I grew up in a very small town. It’s the type of place where families establish themselves through generations. A surname means something—good or bad. And once someone knows who you are, you are either given status, or looked down upon. There isn’t much you can do to change a preconceived idea about who you’re supposed to be. It takes some doing.
When I started school, I went from kindergarten through high school with the same group of people. There weren’t a lot of secrets, although that didn’t keep anyone from whispering. Amongst this group of kids was a girl who came from a wealthy family, but also the only divorced family I knew. She was the eldest of four sisters, all of whom were exceptionally beautiful. For those of us who were her friends, the beauty wasn’t relevant to our interactions, but it was always there.
Sometime around age thirteen or fourteen, I remember hearing things about her for the first time. Seedy things. I always took them to be rumours, and people could be so jealous, especially when it came to beauty. I knew her. She wasn’t ‘that girl’.
There were whispers about boys staying overnight. Chatter about boys slipping in through her basement bedroom window at all hours. Rumours about drinking and parties and so much worse. I couldn’t imagine how any of this was happening, when she looked so normal at school.
One spring, we went away on a school trip. It was an exciting time for most of us who had never been away from home for more than a night or two. I remember being asked to share a hostel room with her and four others, one of whom was her younger sister. It seemed like the perfect choice—a group of close friends, sisters, companions.
On our first night there, we had a knock on our door after lights out. Something had been brewing on the bus ride up. A new boy on the radar, interested in my friend. Or maybe, as someone suggested later, it had been going on for some time, only in secret. She climbed out of the bunk bed from across the room and let in two boys, closing the door behind them.
No one turned on the lights. No one really talked, but I remember a lot of whispering, some giggles, someone climbing up into the bunk above me—her sister’s bunk. I don’t know why no one said anything. Maybe at fourteen, it’s exciting to think something is about to happen, even if it isn’t happening to us. Here we were listening, waiting, wondering what the boys thought they were going to do…in a room full of good kids.
You must remember, they were welcomed into the beds. And there were no protests. None. Not from them, not from the rest of us in the room. Not a whisper that it was making any of us uncomfortable, even when there was plenty of movement in the girls’ beds. But in those moments, all the rumours and whispers and seedy stories I’d heard and discarded, suddenly became real. The girls changed right before me, became the characters of these tales they’d probably rather forget. They were bold and strange and different from the rest of us who stayed quiet, imagining.
None of us ever really talked about it to each other, although someone exposed the couples the next day and they were sent home. As far as we knew, this was the end of the punishment (although maybe we just never heard the rest).
Were the girls victims or not? Did they use bad judgement, or was this acceptable in their lives? Were they good people, or bad people? Was I jealous? Was I being judgemental? All of these questions stayed with me for weeks after. I couldn’t look at these girls in the same way (although, interestingly enough, I didn’t really think twice about the boys involved). They were different to me now, tarnished. I’d look at their faces and not see the gorgeous eyes or perfect teeth anymore. They were forever five minutes in a darkened hostel room, a mass of bodies and whispers and groans.
We often judge ourselves by how we see other people. They’re prettier, or they’re smarter, or they’re living a life that’s better than mine. It isn’t always the truth, but it’s hard not to see it that way. Back then, I felt anger and maybe jealousy toward the girls, not because they were better than me, but because my lack of experiences in comparison, made me feel deficient somehow.
Maybe the biggest lesson here---realized many years later----is that they weren’t the ones who changed. I changed. I grew up that night. Whatever I thought about them, or myself, was forever different, and that was all right. I knew I shouldn’t judge someone strictly on looks alone, and that we all live a different story. That’s what makes us interesting. That’s what makes us unique.
And I’m okay with that.
(Some of the details have been changed for privacy reasons.)
month, I dare you to look at YOURSELF with fresh eyes. Forget all of the things
you already know about you, and pretend you’re passing yourself on the street
for the first time. Would you think you’re attractive? Would you think you’re a
good person? Would you want to get to know you? Without going to the negatives,
tell us ONE positive thing you realize about yourself that surprises you. Do
you think knowing this will change you somehow? Tell us all about it!
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