Tuesday, January 27, 2009

For Real: Best Friends

I had a friend, and her name was Sarah (but not really).

We stayed overnight at each other’s houses. We had long secret talks on the playground at recess. We drew pictures and designed clothes and ambitiously planned our adult lives. We brushed each other’s hair and played Barbies and traded clothes.

We were little girl best friends.

Except something didn’t feel right. Not “best.” And maybe not even “friends.”

In fourth grade (or maybe it was fifth), Sarah was staying overnight at my house. It was night and we were in my lavender bedroom sitting on my pink gingham-checked bedspread, looking for things to do as we stayed up late together. She proposed we write slam books.

I didn’t know what a slam book was. Turns out she didn’t really, either, but here is how she explained it to me: we were each to write down a secret about each other, and when we were done we would read our secrets aloud. I remember thinking this sounded boring and pointless, but she really wanted to do it, and I certainly didn’t have a better plan.

I don’t know what I wrote about her; I had trouble thinking of anything. But I remember clearly what she wrote about me: “You have a face only a mother could love.”

“It means you’re ugly,” she explained when I looked at her, confused and hurt and suddenly wanting to ask my parents to take her home. The rest of the sleepover wasn’t much fun.

Also in fourth grade (or maybe it was fifth), there was a bully. Her name was Angie (but not really). One day in the school bathroom I heard her talking about me to her group of five or six followers. “Teresa is ugly,” she said. “She’s stupid.” Her friends nodded.

I had already become used to people staring and making faces and even calling me names. I had learned to accept insults, and I had never rebutted.

But for some reason, on this day I was outraged. Maybe I had had enough.

I confronted her. “I heard you talking about me,” I said. She lied. She denied it. But I persisted and finally she confessed. “Fine, you’re right. What about it?” she spat. And, inexplicably, she challenged me to a fight. Equally inexplicably, I accepted her challenge. I committed myself to my first and last fight.

At lunch recess we met at the designated place on the playground between the jungle gym and the merry-go-round. Angie and I faced off. She had a large group of girls standing behind her. Behind me stood Sarah, my best friend. My only friend.

It was over almost instantly. Angie reached over and slapped my face. “You’re ugly,” she stated, plainly and spitefully.

It couldn’t have been a terribly hard slap, but it knocked me to the ground. Never before had I expressed any grief over all that had happened to me. I hadn’t complained or cried or stood up for myself or asked for any help in my struggles. On that day, though, that single insulting slap carried the full weight of all my unspoken grief.

And as I sat on the ground in devastated tears, Sarah walked away. My only friend turned away and went to stand with Angie, my tormentor.

“Why?” I implored between sobs.

“Because,” said Sarah, “I agree with her.”

Our friendship dissolved after that. Several times she tried to break up with me. “I just don’t think I can be friends with… someone like you,” she would say. "I don't think we have much in common." She would name the pretty girls in our class she wanted to be friends with instead, girls who were nice enough but who had also demonstrated that they had no interest in being my friends.

I cried and begged her not to leave. I was hurt that I wasn’t worthy of her friendship. And no small part of me was terrified. I didn’t think I could make any other friends. I would be alone.

But eventually she left. I was never angry at her. I certainly kept my distance, and I was hurt, but I wasn't angry. Mostly I was deeply, fundamentally embarrassed. I don't think I ever really thought her actions were my fault, but I definitely understood that by virtue of the way I looked, I deserved it all.

My humiliation prevented me from telling my parents why our friendship evaporated. I'm sure they wondered what happened. I didn't want to disappoint them; I was too ashamed to admit my social failures; I didn't want them to worry. I kept it a secret in order to protect myself and (I thought) to protect them. Those were the earliest of many years of feeling marginalized and lonely and ugly, and keeping those feelings tucked safely away, telling no one how badly I hurt.

But here is the thing I keep coming back to as I remember those years and as I hope my children never hurt so deeply and as I try to understand how cruel people can be: I am okay. I made it. And I am happy.

I had a friend, and her name was Sarah (but not really). And in fourth grade (or maybe it was fifth) she taught me a painful and valuable lesson about what a strong person I am.


  1. I remember those kind of days when girls at school can be so mean. Like when I had one group of friends tell me I couldn't be friends with a couple other girls I liked also because, well, for no good reason come to think of it, just BECAUSE.

    I seem to remember attempting a balancing act of sorts but the need to have an "us" and a "them" is so sad and it starts SO YOUNG.

    Sadly, acceptance of others seems to be a long time coming, and to some, it never happens.

    But you're so right, those moments show you what you're made of. Strong stuff.

  2. I agree with Sunshine. My preteen years, though not as traumatic, have convinced me against single-sex schools, especially for girls. (I went to one. I get along better with boys.)

    I found your blog randomly on BlogHer and I really like it. I just wanted to let you know and say that it looks like you have a gorgeous life and family :)

  3. You're incredibly beautiful, strong, and talented. I love this post, thank you for writing it. I'm printing it off to read from time to time--I have a feeling one or more of my girls will encounter something similar. I have my share of childhood wounds from not so great friends, but thanks to your sister, I was able to have true friendship growing up. Thank you for sharing.


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