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What our classmates didn’t know.

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I’m reposting this story today in celebration of a guilty verdict. It was originally published on May 29, 2012 at community-building.org. 

Jolie sat on a blue picnic table outside our school cafeteria, soaking in the sun in her pleather pants and snug purple top. She wore tall, black platform boots, I think.

Whatever she wore, it was proof of everything they said about her.

We — my friend group du jour (friends have never been my strong suit) — ate lunch on the bridge nearby. I stood next to Mark*, my new best friend, who had dated Jolie from middle school until earlier that year. She used to stand where I now stood, her “in” status in the social circle as tenuous as mine. And now that I stood there, I needed to fit in.

When Jolie and Mark split, everybody sided with him. When her name came up during lunch, everybody had something to say about her, and given the pleather and all, I figured it was all probably true.

She was definitely weird.

Proof: The year before, somebody had posted anonymous letters on our AP English class online forum, signed “OuTsIdEr LoOkInG iN.” In her poems, OuTsIdEr damned us all. She describing her lonely world — not fitting in, being judged for being different.

Jolie sat in the row ahead of me, right at the front of the class. We burned twenty holes in the back of her crimped hair. We were indignant. I wasn’t a super cruel person in high school, nor was I popular or rich or even happy — I had my own share of too-intense-for-high-school things to deal with — so I didn’t feel like she was talking to me. What had I ever done to her?

We all pretended we had no idea who OuTsIdEr could be. She was just crying out for attention, we concluded, and we moved on to Lord of the Flies.

Senior year, Jolie and I both made the alto section of our school’s A Cappella choir. Let’s put it this way: She projected. As such, she was moved to the back row, where I stood (I also, um, projected), and we made uncomfortable conversation between run-throughs.

In the Spring, I invited her to go to church with me (which is different from being friends, because it means  you’re trying to save someone’s soul), and she came, probably because people didn’t ask her to do stuff very often.

Somewhere in between learning the Second Alto part for the Spring concert and riding together in her purple sedan to youth group, I learned a few things about her that nobody had bothered to mention on the bridge at lunch.

Her house, at the gateway to our neatly-groomed suburban town, didn’t look like mine. It was dirty and small on the inside, with ratty carpets and dishes piled up in the kitchen. Her mother had leathery skin and cursed with a raspy voice. Her twin siblings ran around with hair poking out in every direction. Spaghetti dinner was served on plastic Mickey Mouse plates. Her stepfather was nowhere to be found.

Listening to Oasis in her bedroom, which was plastered with every Oasis poster ever printed, she told me about her biological father, who had become a vegetable after a motorcycle accident and was kind of an asshole anyway.

My dad was kind of an asshole, too, I said, so I understood. Since my parents had split, he’d kind of gone MIA and only ever bought pasta, yogurt and Cheez-Its when he went grocery shopping. I didn’t even like yogurt.

What did your dad do? I asked.

After my parents split, when I was a baby, he stole me and hid me out of state, she said.

Oh.

I asked about Mark.

We got pregnant, she said, and I had an abortion. He didn’t want me to, but he didn’t really want a kid at seventeen, either. Now he won’t talk to me.

Oh.

I think I stopped asking about stuff after that, but I eventually learned that her stepfather gambled, her mother didn’t work and her grandparents owned the disheveled house. When she’d come home after work at Jack in the Box, sometimes the electricity was shut off. She payed for her own choir trips and school fees with Jack in the Box money.

Just before the end of Senior year, Jolie came over with smudged mascara glistening through her glasses. She had told the school counselor something and she couldn’t stay at home anymore. It had taken four years for her to speak up; she hadn’t thought anyone would believe her. There was a warrant out for her stepfather’s arrest and her mother was so mad. Not at him, for what he’d done, but at her, for telling.

We pushed two twin beds together in my room and stayed up late talking. My father and my new stepmom said of course she could stay.

We cut class together on Senior Ditch Day, except we didn’t go to the pool with everyone else; we went to Lake Tahoe instead. We went to prom in the neighboring city with her new boyfriend — whom she had met at church — and his friends.

We giggled in choir, and I ignored everyone who was now looking very nervous when I talked to them. We were late to our own graduation, our hair still wet from an afternoon at the lake.

At the restaurant before the ceremony, her mother announced she had superglued in her fake tooth for the occasion. My mother sent back her Bloody Mary because it was too salty.

We caught air in the purple sedan going 55 over bumps on the way to the school, arriving the gymnasium just in time to thrown on our gowns and walk. We laughed the whole night.

Jolie’s stepfather made national news this month when the U.S. Marshalls finally tracked him down in New Jersey, where he’d stayed under the radar for ten years.

I hadn’t kept in touch after college. She became more involved in church and I stopped going at all. She got married and I didn’t. She got a “real job” and bought a house — things I never got around to doing.

When I saw the news — Jolie telling her story on TV in our hometown — I sat in my bedroom crying. Out of relief for her, mostly, regret that I had let small things interfere with our ability to support one another, and a rush of the pain knew she’d endured each day that she waited for justice.

Ten years ago, I filled an entire page with a pink glitter gel pen in Jolie’s senior year book. To close, I wrote, “Ten years from now, we’ll probably see each other and pick up right where we left off.”

Jolie and I saw each other for the first time in two years last month, and it was like we hadn’t missed a day (except that we had tons to catch up on, so we stayed up into the wee hours of the morning drinking wine and talking).

I had come home with a mission — to visit the places where we had grown up — and I asked her to come with me.

First thing Saturday morning, we went by the elementary school. Nothing, not even the crusty old pale yellow tether balls, had changed since we left. We recalled being in next-door classes in fourth and fifth grade and posed for a picture on the United States map still painted on the blacktop. I remember the drinking fountain being a lot taller.

We grabbed coffee at what used to be the town’s one grocery store, where we used to walk to after school.

When we arrived at the high school, Jolie tensed. We took a photo outside the choir room, making exaggerated singing gestures for the the camera, then walked toward the cafeteria, across the bridge.

Jolie stopped on the bridge and I lifted my camera to snap a photo. Through the lens, I saw that she was crying. I brushed back her bangs to wipe the black streak emerging from the corner of her eye.

Committed to the potential cathartic value of the experience, we trudged on to complete our tour — but it wasn’t one of reminiscing about first kisses and that time when the quarterback got in a fight with that dorky kid in the quad. (This is what I imagine other kids remember about high school, but maybe we were all quietly trying to make sense of bigger things.) We peered through the window of the library where she would hide for lunch, making friends with the librarian instead of the other kids; the classroom where OuTsIdEr sat staring straight ahead with her hair in flames.

We finally mustered smiles for a picture when we both raised a middle finger in front of the school mascot, a yellow and blue Trojan sprawled across the Administrative Office wall.

Then we ate really big cheeseburgers.

Our ten-year high school reunion was this last weekend. Jolie posted this on wall for the reunion’s Facebook event:

Over the past few months I have pondered how I can convey my anxiety for the event upon us tomorrow. I want so much to see many people and reconnect and get past the bad memories I have from my childhood but I also don’t want to be superficial and just pretend that everything is ok.

…I have described to many people that for me growing up in El Dorado Hills was extremely difficult. I was the poor kid in a rich neighborhood. When I came to Brooks in 4th grade I wore Salvation Army prairie dresses and spandex shorts while my peers were wearing Abercrombie & Fitch. I would come home to lights and water turned off because the bills weren’t paid. In high school my mom drove me to school in a car with an A-Trak while many of my peers were being driven to school in BMWs. On top of that my home life was difficult consisting of physical and emotional abuse and parents with gambling, alcohol, and drug addictions.

Some of you may remember the “OuTsIdEr LoOkInG iN”: a series of poems and writings I placed “anonymously” on the Carr webpage we had for our English classes sophmore year. In them I wrote of my feelings of being ostracized by my peers and the world. I remember sitting in class saddened that no one had empathy for that poor girl and instead called her names… and most didn’t even know who she was. I was broken and hurting and wanted so much to be accepted and loved… by someone… anyone… my family… my peers.

…I know now that none of us were equipped with the skills it took to truly be supportive of a person going through what I went through as a kid. I’m not mad at anyone and quite honestly I am ready to see people again. I am in a good place in my life now and look forward to the opportunity to face my childhood fears and connect with the many genuinely nice people we have in our class.

A number of our former classmates responded, most of them generously. One comment stands out: “I remember doing laundry with you at the laundromat because I didn’t have a washer and dryer and you were nice enough to keep me company,” wrote a girl whose friendship we found in the Alto section during spring of Senior year.

Through her compassion, and the story she bravely shares, Jolie has given a voice to other women suffering privately — we both know women who only spoke out about their own abuse after hearing her story. She has challenged the people around her, including me, to think twice before dismissing someone who does not fit the mold.

The trial begins in the fall. When Jolie stands to testify against her stepfather, I will be there. Even if she wears pleather pants, I won’t believe anything he says about her — and neither will anyone else.

Authors: Rachel from Rentbestcars.com

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