Friday, January 14, 2005

The Dark Mirror

When I was a child, I was a dork. I was small for my age, I always had a runny nose, I was emotionally sensitive (read: cried easily), I wasn't good at or even interested in sports, I got straight A's, and was generally forced to participate in extra-curricular "enrichment programs" for gifted kids which further seperated me from my schoolmates.

I didn't have a whole lot of friends, and the ones I did have didn't last long. For the first few years, they were lonely, dorky kids like me. Some were from broken homes where abuse, drugs, and sexual precociousness were considered normal. These kids tended to truly value my friendship, and spent a great deal of time at my house, eating dinner with my family and having lots of sleepovers. However, my best friend from Kindergarten to third grade moved to Idaho, and I was alone for fourth grade. I took a lot of peer abuse that year. I made another best friend in fifth grade, who was actually kind to me, but shortly after we graduated from Laketown Elementary School, she moved to California.

From sixth to eighth grade, my parents put me in the only private school in town, SDC School. This place was full of kids from very wealthy families. The place had been started by some wealthy parents who wanted an alternative to our public school system. District 186 offered virtually no gifted programs at all, was overcrowded, unsafe, filled with inattentive, unhappy teachers, and polluted with small town religious propaganda. SDC, with its progressive environment, was a sanctuary from all that.

By the time I got to SDC, however, the founder's kids were long gone, and there was a whole new generation of students. Some of their parents truly valued education, but I think some of them simply felt it was important to be able to tell everyone "my kid goes to a private school." The teachers seemed happy for the most part... but we kids could tell that something wasn't quite right.

However, all of us kids were really damn thrilled not to have to endure public schooling. We knew we had it good. SDC was laid-back. They allowed us to work at our own pace, and talk amongst ourselves, as long as it was about the lessons, and we weren't fighting. Deadlines for assignments were flexible, and we
didn't use traditional textbooks. Our teachers compiled reading materials for us from every subject, and gave the gifted kids more challenging activities. Educational "games" became classroom tools. Classes were very small, and we all got a lot of attention. Many of our teachers encouraged us to call them by their first names. We read at whatever level challenged us - I was reading Poe, Thoreau, and Anne McCaffrey in sixth grade, and being started on Shakespeare and Walt Whitman. I wrote my first sonnet that year, and got a lot of praise for it. It was my teachers at SDC School (Thanks Linda and Sam!) who encouraged me to express myself thorugh writing... and I always have.

I wasn't hassled about math, I was helped with it. I zoomed ahead of the other students in the computer lab. Some kids were science whizzes - one built a light bulb mechanism at about age 7. Pretty much everyone hated Gym class, but the teachers insisted it was good for us. Definitely NOT public school.

In 6th grade, I began to make friends from "good backgrounds," meaning the parents were doctors, lawyers, or owned successful business that enabled them to put their kids in private schools. These kids were usually spoiled materially, but otherwise neglected. Some were left alone at home for astonishing amounts of time. Most smoked and drank. Some got into hard drugs. Some ran wild around their neighborhoods, with their older siblings. Some started experimenting with sex. And some simply spiraled inward, seething quietly until something lit their fuse and they exploded. These were very angry kids, and needed someone to make them feel powerful. At age eleven.

In 6th grade, I made a new best friend. Shannon Mechant was the gawky daughter of a wealthy doctor dad and a social-climbing mother. She and I had previously known each other from dance classes with the local ballet company. (Note: this was also a very un-cool activity. Flashdance hadn't taken hold at SDC.) Like me, she was also a new student from the public school system, so when she saw me on that first day of school, she attached herself to me like a leech.

Shannon lived in a huge house on the west side of town - the right side of the tracks in every sense of the word. Her parents coddled her, told her what a lucky little girl she was, how much better they were than most people in town... the poor kid was raised to be a snob, and she was one. She might have been alright if, underneath all the affected hauteur, she had some basic self-esteem, but it was clear from the start that she didn't. She saw right through her parents. She knew she was gangly and uncoordinated. She knew she was unpopular with everyone, never mind boys. When her parents babied her in front of me I could only imagine how embarrassed she must have been.

This rich girl was incredibly insecure - much worse than I was. Her attempts to cover up her lack of self-worth by sticking her nose in the air made her extremely unpopular. Coming from such an elitist background, I doubt she knew of any other way to behave. Factor in that this was the mid-1980's and she had no fashion sense at all, and only a rudimentary taste for top 40 music. She chattered extensively about the newly married young princess Diana and other wealthy celebrities... likely role models for her.

It was interesting that her younger brother, Arthur, seemed to be learning how not to behave by watching his sister. He was quite popular, and rather than be jealous of him, Shannon bragged about how funny he was. Granted, this likely stemmed from her need to have everybody think everything about her life was wonderful, but I was always impressed that she didn't turn her venom onto her sibling. At least, when I was around.

Instead, she turned it to me. When we played together, Shannon used to cheer herself up by putting me down all the time. She was bossy, and a know it all. She loved coming up with new things to tell me about, making herself feel smarter than I was. She used to preen in the mirror and tell me why she was so much prettier than I was - some hair product or another. She was constantly expressing fake sympathy for how small my house was and how I never got new clothes from the mall. I knew she was using me, and I secretly hated her.

I felt trapped into being her friend. I knew exactly how bitchy and vindictive this girl could be. However, I quickly realized the one benefit about being friends with Shannon: our classmates hated her so much that my dorkishness paled in comparison. Granted, I got my share of crap from those little shits, but with Shannon around, I was usually just ignored. She was apparently a much more fun punching bag than I was. Not only that, on the few days Shannon wasn't at school, I had no problem hanging out with the others at recess and lunch.

I was sure that if I dumped her, she'd get even with me by rallying the rest of the kids in class to turn their bullying from her to me. After six years of public elementary school hell, I knew I couldn't go back to being the class punching bag. I kept up the facade.

Eventually, Mrs. Mechant decided her kid wasn't being fully appreciated at SDC, and she pulled Shannon out of our school. The poor girl was tossed back into public school like a too-small fish. The following year, that woman orchestrated a smear campaign against SDC, claiming that the students weren't being taught the traditional "3 R's." She cited the fact that our school didn't use textbooks, and used the "alternative Education" line to scare the pants off of everyone in our highly conservative town. The number of field trips we went on was evidence of that. And, in later years, as I grew older and more aware of things, I also always wondered if the lack of Christian dogma in the classroom at that school played a factor. We had a high percentage of Jewish families there, and those kids were smart as hell. I think we had an Islamic teacher for while as well. It was a non-traditional school... and in Springfield, Illinois, anything non-traditional is bad.

After Shannon's Mommy pulled her out of big mean old SDC, Shannon stopped calling me. She had no use for me anymore.

Frankly, I pretty much forgot all about her rather quickly. In between sixth and seventh grades, I did a lot of theatre, and developed a clique of friends who went to various schools around town. It was in seventh grade that I realized that my classmates didn't hate me - many had just been too shy to get to know me. The following year, in eighth grade, I actually had a sort of clique, and a semblance of a boyfriend. I was starting to grow up.

Well, La Mere Mechant was a political, wealthy, white Christian Right winger, and had contacts in the right places. Her smear campaign did exactly what it was supposed to do.

Sometime during the seventh grade year, Shannon gloated at ballet class about her Mother's successful smear campaign. She felt she had been personally avenged for all the treatment she had received from the schoolkids, and seemed especially bitter towards me. Finally, one day, she shoved it in my face, in front of all our dance classmates, in the dressing room, with no adults around to see what a brat she really was.

"Did you hear what happened to SDC School?" She sang gleefully.

Now that we were no longer in school together, I felt no reason to keep up the facade, and in front of a dressing room full of 13-year-old ballerinas who hated her as much as our schoolmates had, I shot back that everyone at SDC had hated her from the day she arrived, that we kids would have kicked her out for unparalleled wussiness if we could, and that her mother was a vindictive bitch who was so power-hungry that she was willing to destroy an entire school just to coddle her little wimpy crybaby's poor hurt feelings.

The rest of the girls cracked up laughing in delight. Shannon reddened. She looked like a two-year-old about to throw a tantrum, kicking and screaming. But, we were twelve. She left the room, and never spoke to me again.

I felt fantastic.

By the time the smear campaign was in full swing, I was more contented in school than ever before. I was one of the last two 8th graders to ever graduate from SDC School. The school cut back to K-5 grades the following year, and limped along without public support and a serious decrease in enrollment (and subsequent private funding from affluent parents) for a few more years. By the time I left for college, SDC School had closed down for good. There have not been any private non-Christian schools in town since then. I remember simply feeling relieved that I was able to put off re-entering the public school system as long as I did.

In high school, I was pretty well known for my appearances in community theatre, and I began doing the leading roles at my high school. I met my best friends K and L, who I am still best friends with today.

Socially, things could have been worse.

When I was a junior or senior in high school, K's school did a production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. K was in it, and had a good role as one of the seven brides. I had played a bride in that same show at our town's community theatre a couple of years prior, so we had a lot of fun comparing notes.

At some point during rehearsals, K asked me "Did you ever know a girl named Shannon Mechant?"

"Oh God, yes," I replied. "She was my "best friend" in 6th grade," I said sarcastically.

"You're kidding!" K said. "She goes to my high school! She's in the chorus of our show!"

I groaned.

"She says she knows you really well," K said. "Didn't you guys go to dance classes together?"

I proceeded to tell K all about the whole story of poor little Shannon and the Big Bad Private School Kids.

"Yep, that sounds like Shannon," K sighed. "And her Mom is on the district school board - (I was horrified!) and everybody hates her, what a total bitch. Shannon's brother Artie is cool, and her Dad seems nice, but Shannon is just a stupid dork."

Her words stung me. Too close to home.

I was surprised that Shannon had managed to get into the school play at all. Being in dance classes with her all those years ago - not to mention shuffling through a terrible junior high production of Pirates of Penzance with her - I knew she had always been interested in theatre. I also knew she had virtually no singing voice, limited dance ability, and no confidence to even try seriously acting. That black hole inside her where her confidence should have been... a serious limitation for a wanna-be performer.

K went on to tell me that Shannon had NO friends in high school. Zip. Zero. There were a few kids who ate lunch with her, and occasionally hung out with her and went to parties at her house, but when Shannon wasn't around, they totally trash-talked her behind her back. Some girls' parents forced them to be nice to Mrs. Mechant's daughter for political reasons. Some kids just wanted to hang out at her big, pretentious house. A few sympathetic souls humoured her with vague niceness. But mostly, her high school classmates ignored her.

Much the way I was ignored.

After the way she had treated me, I couldn't help but feel this was poetic justice. "I guess public school wasn't any better for her than private was," I said.

A few weeks later, L and I went to see K in her school play, which was actually quite entertaining for a high school show. After the show, the performers came out to the lobby for hugs from parents and friends. L and I were enjoying ourselves. There was our best friend K, in her adorable gingham costume, blonde curls pouring out from her head like foam from a pop bottle.

K was very popular, and always had a gaggle of kids around her. That night was no different, and when she brushed them all aside to embrace L an I, I glowed with pride. She introduced us around. Some of her friends knew who I was, having seen me onstage somewhere, or heard about me. Everyone was nice, or at least polite. I was proud of my friends, proud of our friendship, and proud of our success in our shared hobby.

Eventually my Dad came up to me. "Hey sweetheart, guess who's here. Shannon Mechant." K and I looked over in the direction Dad was pointing, and tried not to stare.

A number of yards away, far from the center of the crowd, looking embarrassed, was Shannon. She still looked twelve years old, skinny as a rail and awkward as ever. Her parents were looking expectantly at me. Her brother was there too, not looking at anyone. I gave Daddy a how could you DO this to me look.

"Go say hi to her," Daddy instructed. "She's all alone."

K had not been exageratting - Shannon really didn't have any friends. None of the kids at her own school were even acknowledging her existence. At least at my school, I had some nerdy groupies. And Shannon looked pathetic in her badly applied stage makeup, and she was too tall for her dress, which hung a gangly few inches above her ankles. I had never had a bad costume in my life. My lungs contracted. Shannon was abhorrent to me.

"Go on, Ouiser," K said. "Get it over with. You'll be doing a nice thing." She squeezed my hand supportively. I approached the Mechant family.

It was the first time I had spoken to any of them in years. Shannon beamed at me as though I was her long-lost best friend. I think she actually said it was good to see me again. (?!?!?!) I was just hoping nobody saw me talking to her. "Hi, Shannon," I said. "Hi, Mrs. Mechant, Dr. Mechant." Her brother was fidgeting and staring at the door. I sympathized. "Hey, Artie," I greeted him. He politely said hello. I thought about how much it must suck to have your little brother be the cool one.

The Mechants were so welcoming and friendly towards me that night. Her Mom asked me some lame questions, like how did I like school, and such. I had just finished doing the lead in my school play, my two best friends were a few yards away, so I felt good about my life, and had some positive things to say.

Normally, at sixteen, I felt as though I were nobody special. That night though, standing in front of Shannon, I felt like a giant, looking down on a gnat. It was the first time I have ever felt something like superiority, except that I wasn't proud. I didn't feel like I was better than her, I just felt somehow smarter, and luckier. It was embarrassing. I know Shannon and her whole family had seen me hugging K and chatting with her popular friends. I couldn't wait to get out of there. I made as much pleasantries as I could stand, until I finally escaped somehow.

I wanted to be proud of Shannon. I wanted to be glad to see her. I wanted to tell her sincerely that her costume looked nice on her, that her singing was nice, and that it was good to see her again. But I wasn't sincere, and every compliment I gave her was a lie. I was disgusted by the sight of her, and nauseated to hold conversation with her Mom.

Underneath it all, the strongest emotion I can recall feeling was something akin to shame. I was more popular than Shannon, more talented, and certainly happier... but I was far from truly happy with my own life. K and L were my best friends (at least I had best friends), but K didn't go to my hgh school, and L was a grade ahead of me, so I was pretty much on my own at school, like I imagine Shannon was. I was largely ignored, and made fun of on whenever I wore something other than Outback Red or Guess. My boyfriends were sporadic, and usually idiots. I was very lonely in a lot of ways. Who the hell was I, dissing anyone at all?

Like most teenagers, I just hadn't imagined anyone being more lonesome than I was. Talk about perspective.

After the show, K and I started comparing Shannon's situation to mine. I thought Shannon must have it easier than me. At least Shannon's Mom could buy her all the "in" clothes that were so important to be seen in the 1980's, so I doubt she got the fashion jeering that I did. K pointed out that I'd had more boys interested in me than Shannon ever would. "And remember Ouiser," K said, "You have a life. You have friends - real friends." I loved K, in that moment, more than I had ever loved anyone. "You have real talent," she went on. "Your Mom can be nuts sometimes, but at least she's nice."

Has anyone ever pitied me the way I pitied Shannon? I imagine they have. Has anyone ever looked down on me with such disgust as I looked down on her, in my adolescent angst? I'm positive they have.

Am I Shannon Mechant?

Are we all?

Now we are in our thirties. I have done everything with my life that I ever wanted to do.

Let me say that again: I have done everything with my life that I ever wanted to do.

Has she?

I am so young. I get to start dreaming all new dreams and chasing whole new rainbows.

Will she?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I went to City Day School in Springfield too!! (the internet is indeed making this a small world) It sounds like I was there before you - I went there 1st through 3rd grade, then we moved out to Pleasant Plains and entered the dreaded public school system. But, I did love City Day!