Advance warning – this is a long one! But please don’t lose heart at it’s content. The ending has more value than the journey…
It is approximately 21 years since I left school. 21 years! I don’t remember very much of it, yet there are some moments, events, days that I remember like it was yesterday. One day in fact. Don’t ask me to remember the date, but it was sometime in the 5th year, just before I sat my GCSE exams. I was sat with my best friend, packing away at the end of a Business Studies class, when two girls whom I can barely remember approached and asked if we wanted to go with them for a cigarette (I had unfortunately been sucked into a belief that at 15-16 years of age it was a cool thing to do, and had begun smoking). This might not seem like an unusual event, but picture a girl who always felt a little uncomfortable in her own skin, a girl who desperately wanted to be liked and had a misguided desire to be liked by the ‘it girls’. Here was my ticket to the top! The moment I had waited for, acceptance at last.
I remember heading down the side of the school playing fields to the gap in the fence that led to a clearing in the woodland that surrounded the school. There were a number of girls there (it was an all girls’ school), dotted about in the clearing. My best friend and I headed over to a fallen tree and sat down, lighting our cigarettes. I can’t remember what made me turn around, perhaps a change in the atmosphere, but I must have sensed something as I turned to see two girls making their way through the fence. My heart dropped. One was an older girl, the other was a girl from my year – the latter was the school hardcase, whose name will remain anonymous from these pages.
I can’t recall if she spoke to me, the next few minutes of my life appear kind of shady. I remember her removing the cigarette from my mouth and me thinking that this was some kind of intimidation game. And I remember her grabbing my high ponytail and yanking my head back to pull my face up to face her, and then I remember the punches. One, then another, then another. I don’t know how long she continued to punch me in the face for, but when I look back it seemed like an eternity. She stopped for a moment and I remember her saying, “So, are you scared of me now?” I have no idea why I did this, but I looked her in the eye and said “No”, which was clearly the wrong answer as she relaunched her attack, continuing to punch me in the face to ensure a more positive response. I recall one other voice, my best friend pleading for it to stop. And I remember the silence of the others as they watched. I don’t know how it ended, I think I managed to get up and I ran. I ran with blood smeared across my face and tears stinging my cheeks to the Headmistress’s office. “Oh, what has happened? Have you fallen?” (being a girl’s Grammar School, they didn’t see much of that kind of action).
You might be wondering why I decided to write about this today. Well, there are a few reasons. But let me start by telling you about the effect that this one girl on one day has had on my life for the past 21 years
My self esteem issues were with me before that day – if I’d have been confident and assured I would never have been so eager to accept the unexpected invitation, let alone set foot through that fence. The incident didn’t make me afraid of confrontation or physical attack – in fact I remember it not hurting at the time. I guess adrenaline, fear, shock had all kicked in after the first punch was thrown and it was remarkably painless. Until the next day when the mouth torn apart by my braces, the bruises and the gashes on my neck where the nails of the hand that gripped my pony tail had clawed at my skin became apparent. It was the psychological impact that that day had on me that has lasted the longest. I knew the girl didn’t like me – she had made that crystal clear through sneers and threats in the classroom and beyond. I hadn’t actually done anything, but I was always larking about in class and I guess to her I was an irritant. The more my classmates laughed at my joking around, the more I seemed to annoy her. I was surprised by the physical attack, yes, but the thing that has stayed with me is the fact that I was lured into the situation by a bunch of other girls. That has made me question the integrity of every smile, every compliment, every invitation that I have ever received since that day. And I guess my friend ‘ANT’ was there even as long ago as that, telling me that what that one girl had done was carry out the secret wishes of everyone else. I wasn’t an irritant to her and her alone – I was an irritant to the whole school, and she had served me my punishment on behalf of all the others.
Fast forward 21 years, send me an invite to a school reunion, and watch the memories come flooding back. Any of you that know me, in person or via these posts, are likely to guess that wouldn’t be a good thing. God no, far be it for me to recall all those happy times, of smearing the class projectors with vaseline and laughing out loud at the teachers’ failure to write on the transparencies, or sunny days and jolly hockeysticks. Nope, not me, I remember one girl, one day. And that one memory has become so distorted over time that it has served as the moment that defined my worth in that school, with those girls; I was worth nothing, I meant nothing. There was no action on my part that triggered that event, it was my personality that earned me a beating.
However, during the course of a few weeks the reunion began to unravel, and as a result a small splinter reunion was started. Just me and one other girl who I had been in contact via social media for a number of months. We planned a weekend away in London. Shortly after, another girl joined in, and yesterday we met for the first time in 21 years.
I cannot even find the words to describe the past few days. What ought to have been awkward was effortless. I have had the most amazing time with two beautiful ladies, inside and out. We talked and talked, about everything and nothing. I shared my insecurities about meeting them after all these years, I mean why me? Why of all the girls in that school did they want to meet me? They shared their memories, and I learned about the girl that they remember. The girl I’d always thought I was until that fateful day in the woods. I’ve had a hard time believing it, but I have to assume it was real because I was there, and they were there – with me!
I awoke at 4am this morning, my head swimming, and I guess I had a kind of epiphany. Here were two girls telling me I was ok. I continue to have contact with other girls from school, who would appear to think I am ok. My friends, my work colleagues, my boss, my husband, my family, my beautiful kids – they all think I’m ok. I don’t even really know who was there in that clearing or whether they thought I was ok or not. I just know she was there, and she didn’t think I was ok. So why the hell did I hand her so much control over the last 21 years of my life? Automatic Negative Thoughts.
I was at that school for 7 years. That’s about 2,500 days. That one day doesn’t even amount to half a percent of my time there. That one girl didn’t even come close to 1% of the population of girls in the school. That day doesn’t account for even 0.01% of the days since. I was so busy colouring my school life in shades of grey that I failed to see the joy of the remaining 99%! I don’t know if the girls will read this, but I thank them from the bottom of my heart for bringing the full set of colour pencils with them this weekend! They have helped me prove my old friend ‘Ant’ wrong for once. And no matter how unnatural it feels still, I am going to allow myself to believe them. I am going to give the power back to the positive, and metaphorically punch that one girl right back.
Today is the day that I start believing that I am ok. It is the day that I accept that I am never going to be to everyone’s liking. I know I have a good heart, and I know the people who matter know that too. From now on, I am going to give the power back where it needs to be – with the positive – and stop letting the minority take so much control. Today is the day that I let it go.