I don’t exactly live in a small town. It’s a big county where seas of trees occasionally give way to small towns. And when I say small town, I mean ‘there’s a post office, a convenience store, and some county garbage cans’ small. Long rural roads traverse these towns, like Amazonian snakes uncoiled and laid across creeks, rivers, and railroad tracks, until finally a grocery store or an exit ramp appears like an oasis signalling hope for the thirsty in the desert. There are no main streets. If we run into each other, it is out of town. However, reputations do stick. They not only stick, they carry over into these out of town places where we all work, buy our groceries, and idle the weekends away in the humble, tacky shopping mall or the sports park, if someone has something to celebrate. It is the anxiety of diaspora, running into someone from your tribe and being both thrilled that they speak your language and unnerved to hear them speak to you in it, without saying a word at all.
I won’t go into why I was widely disliked in high school, because so many of the modes of behavior and dress that were in style at that time could only happen in a rural community where pop culture is a rumor handed down late, and badly translated. There were a few months in my Theater class where a corps of the coolest girls wore crochet skull caps, claimed to be Buddhists, and listened to Sublime and 311, thinking that this was a ska-punk thing to do. Then it was very punk rock for girls to wear suspenders, or clothes with CareBears on them. The latter might have been a psychedelic thing, but I’ll really never know. I could just never keep up, and deliberately swam against the grain, really, because I was just worldly enough to suspect that there was more to being a Buddhist than refusing to kill bugs and eating only the salad off of the hamburgers in the cafeteria, and that ska-punk did not begin and end with “Santeria”,the only Sublime song everyone knew because that is the one the modern rock station broadcast in the state capitol had on rotation. And Carebears were cute, but I had a Spin magazine subscription and a more chic idea of rebellion.
When every one else was a Hot Topic punk I was a goth, or some kind of neo-grunge Beatnik, wearing as much black as I could scrounge from my wardrobe, dresses I had added black lace touches to, fuzzy sweaters and ripped jeans, carrying Sylvia Plath poetry and Anne Rice novels around, writing constantly. I wasn’t a total navel gazer-I wrote soapy “Harry Potter” fanfictions with lurid twists to make my friends laugh, or catty poems about teachers we didn’t like. I traded the first Twilight novel and paperback romance novels about yet more vampires with my little posse. I had friends, I had fun, but there was something undesirable about me and everyone knew it. No one could quite put a finger on it, not even the people who ridiculed, excluded, rejected, and slandered me. Even teachers treated me as if I were a lump of coal in their stocking. I was given the same treatment as people who were considered fat, poor ugly, homosexual, promiscuous or had some kind of family scandal, but none of those applied in my case, really. All of those labels got flung at me at one time or another between 8th grade and 12th grade, but nothing stuck except the universally acknowledged fact that unless you already had nothing to lose socially, I was to be avoided and openly despised for one’s own reputation’s sake.
I am 25 now, and for some of my former classmates, not much has changed. I still encounter people who seem to be looking over their shoulder at an invisible group of friends that has long dispersed, confirming, “Oh, we hate her, right?” and pointedly ignoring me or glaring at me because once, ten years ago when we were all children, I had the audacity to not wear a skull cap and call myself a Rastafari-Buddhist, while listening to a reggae band from Long Beach, California. In the kingdom of the blind, one might say…..
I ignore it, I let it go, I spin wryly humorous comments out of it to my sister, but today I just couldn’t ignore being ignored any longer. The girl in question, let’s call her Sidney, is a fairly frequent customer at my new job. She graduated a few classes below me, but was tangentially apart of this group of misguided music fans/eastern mystics without a compass. The first time she saw me she looked over at me with an, “Oh, shit, it’s her”expression, then looked away, and has since made her invisible friends proud by ignoring me on two other occasions. Today I waited on her and her mother. I just couldn’t take the bullshit anymore. What am I being ostracized for, exactly? Taking out more books than anyone else at the library? Raising my hand in class and having the right answers? Listening to 80’s New Wave and 90’s alternative instead of bad frat boy reggae? Is this really worth being pointedly cruel to someone? It wasn’t when we were kids, but kids are kids. Why, ten years on, am I still the pariah?
“Hi Sidney,,” I said out loud. Inside, I said, “To Hell with it.”
“Hi,how are you?” she said.
“I’m fine, and I’ve been fine the last couple of times you came in here, ” I said. She could tell my manager if she wanted. I really didn’t care. I had to stand up for myself.
After grimacing in shock, she recovered and said, “I apologize for not speaking to you.” She turned to her mom-who seemed to be in her cups, or at least acting spacy to seem young and carefree-and said, “I’m just rude. Doesn’t everyone say I’m rude like that, Mom?”
It was supposed to be adorable. They laughed, and I was meant to join in as a form of clemency. They attempted a few more jokes to lighten the mood, and soften me up. I might work part time for $9 an hour but I have enough pride not to laugh with people who would have continued treating me like the scum of the earth if I hadn’t demanded better treatment.
However, today was a lesson to me. No matter how fixed in stone a small town reputation may seem, even if there is no living memory of why people feel a certain way about you, just a tired script that seems to have no end and the same lines in different scenarios, it is not too late to demand better treatment. And all the progress I have made in loving myself and knowing myself does not desert me the minute one of my old tormentors screws their face up me in a crowd, wondering with contempt, “Where’s her skull cap?”Standing up to Sidney meant little to me. She was just a girl I had known for a brief and inconsequential moment in my life and her’s. I had stood up to her, felt proud of myself and then moved on with my day and my life-that was the prize.