The year of shame and shunning

person walking alone in empty hallway.
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One of the things I’m working on with my therapist is ostracism. (Everything in my life isn’t about my husband’s affair, people. Although, come to think of it, he ostracised me too. Hmm.)

I keep thinking of how often and how powerfully the theme of ostracism has reared its ugly warty head in my life, and I really want to work on whatever thing[s] I’m doing to alienate people, become secure and sure enough about myself that I don’t care about the offended herd mentality around me, or achieve both.

If there’s something I am doing wrong that’s a constant thread through my life, I’d like to know it so it’s at least a conscious choice. I doubt I will ever be less strong-willed than I am now. (I listen more than I talk, and don’t leave footprints on other people’s heads when I’m trying to advance myself. But I also don’t think it’s selfish to assert my own right to speak up and also to seek things for myself, either.) But if I need to get a better grasp on humility or some other virtue, I’m willing to do that too. I just don’t ever want to be “alone among other people” again. Not to a hellish degree, anyway.

My senior year of high school was Hell on Earth, for example.

I made good grades my entire elementary, middle and high school years. Some subjects came easily, but I worked hard for others, like math. Socially, I was self-conscious and a little shy, although I was also quick witted and smart, so I think I sometimes came off as snobby. I also lived five miles out of town and seldom had a ride into town to play with other kids. It was lonely, but I managed, despite my drunk stepfather, my quarrelsome mother who beat him with her shoes and had screaming matches with him 2-3 times a week and screeched at me often, and my disappointing dating life. (I didn’t have a boyfriend my senior year because the boy I’d given my virginity to in the 11th grade had dumped me about as nicely as one can be dumped at the end of the previous year, when he had graduated.)

I was in the “smart/nerd/weird/acceptable/fun” group of kids, below the cool kids in the pecking order. I fit quietly into the background of school life for the most part. These were kids I’d known since kindergarten and early elementary school, and I felt accepted and liked, even if not popular.

That changed.

I was in line to be either the valedictorian or salutatorian (I became the latter) for my senior class, and there was a swelling tide of resentment toward me that grew to horrific proportions. The people I’d known for most of my life began to resent me intensely because I had great grades that I had earned. I also had a very few tests I’d cheated on, to help myself or others. Those were the ones that mattered to everyone.

Two or three times I bent under pressure from friends to pass them the answers during a test or to slump in my seat so they could peer over my shoulder, although I hated doing that. Fewer than a half-dozen times in 12 years I also cheated for my own advantage, mainly because I’d been lazy or stressed or just a dumb kid and I had managed my time horribly, so I hadn’t prepared for an easy test in a subject that bored me.

Mea culpa — I’ll own that 100 percent. I should have just gotten zeros on those tests. It would have been deserved. And I should have been more social and less withdrawn. I was just a face with good grades, not a real person to many of them.

The sheer WALL of hatred I got thrown back in my face was astonishing. It obliterated me. Took my breath away. Reverberated in my head and heart for years. I now think my first year of college was a long stretch of PTSD, actually.

Let me paint the picture for you with a few vignettes of factors that played into my school year from hell (in no particular order):

  • History correspondence course: My senior year, I was taking one correspondence course to finish up a history class because I’d wanted to take some other optional class so badly that I agreed to this arrangement for the required history class. I had no idea how demanding the correspondence course was going to be, and I fell behind. (Time management skills came much later in life to me!) So I asked a classmate or two to help me with one of the homework assignments because I was so behind, and a teacher overheard. She called me out in class and made a big scene, and she tried to get the college that administered the history class to fail me. But they sniffed at her and told her to mind her own beeswax. She still spread the story of my “cheating” to teachers, administrators and students. I passed that course with an A, by the way. My entire grade was based on the test; the college admin told me the homework was just for MY benefit in test preparation. (I called the college and confessed the sins of homework help in advance of the teacher’s call, and they told me it was nothing, not to worry about it — and that they would put a bug in HER ear when she called.)
  • History and the turquoise ring: Much earlier, in my seventh-grade year, I was in another history class taught by an unimaginative baseball coach whose only teaching method was to have us take turns reading the history book in class; that’s it. I was bored nearly insane. (One of his favorite test questions was, “What color socks do I have on today?” Seriously. And the answer was always “white.”) I didn’t study for a test, so I ended up writing some answers on a snippet of paper and hiding them under a big turquoise ring. The teacher was very suspicious but didn’t catch me out. I never did that again in his class. But I have no doubt he joined in the spiteful gossip sessions about me in the teacher’s lounge that I heard about. Someone always made a point to tell me.
  • History and bad planning: My senior year, in yet ANOTHER history class (boredom and bad teachers played a lot into this), I also managed my time badly two or three times and tried to cheat, but it stressed me out so much I just stopped after those few times. Apparently one or more people saw it, though, and they were suddenly sure that was how I’d gotten good grades all along in every class, and they were outraged. Outraged to the point that I could easily visualize them with pitchforks and torches. Seriously. They were outraged, enraged, SUPER-raged.
  • Latin, maybe: Just to keep confessions clean, I remember being tempted to cheat on a Latin class vocab test, but I honestly don’t recall if I did. I frankly sucked at subterfuge and just did better if I studied my ass off. But it’s possible.
  • Library lynching: Also my senior year, I was in the library, trying to stay awake in the warm, stuffy, quiet room while I studied for a difficult test in a boring subject later that day. I was moving my lips as I read, and apparently I gestured with my hands while I was trying to break the information down for myself to understand and memorize it better. The next thing I knew, the librarian was yelling at the top of her lungs behind me and had the flesh between my neck and shoulder in a painful pinch. I was so shocked and flooded with adrenaline that it felt like a heart attack. She pointed out that my library chair faced the open door into the hallway, where the classroom directly opposite the library door *also* had its door open. Students in there were taking a big test and were in my direct line of sight (if I had looked up from the book I was studying). She was dead certain she had caught me trying to telegraph answers to someone in the other classroom, helping them cheat. She kept yelling at me to confess. She was loud enough to get the attention of everyone in the library and the other classroom. She didn’t believe my stammered explanation, and she was another who decided to spread the rumors that I was just a terribly bad seed.
  • Lies about me: Rumors began to circulate that I somehow had gotten ahold of answers to tests and that I even had teachers’ textbooks. Neither was true. I also heard that I hadn’t “really” earned a 31 on the ACT; I must have cheated there “too.” (Nope.)
  • Trying to catch me: Teachers moved students around in the classroom, and some gave different tests on alternate rows in the classroom to discourage cheating. I began to think it was always about me. Perhaps not. But I was justifiably paranoid by this point.
  • An avalanche of shame: At the prom, it was customary for the juniors to put on a little skit, poking gentle fun at the foibles of each of the seniors. (Ours was a small school. Our graduating class was just 49 students.) To represent me, they had a student in a classroom scene who “accidentally” began dropping hundreds of bits of paper from sleeves, pants, pockets, like a super-clutzy cheater. The cheat notes were practically spraying from every possible hiding place, and people watching the skit were folding over and practically falling out of their chairs laughing and hooting. I smiled tightly when they looked at me to drink up my embarrassment like it was a sweet, sweet syrup. But on the inside I felt cold and sick and attacked and enraged, like the blindsided gal in “Carrie.” Our school was tightly controlled, from the senior song we chose to having any public school speeches carefully vetted in advance. One or more teachers or administrators had to have approved that hostile little vignette. I can’t say I didn’t deserve it, but I felt so singled out. Why were MY faults so reprehensible, when others had faults too? I remembered from previous years when the skits contained things like someone using seven or eight cans of hairspray to represent a girl who always had stiffly perfect hair. But there was no gentle fun-poking at me. The point was to shame me, and it did.
  • The months of shunning: The school environment got really hostile to me, even from students who had survived their high school years by cheating or begging for extra credits. I would walk up to groups of students I knew, and the group would go quiet and disperse, or they would close ranks and ignore me. Teachers treated me coldly. Even being out sick was treated with suspicion.
  • The “almost riot”: I happened to be out sick with sinus problems on the day the school announced over the intercom that a classmate had made valedictorian and I had made salutatorian. I was told the next day when I got back to school that “they almost rioted.” Tensions got worse.
  • Abandoning my friend: The kiss of death for me was when I began planning my part in the senior trip to Florida right after graduation (which I think was on a Friday night). Everyone went to a party at the local country club after graduation, and then they left the next morning for Florida. Most people stayed at the same or nearby hotels. My best friend at the time had to work and couldn’t leave until Monday morning. I really, really didn’t want to wait. It had been an absolutely horrible year, and all I wanted was to forget it, have some fun and start a new part of my life. I eventually told her I didn’t want to wait, and that I would be carpooling with another friend down there. (To this day, I’m so, so ashamed I didn’t stay for my friend. At the time I felt a little used by her, and I was so exhausted from my senior year that I wanted to be a little selfish. But I still regret telling her no.) While I was telling her this on the phone and she was asking me to please reconsider, I heard one of her big sisters in the background, getting riled up. The sister carried on about me for a while and then screeched, “Well, no WONDER nobody likes her!” and my friend — she was always still my friend — covered the phone and hissed at her to hush, that I would hear her. And I was so wounded that I screamed that I had heard her and to tell her sister she was a fucking bitch who could just go to hell. I slammed the phone down (back in the day when we only had landlines, and you could really, really slam a phone). While on the trip to Florida, a few friends hung with me. Others iced me out completely.

By the time graduation night came around and I was due to give my salutatorian speech, I had polished it to a fair-thee-well. I wish I still had a copy, but the gist was that it was a time to put aside petty differences and look forward to our new lives. It was subtly worded enough that it passed the sniff test by the teacher who reviewed it, but my intent was to let people know I had made mistakes and regretted them, they had disproportionally hurt me badly and it was unbearably cruel, but it was time to hold our heads up, make peace and move on. Several people were sniffling in the audience by the end of it (except for the stone-cold haters, of course). My best friend came up to me afterwards, tears in her lashes, and made peace with me. She is a kind person — always was. I haven’t talked to her in years, but I loved her for offering me that olive branch.

And that was my senior year from hell. It was like one of those bad, predictable scripts from a young adult novel or a teen movie, with the well-meaning kid making some bad choices and then getting ostracised by every single person in the school.

I wish I recalled clearly how long it went on, but it was at least one semester. Maybe more.

And it was horrible.

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