My best friend moved away when I was in junior high. She’d tried to commit suicide and her parents sent her to live with her grandparents to put some distance between her and the things and people that were making her so intensely sad. I was happy for her that she got to leave, but I wished that I could go with her.
We’d always done everything together. We were both farm kids, the country equivalent of neighbors – our families’ farms were only ten miles apart with nothing but dirt roads and grain fields between us. We didn’t have everything in common, but we both liked art and video games and music. We shared a sense of humor. We both got picked on at school. She knew everything about me and I knew everything about her and when she left it was just so strange because her farm was still there and her mom was still there and even a lot of her stuff – clothes, jewelry, CDs – was still there. And she was gone. As if she had died, after all.
I remember standing in my driveway waiting for the school bus on my first day of high school, dreading going there without her. School had been hard for both of us for the past few years, but having each other helped. It was like we’d been swimming across an ocean in a hurricane; sometimes she’d hold me afloat, and sometimes I’d do the same for her. Inevitably, the current had sucked one of us under. The thought of doing this solo, with no one to hold me up when my arms got too tired, was terrifying. I had no faith that I could make it.
But when you are fifteen, you go to school. So I went.
Here’s a little bit of important back-story: I was ugly. It wasn’t something I’d always known, I found out when I was seven. One of my foster sisters pointed it out before I left for school one day and I’d honestly never even considered it before then. I was standing beside her in the bathroom and she was curling her bangs the way that we all did in the nineties and I was brushing my teeth and she started laughing and I started laughing too even though I wasn't sure what we were laughing about. She let me in on the joke: we were laughing at my dumbo ears, pointing gracelessly out from underneath my neon pink hat that I loved so much.
I kept laughing with her until she'd finished spraying and fluffing her hair and left the bathroom, and then I ripped the hat off my head and pulled my white-blonde hair down around my face so that those flappy pancake ears were out of sight, where they stayed for years. I was pretty perplexed. I’d never considered the idea that anything could be wrong with the way I looked. I spent a lot of time that night examining myself, and discovered other things about my face and body that I suspected were defects. These were confirmed soon afterwards, as the other kids at school began to notice them, too. Kids are very vocal when they notice things.
Being ugly sucked, as I was well aware how much "pretty" counted for in society. I had Barbies. I watched TV. I occasionally flipped through Mom's magazines. "Pretty" was everyone's favorite attribute, with "funny" and "athletic" following closely behind. But I was not pretty.
So I tried to be funny. I told jokes and laughed too loud. I cringe when I think about it now. I was your typical teenage girl. I was not funny.
So I tried to be athletic. I rode the volleyball and basketball benches through junior high and gave up completely by grade 10. I always got picked last. I hated gym class. I was not athletic.
So I read a lot. I listened to music a lot. I doodled a lot and thought a lot. As I grew older, I dreaded going to school a lot. I dreaded overhearing the older girls in the library discussing my teeth and my hair and my body while I stood a few feet away as though I were invisible and deaf, as well as astoundingly imperfect. I dreaded the boys avoiding me like the plague while all my pretty friends dated and flirted, and I dreaded their constant whispers and the notes they passed me during class time containing horrible words and encouraging me to kill myself. (Where, in the room, do you look after someone taps you on the shoulder and drops a note like that into your lap as the class erupts into laughter? I still don’t know.)
It was just kids being kids. That’s what the parents said about it afterwards when it all came out, when my friend made her second suicide attempt. But it was kids being kids for years and years, and it was kids being kids every day, and it was kids being kids in ways that sometimes left physical marks on us, and after a while it was too much for my friend and it was too much for me. And now she was living at her grandmother’s house and I was heading back into it again, by myself this time.
It’s funny: my most vivid memory from that day, one of my most vivid memories from high school as a whole, didn’t actually even happen at school – it happened on the bus ride home. I was listening to music and staring out the window and the guy behind me started kicking my seat. Hard. I was annoyed, but I knew by now not to let on that I was annoyed, or that I even noticed him. I was very good at looking straight ahead, pressing my headphones hard against my ears, turning the music up.
He leaned forward and pulled at the headphone cord so the earpiece came away from my head. “Hey, Ugly,” he said, like it was my name. “How did you get so ugly, Ugly? Everyone thinks you’re so ugly. It hurts to look at you. That’s why no one looks at you, Ugly. No one likes you, and no one will ever like you. No one will ever go out with you. No one will ever marry you. Ugly, ugly, ugly.”
I stared straight ahead. It was mortifying. I was embarrassed, I was hurt, I was crying, but I really, really didn’t want him to know.
He kept on. He did this for the whole forty-five minute ride home. People were looking at us. I didn’t budge, just sat there like a statue as tears ran down my cheeks. By the time I stumbled through my front door though, I was a sobbing mess.
My dad was there. He tried to hug me and made me tell him what was going on. I did.
He told me it wasn’t true. He said I was beautiful and wonderful and loved. He said it over and over. He hugged me as much as I’d let him and said that the boy was crazy.
And I said, “You have to say that. You’re my dad.”
I was telling this story to a friend recently, because I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Not because it makes me feel sorry for myself or anything like that, but because I have a kid now. Because I’m terrified of my son ever being made to feel the way I did that day, so worthless and useless and offensively ugly. It makes me sick to think of him coming home and telling me stories about other kids saying things like that to him, and—even worse—him believing them.
My dad did everything right that day, but he couldn’t fix it. He couldn’t make me feel better, no matter what he said to me in that moment. I couldn’t possibly believe him. I could barely hear him over the residual noise of that kid kicking my seat and saying those things directly into my ears. What’s more, I heard that noise for years.
It feels absolutely futile.
It’s easy right now. My son is asleep in his crib; I can protect him from bullies and reality and high school. When he cries, I pick him up and tell him he’s okay and he believes me. He sniffles a little and then smiles. My words trump everything for him; my arms make him feel better. Wouldn’t it be so nice if life could be like this forever?
It can’t, though.
My dad hadn’t been able to fix anything that day. But does that mean that his words didn’t matter? When I think back on the situation as a whole, I remember that he was there for me. I remember exactly what he said. I remember that he hugged me. I didn’t believe his words then, but I believe them now. They make me smile now. I think about my dad calling me beautiful and wonderful and loved a lot more than I think about that kid calling me Ugly.
Sometimes parenting is about the short-term fix: your kid scrapes his knee, you hug him and tell him he’s okay and put a band-aid on it. But I think more often than we realize, our words and actions are so much more long-term than that. Maybe the words you give to your kid when their heart gets broken won’t actually take root for ten, fifteen, twenty years. Maybe you just keep pouring into them, even when it feels like they can’t hear you. Maybe you keep encouraging them, reminding them of their value and worth, even when it feels like they can’t believe you.
Speaking from experience: I really believe that in the end, those will be the words that matter most.