Live Through This

Hello, My Treacherous Friends

Breaking free from frenemies.

Illustration by Cynthia

Right before third grade, my family moved from a working-class neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri, to Oak Park, Illinois, a middle-class suburb of Chicago. There were a lot of differences between my old school and my new one. In St. Louis, many of my friends and classmates received not only free lunch at school but free breakfasts too, and one of them got her clothing from the “free box” there. In Oak Park, everyone had lunch money and name-brand clothing. Since I’d never given much thought to where my clothing came from, I was teased for having generic shoes and accused of shopping at Kmart. (Much to my horror, my mom told me that she actually did shop there. Even worse, she did not understand what the problem was with that and refused to buy more-expensive clothing that I was just going to outgrow anyway.) In St. Louis, I’d been in the gifted program and everyone else in my class thought of that as a goal to attain. In Oak Park, when I joined the line of kids leaving the room to go to the gifted class, people rolled their eyes and snickered at us.

In other words, in St. Louis, I was just a kid; but in Oak Park, I was a “nerd,” a “dork,” a “lesbo” (because to my classmates that was an insult meaning someone who didn’t understand why wearing name-brand clothing was important, or just an unpopular girl), and a whole slew of other things. It didn’t help that I was the second-shortest girl in my class. (The shortest girl had it OK because she was cute and dimpled, wore the right clothing, and did gymnastics. I was awful at every sport we played in gym class. My classmates hated me because I was a Loser-with-a-capital-L and my presence on their team would mean certain failure.)

To be fair, had I stayed at my old school in St. Louis, the kids might have eventually turned mean. There are bullies everywhere, after all. I just happened to experience the double whammy of moving someplace where I was clueless about how to fit in socially and going to school with a bunch of kids who, as I would later find out through my mom, our teachers and principal labeled the cruelest and worst-behaved class in the history of the school.

I couldn’t control any of this—not that my dad found a better job and my parents decided to move or that I liked books more than sports or that my family placed value on education over shopping at the “right” stores and so as a result I was good at math but bad at everything the teen magazines said I should be good at. More likely than not, no one can really control what they are being bullied about. We can only control how we react to said bullying.

At first, since I was eight years old and utterly confused about why I didn’t fit in here the way I had at my old school, I just made friends with a fellow gifted-program “nerd” and we lived in our own little world. By fifth grade, when my nerd friend moved away, I’d started to understand the social structure at my school, and I decided I didn’t want to be at the bottom of the totem pole anymore. This meant impressing the queen bees, Liza, Brooke, and Cassie.* So for the next two years, I spent all of my allowance on clothes I didn’t even like, let Liza/Brooke/Cassie accidentally-on-purpose burn my forehead when they curled my hair, and fought with my mom constantly because she was holding me back from being “cool” by not letting me see a certain movie or go to a particular slumber party or a group outing to the expensive mall. I also allowed Liza, Brooke, and Cassie to copy my homework and pretended not to know that they were still talking behind my back and calling me and my three actual friends (who were also trying to fit in with them) “weirdos” and “lesbians,” which they knew the meaning of now, but still thought of as an insult.

I lived through fifth and sixth grade with my stomach in a knot because I didn’t know what my “friends” were going to do to me next, and I did a lot of crying in secret because I knew if I ever broke down in front of them, I would be lumped in with the girl they all made fun of for smelling like pee. (I never smelled it, but of course I said I did.) Then, the summer between sixth and seventh grades, I realized that I didn’t care what Liza, Brooke, and Cassie thought about me anymore because I didn’t even LIKE the clothes they wore or most of the music and movies they fawned over, and most of all, I didn’t like THEM.

I’m not exactly sure what caused this epiphany. Maybe it was one homophobic remark too many. Maybe it was because I babysat for this toddler whose 16-year-old sister looked like a Beetlejuice-era Winona Ryder, dressed in a completely original way, and seemed really comfortable in her own skin because of it. Maybe it was the realization that I had a lot more fun hanging out with my best friend, Juliet, and creating our own “weirdo” religion complete with a language and scrolls. (Juliet and I were also teased by the popular group because we were never baptized. Seriously.) When I was with her or my other real friends Kendra and Mia, my stomach didn’t hurt and I never felt like I was on the verge of tears—unless they were from laughter.

Juliet and I watched hours of Star Trek: The Next Generation without caring if other people called us geeks. We went shopping at the vintage store by my house, where I bought hats from the ’40s and an amazing pair of white high-heeled boots that looked like old-fashioned ice skates. I stopped listening to the Top 40 radio station that mostly gave me a headache when Juliet exposed me to Rush, Kendra got me into Nirvana, and Mia hooked me on David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails. I did gymnastics with Juliet, joined stage crew with Mia, swam with Kendra, and rollerbladed with all three of them because those were things that I enjoyed, and even though I wasn’t necessarily awesome at any of them, my friends never made fun of me, we just had fun. I embraced being smart, signed up for the honors track in junior high, and met new friends who loved to read like I did and actually got me thinking rather than mindlessly conforming.

Unlike my height, my athletic ability, my background, and all of the other things I’d been teased or bullied about over the years, I could choose how I would dress, and I chose a style that made me comfortable in my skin, like that 16-year-old neighbor girl I admired. I could control who I hung out with, and pick people who built me up and made me feel strong, silly, and smart rather than broke me down. And I could embrace all of the interests and hobbies that made me happy no matter what anyone else thought of them. I could use some of them, like my love of theater, to make more friends, and others, like my love of writing, as a way to regroup when people tried to tear me apart.

In seventh grade, when I passed Liza in the hall she would shout out insults about my shoes and whisper to her friends—the pretty girls and hot guys whose faces would fill the center page spread in our yearbook next to all the lists of who was best at everything. The summer between seventh and eighth grades, I tried out to act in Grease instead of just working behind the scenes because I’d always loved that show so much, and this gang of popular girls chased me home every day. In eighth grade, a pair of boys liked to loudly discuss how ugly I was every day in gym class. Yes, sometimes I felt like crying. Yes, sometimes I even did cry. Then I remembered that no matter what I did, there was going to be somebody trying to knock me for something they didn’t like, but as long as I liked myself I would have a strength that they couldn’t touch. ♦

* Not their real names.

31 Comments

  • Melody Pond May 10th, 2012 7:30 PM

    This sounds a lot like Elementary School… and the first semester of Freshman Year.
    It only took me nine years and meeting two of the world’s biggest (and best) Whovians and Nerdfighters to fully understand the Awesomeness of being a nerd, and actually being comfortable with it. (DFTBA!!)

    • cherrycola27 May 11th, 2012 1:12 AM

      That’s awesome, I’m glad you found a place to fit in. DFTBA!

      • Chloe Elizabeth May 14th, 2012 3:51 PM

        Oh goodness… I want you two as my best friends. That’s not weird, right?

        I go to a really small school with positively zero people who know a) Dr. Who or B) Vlogbrothers; two of my largest obsessions of the moment.

        I said “Allons-y!” the other day when I wanted people in front of me in the hall to move… the just turned and stared at me. Sigh. Dftba!

  • scrivenerserror May 10th, 2012 7:43 PM

    I’m turning 23 in two weeks, and this is exactly what my childhood was like. I tried to be “cool” and make friends when I was in grade school but I was still weird and smart and people would make fun of me for that (although really I wasn’t that weird for a grade school kid). Junior high wasn’t much better although I made one or two actual friends, unfortunately, the girl I was closest to ended up being almost as bad as the people who would make fun of me. I know she loved me but she was a pretty emotionally abusive friend and I put up with being guilted and manipulated. Even in college, I had a lot more friends and got more comfortable in my own skin — but it wasn’t until a year or so ago that I finally dropped all of my toxic, trouble-causing friends and realized that it was better to be friends with fewer people who were weird like me but NICE, than to be friends with a bunch of people who would talk behind my back. So I guess what I’m saying is that it does get a little easier as you get older, and everyone should stick to their guns and be as weird as they want.

    • puffytoad May 10th, 2012 9:46 PM

      I just turned 23 last week! Yay 23-year-olds who read a magazine for teenage girls!

      • lorobird May 11th, 2012 8:12 PM

        I’m turning 22 next week, hahaha

        These articles are amazing. I had a really toxic friendship in high school that essentially broke my best friend and me up (we still talk sometimes but we live in different countries now). I became quite independent after that, so I had friends but not one stable group, just people I’d hang out with. That can get quite lonely in school, where most people flock in more or less defined groups.

        Then in Uni I met a girl, we became super close and she ended up being quite toxic too. ‘Breaking up’ with her was terribly traumatic and hard, and I lost many common friends in the process. That was a couple years ago and I haven’t gotten over it totally.

        Step by step!

  • lylsoy May 10th, 2012 7:50 PM

    I can soo refer to this! Children and teens are so cruel.! I was bullied as a kid for not having the “RIGHT” backpack, jacket, jeans and simply everything else- just like you! Now I’m glad to not have had it, as I feel better as an individual instead of being in the cool group :)
    lylsoy.blogspot.com

  • ChloeN May 10th, 2012 7:55 PM

    This whole thing sounds identical to my middle school experience. I would get screamed at, scapegoated and pushed around just for being the only kid that wore vintage clothes and listened to rock instead of rap. But i mean looking back on it, EVERYONE seemed miserable in middle school. The popular kids played happy, but everyone was so concerned with everyone else’s thoughts and views on everything that they didn’t even bother looking inwards. I used to have this theory that god just hated middle schoolers/early teens. Even now at 27, I remember how much that sucked, but every awesome, creative rad chick i know went through it. It’s sad that being bullied tends to be a right of passage for awesome people, but I think it makes us all stronger in the long run. Great post.

  • GlitterKitty May 10th, 2012 7:59 PM

    This is just so perfect right now. I so needed this. I spent much of the fifth grade trying to fit in with the “popular girls” and then most of sixth grade trying to get over the fact that those girls never liked me after I moved schools. Although I’m still trying to break free of my need to fit in, this helps a lot!

  • secondtolastunicorn May 10th, 2012 8:16 PM

    This really reminds me of when I moved six years ago. I too made some friends and dumped them for the popular girls. After two years of being teased for everything from my lisp to being “flat” (basically the worst thing you could be as a 5th grader) to just being “weird,” I had it and joined a lovely girl gang in middle school. The last group had made me believe that I was such a terrible being that I was actually surprised at first at the feeling of being liked.
    Thanks for writing this, I hope it helps others realize that instead of falling in the trap *DUNDUNDUN* of giving in to the pressure to be “cool”they should just accept themselves and find others who do too… it sounds quite cheesy but its absolutely true!

  • JadeAnna May 10th, 2012 8:19 PM

    I relate to this article a lot too, for many reasons. I didn’t have a traditional upbringing as my parents were very much into the alternative/punk scene and we didn’t have a TV at home and never had much money.
    But the worst bullying I went through was actually when we left England moved to Holland when I was 10. Two teenage boys would follow my sister and I around, shouting insults in Dutch that we didn’t understand and spitting on us. It wasn’t until someone translated for me that I realised they hated us because we spoke a different language. This lead me to wonder what type of upbringing THEY were receiving and made me happy that I was being brought up by people who advocated equality, freedom and tolerance.

    The kids stopped on the day that my stepfather saw them following us home and told them very clearly in English that they needed to “Sod off and leave us alone”.

    I will continue to live by the same simple rule my parents lived by: treat others in the same way you expect to be treated. And I will continue to advocate that to others around me.

  • Caden May 10th, 2012 8:30 PM

    This was my schooling experience as well. This article is very well written and feels genuine. Thank you for sharing your story!

    Caden x
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/pinkpoppies1991

    • lylsoy May 10th, 2012 9:59 PM

      hey Caden, just checked out your etsy :) coool! so you are from Australia? Where abouts are you? coz I just moved to Melbourne :)

  • LovelyFriday1251 May 10th, 2012 9:19 PM

    I love reading these inspirational articles! The part that really sticks out to me is “mindlessly conforming”. It’s so true that people have their own choices about everything! I have learned so much from rookie. I have learned to feel comfortable in my own skin. After reading this article, I’m going to be so much more conscious. I’m going to avoid being a zombie of a person! Thank you rookie!

  • Abby May 10th, 2012 9:44 PM

    This is just… awesome. Just AWESOME. Thank you. I got bullied a lot in middle school for being chubby, but it’s mostly stopped now that most of the people in my class have realized that bullying is lame. Like seriously, people actually think it’s uncool. It’s pretty awesome, actually. I mean, girls are still bitchy and talk about each other behind their backs, but outright teasing doesn’t really happen. But I’m also really excited to go to college in the fall and meet people that don’t know me. Because everybody I know now pretty much sees me as that girl who was really weird in middle school, because they all went there with me. But in college, I’ll be able to make friends without them having a pre-made idea about me. Anyway, thank you for the amazing article!

  • puffytoad May 10th, 2012 9:49 PM

    I just wrote a 3000 word diary entry about something pertaining to this topic today! I’m trying to understand that people cannot lessen you if you have an “inner strength.”

  • youngfridays May 10th, 2012 10:51 PM

    This is probably one of my favourite articles so far. It’s pretty much my experience, except mine no one talked to me no matter how hard I tried to ‘fit in’, then I realised that I really didn’t care and idk a stronger connection with my faith really helped (which some girls teased me about, kind of the popposite of you as most people at school aren’t religious). But yeah sometimes I feel a bit upset because “Why am I so different to all the other girls?” but then I’m like “Well I like Doctor Who and that’s just that”, right now I’m okay and I’m glad that you are too. :)

    faithypoodle.tumblr.com

  • cherrycola27 May 11th, 2012 1:16 AM

    This reminds me of how awful elementary and middle school can be. I tried to fit in with the “cool” kids for a while, and I remember letting them copy my work quite often. I’m angry at myself just thinking about it. I used to lie and say my clothes were from Limited Too (remember that store?) even though I don’t think anyone believed me.
    It took me a while to realize that I could be who I wanted and not have to “fit in” with anybody. I went to an art school the next year and, minus the regular little kid drama, had a great time being silly and loud and wearing what I felt comfortable in.

  • Stephanie May 11th, 2012 11:09 AM

    I want to be BFFs with ALL of you. Glad you enjoyed the article and that there are so many awesome girls out there being as weird and cool and unique and smart as you all are. Seriously all these comments just reminds me how much Rookie rules :)

  • parlamode May 11th, 2012 11:20 AM

    I am in school and have never fitted in, I tried for a while but finaly gave up, now I admit to being weird and a fashion nerd and not liking popular music. It’s way easyer and way more fun that way. Even if I am about to leave to go to sixth form I finaly feel happy their it took about 4 years. Ow well! That story has such a good message
    Xoxo
    Sasha
    http://bubblingupinblue.blogspot.co.uk/

  • Devon Wolf Sings May 11th, 2012 12:11 PM

    I know all of these feelings oh my gosh! Junior High was a NIGHTMARE for me. I felt so uncomfortable and awkward and I tried to let it out by being edgy but I was really just ridiculously lonely, because everybody ignored me. Almost anytime I’d talk everybody would pretend like I didn’t exist. I didn’t find a place until the middle of my junior year and then everything was amazing. Your story is so familiar and excellent. <3

  • thedoctorhastwohearts May 11th, 2012 1:36 PM

    “Then I remembered that no matter what I did, there was going to be somebody trying to knock me for something they didn’t like, but as long as I liked myself I would have a strength that they couldn’t touch.” Those words hit so hard with me, I might just have to paint them on origami paper and hang it up on my board. :) Thank you, this is easily one of my favorite Rookie articles. <3 – Hiccup

  • Violet May 11th, 2012 2:55 PM

    That was so beautiful and true. It sent me right back to elementary and middle school – so glad I outgrew that time.

    Now, one thing I would be sooo curious to see/read, is an article written by one of these ‘cool girls’ / ‘popular boys’ after they have grown up. Like, do they feel sorry at all, did it feel comfortable to be in the popular gang, etc.

    Oh wait. That’s just what Rookie did in ‘An earnest attempts to humanize bullies’, right?? But was there one that was by a tried and true ‘mean, popular girl’?

    Love,
    V

  • Mayabett May 11th, 2012 3:53 PM

    This is such an awesome article. It was the perfect read after a day in school when I experienced bullying.
    Lately these guys have been making fun of the kind of music I listen to, and I understand that they’re mostly joking and not trying to hurt my feelings, but it comes off as so nasty and rude and it keeps going on no matter what I do: ignore them, ask them to stop, nicely explain that they’re being mean… But I don’t really care what they think because I love the music I listen to, I just wish they understood that their jokes aren’t “cool” or “funny.” They’re just immature.

    Also at my school there’s a lot of silent bullying, I feel. People in my grade are pretty big on ignoring people, eye-rolling, and such. I’ve always had a problem with them because they don’t know how to respect people who aren’t their friends or who they don’t like for whatever reason.
    I don’t know what I would do without my friends outside of school, who are genuinely caring people who know how to treat their peers right.

  • maddzwx May 11th, 2012 7:38 PM

    I needed this so much…

  • Brilla May 11th, 2012 10:42 PM

    I know that what everybody thinks of me doesn’t matter, but I’m not strong as you are. At school, I’m pretending to be the ‘cool ones’, but inside, I know that the real me exists. I hope I can someday be like you too.

  • MysteryLovesCompany May 13th, 2012 12:41 PM

    I’m 49 and happened across this piece through a link on another site. I experienced similar during school and unfortunately grew up in an abusive home.

    As an adult I have recently begun to experience this sort of thing again in the workplace. I am very smart, have a strong work ethic and genuinely want the best for everyone but my boss who up until two months ago thought I was a great team member has suddenly turned on me and is now ‘best friends’ with the other two women at work who haven’t even worked there very long (no my boss and I were never friends but I felt valued and respected before). It is very uncomfortable and I’m looking for a new job.

    A friend of mine (from high school) has also been bullied in the workplace as an adult and guess where she works? A high school! She’s a teacher and a clic of three female teachers bullied her, calling her names, talking about her behind her back, moving her things from her desk in the office to the recycling bin, putting a mini fridge onto her desk… not a healthy example for their students.

    It sucks no matter what age it occurs but it seems to me that bullying is getting worse in our society.

  • SunshineJilly May 15th, 2012 4:33 PM

    I always felt more connected to and drawn towards the art kids, but ironically, they were always the most judgmental.

    I once went to a house show my junior year of high school where someone told me, “I don’t just like people until they give me a reason not to. I won’t like you until you give me a reason to.”

    I took this as, “I am better than you.” Then, I walked to the next room feeling like a totally not-hip loser amongst the musicians and artists and punks and other various cool kids only to get harassed by a boy in a studded-leather jacket who kindly told me I didn’t belong there.

    To which I thought, “WELL, WHERE DO I BELONG?!”

  • HermionieIsMyHero May 26th, 2012 1:47 PM

    I am 29 :D I just discovered this blog/mag/awesomeness today! My entire middle school experience was like this, if not worse…In HS I felt like I had to impress the popular kids so much I started having sex with someone older than me just so I could say someone WANTED me, and at 16 I had my son and dropped out of 10th grade…still incredibly unpopular.

    Years later people would stop me and say I was “sooo smart” and that they “looked up to me”, “thought I was going places”. People who thought I was awesome for being smart and bookish and nerdy, but didn’t have the courage in HS to tell me, because maybe then they’d be unpopular too.

    I wish ROOKIE had been around for me then. Or even just someone I could talk to. Everything happens for a reason, and I love my son <3 but as I try to maintain a full-time college schedule with my full-time job and full-time mommyhood….I wish I had never gave a CRAP what other people thought of me. Because maybe, if I had just been ME back THEN, there would never be a time NOW when I look at my son and wish I could give him more than I am able to.

  • Isabella Drake April 10th, 2013 3:42 AM

    I used to be exactly like that throughout all of my primary, and year 7 school life. Spending all my time trying to impress others. Since i am good at sport and fit, i fit into the “Popular” groups all the time.

    But when i moved to a larger school, i started deciding to be myself, this is when i made new friends who i didn’t have to impress and i can be myself around. And i cannot express how good it feels to not have to bother trying to impress anyone.

    Now i feel like i am confident and don’t care what others believe.

    But as most teenages, i still have quite a way to go, to discover myself, and truly not care what others think. And am now more focused on my education rather than impressing others.