I used to hide behind trees and watch the other children play. I’d observe friends laughing and skipping, running around the playground and wonder–where could I get one of those? I wanted things to be like in books and on TV, where everyone had that one special friend who knew them inside out.
I’d drift from group to group, looking for a place that had a me-size hole but I never really found anything. When it became painfully obvious I didn’t fit in, I moved on. Sometimes to pester my little brother and his friends, because, he was my brother and he had to play with me.
I have a lot of memories of building sandcastles on my own, wandering the school yard, and being told off for trying to walk and read at the same time. There was a little spot in the library that became my favourite, curled up under the fire extinguisher in a tiny alcove that housed the W-Z books. Authors with surnames starting with W/X/Y/Z became my favourite, they became synonymous with this safe and solitary place I’d made for myself.
Books were a double-edged sword though. The Babysitter’s Club especially (in spite of the first few chapters that were almost identical repetitions of the same information depending on the leading character, and I skipped these pages) hammered hard the importance of friendship groups in life. I wanted one, I wanted it so bad I dreamed about it.
I’d always wanted a close friend. A twin, preferably. For pillow fights and staying up telling stories. It was the driving force behind my demand for a sister (who was a very disappointing lump of screaming flesh when she arrived, not at all what five-year-old me was hoping for). At eight years old, I still hadn’t managed to secure this all-important best friend thing.
Somehow, something was different about me. Something other kids saw and avoided. I was terrible at sport, and too good in class. I got on with adults best. I thought that cats were (still are, fight me) the most majestic creatures and I devoured information on them. I collected hundreds of cat ornaments with the help of family. I could spend hours arranging them across the table by height or colour, or what ones I liked best on a particular day.
Cats were the key, I decided one day. An aunty had given me a packet of cat stickers that I’d been hoarding (I’m always afraid if I use something up, I’ll have a better use for it later and regret it) for a special occasion. I couldn’t think of any better reason. There was a girl in my class who was bright, funny, popular.. and most importantly, she loved cats. There was a starting point here.
So I opened the pack of stickers, and removed one sheet. One for her, one for me. Hers I put into an envelope and wrote her name on it in the best, neatest handwriting I could manage. We were in the same class, and my handwriting was infamously horrible. My pen license had been revoked three times. My sheet of stickers went back into my drawer for safe keeping, where my sister later found them and stuck them all over the wardrobe door.
I’d so cleverly disguised my writing that she didn’t know it was me. I held onto the secret, afraid that if she knew, I’d be ridiculed. I didn’t know why–I never knew why–other kids avoided being around me longer than a lunchtime. I’d put sincere effort into this. I was afraid of rejection. I was afraid that like the older kids, who actively called me names by now, she would reveal a disgust with me that I’d then have to face every day in class.
I don’t remember why I confessed. I just remember doing it. She was surprised. Delighted. We talked about cats, and I was invited to gather with her friends. I thought I’d ‘made it’ finally, and I’m pretty sure my parents and teachers alike breathed a huge sigh of relief when I managed this sort of normality.
There was a pretense of protection there. One of the main antagonists in my life was my new friend’s cousin, and with so many other girls around I believed I was safer and more secure. More accepted. Some days I was.
None of this was miserable for me–not even the periods of loneliness while I tried to find my place, it was my normal. I wanted to fix it, but it wasn’t unpleasant all the time. I had three siblings I could boss about, and older cousins that I considered good friends. Being bullied by older kids was less than fun, but again–it came with a sense of normalcy that bothers me now more than it did then.
The group was large, and there was a pecking order. I was always at the bottom, but I never saw it as a slight. I was happy just to be part of things. When they tied knots in my hair, telling me they were ‘braiding’ it, I believed. When, for the duration of an entire day, they pretended they couldn’t see me, I started to believe I actually was invisible.
What I struggled to believe was that these girls, who I adored and wanted to be like, would betray my trust.
There were upsides and there were good times, too–I stopped focusing as much on classwork and interacted more with my new friends. I spent an entire afternoon ignoring the maths work I was supposed to be doing, and joining with a friend as we telepathically tried to encourage a storm to start. We didn’t want to go out and play sport that afternoon. By fluke, the rain came just in time.
I went to parties and joined netball teams, and agreed with the things they did, disagreed with the things they didn’t. I was always easily swayed by strong opinions. I changed my football team because I didn’t want to be ‘wrong’. Essendon was overrated. I had legitimate fun, and discovered interests I wouldn’t have otherwise. I don’t regret any of it. I repeated a year of school to ’emotionally and socially catch up’, which changed my world. No longer was I in the same grade as older kids who taunted me, I was now in the same grade as these new friends.
A year or so later, I moved schools just before the start of fourth term. The idea was to get a head start settling in before my final year of primary school, and I knew it would be far more manageable in the mornings and afternoons. The new school was closer. Plus, their Grade 5/6 camp was to Canberra. Canberra!
Two weeks into the new term, I was… as you would expect. Drifting in a sea of new people at school, and desperately calling my old friends when I got home. They tolerated it for a while, until one afternoon I finally got told: ‘Stop calling, we were only friends with you because we felt sorry for you’.
I don’t remember if I ever called again. I do remember crying for hours.
I was awkward and shy at the new school. I talked too much when I should have shut up, I beat a grade six boy out of his prized ‘best at maths’ title. I answered teacher’s questions and read the sorts of books that only ‘good readers’ could read. I was simultaneously a show off and shy, no matter which way I went it didn’t endear me to the others at all.
Children have a sixth sense for oddness. Difference. The older they get, the keener it is, and they can’t put words to it. Just mistrust and avoidance. You’re weird, I don’t like that. I didn’t know how I was weird, and I promised myself every day that I would find out, I would fix it, and then I wouldn’t be a bother. People would like me.
Some people did. Kids who had to sit beside me in class got to know me better. I’ve always been creative, curious, and quirky. Those are fun things! But playground structure meant that, even though one girl swore to the moon and back that we were best friends for life–we weren’t allowed to be seen spending time together. She was strict on that.
So I drifted, and looked forward to after-school visits and sleep overs. Spice Girls and telling each other stories, dropping plastic bottles of water from the treehouse until they split on the concrete. Good, happy memories.
When I graduated primary school, I made myself one promise: I wouldn’t let that happen again. I would have friends I could spend time with in class and at lunch. I would be what I had to be, do what I had to do, and I would be like the others so that I could be part of it all. I would succeed, this time. Changing primary schools hadn’t given me that chance, but twelve-year-old me was determined. High school would be it.
And it was. But in a very different way.
I found friends that not only wanted me around (genuinely!), they still do (suckers). They wanted me to be me. I found people who wanted to bounce ever-increasingly weird hypotheticals off each other, and who didn’t roll their eyes when I got answers right in class. They asked for help. They gave me help.
I don’t hold a grudge against the ones I knew before. Kids are kids, and I was a weak target. I can’t ignore the good that I got out of it. I choose to be thankful for it, and for the lessons I learned the hard way. A good many of those girls are adults that I can now have a great conversation with. They had their own demons to rise above.
This was my story. If I could go back? Sure, I’d like a happier story. But I’d be a different person, without a lot of the things I have now.
And what I have now is pretty awesome indeed.