and parties, but you are so talented. I don’t want you to lose focus when you move.”
“I won’t. Believe me, you’ve got nothing to worry about. I don’t get invited to parties.”
“There’s the spirit,” she teased, then changed her tone. “Things will turn around for you at your new school. These are confusing times for sure … but interspersed there are wonderful experiences to be had.”
“So they say … whoever ‘they’ are. The people who believe that youth is wasted on the young, I guess.”
“I don’t know if youth is wasted on the young, but fitting into kid-size jeans certainly is.”
And that’s why she was my favorite teacher—smart and funny.
“You’re just so gifted, Hailey,” Lana went on. “I can really see this art thing working out for you—and you know I’m loath to ever tell someone they actually should be an artist.”
“I hope you’re right,” I said.
“Do me a favor?”
“I feel like sometimes you hold yourself back.”
“I do?” I asked. “I don’t mean to.”
But did I? I wondered. I kinda thought I was pretty up-front with my thoughts and feelings. If I had a nickel for every time someone sarcastically said, “Tell me how you really feel,” after some very honest (and perhaps not very nice) thing I’d said, I’d probably have a lot of nickels … which, if we’re being honest—who wants a bunch of nickels? My dad always said it, too: “If I had a nickel for every time blah blah blah…” and I’d think, How about a dollar for every time? I mean, times have changed, people. Inflation!
“You might not even be aware of it,” she said with a reassuring smile. “Just don’t be afraid to explore your emotions through your art—especially when you’re frustrated or confused or if your move is difficult for you. There’s no safer place to express yourself than in your art.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll try.”
“Good. And I’ll try to forget that I saw you in the hall when you’re supposed to be in second period.”
With a smirk and a wink, she spun on her scuffed boots and walked away.
There is no way the art teacher at my new school is gonna be this cool, I thought.
And with that, my mind was off and running, rewriting history, making mental excuses about the good things at Hamilton—the way you do with a boyfriend who treats you like crap, but since he’s the captain of the football team, you don’t want to break up with him. (Not that I’d know what that’s like; besides kissing Nick Foster during a game of truth or dare, or making out with Danny O’Connell in a closet during a similar party game, I haven’t even ever kissed anyone without an audience or the option to instead answer a humiliating question. I’ve never had a boyfriend.)
But just as I started to feel sad about the move and leaving everything I knew behind, reality showed up and slapped me in the face. It wasn’t the bell ringing to signal the end of second period and the rush of students trying to get to their next class. It was Jemma Gray: queen bitch of my grade.
As I tried to slide past her, the cobra adorned in J Brand jeans struck.
“Why do you wear boys’ underwear?”
Just keep walking, said the voice in my head. I really need to start listening to that sucker.
I stopped, utterly perplexed. “What?”
“Boys’ underwear,” Jemma repeated pointedly, projecting to the cheap seats like she was playing Madison Square Garden. “Why do you wear them? Are you, like, confused about whether you’re a boy or a girl? Do you find them more comfortable? Did you lose a bet?”
You’re deluded. Bite me.
That’s what the brain said. The mouth part chickened out.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Oh my God, why are you such a liar?!” she said, a crowd gathering now. I was Frankenstein’s monster, surrounded by villagers with torches, who all wanted to know why the Creature wore guys’ tighty-whities.
Focus. Just deny it. Forcefully. Stand up for yourself and move on.
“Jemma, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I don’t wear boys’ underwear.”
A million things went through my mind in the next few moments, and I’d replay all of them over and over for the next week. Why is this girl such a bitch? What the hell is she talking about? Is that mole on her face leaking nonsense into her brain?
Hell with it, I thought, just prove her wrong. That’ll teach her.
Before I could think better of it, I popped the button on my jeans, unzipped and flashed just a little bit of my undies for Jemma. Turquoise Hanky Panky lace underwear: definitely not for boys. Quite fashionable, in fact.
There you go, bitch. The More You Know.
And then there was a brief flash of light. Actually, two flashes: One appeared in the corner of my eye, the flash from an iPhone camera. The other seemed to come from above my head, a lightbulb appearing as if I were a cartoon character who just figured something out, just like the mouse who took its first and last bite into a hunk of cheese before the lever on the mousetrap swung down and snapped its neck.
It only took seconds. As soon as my Hanky Panky panties saw the light of day, Sasha Hendricks—Jemma’s “number two”—snapped a picture with her iPhone. As I’d learn just a few minutes later, she immediately uploaded it to Facebook and Instagram and tagged me with the caption:
“OMFG! Weirdo Hailey Harper flashes everyone in the hallway between second and third period.”
Sixty seconds earlier, I was just considered a loser and outcast within the halls of this school, which was bad enough. Now I was instantly the Freshman Flasher Freak of Facebook.
I zipped and ran from the sounds of laughter, and it didn’t seem to diminish even after I was long gone. My face flushed at the realization I might never escape this sort of humiliation.
I was no stranger to taunting. I’d always felt like school itself was a test and I’d somehow wound up in the wrong classroom. I immediately flashed back to an incident in seventh grade when I was washing my hands in the girls’ bathroom:
Sandy Carson was putting on bubble-gum lip gloss while Jessica Landen and Mia Quong were pinching their thighs.
“I just pray they never touch each other,” Jessica said.
“Mine won’t,” Mia answered. “Asians are always skinny.”
“Unless they’re fat ones.”
“It’s rare,” Mia declared. “Especially in Asian countries.”
“What about sumo wrestlers?”
“That’s rare! Plus, they’re Japanese!” Mia exclaimed. “I’m Chinese! I’ve told you a million times!”
“Oh, whatever,” Jessica said. “Nobody said you’re Japanese! But you’re right. Most are pretty skinny. God, I wish I was Asian.”
Sandy rolled her crystal-blue eyes at the dippy duo, and then turned her gaze to me. I thought maybe we were having a moment. Not like a romantic moment, but like we both realized the conversation was pretty silly. Sandy had never really spoken to me, and it was already the third week of school.
“Hailey, right?” Sandy said.
“Yup,” I answered, perhaps a little too excitedly. “That’s me.”
Definitely didn’t need to add that part …
She continued, “So we’ve been wondering … Do you, like, not wear any makeup because your parents won’t let you? Or is it because you think you’re so pretty that you don’t need it?”
The pit I felt in my stomach was confusion, coupled with hurt, tied up in a nice big red ribbon of shame. I hadn’t even considered makeup prior to this conversation. Nobody wore it in grade school, and, yes, this was technically middle school now, and we all jumped up a category in the age groupings, but there was no handbook. Were you supposed to wear makeup in seventh grade?
My mouth opened, but nothing came out. I didn’t know what the right answer was. I mean, obviously I didn’t think I was especially pretty, but my parents hadn’t forbidden me to wear makeup either—we’d just never talked about it.
Mia and Jessica erupted in laughter and I willed my eyes away from the mirror so I wouldn’t see the crimson shade of red I was turning.
“Well, let me just put it this way,” Sandy said. “You’re not so pretty that you don’t need makeup. So if your parents don’t have a problem with it … you should consider running—not walking—to the nearest makeup aisle at Walmart.”
The first tear to sneak out of my left eye was considerate enough to wait until they were out of sight. I stayed in the bathroom and cried for twenty minutes. That was a luxury I would only be able to afford for the next twenty-four hours, because the magical world of mascara was about to be introduced into my life—and crying with mascara on is definitely not worth the extra pain and suffering it causes (as I’d soon learn).
I took a minute to examine myself in the mirror. Was I really so unfortunate looking that I deserved this kind of attack? I mean, I was normal. I wasn’t a stick-skinny girl with fake boobs (which I think looks ridiculous by the way), my boobs were proportionate to my body and my nose was fine. In fact, I rather liked my nose. It was smallish and maybe curved up a tiny bit at the tip but not so you could look up my nose or anything. I had dark, dark brown eyes and dark brown hair, very fair skin and freckles that crossed the bridge of my nose. I was average height for my age, I thought. I don’t know when you stop growing but I was five foot six. Maybe I could even be considered tall?
But not in that moment. As I stood there in the bathroom after being humiliated by Sandy Carson, I felt like the smallest person in the world. Ugly, uninformed, and completely lost in a world where superficial bitches reigned supreme. Apparently.
The next day I showed up to school looking like a confident, empowered, mature, dynamic, completely self-actualized …
That’s right, I’d taken all of my allowance and bought foundation (the wrong shade), lipstick (Hooker Red, naturally), blush (more like Moulin Rouge Regret), mascara (who knew you could look like you had spiders living in and around your eye sockets), eyeliner (hi, raccoon—I think we share a grandparent), and powder (to seal it all in like an embalmer).
On an attractiveness scale of one to ten, I ranked somewhere between zero and your average made-up corpse. Six weeks after the wake.
I didn’t even make it to first period before getting my marching orders: straight to the principal’s office to explain why I thought it was appropriate to look like a clown on steroids. From there, I was questioned about my homelife and whether there had been any recent “emotionally traumatic” events; once this Law & Order SVU–type questioning had determined that nothing drastic had triggered this “acting out,” I was ordered to the bathroom to wash my face.
Of course I couldn’t have just made it to the bathroom in solitude. I passed right by Sandy and the girls on my way there. And of course they laughed at me, even though I kept my head down and avoided eye contact. And of course Sandy shouted after me, “OMG, your head and neck are two completely different colors!”
What I thought:
This is all your fault, you evil bitch.
What I said:
I raced to the bathroom before my tears could make the Twister game that was my face degrade completely into the look of a notorious crime scene. I desperately just wanted to get this shameful crap off my stupid big fat head—who the hell did I think I was anyway—but without any makeup remover, using the awful detergent-like soap in the bathroom, it took forever to clean it away. It felt like I’d laid it on an inch thick, and I rubbed so hard and so fast, desperate to remove it all before someone entered the bathroom to ridicule me further. By the time it was all clean, my face was red and raw, puffy and swollen. Which led me to start crying harder than ever. And when I was all cried out, I swore to myself I’d never make a mistake like that again.
Everything in moderation, I told myself. (To which I’d later add including moderation.) Also, I realized, whatever your knee-jerk reaction is when something hits you down where it counts, you’re probably better off doing the exact opposite.
So, yeah. The respect and admiration of the popular crowd was as alien to me as self-respect and perspective is to the Real Housewives of Anywhere Ever. And this Facebook fiasco was only the latest in a string of unfortunate experiences collectively known as “my existence.”
Of course I could untag myself later, at least on Facebook, but the damage was done. Two things were certain: I would not miss Jemma, and I would not miss Hamilton High.
Copyright © 2013 by Caprice Crane