The girl you once were never leaves entirely. Sometimes you catch a brief reflection of her walking past a mirror, glancing sideways as you move. It’s often an early morning, late night, veins thrumming with alcohol, kind of thing.
And there are moments you stop in your tracks, shed the defences, the battered hide and social graces of adulthood as you look her in the eye.
She felt uncomfortable in crowds, and a crowd in her case was any gathering exceeding four individuals. So the first day at school, sitting at her desk in a bright classroom surrounded by 24 other children, she had an ineffable sense of dread: this was now her life. She were to be surrounded by crowds for the best part of most days for more years than she could comprehend. Several more than she’d been alive.
A case of adapt or escape. As escape wasn’t an option, adaption it was.
'Still adapting’, you say to the mirror, ‘getting better all the time’.
Adaption and rebellion may seem contrary terms, but that’s a surface thing. Adapted rebellion meant carving invisible holes to hide in when the weight of expectation and authority threatened to overwhelm. In feeling more than fact. Most authorities, most teachers, attempted to be excessively understanding and gentle.
She went the wrong way about it in the beginning; her first tactic to ooze defensive silence accompanied by hard staring directed at anyone by the blackboard. Then one teacher wrote to her parents, expressing in despondent terms how he found it difficult to handle the way their daughter looked at him. That was a lesson; to be left alone required compromise.
She found carefully honed amicability was an effective way to create distance; the trick was to open a door to seem wider than it really was. Girls can be excellent tricksters, masters of misdirection.
On occasion she was still pulled to the front of the class, together with others regarded as either too boisterous or too unforthcoming. She hated being placed in the first row of desks. Not allowed to turn her head, she imagined a looming sea of heads behind her, a wave of malicious chatter hovering on the verge of breaking. She knew however, that as long she opened her mouth to answer the odd question over the course of a week, she would eventually be allowed to return to the other end of the classroom. Reading a book when the teacher wasn’t looking or chose to ignore it, and only the wall at her back. She liked walls. They were steady and predictable. Not prone to insidious rise and fall or to speak out of turn in a low voice something she couldn’t make out.
The playground is another area where positioning is of the essence; imperative to find a spot with the right degree of in-between. Not so isolated as to make her the loner other children retreat from in ever widening circles. Not so close she has to negotiate the accumulations, the swirling shoals of other girls.
If she has to choose, she chooses to negotiate. Even if she’s no good at the complicated alliances, the pattern of inclusion and exclusion, the subtle exchanges of intimacy and hurt girls call friendship. To uphold the delicate equilibrium of her school day, she has to be the moving element, the instigator of retreat, not the one being retreated from. Standing with her back to the wall has to be entirely her own choice.
Then comes the day she’s pushed and boxed in against the wall, literally, by an older girl who claims ownership of her woolly hat. A moment sudden and absurd, a bored bully looking for a victim. But the other girl is unaware she’s not what she seems. The violation of her tightly guarded, personal borders turns her into a furious, hissing thing. It’s flail and fight. Her hands tearing at the other girl’s hair, her nails clawing her tormentor’s scalp. It’s a memory both grainy and intense, with the texture of sand and metal. The pair of them attracts a small crowd, the few minutes the skirmish goes on. Girl-fights are a popular spectacle.
In the end she’s again in command of her own space, which is a victory of sorts.
There are no repercussions. Anyone involved in physical confrontations tend to get disciplined, but perhaps the other girl is a known bully and her culpability taken as given. It can be an advantage to be considered fragile.
Old patterns soon re-establish themselves, but there’s now a small kernel of respect mixed with bewilderment directed at her; a slight elevation in standing—from sparrow to thrush. She’s quietly pleased: neither too much nor too little. The right level of in-between.