There are many defining moments in our lives. Moments that changed our view of the world in one split second, made us rethink our decisions, affected our personalities or altered our perception of the people around us. Sometimes however it can be difficult to point towards them: Change is gradual. Revelation is, rarely, like a lightbulb switching on above our heads to illuminate the darkness. But perhaps we remember the moment the pebble got kicked, the stone started rolling, and the foreboding echo of an avalanche reached our ears.
I remembered one such moment over coffee with a colleague and decided to share it. A life lessons of sorts. The revelation was perhaps the last piece I needed to get past the aftereffects of minor-teenage-bullying. The simple lesson of: ‘we are not so different.’ and: ‘Sometimes, you get the love that you give.’
In fifth, sixth, seventh and eight grade, I was not very well liked by my classmates. In hindsight this was by no means surprising: I was a very alien child with every bully-able trait, including one of those annoyingly noisy trolly-backpacks that rattled down the tiled hallway behind me at all times, clunky and attention-demanding, and a terrible sense of fashion and personal representation. I had not yet discovered the internet or music shows on TV for popular music, or any music identity in general, and, truth be told, probably grew into my new teenage-self a little later than my classmates. I was not ready to leave childhood behind, and I grew up in Germany: So at age twelve, Pokemon was suddenly no longer “cool”.
But what I realised years later must have alienated my classmates more than anything, was my attitude towards them. They liked to have fun in class, I thought I was better than them for being the serious student that always stood on the side of the teacher and refused to participate in any of their harmless pranks and games. I acted aloof, like I knew some mature secret they did not. Once on a school trip, I even apologised for their behaviour to an older Gentleman on the train, who responded with ‘Oh no, I was that age too once.’ and I distinctly thought that apparently, I had never been that age. I was that obnoxious child that would say: ‘I’m much more mature than people my age.’ and completely miss the point of being a teenager.
My mother explained their hostile behaviour towards me with: “They’re just envying you.” And somehow, I believed her. Grades were everything, right? But that wasn’t true. I was setting myself apart from them, so it must have been easy enough for them to push me further out.
Despite my constant, defensive, stubborn act of not wanting to fit in, I never disliked my classmates. I wanted to be part of the community I thought we were supposed to have. In Germany, you keep the same classmates from fifth grade to the end of Sixth Form after all. There were no other social groups to conveniently identify with. Cliques in my school were a lot less obvious than they would later be in England.
I gradually became less weird. I dressed a little more maturely, stopped rolling my eyes and huffing at everything my classmates said or did, and things got better. They grew up. I grew up. Often people just grow out of bullying. But the well dressed, girly, popular girls in my class never quite did – whilst I slowly got more comfortable with all my other classmates, I could still never shake a distinct sense of immense, personal hostility from the girly girls.
So after tenth grade I went to England with a typical post-bullying attitude: I was terribly self-conscious of my clothes and the way I talked and what interested me, and I was absolutely certain that no one wanted me at their table. Luckily for me, cliques in England were easier to identify. There were the geeks, the nerds, the emo-punks, the jocks, the cool girls, and I slotted in nicely with a group of nerdy acquaintances and a high-school boyfriend. Everyone made an effort to be nice to me. I was an exchange student. They wanted to know what my country was like, how I found England, they wanted to know German insults and teach me English ones. Even the girly girls I had previously thought my enemies made an effort to include me. But old habits don’t die so easy.
I joined a drama class. Drama in Germany is for the weird kids. The outsiders. There was solidarity in the shared humiliation we endured from our fellow students. In England, drama was cool. The class was full of popular, cheerful, chatty, gossipy, extroverted, well dressed, pretty girls. I think from the moment I stepped into that room, alarm bells rang in my head and I pulled every and all walls up around me to create some distance. They weren’t going to like me. I wasn’t going to fit in.
Every time they talked to me, I was looking for hostility. Even when a conversation was approached with bright smiles and normal, girly, curious, gossipy inquiries, I was sure they were somehow out to get me. They didn’t invite me to social outings to include me – it was some sort of trap to humiliate me as the outsider. I wasn’t going to fall back into that. I was just going to avoid them. For everyone else, drama was their fun, social class. For me, it was the time I was the least comfortable in a room. Nearing the end of the year, I tried to drop out. But I had already been rehearsing for the end-of-year performances with my group and they wouldn’t let me. My teacher and neighbour at the time, when I told him I didn’t much enjoy the drama classes, asked if it was to do with the others, and turned to me with the accusation: “They tried to include you though, didn’t they? Didn’t they invite you out to parties?” But that didn’t make sense to me. Look at them! Look at me! Those two things cannot exist in the same world. They thought I was weird. They thought I was ugly. They thought I was annoying. That was the truth the teacher simply failed to see.
So my moment of revelation came on the evening of the end-of-year performances. I was sitting in the audience amongst my classmates, watching one of the other groups perform, and the girl next to me, a blond, pretty, well dressed girl with plenty of friends and social standing, turned to me after some comment about the play that I must have politely but tensely dismissed, and said:
“You don’t like us very much, do you?”
I stumbled over my answer, some long, unconvincing form of ‘no, that’s not it’, whilst my mind went blank with horrified surprise. What?
I don’t think she sounded accusing. I think she was still smiling, half frowning, in a way that implied to me that she did not particularly care I might have disliked her, but did not understand why I would not have enjoyed their company more all year. After that one, casual sentence, the whole year flashed back before me and I reanalysed everything that had happened. My own rejection of their attempts to involve me. My hostility at friendly jokes and questions. My dismissal of their interest or compliments. My constant attempt to sit further away from everyone else. They had never disliked or excluded me. I had.
Nothing changed right in that moment, of course. Change is gradual. I don’t think I properly learnt to be more self-confident and understanding of our shared human condition until University. But after that, I think I tried to see my classmates differently. In the end I did, to their surprise, accept a party invitation. It was the first time I participated in throwing a surprise party, and I had more fun than I expected, in a new social group, for one of the first times without hiding behind my then-boyfriend.
The moment I stopped assuming everyone my enemy, the world became a brighter place. Different interests, tastes or clothes didn’t make me or them better than the other. And my experience with two girls in my German school was not indicative of all other, similar girls in the world.
Don’t project hostility. Don’t make someone your enemy when they walk towards you with open arms.
Come University, I made my first friends independently from my longterm relationships, and I have enjoyed plenty of pleasant conversations and memories since then with people from all walks of life, vastly different from me, similar to me, younger and older. We all like to be liked. And we all like those better that don’t look at us with judging or defensive eyes. An open smile goes a long way.