You don’t know that when you’re twelve
Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.
When I was twelve years old, I thought about giving up every single day. I didn’t want to be here anymore. I didn’t want to go to school and be relentlessly made fun of for wearing the same clothes day after day. I didn’t want to hear how ugly I was, how flat chested… I already knew. Didn’t need the peanut gallery chiming in in the hallway.
In middle school I could not put a foot right. I didn’t look the right way, I didn’t dress the right way, my parents were divorced, my family was poor, I had crooked teeth and there was no money for braces. School was hard for me because LIFE was hard for me.
None of those things are insurmountable, but you don’t know that when you’re twelve.
I became the Artful Dodger of school attendance. I feigned illness ALL the time. It is completely shocking that I was not held back in either 7th or 8th grade because I pretty much just didn’t go. Not if it could be helped. My poor mother. The thing is, though, I really did feel sick to my stomach. That’s what dread feels like.
When things got so bad that my mother went to the school to talk to them about the bullying, she was told I was paranoid and needed to develop thicker skin.
My older sister was brilliant and musical, my younger sister was popular and athletic. I didn’t have a THING. Nothing that stood out, particularly. And I was the walking wounded. Kids can sense that.
When you combine that lack of a niche and obvious vulnerability, middle school is the fifth circle of hell. I approached every single day without hope of it being a good one. I had a few friends. I was the tagalong, though- never the best friend. Until I met Stacia, that is. I think Stacia may well be the single reason I survived middle school.
Stacia was edgier than me (still is,) she was effortlessly cool (still is,) and she had rad hair (still does.) She seemed to just like what she liked- and if you didn’t like it, whatever. She’d just saunter along, too busy being awesome to give a rat’s ass. And she liked me. ME!
Now, she probably DID care, because she actually has one of the most tender hearts of anyone I’ve ever met, but life had battered her around a bit as well, and she’d developed a tougher outer shell than I had. I gave the bullies the reaction they were looking for- shame, tears, anger. Stacia would just turn her impossibly big blue eyes at them and smirk.
It was a pretty solid strategy.
One of the reasons Stacia could give no rats’ asses is that her mom, Barbara, had cancer. That’ll put your young world into perspective for you. Barbara became like a second mom to me. I spent countless hours at their house. We had a lot to do. If I was going to marry Bruce Springsteen and she was going to marry Rod Stewart, there were plans that needed hatching. Obviously.
Having a friend, a BEST friend, made every single difference in the world to me. I remember watching Grey’s Anatomy and hearing Cristina say to Meredith, You’re my person. YES. Stacia was my person. My life got immeasurably better once she was in it. My life got bearable. LIVABLE. I could keep showing up, now that I had someone to laugh with. Roll my eyes with. Dance with. Dream with.
Cut up my t-shirts with. It WAS the 80’s…
Stacia moved away our freshman year of high school. Her mom, a warrior if ever I met one, passed away, and my best friend moved to Florida. We were both devastated, but even those couple of years of feeling included made a huge difference for me. High school wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful, either.
I think about the kids out there who don’t have that. Who haven’t perfected the smirk or found a bestie who has. Who are different and that feels like the END of the WORLD to them. Because when you are twelve and thirteen and fourteen, it truly does feel like the end of the world. You are so impossibly young that you cannot conceive of how very big and endless the world is. And so, when you are bullied relentlessly, when school feels like an unsafe arena where your attendance is compulsory, and when the adults running the arena don’t seem to get it- don’t see the lions, won’t acknowledge your lack of armor?
I understand wanting to leave the arena.
This morning, my friend Jill posted a link to a story about a young girl, Alyssa- 12 years old- who came out as bisexual. Her family supported and embraced her, but at school? That’s a different battlefield. She was told she was “disgusting” and called names, and even though she was loved and lifted up at home, it became too much for her. She decided she couldn’t face the arena anymore. She left.
She left US. She left the WORLD because she thought she was at its end. Because she was twelve.
Alyssa’s suicide was the fifteenth suicide at her school in twelve years.
Something is BROKEN, friends. There is a fracture running so deep, and so wide, and these children- these BABIES, are falling into it. And while the statistics are particularly horrifying at that school, they are bad everywhere- particularly among gay, bisexual, and transgender youth.
If you’re wondering why that is, the answer is found in the first few paragraphs of this essay by my friend Glennon.
When Stacia and I were young, we both hated our names PASSIONATELY and wanted to change them. I, somewhat inexplicably, wanted mine to be Elles. Stacia, always cooler, wanted hers to be Alyssa. That’s how we signed the notes we passed to one another. We practiced our signatures, Elles Springsteen…. Alyssa Stewart. We signed those names to the letters that traveled fervently from Massachusetts to Florida and back, letters filled with inside jokes, and angst, and friendship.
I don’t have any answers, other than to say that the adults need to step the hell up, because this is not a kid problem- it’s a grown-up problem.
I’m going to think about this all day. I am going to think about that beautiful, brave twelve-year-old girl who spoke her truth and then felt so battered by the reaction in what should have been a safe place for her, that she felt as though she needed to leave. Forever. It wasn’t okay, but it also wasn’t the end.
But you don’t know that when you’re twelve.
I am going to carry her family in my heart, today.
I miss you so much! I just wanted to tell you that I love you. And I wanted to thank you for ninth grade. And tenth. And eleventh. And twelfth.
You were part of what made them possible.