Road Trip Wednesday is a "Blog Carnival," where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question and answer it on our own blogs. You can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic. We'd love for you to participate! Just answer the prompt on your own blog and leave a link in the comments - or, if you prefer, you can include your answer in the comments.
ETA: Turns out that YA Highway changed the topic for this week to 'Your favourite First Lines' after I had already written this post, meaning that once again I am unable to participate. This is what happens when I try to join in, people. It never ends well. But I thought I'd post what I wrote anyway, because it's heartfelt and it took a lot of effort to get it all down.
I've been wanting to take part in Road Trip Wednesday for ages now, but I always forgot or had something else important to post. So I was thrilled when the stars aligned this week and I not only remembered to check the YA Highway blog in time, but had nothing planned for Wednesday's post.
And then I saw the topic.
Who did you want to be like in High School?
Brain freeze. Because here's the thing. When I was in school I wanted to be like:
Elizabeth Bennett. Highly intelligent, quick-witted and funny, but also doing her best to live to strict principles of integrity, even when her own family were pushing her to make bad choices.
Daine from Tamora Pierce's The Immortals Quartet. Tough and competent, with hidden and still developing talents and a completely no-nonsense attitude.
But since I have a feeling this topic is related to the upcoming book Like Mandarin by Kirsten Hubbard, that means the topic is actually asking, what REAL person did you want to be like in school?
Tricky. You see, I was not and never have been a 'follower'. Most of the girls I went to school with bent themselves into strange and awkward shapes, trying to make sure that they fitted in with everyone else. They all had to wear their hair a certain way - permed and scrunched, with at least one large, teased quiff at the front - dress a certain way - tight trousers, top with a certain label, a particular kind of shoes and bag - speak a certain way - lots of swearing, lots of scornful phrases, all topped off with a certain regional accent.
Of course, the less popular ones came off as a sort of cheap imitation of the really popular crowd, but that was okay, because by showing that they were willing to follow, they gained a kind of protection. Even the girls that I was friends with - the ones I knew were clever and funny and interesting people with their own unique traits - were desperately trying to suppress anything different about themselves so they could follow along in the popular kids footsteps.
Don't stand out. Don't do anything different. Don't put your hand up in lessons. Don't smile at teachers. If you get a good mark, don't look pleased about it. For crying out loud, don't let on that you actually READ for fun.
These were the rules, and I broke all of them. I refused to pretend to be anything I wasn't, I refused to pretend to be stupid, and I emphatically refused to perm and scrunch my hair. No way. In fact, the more the other kids my age lectured me, made fun of me and picked on me, the more stubbornly I clung to being different.
That had consequences. Consequences which in some cases skated dangerously close to being life-threatening (like being pushed down stairs, having stones thrown at me, having my head repeatedly hit against a concrete wall) but which were always unpleasant (having ink flicked at my back, being spat at, having dozens of tiny balls of chewing gum thrown at my head so that I had to pull handfuls of my own hair out).
One by one I watched all my friends give in to the pressure. None of them defended me against the attacks - verbal or physical - because doing so would have put them in the line of fire. What's more, as time went on, they got angry with me for being the way I was. It was my own fault people bullied me, they said. Why did I have to be so different? Why couldn't I just fit in? In squashing themselves into the box that the other kids had told them they needed to fit, my friends had lost their bravery and compassion. All they gained was a craven desire not to stand out.
So school was a pretty damn lonely place for me. And the hardest part was knowing that with a few tweaks, a few changes, a few things that seemed so small, I could have turned it around. I was smart, and I could have done a really good impression of one of those cool girls - talked the way they did, acted the way they did. I was quite capable of fixing my hair to look as hideous as theirs did. I could stop putting my hand up in class, hide my books. And, just like had happened to my friends, within a short time the worst of the bullying would have stopped. I'd never have been in the popular crowd, but I wouldn't have been defying them anymore. They'd have lost interest.
Looking back, to be honest I'm stunned at the absolute core of steel I must have had as a teen. I remember so many days when I got home and went straight to my room to cry for hours over things that had been done to me at school. I remember broken glasses and bruises, I remember taunting words that used to echo in my head for hours. But I never let the other kids see me cry. I remember hearing someone say: 'She's too stuck up to feel pain'. Well, I wasn't. But I was too proud to ever let them see me feeling it. I was too proud to give in. And I was too proud to change.
For a long time after leaving school, I didn't like to think about it. I tried to block all the memories out. When random images of school days swam into my head, I'd take deep breaths, or hum under my breath, or flick the inside of my wrist, to try and drive them away. But as I've gotten a little older, I've started to realise something about the whole experience. Yes, it was dark, and scary and lonely. Yes, no one should ever have to go through what I did. But I didn't do anything wrong. The fault lay with the other children, and the teachers and parents who let them get away with acting like they did.
Teenage Zolah? She was AWESOME.
I truly don't know if I could find that kind of inner strength now. I don't know, if I was subjected to that kind of daily, constant harassment, the threat of violence, the verbal abuse, if I could stand up to my tormenters. I don't know if I'd last a week, let alone five years. But somehow that girl - that teenage girl between the ages of eleven and sixteen - managed it. She did something that most adults couldn't do without breaking down. She endured. She went back to that school day after day. And in the end she WON.
So. The reason this topic is tricky for me to answer, is that the person I wanted to be like in school?
And if anyone out there right now, reading this blog, is going through something like Teenage Zolah did, back in the day? Just take a moment to realise how amazing you - like Teenage Zolah - really are.
You are a superhero. And you don't have to be like anyone but you.