Wednesday, 13 October 2010


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:

Buffy Summers. Beautiful, brave, resourceful and strong, Surrounded by great friends. Willing to sacrifice her life for the good of others.

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?

Was me.

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.


Saya said...

Another post I thank you from the bottom of my heart for writing.

I'm amazed that people get away with so much abuse. I was pretty badly different to my peers at school, but they, bless them, basically let me be, which is something I love about my school experience.

People like you make the world safer for all the little Zolahs out there :) Thank you again for letting us read this.

Nattasha said...

Another amazing post Zoe. It's so strange because that was just like me only I didn't really have any friend's. I remember once in class someone threw a pair of scissors at my (luckily they missed) I used to get all sorts of things thrown at me. I would read openly for fun, I wouldn't say I'm smart but I'm not stupid so if I knew an answer I would have put my hand up. I often went home upset and cried for hours. I think that it was my love of reading that got my through school sometimes. But I'm always glad I didn't deny who I was, I'm proud of reading for fun and it often shocks when people say they hate it, I don't think I could manage well without reading.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks. I feel a bit silly now - I wish I knew when and how the YA Highway folks decided to change this week's topic! Ah, well.

Zoë Marriott said...

Nattasha: well to be honest by year eight/nine those 'friends' had pretty much melted away because they just didn't want to associate with someone who was drawing so much fire. Some of them even tried to prove how non-friendly we were by joining in the bullying.

Anyway, please don't say you're not smart! Of course you are, you prove it every time you post. Own your awesomeness, don't deny it!

Nattasha said...

Thank You Zoe :)

Saya said...

You know, when I was at school, I was so lost in my own world of whatever I was reading, I barely noticed what went on. I was different enough (with all that Muslimness going on) that my other weirdnesses were just absorbed into the Big Weirdness.

Don't feel silly. I wouldn't even have know about the YA Highway thing if you hadn't mentioned it. Maybe nobody else would've either...

Zoë Marriott said...

Saya: I am so thankful that you did not go to the same school I did. Most of the kids were horrible racists (the fact that I *wasn't* was another mark against me) and the handful of kids from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds suffered as much as me, I think.

Well, I felt as if I ought to give an explanation for why I launched into this topic. But YA Highway is a great resource too, so I'm glad I linked to it. I ought to put them in my sidebar.

Saya said...

Oh noes, racists XD To be fair, the 90s were pretty bad in terms of racism...but a little worse in the north?

I was lucky enough to go to a very very good school (thank you, Tory government - one favour you did me XD), and people could afford to be liberal - to the point I got some street cred for caring so little and reading so much. It created an illusion of smartness that still persists.

An illusion, mind.

I'm going to be keeping an eye on YA Highway now, it looks interesting - thank you!

Jen the bibliophile said...

Zoë could I just say first off that you rock! My high school days weren't quite that bad, but I still went home most days and cried my eyes out. Still to this day, ten years later, I try to block most of high school out. Sometimes I meet people I went there with and they say hi and I'm like, sorry, I don't remember you, but don't take it personal, I try not to remember any of it.

But, I think you are right that it helped to shape me, make me stronger. Sometimes I wonder if I could have made it through as much of my adult life as I have without that part of my past. Of course I have no idea what the answer to that is, but I do know that I am definitely stronger for all of it.

I was always different, especially because I talked too much and I was never a size zero (not even remotely close). But, it's funny how life changes because all those differences really work for me now. My clients like that I'm smart and have the necessary answers, they even let me ramble forever about the latest books I've read and that I want to be a published author even though I'm currently their bookkeeper. And as I told my sister yesterday, Smart is what I have and nobody can take it away from me.

So, now that I've rambled forever, I'll stop. I never lost the ability to talk forever! :D

In the Closet With a Bibliophile

Zoë Marriott said...

Saya: Stop that! What is it with smart, funny, talented women who keep putting themselves down? You are obviously extremely clever, and there's nothing wrong about acknowleging that and being proud and grateful for it. Don't make me come down there and tick you off in person!

Jen: That's exactly right - they can't take the important stuff, who we are inside, away. No one can. And what doesn't kill us makes us stronger (and makes great research material for a writer!). Plus, after a school experience like that, the only way is up.

Nattasha said...

I agree with you Zoe, I can't believe how much my life has changed from when I was at high school. I have friends and the fact I read for fun isn't a bad thing anymore. I think though that if I hadn't gone through the bullying, I mightn't have been able to cope with some of the things that have happened in the last couple of years, I so believe that what doesn't kill you will only make you stronger. I'm just glad I don't have to go through it again just the thought would be enough to give me nightmares!

Zoë Marriott said...

I couldn't do it! If they sent me back into my teenage body now, I'd end up taking a big stick to school with me and just beating the heck out of everyone who tried to victimise me. Which would end up with me in jail and them going scott free, of course.

Isabel said...

Oh Zoe!!!!
This was beautiful. Thank you so much. I had no idea you had to go through all that as a child and teenager! I would probably give in at the point where people were smacking my head against a concrete wall and throwing stones at me. Now I know who I will want to be in high school!!
Your right. Teenage Zolah was awesome beyond awesomeness, and I am snorting at how all those "cool" idiots couldn't realize that. How horrible to have your own friends give into bullying you just to be one of the popular crowd, and not stand out.
But you realized this, that it is GOOD to be smart, GOOD to raise your hand in class, GOOD to be kind to others and maintain a clean mouth, GOOD to stand out. And even though there was no one there to support you but yourself, you were too stubborn to give in.
You are my hero.
And all those people posting saying that they wouldn't say they're smart, well just stop that now. Of course you are, and there's no reason to say it's not true. If you know that the thing to be is you, and nobody else, then just keep at it and be proud. Your awesome.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you, Isabel. I'm really glad this post moved you. Hopefully if you ever have tough situations when you're at school it might give you encouragement to know that other people have managed to work through similar or worse things, and come out better for it. We're all a lot stronger than we know. You - and all the amazing people who visit this blog, I have to say! - are awesome too.

Isabel said...

Thanks, Zoe. : )
Ah, and how was you're school visit on Monday? Lucky ducklings who got to meet you . . .

Elise said...

Hey, Zoë, first time commenter. I just wanted to add mine to the voices cheering on those who find themselves in this situation. Strangely, I actually went through this experience in late elementary/early middle school and I was lucky enough not to experience any physical violence, but other than that my story is remarkably similar to those I see here. I'm in high school, which has actually been a generally positive experience for me. I have good friends that accept me for who I am and share my interests, but that wasn't always the case. In fifth grade my only "friends" were girls who were willing to make conversation with but then laugh behind my back. To those who are being bullied, and perhaps feel all alone in the world, as i did: know that this is not the end. You will pull through, and emerge even happier after your sorrows. One day someone will smile at you unexpectedly, and eventually you will wake up and realize that someone is on your side. Until then, hang onto something that means more to you than your immature peers. What really pulled me through was band, and books of course.
All my love, Elise

Zoë Marriott said...

Isabel: The visit was fine. I wouldn't say it was the MOST enjoyable visit I've done, just because the teachers kept leaving and changing midway through the sessions, which is a bit distracting (for the kids and me) but I think everyone enjoyed it.

Elise: Thank you for commenting for the first time here. It IS a very important issue, this, more important than most people who are on the outside of it, who haven't experienced it, can possibly realise. Making sure that the people who suffer from bullying and prejudice in schools have hope is the only way you or I can probably help.

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