I knew 7th grade was going to be one of the worst experiences of my life before it even started.
Yet… it still astonishes me to think that it all began with an innocent phone call from one of my best friends— the other Ashley— Ashley B.
My early ripened twelve-year-old intuition set off clanging bells and howling alarms in my gut as soon as I heard Ashley B.’s voice. Ever the bubbly and vivacious blonde with a mouth full of electric green braces, Ashley B. always greeted me with an excited burst of giggles and gossip.
That particular day was different, however. She didn’t sound the same at all, and she certainly wasn’t laughing. After ten or fifteen minutes of uncharacteristically awkward chatter about the upcoming start of school, Ashley B. finally shared what was weighing on her mind.
“Yeah, speaking of school… have you—have you heard?”
“Heard what? What are you talking about, Ash?”
There was a brief pause before an ever so uncomfortable sigh rasped through the receiver.
“What people are saying. What they’ve been saying about… you.”
Instantly dazed and confused, I began to stammer, “Me?! People are talking about me? Who? Why? What are they saying?”
By then, my family and I had lived in that small Midwestern town for nearly four years, which was more than enough time to become accustomed to the idea that folks around those parts had damn near invented the art of gossip. The unfortunate combination of half the population being related to one another and having next to nothing to do besides watch the corn stalks sprout up in the fields made gossip ridiculously commonplace.
It was nearly impossible to get your mail or pick up a carton of milk without hearing how so and so had been caught cheating on their husband with the guy who stocked down at the feed store. If you so much as stepped foot outdoors and were caught by a resident of that town, you were sure to hear chatter about someone else’s business—be it true or a complete fabrication.
To the best of our knowledge, my family had never gotten swept up in the town rumor mill… not until that balmy August day, at least.
Despite my worried pleading, Ashley B. was strangely reticent to repeat what she’d heard, much less who she had heard it from. Although she had always been one of the best sources of gossip on the elementary school circuit, Ashley B. and I had been inseparable since fifth grade; I could tell that it pained her to have heard gossip about one of her dearest friends.
When Ashley B. finally revealed the story that was being circulated among the girls we’d grown up with, I had to wonder how long it had taken her to muster up the courage to fill me in. Not only was the rumor utterly preposterous and unfathomable to me, it was deeply damaging and hurtful.
Even at that young age, I knew the disastrous repercussions that would roll my way if people actually believed what was being said. To even imagine one person believing that I had not made the cheer team fair, square, and by my own merits was humiliating and heartbreaking enough. But to hear that many people (including the girls who hadn’t made it, the ones that had, and their mothers) believed it enough to help spread it around town was utterly devastating. I will not open an entire can of worms and go into full detail about the precise nature of the rumor, but it was vicious and hateful on so many levels.
I remember my hand shaking violently as I squeezed the phone and asked Ashley B. if she believed me when I said the rumor wasn’t true. When I heard her say “yes”, but I felt her say “no”, I had a sinking suspicion that things were going to go very poorly for me in that town from then on out.
I was so right.
Before school even started, girls I had known and been close friends with since third grade started icing me out. Even some of my guy friends began avoiding me like the plague.
For the first time ever, I had to sit in classes full of kids I used to laugh with and joke around with, but simply sit in the back of the room by myself. It was bad enough feeling lost in a new school and having to get to know foreign teachers, but being shut out by so many of my friends was a nightmare.
As bad as the immediate implications of the rumor were, I don’t think I realized just how deep the problem ran until it was too late. However, I was quickly schooled as soon as basketball season peeped its head around the corner and my squad needed to start prepping.
By then, it was already pretty clear to me that the majority of the cheerleaders (and their mothers) had heard the rumor and were no longer interested in being kind to me. I kept trying to convince myself that things would blow over and they would come to see that the tale wasn’t true, yet they never did.
To make matters worse, because Ashley D. was still my friend at that point, the other squad members made sure to mistreat her as well. There were countless times when the other girls on my squad would “forget” to tell us when and where our practice sessions were being held, causing us to miss most of them. I can still remember Ashley D. and I holding our own practices out in my front yard because we knew we wouldn’t be ready for the start of the season otherwise.
Our coach eventually caught on that the other girls and their mothers were intentionally leaving us out of the loop (the mothers were actually in charge of determining when to have pre-season practices), so someone was forced to call Ashley D. to let me know when a practice was being held.
I cannot tell you how much I hated going up to the high school to meet those girls for practice; it was literally the bane of my existence. Aside from Ashley, there was only one other girl that was nice enough to talk to me. The other girls on the squad consistently went out of their way to make sure that I didn’t feel welcome, so I began to regret joining cheerleading in the first place. This was the beginning of the end for me.
Being as young as I was, I had no idea what to think or feel about my life anymore.
From having trouble with my old friends to having to deal with my squad members after school, I began to feel extremely stressed out and unhappy. I didn’t understand how someone could hate me and my family so much that they could sit around making up cruel stories about us.
No matter where I went or what I did, I knew what people thought. They thought someone had threatened the coach into putting me on the team. They didn’t think I was good enough to be on the squad in the first place. And it was one thing for strangers to believe the lies, but when I realized just how many of my friends—people I loved and who actually knew me—were quick to believe the rumor, it simply broke my heart.
I instantly lost faith in everything I’d ever believed in and started to doubt that I was even worthy of being on the team anymore. After all, everyone hated me.
My coach thought I was too fat and made the squad look bad.
The cheers moms thought I’d been raised by blackmailers.
The kids thought I was a no-good cheater.
And perhaps worst of all, I had no idea who had spread the rumor. It literally could have been anyone. I could no longer trust the people around me, as I had already heard that a handful of different people had started it, from students to parents. Whenever I tried to confront someone who had been named as the culprit, they would always point a finger at someone else.
Before I knew it, my unhappiness began to fester and swell as I started having genuine issues at school—outside of the rumor.
The Storm Was A’Brewin
My science teacher, a pudgy and snooty young woman with mounds of mousey brown hair, constantly picked on me during class, occasionally making me cry in front of the other students. At the time, I could never understand why she disliked me so, but looking back, I now have to assume that teachers and other school staff had also heard of the rumor. So despite having spent my entire school career loving the sciences, I always dreaded showing up to Miss. Bigley’s 1st period science class.
Then, because I was particularly bright, I spent 7th grade sharing most of my classes with 8th graders. Well, this didn’t exactly agree with me because the 8th grade classes were all located in the far wing of the school—the really creepy, ultra crowded, super old wing.
You see, the school had been built in the 1800s and it was widely known that a former student from the school’s early days had hung themselves there. However, there was more than small town lore behind the stories of the school being gravely haunted. That particular wing of the school was scary enough thanks to the older students who roamed the halls!
Each day, I would have to mentally and emotionally prepare myself to brave the trek from my 7th grade section to the 8th grade section.
In addition to the 8th grade boys towering over me with their sweaty, smelly bodies, many of them liked to pick on the 6th and 7th grade students, which almost worried me as much as their B.O. Then, once I safely made it to class, I would spend the entire lecture cringing in my seat, fearful that one of them would throw a spitball at me, pull my hair, or hurl a nasty insult in my direction. Thankfully, they never did.
Speaking of one of the classes I shared with 8th graders, it reminds me of my History class. I shared this particular class with one of the most popular girls in school—who just so happened to be on my squad. Before this point, we had never shared a class together, so we’d never been given an opportunity to get to know each other personally or become friends.
By 7th grade, Molly and many her friends had found themselves at the center of some pretty salacious rumors, many of which I was able to confirm during our time at cheer camp. Well, I was not that kind of a girl, so I strongly doubted she would find much use for me as a friend. Even so, I was desperate to earn her friendship, so I spent every moment of my time in History class trying to ingratiate myself with her.
Deep down, I knew that getting in good with her might help me escape from under the weight of the rumor. If Molly gave me a stamp of approval and told everyone else to let up on me, I could get my friends and life back as well as infiltrate her damn near impenetrable nucleus of friends.
In short, it didn’t work.
After “borrowing” (but never returning) money, jewelry, homework answers, and everything short of my soul and the promise of my firstborn child, Molly and her friends discarded me. This really upset me because in all of my attempts to win favor with Molly, her friends, and basically everyone in the whole town, I had completely lost focus on my actual schoolwork.
For the first time in my life, my straight A’s plummeted to C’s over the course of a single semester. No matter how hard I tried, I could no longer concentrate on anything other than the idea that when the people around me whispered, they were surely talking about me.
My grades had become so worrisome that I began having significant trouble at home as well. Concerned about the sudden decline in my academic performance, my parents told me that I would have to quit cheerleading if I didn’t pull my grades back up. I genuinely think they assumed that my poor grades were related to not studying enough due to staying out late for practices and games.
Little did they know that I was carrying the tremendous emotional burden of feeling like the most hated girl in town. In fact, they had no clue. Outside of me mentioning the rumor when I originally heard it, I don’t recall ever bringing it up again. I don’t remember talking too much about how it made me feel or what was going on at school due to it. Although they knew of some situations, I definitely didn’t share the majority of what I was going through.
Being an only child, there was never anyone my age who I felt safe enough to vent with. I didn’t have an older sibling to stick up for me at school or help me bear the crosses I’d been lugging through that town since moving there. I’d gone through so many difficult things while living there, but I’d only ever had my diaries to keep me company.
Still, even my private musings had been perverted through my near constant obsession with weight. I had so many fears and worries for such a young girl, but since I never knew how to share them with people, I swallowed them and kept my chronic sadness to myself.
This was exactly the problem.
A Rookie Rebel’s End
Since moving to that small country town, I had done everything within my power to be accepted. In an effort to help the kids “forget” or at least look past the fact that my skin was a shade darker than theirs, I had spent four years jumping through hoops like a damned circus pony.
I talked how they talked. I liked what they liked. I wore what they wore. And for awhile, I had genuinely believed that my efforts were a success. When I made it on the team, I truly believed that it had been a seal of approval. They accepted me. I was no different than anyone else.
Then the rumor got sparked and spread like wildfire, burning down the entire illusion. I could finally see that they had never truly accepted me at all. Someone, somewhere had probably never liked me or my family and had ruined our reputation just to remind us that we simply weren’t welcome. I had never wanted to believe this could be true before, but once I saw the truth I no longer wished to fit in.
I no longer wanted to be a cheerleader.
I no longer wanted to beg for acceptance.
I no longer wanted to be hated for something as unpreventable as my skin color.
That’s when I decided to give them a real reason to hate me.
At school, I stopped being friends with “good girls” like Ashley B. and Ashley D. (another long story) and started solely surrounding myself with some of the more… spirited kids at school. While I would never, ever say that any of my friends were “bad”, they were definitely the kinds of kids that probably grew up to be a handful. You know, the girls who had vulgar language, hung out with older boys, and got piercings and tattoos in unspeakable places.
For the first time ever, I began getting into minor trouble at school right alongside my friends. Disrupting pep rallies and assemblies. Talking in class. Wading into the depths of all the school gossip and drama. In a nutshell, my friends and I were what you would call messy, but it was all fun and games to us. Well, when I started bringing detention slips home, I swiftly realized that my parents didn’t find my antics worth so much as a giggle. In fact, they were downright livid.
Never in my life had I exhibited such disruptive behavior. Aside from bringing home dismal progress reports and pink slips, I started being reprimanded for poor behavior at home as well. I can vividly recall having many, many sit-downs with my parents as they tried to get me back under control, but if I can be perfectly honest, they never had a chance. Until then, I’d never been a disobedient child, so I wasn’t acting out because I wanted to, but because I felt I had to. As ridiculous as it may sound, I truly didn’t know what else to do.
Depression consumed me.
Each day that I continued to go to that school and exist in that town was another day that I eroded inside. I could no longer maintain the charade of trying to be likable and accepted anymore than I could reckon with the fact that nothing I could ever do would make it possible.
Despite feeling unable to articulate my inner angst, I needed an outlet—a means of coping with my hurt and disappointment. It was as though I was in unbearable pain, yet I couldn’t feel anything at all—all at the same time. However, I mostly felt numb. And though I wanted to feel again, I no longer knew how.
For awhile, rebellion felt like a reasonable option… until the day my parents made me turn my cheerleading uniform in, that is.
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