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Leaving Hell Behind
It was the last hour of my last day of hell when I was called from study hall into the Guidance Office. I knew what Mrs. Carlson wanted although I hadn’t told anyone about my secret. I had kept everyone in the dark until the last second, planned it for months, dreamed about it through countless class periods. It would be so easy to slam my locker shut for the last time, to slip past my clueless fellow prisoners, to step out of this hellish time warp as though it were all only a movie. There would be no tears, no fanfare. I would vanish out the door into the great wide world again and no one would ever notice. Yet here I was at the Guidance Office, adrenalin scorching my blood and pounding in my throat as I perched on the ragged sofa and ground my toes into the floor. The place was familiar to me, the atmosphere heavy with the drama of raw feelings and hormones gone wild. The scuffed carpet camouflaged countless tears cried long ago, while the arms of the sofa had been picked clean of threads by nervous fingers. It was a disturbing place, full of the unknown and shattered hopes. I knew it all to well.
“Anna,” Mrs. Carlson intoned in a grave voice, squinting over her tiny, smudged glasses. “I just heard a rumor about you. Is it true?”
I lowered my head, not from shame but to hide the faint smile on my face. “Yes, Mrs. Carlson, it’s true.” I took a deep breath. “My parents aren’t pleased with the academics here, it’s too far a drive for me every morning, and I haven’t been treated very well.” There. I’d said it. I could be a good liar when I wanted to be.
Mrs. Carlson scrawled something on a sticky note and slapped it onto her wall. Her watery blue eyes tried in vain to read my face. “Aren’t you going to tell your classmates?” “No, Mrs. Carlson, I’m not. I doubt they would notice or care.”
She shifted in her squeaky chair; I had always wondered why the custodian never oiled it. “Why Anna, I’m very surprised at you. You have become part of our school family, and I’m sure all the girls in your class will be sorry to see you leave. ”
Part of our school family. My mind wandered back to my first day, staring at the rows and rows of lockers, clueless and helpless as a fly in a tornado. It was my fault; I had begged and pleaded to be here. A real school would solve all my problems. I would have the boyfriend, the prom dress, the car. I wouldn’t be the nerdy home-schooled kid anymore; this school would make me somebody. All those years of rejection and longing for friendship would finally end. Or had it just begun?
Part of our school family. It had been easy at first, getting up at 5:00 am and driving an hour to arrive before the first bell rang. I told myself it was all part of the sacrifice. Soon I would have my own circle of friends and fit right in, like Bella Swan in Twilight. I would have my Edward and we would go all over Faribault together, driving in his fancy car and looking at the stars and feeling like royalty. I survived the first week alive and friendless. Unfortunately, weeks two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight were the same way. Was I the only one fighting this battle?
Part of our school family. I was taunted and tripped in gym every day until I faked illnesses to avoid going there. My “family” would test me daily, inviting me to parties where drugs and sex ran rampant. They tried several initiation ceremonies to see if I was good enough to join their crowd; I flunked them all and they left me in the dirt with the mark of uncoolness branded into my flesh. I hated that crowd, but I desperately wanted to join it. These kids were mean and vicious. They cheated, they smoked, they got high, they slept around. They hated the teachers and the teachers hated them. They stabbed each other in the back at every opportunity. They spread ugly lies. And I wanted more than anything to join them.
Fried chicken doesn’t seem to hurt you until you suffer your first heart attack. It works the same way when you hang around the wrong kind of people. I hardly noticed the change, but my family did, and it slowly tore us apart. I could hear my parents arguing late into the night. My sister seemed to shun my presence, and I hers. I lost contact with old friends and never bothered to reconnect. This school had consumed me, but sooner or later it would vomit me back out and leave me partially digested in the fragments of my life.
“No, Mrs. Carlson, I don’t think I was ever really a part of your family,” I said, waving the ridiculous notion away with my hand. “And if you don’t mind, I need to get back to my study hall now before my classmates get too worried. They would be very upset if something bad happened to me.” The sarcasm fell flat; she rummaged around on her debris-strewn desk and handed me her business card. “If you ever need me in the future, you know where to find me.” She forced her pinched face into a smile and shook my hand. “It was a great pleasure having you at our school, Anna. We’re going to miss you.”
“I’ll miss you, too,” Struggling to maintain a poker face, I left the office and scaled the stairs to the third floor. The last bell had already rung and students swarmed throughout the halls, slamming books, shoving, and calling to each other. I went to my locker and opened it, my face a calm mask, every muscle under control. The kids pushed by me as though I didn’t exist. It didn’t bother me today, because I had finally accepted the fact that I was never going to fit in.
By the time I turned in all my textbooks the school was empty except for the basketball team in the gym. I shouldered my backpack and made my way through the halls for the last time. The lockers stretched out ahead like rows of giant tombs, my footsteps ringing in a menacing cacophony. You will never be cool. You will never have a life. You are worthless. You are worthless. You are worthless. Their chant had reverberated in my ears every day, but today I was deaf to it. Now I could walk through them unscathed, like Luke Skywalker using the Force to subdue his enemies. My shoes shuffled against the tiles as I pushed open the door and flung myself into the bliss of freedom. I didn’t have to come back tomorrow. I was no longer subject to the Laws of Cool.
Why had I been tricked into thinking I needed the crowd to survive? Was it my fault that I just wasn’t good enough for the Masters of Cool? Perhaps I will never know. Now I embraced the solitude I had been trying so hard to avoid. I was alive. I was free. And I didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought.