On punches and holding hands
by You Have My Word
To the girl with the dark hair who talks more than the instrument in a music lesson,
I don’t know if you’ll ever get to read this, but I will write it anyway. If not for you (as much as I hope you’ll find your way to these words), then for me. Let me assure you that the last thing I want to do is dictate how you should feel, or at the very least how to neatly file your tumble-dried spaghetti emotions. I do not write with arrogance for I have no platform above yours to stand on; I have dropped the same distance down as you. I know only how to walk forward, not upward.
I was the World War II kind of devastated when I heard the news. I was the homeless-victim audience where earthquakes marry tsunamis; I was the prosthetic-limb runner where hurricanes are chased by tornadoes. I was hopeless. To anyone else it didn’t look like a big deal (minus the dramatic crying, thundercloud mood, and the frozen deer-in-headlights composition of my past-tense facade). “… And so, we regret to inform you that you were not chosen as head girl.” If punches came in the form of elegant, together, get-the-job-done school principals, then I just got served.
In an office that smelled of lavender, my solar-system sized dream just got black-holed faster than it takes for light rays to hit the Earth. Being head girl was close to everything I’d ever wanted, and that’s saying a lot for all 6,330 odd days I’d been on the planet. I couldn’t pick up brick-bits of why I’d chosen to build such a castle-high dream in the first place, but there I was – dethroned – with the whole kingdom to point and laugh and stand awkwardly around as I exited the gates. This was the final blow: one of my best friends was head girl.
You ask, “Where did I go wrong?” I had to examine the same question myself. Aside from being busted for sucking on the butt-end of those smokes during Grade 10 camp, and getting all of 4% on a Maths test in Grade 11, and an almost nervous break-down at the start of matric (I’m still alive, so clearly it turned out OK), I wasn’t all that bad. I don’t think you’re all that bad either. Minus the teenage-years melodrama (think: Easy A meets 2012 in a fusion of boys and cat-fights), you turned out pretty well.
I don’t have advice, I can only tell you how I put one step in front of the other. How? By lifting my leg and moving my right foot ahead, and then doing the same with my left. I marched out of that office with a bulldozer-stiff jawline, set eyes and a crumbling heart, but I kept going. I am still going.
When people around you don’t know what to say, be calm and do not feed their pity. When you’re around people and don’t know what to say, don’t say a thing – you don’t have to justify a decision that was not your own. When your forehead scrunches and you feel like you’re going to cry, find a safe place and let the torrent of tears flood every pore of your skin.
Do not apologise. Do not pretend. Be more yourself than you’ve ever been. Do not fake being brave. Let yourself hurt. Do not get stuck in the rut of feeling hopeless. Lift your head and dream. Encourage those who have to carry the responsibility that passed you. Set an example because people are watching closer than ever. Do not equate who you are and what you’re worth to not being selected as prefect, or head girl. Carry on. Give your best. When anger and disappointment and inadequacy beg to be let in the door, allow them only a view from the attic window but do not let them block the sunlight. Allow those-who-matter to carry you when your own wings can’t.
On the evening of the prize giving, where names were announced to parents and teachers and friends and students, head girl was made known first. A stab wound would have been more pleasant to handle in that moment. I sat on a green, plastic chair holding my breath. Quietly, but with intent, my blonde-haired partner-in-crime cleared her throat and I turned and met her eyes. She placed her hand on the now empty chair between us (the one where the head girl sat) and motioned for me to take it. I did. I clung to it desperately like it was the only thing saving me from falling from a rugged cliff. That was all I needed – to know that she was there, and that she knew, and that she loved me regardless.
I sit now, four years out of school and I am fine. To talk of that time is sensitive, but I did not let it define what paths I took. If you give your sadness power, it will have power. But if you choose to let this less-than-pleasant experience shape you, that which is left will be all the more attractive after the chisel has been put down.
You are beautiful. You are capable. You are more than OK. You are strong.