Playlists

The emotional peaks and valleys of this semester have been uncommonly extreme. On the one hand, I have taken another, exciting step towards achieving my goal of writing creative non-fiction for wider audiences. The wonderful people at The Hairpin published an essay that I wrote about 90’s roller rinks, nostalgia, and teenage sexual awakening (You can check it out here: http://thehairpin.com/2014/04/fantasy-on-wheels-my-roller-rink-sexual-awakening). This in and of itself was a tremendous honor, not to mention a thrill; I love The Hairpin and very much believe in their goal of promoting woman-centered writing. Then, at the end of the same week, as I absent-mindedly perused my Twitter feed, I found that The Paris Review had highlighted the piece. Talk about a compliment – I very nearly vomited in appreciation (Is there such a thing as glee-vomiting? One of these days I might make it so – unwillingly, mind you). And in the meantime, people have shared such wonderful memories with me. The gift economy of writing is both so enriching and fulfilling. I want to spend my life swapping stories and ideas with people through every available venue, and I am committed to doing exactly that.

And yet, it has been in other ways a very humbling and frustrating semester. Not everything has gone as I would have hoped–not even close–and I have had to grapple with several disappointments. Such is life. In the midst of one rough patch, I was feeling particularly in need of a little sonic morale boost. So with the help of some friends, I compiled a “graduate student empowerment” playlist. It is available on Spotify, and because I had so much wonderful input from other folks, I feel quite comfortable saying that the playlist kicks ass. Whether or not you are a graduate student, I highly recommend that you give it a listen (you can blame me for all of the Robyn).

A couple of weeks after making this playlist, I read a wonderful essay by Buzzfeed writer Summer Anne Burton, entitled “The Fine Art of Mixtape Seduction” (http://www.buzzfeed.com/summeranne/crush-mixtapes). Mind you, I am no slick fox, so I have never performed my own seductions via mixtape – or via any other means, for that matter. I have always loved a good music mix, though. And in middle school, high school, and college, I made a number of them for my friends. In high school, my mixtapes always included track listings with detailed rationales for each of my selections. The rationale was always a mélange of autobiography, pseudo-philosophical musing, and “isn’t this song just, like, the best?!” Moreover, the process of compiling the mixtape’s content was itself a craft. One could not record the songs willy-nilly; order was crucial. Putting “Both Hands” (with the orchestral accompaniment, of course) after “Bullets With Butterfly Wings” would have been a grave mixtape transgression, as would including too many songs by the same artist. Any music snob worth her salt knows that she must represent her taste as both refined and varied.

I have always turned to music for emotional sustenance, and this semester, with its many ups and downs, has certainly been no exception. Between putting together the Graduate Student Empowerment mix and reading Burton’s fantastic piece, I have also been reminiscing about my music mixing days and the track listings that probably took me as long to compose as any English paper. I thought, for the heck of it, that I might revisit this exercise and put together a “mix” of the first ten songs that came to mind – ones strongly tied to specific memories. Lately my students and I have been thinking a great deal about biographies and memoirs–we just finished Audre Lorde’s Zami–and so we have had many conversations about how we remember and revise our histories, not to mention the associations that provoke or accompany memories. Often the memories that cling most tenaciously or perpetually resurface cannot be arranged into a cohesive narrative. So, what I am saying is that seventeen-year-old Rachel would probably sneer at this playlist. But I will ignore her pretentiousness and sally forth.

1. “Time Ago” by Black Lab: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kI_Y4hgsXYY

When I first heard this song, I was eleven years old, sitting underneath the window in my bedroom with my portable CD player in front of me. Immediately after, I concluded that it was the sexiest song I had ever heard. I had recognized “sexy” as an adjective since I was maybe nine. As an eleven year old awash in a complex web of new feelings, I all of a sudden realized that certain things, certain people, were sexy to me. Still, I could not quite articulate what that meant. I looked primarily to music and movies to cultivate my understanding of the term, and so I learned the following: 1. Having sex outside was sexy. 2. Having sex in a car was also sexy, especially if said car did not belong to you (ah, Titanic, the dreamscapes you inspired). Black Lab wooed me with the lyrics “All by ourselves we made love under the sleeping, moonless night,” because, as you will observe, they refer to bumping uglies in the outdoors (possibly on the hood of a car!), and THAT is sexy. But I was also a sucker for any song that articulated a man’s pained and nostalgic longing for a woman. I wanted to be that woman for somebody and was fearful that I never would be. And so, each time the local DJ fulfilled my wish and played this hyperbolically earnest one hit wonder, I would imagine it as the soundtrack to my first tryst with whoever I fancied that term.

2. “I Would Do Anything For Love” by Meatloaf: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOikQWAL8qc

One night, during our sophomore year, plagued by too many English papers, midterms, and theatre rehearsals, my friend Kellyn and I–roommates at the time–determined that there was only one way to mitigate our collective stress. We sought out Meatloaf in Kellyn’s iTunes library, turned the volume up as high as our RA would permit, and treated the rest of the floor to our vocal stylings. We stood defiantly, if precariously, on our wobbly desk chairs, hairbrushes clutched in our hands (microphones, you see). Within a few minutes, our neighbor Sarah LeCates rushed in to join us (we shared a hairbrush). While we were both quite friendly with Sarah, we were not close friends. But we shared a fleeting intimacy that night, even if our impromptu karaoke did not significantly change the nature of our friendship. The next year, Sarah left campus to study abroad in Senegal. Before returning to the States, she fell ill and died shortly thereafter. My sadness, while profound, could not be the same as the sorrow felt by those close to her – and, being a warm, vibrant person, she had many dear friends. But I never hear a note of this song without thinking of her.

3. “Jackie’s Strength” by Tori Amos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7WET8khBc4 

If I were a Tori Amos song, I would be “Jackie’s Strength” – at least according to the Buzzfeed quizmeisters. Apparently this has something to do with my penchant for the dramatic, so clearly their algorithm failed. Truly, though, I could not help but feel a bit of pleasure with my result. This song became my lullaby in eighth grade, its ethereal chorus engulfing me, forming what felt like a protective shell around my vulnerable, insecurities-riddled body. At school it would often play in my head, materializing into armor just beneath my skin and guarding me against the harsh social climate of my middle school. And it was there when I could not be brave – when I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling, wishing that I could be anyone or anything but what I was.

4. “I Will” by The Beatles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rx_APcTyIUg

At the reception following my first wedding, two of my ex-husband’s relatives sang this song, accompanied by another one of his relatives on guitar. It was a beautiful tribute to what I thought at the time would be a long marriage. For a couple of years following our divorce, I could not listen to this song without pangs of guilt and an acute sense of shame. Hell, sometimes I would listen to it as a form of self-punishment. Now the song conjures a fraught mix of associations: Paul, my ex-husband, the family of which I was once a part, my second wedding, steadily approaching on June 7. I can accept the joy with the pain now – and that is all I can do. I do not expect that this is an association that will ever weaken.

5. “Shake it Out” by Florence + the Machine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WbN0nX61rIs

Oh Florence, you Pre-Raphaelite goddess. You do you, always.

No word play will make my connection to this song less hokey, but the associations are significant to me. I listened to this song as I walked from Paul’s house on my way to the bus stop one morning (and then many mornings, afternoons, and evenings after that). We had been dating for several months, but I was still licking my wounds from the previous, hellish year, when I both married and separated. Unsurprisingly I was particularly affected by the lyrics, “…it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back, so shake him off.”  I wish I could say that Florence’s wisdom healed me on the spot. Of course it didn’t, though it did make it into many a Facebook status message. Yet it reminded me that I had a right to be in love with Paul and to embrace all of the accompanying feelings. I am pretty sure that I sent him a stupidly cheesy text message before the song ended.

6. “Jumper” by Third Eye Blind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lObgLdtXYpU

“Rachel, I wanna listen to the song where he goes ‘Yiyiyiyiyow,'” said my youngest sister, then in pre-school, many, many times.

I readily obliged, for reasons she did not know.

7. “The Freshman” by The Verve Pipe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1umEXpGHc0E

I spent over four years desperately in love with a guy who did not love me. He and his friends, all freshly-minted high school graduates, had formed a band years ago and were spending the summer before college playing coffee house gigs. Those gigs were the place to be that summer, and I, a rising junior who did not yet have her license, frantically sought out a ride to each one. When my job as a grocery market cashier prevented attendance, I felt deeply bereft. My crush’s band would often cover this song – and well, I might add. Perhaps it was the explicit connection to high school, the song’s hyper-solemnity, or some combination of the two, I don’t know. But this song, more than all of the others on their set list, reminded me that my crush, the frontman, was moving on to the greener pastures of collegiate life. And no matter what Wet Seal halter top I wore to his shows, he would not return my affection the way I wanted him to.

8. “Dancing On My Own” by Robyn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcNo07Xp8aQ

Throwing punches alone in my apartment, attempting to channel everything I imagine Robyn to be, I would dance until I broke a sweat. Desolate and guilty, this song fortified the backbone that enabled me to leave my marriage.

9. “Stand Inside Your Love” by Smashing Pumpkins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nm4xv3firw

A Pumpkins devotee since age ten, I could not wait to share every last one of their songs with Paul. Predictably enough, we began with “Tonight, Tonight” (I probably join the population of a small country when I say that this is one of my favorite songs). After the preliminaries, I thought I would woo my beau with one of their more traditional love songs. Barely thirty seconds in, Paul nervously caught my attention–I was, of course, in raptures–and said, “Umm, could we maybe turn this off?” Believe it or not, not everybody enjoys Billy Corgan’s voice (I know, right?). In fact, some find it downright intolerable. Much to my horror, I learned that night that Paul is one of these people. I briefly reconsidered our relationship, but thought that one offense, however grave, was not sufficient reason to call it off.

10. “Portions for Foxes” by Rilo Kiley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtNV3pOqcjI

Writing this blog post has made me aware of my apparent affinity for red-headed ladies who sing. And each time I hear this song–or any that they played at their show, really–I can only dwell on the exquisiteness of Jenny Lewis and just how badly I want to braid her silky hair.

Your guess is as good as mine as to how these songs would sound played in succession. I’m curious to see for myself. And because I decided to write about the first ten songs/memories that occurred to me, it is interesting now to think of the bands and songs that did not make it onto the playlist. For instance, the absence of Radiohead, Arcade Fire, and The National feels conspicuous. Surely I have memories that I associate with them, and I know the image-conscious bones in my body tingled as I realized that those bands would not make the (albeit self-imposed) cut. But this was an experiment rather than an attempt to establish myself as the keenest of music aficionados. Seventeen-year-old Rachel will just have to eat that.

I did, and then I didn’t: Being a divorced twenty-something

I have decided that my goal will be to update Positive and Promise by Monday, at least every other week. Originally, I thought Sunday night might make a nice, tidy deadline, but, let’s face it, I am watching “Downton Abbey” on Sunday nights. And, if I can catch up soon enough, I will be watching “Sherlock” as well. One has to manage one’s priorities responsibly.

Generally, I also will do my best to alternate more somber posts, like the one from last week, with pieces that are more light-hearted. But everything that follows has been on my mind for some time now, and I would like to put it into words.

Writing this piece will be simplest if I begin with the absolute basics:

When I was twenty-three years old, I got engaged to my college boyfriend. When I was twenty-five years old, I married him. Ten months later, we legally separated. A little over a year after we married, our divorce became official.

Anyone who has been in my shoes knows that a whirlwind marriage is anything but uncomplicated, even if it is only a brief foray into the world of matrimony. For one thing, like most people who decide to marry, I entered into marriage with the full intention of remaining married. But before long, I realized that I had been ill-equipped to make the promises that accompany marriage – even though I was positively chomping at the bit to make them.

Make no mistake: I wanted to be engaged to my boyfriend, and I made that abundantly clear. I was tremendously excited when he proposed to me. Our wedding was beautiful and happy. But, several months later, when I was supposed to be compiling my wedding photo album and writing thank you notes for all of the lovely gifts we received, I was seized by a horrifying awareness that I had previously ignored, justified, or simply did not understand: getting married had not been the right decision. I did not want to share my life with the person I had chosen and to whom I had committed myself.

When I began this blog, I wrote about my obsession with narrative security. I have always, for as long as I can recall, been made deeply uncomfortable by situations that I could not control or whose outcomes I could not determine. To some degree, I will always struggle with this insecurity. What I did not understand, in the years directly preceding my engagement, was that I had completely succumbed to it. If ever a doubt about my readiness to commit entered my mind, I frantically explained it away or sought another’s reassurance that there was no need to question my relationship. The possibility that my boyfriend might not be the person with whom I would spend the rest of my life was utterly and completely terrifying to me. In fact, I began grappling with this terror when I was still very much in love with him. I can recall looking at him, profoundly aware of my feelings of affection, while simultaneously battling an insidious fear that I would, one day, want to leave him.

Eventually, I trained myself to compartmentalize these fears, rather than to confront them. I went to great lengths to tuck them away as tidily as I could, and developed cognitive mechanisms for assuaging them whenever they reared their ugly heads. And so, over the two years of my engagement, I never once considered the possibility that I should not marry my fiancé – not when I began to question my sexuality or when I sensed the profound ways that I was changing. This is not to say that there was a definitive red flag bearing the words, “DO NOT PROCEED – BIG MISTAKE,” but there were opportunities for me to reflect. I never took advantage of them; I was too afraid to do so. And by the time my wedding was a year or so away, I had worked so diligently to bury and disavow my fears that I only now know all that I was too terrified to confront.

So I married him. I did so happily, optimistically, even confidently. I did not expect that, three months later, I would be blindsided by a slew of emotions that made it very evident I had entered into a commitment that I could not sustain. For much of the year–my first year in my doctoral program, for that matter–I felt lost in a cloud of delirious misery. I made some very poor and hurtful choices. I also tried to remain in the marriage in order to give it the chance that it deserved. By May, I knew fully well that I was only causing more harm by staying. I could not, at age 25, commit to a relationship that I knew would never entirely fulfill and enrich me – or my partner. Finally, with the help of a few people very close to me, I had learned to assess situations without evading the nasty, undesirable parts. Leaving my marriage was going to be an atrocious ordeal (as far as the majority of my family knew, I was happy). Moreover, it was going to cause my partner a world of hurt. I chose to do it all the same. It is one of the only decisions I have ever made that I have never once second-guessed.

This does not mean that I made the decision easily. I did not want to wound anyone with my actions, especially not my husband. But by this time, I had already hurt him–and others–terribly. I knew that if I did not end our marriage, circumstances would only get nastier. I would have to conjure the shitstorm first if there was to be any hope for greener pastures later.

Leaving my infant marriage caused all the tumult that I expected. Many were upset and confused and angry, and I understood why. I wished that there was a way to help everyone achieve the knowledge I finally possessed myself – that this absolutely was for the best. I understood why so many people believed that I had behaved selfishly and rashly – and in some ways, I had. I felt profoundly sorry for every bit of sorrow and pain that I had caused and was causing. While my experience was very different from that of my ex’s, I, too, was in pain. I generally do my utmost not to hurt people, and here, in a matter of days, I had overturned a few worlds. What’s more, I did not understand how I had been such a “blind puppy,” as Jane Eyre would have it. How the hell had I walked down that aisle before I had the bravery and maturity to confront the full extent of my feelings? How could I have been so childish? So…let’s face it…stupid?

Not long ago after the separation, I asked these questions of a wise woman in my life. She responded that we make the best decisions we can at the time that we make them. I want to believe that this reasoning pertains to me. I did not, after all, marry impulsively. I had been with my boyfriend for several years; we had lived together; and we met with the minister multiple times before he agreed to officiate the ceremony. I did think deeply about my relationship, but all of my thoughts were based on the premise that it should continue. I was never able to cross the threshold into more ambiguous territory.

While it will never be easy or comfortable for me to inhabit life’s less secure spaces, I have learned to do it. Two of the many things my first marriage taught me are the importance of mindfulness and that periods of “not knowing” can be some of the most critical and generative that we endure. Unfortunately for Paul, I learned my lesson so well–and was so shell-shocked from my divorce–that I harassed him with a slew of potential catastrophes that I feared could befall us. In fact, it isn’t really fair to refer to some of these catastrophes as “potential” – but I suppose that depends on your definition of “far-fetched.” Mine is pretty loose, and I am fairly certain that my fiction-generator was on overdrive for the first eight months of our relationship.

If you have been reading my blog, then you know that I have made the decision to get married again. I am tremendously happy with this decision. I mentioned earlier that leaving my marriage is one of the only decisions I have ever made without second thoughts. The second decision I have made with that amount of certainty is the decision to share my life with Paul. With Paul, I have found a big, fulfilling, exciting love – a love that sustains me, nourishes me, teaches me, and challenges me. I am so fortunate in my relationship that I feel undeserving of my happiness. I wish this happiness upon everyone, whether or not they have a partner. I wish it upon my ex-husband.

As you might imagine, my experiences over the last several years have caused me to think more critically about the institution of marriage. I remain skeptical, although I have decided to re-marry, and I believe that our society has a long way to go before we have a healthy relationship with matrimony. It might actually be impossible for society as a whole to have a healthy relationship with it. We may have to settle for empowering individuals–especially women–to make healthy choices in their relationships. For some time, I felt very isolated in my new identity as a divorced woman. Whether or not I was being paranoid or self-conscious, I felt judged and socially-inferior. I still prefer to refer to my ex as “my ex” rather than “my ex-husband” – the latter inevitably raises eyebrows and provokes questions (“Twenty-eight and already divorced? Huh.”). Lately, however, I have noticed that a number of friends and acquaintances have recently divorced or ended long-term relationships. One of my motivations for writing this piece is to render our position a bit more visible. Of course, every relationship is different, and the circumstances always vary. But I have the sense that our society does not feel as comfortable with divorce as it purports to – and, really, that makes sense. When divorce rates in America are 50 to 51 percent, it seems reasonable that the topic would incite anxiety. Learning that a couple is getting divorced–especially when the news is a complete surprise–can be quite jarring. I imagine that it has the potential to make others feel unsteady in their own relationships, if only briefly. It is a scary thought to know that you could leave the security of your relationship, even if you have no desire to do so. It was scary for me to do it, even though it was what I wanted to do.

While it should be unnecessary, I still feel compelled to write what follows: There is no shame in being divorced, regardless of your age, regardless of the number of years or, in my case, months, that you were married. There is no shame in leaving a relationship if you know that you cannot love your partner the way s/he deserves to be loved, or vice versa. I find you-centric mantras rather nauseating – I do not think we can live as if we are without responsibilities and commitments. However, I think young women in particular must understand that they are free to make the choices they believe will be for the best. Inevitably, those choices will have consequences, and most likely things will be pretty terrible for a while. But it will be ok.  Because eventually, things won’t be terrible; in fact, there will be the possibility for them to be wonderful instead. And we should all be allowed that possibility.

My Week As Mark Twain

This summer, I taught rising high school juniors and seniors for five weeks. It was simultaneously one of the most rewarding, infuriating, exhausting, and hilarious experiences of my life to date. It also reminded me that I could not be paid any amount of money to relive my adolescence or, as a friend aptly put it, to deal with “that brain chemistry again.” While my own brain chemistry is such that I continue to be a tremendously emotional person–often frustratingly so–I know that my day-to-day experience as a Feeling-y Being pales to that of a body on hormonal hyperdrive (and thank goodness). Interacting with my teenage students–and witnessing their various conflicts, alliances, and thinly veiled insecurities–prompted me to recall how completely not nostalgic I am for high school. However, it made me think even more about middle school, specifically the seventh and eighth grades.

My family lived in North Carolina when I was in middle school, and, in the seventh and eighth grades, I attended a local private school. Now, let me preface this story by emphasizing that I made some wonderful friends at this school. One, E.H., was indisputably my most constant source of support and good humor. She also introduced me to Tori Amos, an introduction that proved critical to my emotional sustenance and general sanity during this time. Moreover, I had a fantastic English teacher in the seventh grade, Mrs. Aldridge. While I always had been fortunate to be supported in my writing (ie. my elementary school teachers tolerated my cheesy horror romances and overwrought poetry), Mrs. Aldridge was the first person to emphasize to me that writing was something I should actually pursue. Such support was especially welcome during those years, because I cannot remember many times when I have felt more vulnerable – or less certain that my life would be a happy one.

The majority of the students who attended this school (we’ll call it Sunnydale Academy) had enrolled together in kindergarten. When I timidly entered as a seventh grader, I might as well as have walked in on the first day wearing a dart board around my neck. I was garden variety gawky, so insecure that I probably emitted special pheromones, and I knew absolutely no one (as we all know, this is especially unfortunate at lunchtime). I suspect that there was a certain type of girl who could have waltzed into Sunnydale after missing out on thirteen years of clique formation and hierarchical distribution. I decidedly was not that girl. That said, it was rough going from the start.

There are nasty kids at every middle school, and, as my parents were later told by the headmaster, I had the misfortune to join a particularly vicious class. The Sunnydale social elites determined very quickly that I was not welcome among them, and this verdict resulted in guaranteed harassment – particularly from the boys. One of the more unpleasant memories I have is of someone calling me on the phone, pretending to be my crush (a popular boy), and asking me out. How the offender had even learned of my secret torch, I do not know, although, as the world’s worst poker face, I suspect that I made it obvious. Anyway, against my better judgment–or what judgment I even possessed at that age–I said yes. When my crush found out what had happened, he was horrified. That same day, we suffered a hideously awkward encounter in the hall, and he made it quite clear that we were not the star-crossed lovers of my dreams. I give this guy credit for speaking to me privately (he pulled me out of study hall) even though I learned that he made fun of me to his friends afterwards. But being the butt of a larger joke was by no means an isolated incident, nor did the perpetual teasing I encountered ever dull in its sting. I wish I had been exceptionally mature during these years, that I had possessed unusual perspective and insight for my age. Then perhaps I could have weathered that hormonal shitstorm with a bit more dignity. But I did not understand how to navigate my feelings; I only knew that I possessed many of them, and that they seemed constantly under assault. And rather than raise my head higher, I crumbled under the weight of every insult again and again.

Forgive me if I sound a little over-dramatic, but I do not think that we can diminish the feelings of shame and self-loathing that young people face. As adults we know that perspective–and the ability to articulate our feelings–can at least temper the pain we feel when someone or something has hurt us (although not always at first). In middle school, we do not yet know this, and we must combat cruel physiology in the meantime. For me, middle school marks a time when my body was constantly under siege by new emotions that I could not articulate. I say “body” because that is where I locate the root of my teenage experiences: they were visceral, sometimes wholly incompatible with language. These are not original insights. As we all know, emotions are experienced from head to toe. Those two years at Sunnydale felt like a churning gut, hot face, tight chest, and watery muscles. Simply put, my body did not feel up to the challenge of facing the scorn and derision directed at me simply because I was me.

Despite being so vulnerable to Sunnydale’s toxic social climate, I was reasonably perceptive when it came to its mechanisms and twisted logic. And in eighth grade, we were assigned a project that allowed me to reflect upon exactly these things: We each had to write our autobiography. I still think that this project is brilliant and only wish that it had been slightly less regimented. For example, one chapter had to be a research-based paper (rather antithetical to autobiography, yes?) and another was designated “descriptive writing.” I still don’t know what the latter really means. At the time, I think I assumed that including at least one metaphor or (poorly conceptualized) symbol every two or three sentences would do the trick. I recall feeling very deep upon composing this chapter, very Sylvia Plath. Ah, that happy, naïve time before we aspiring writers learn what it means to mix our metaphors.

We were also required to include one chapter written as a satire; this was the part of the project that particularly excited me. I immediately determined that the chapter on my adolescent years should be the satirical one. In spite of all the emotional turmoil, I was at least capable of recognizing that the rituals and social organization of Sunnydale were utterly ridiculous. This recognition did not assuage my desires for belonging and acceptance, but I hoped that writing about what I was experiencing might propel me to finally reject the bullshit standards to which the girls in my class were held. And maybe, just maybe, calling it like I saw it would encourage some of my other classmates–whether or not we were friends–to turn a more critical eye to the intolerance, harassment, and even downright cruelty. To be clear, I was not trying to be a hero, nor did I have any desire to be a provocateur. If you know me as adult Rachel, it might come as a surprise – no, make that shock – that I spent my schooldays with my head down, trying not to attract attention. But with this assignment, I saw the opportunity to write something meaningful.

And so, I wrote. I of course did not name any names, instead creating the characters “Cathy Coolness” and “Sammy Suave,” and using them as my models for the Sunnydale elite. If I rewrote this chapter now, I would devote much less focus to lambasting what I saw as classic Sunnydale popularity rituals and instead would parody the larger social web. But let’s face it, I was thirteen, had spent a year and a half being mocked for all manner of infractions (my nose, my bookishness, my sensitivity, and I’m sure a number of other things of which I was mercifully unaware). When I began to write about the “Sunnydale Social Experience,” it was nearly impossible not to feel very angry and, admittedly, somewhat bitter. Yet feeling angry was, in many respects, a productive thing. I never felt as if my classmates had a god-given right to tease me, but I also never disputed their assessments of me. As I worked on my satire draft, I stopped feeling sorry for myself for not being pretty, wealthy, or physically developed – I instead focused on the injustice of the Sunnydale social ecosystem. What gave the popular boys the right to sit in the front hall every morning so that they could evaluate and poke fun at every girl who walked by? And yes, wasn’t it rather preposterous that after lunch, those same boys grazed in the playground field en masse, like insecure buffalo herding to a watering hole? What was always so interesting about the Post-Lunch Graze was that, during this constitutional, the boys were completely isolated from the rest of us. They moved as one, shuffling slowly around the middle of the field, while the rest of it remained completely unpopulated. This was their privilege: Any space they occupied was entirely theirs. I guarantee that if my friends and I had also decided to congregate on the field, the event would have been utterly perplexing for the Sunnydale Grazers. But this talk of aimless grazing has, appropriately enough, caused me to lose focus, so allow me to return to the story at hand.

When my English class had finished drafts of our chapters, we engaged in a peer editing exercise. I was tremendously nervous that day. While I knew that we would all have to showcase our autobiographies when they were finished, I did not yet feel prepared to circulate what I had written about Sunnydale. For all I knew, I had just written myself another year’s worth of teenage bullying. But once my rather popular editing partner took my draft to review, the text no longer belonged exclusively to me. I watched anxiously out of the corner of my eye as she read, and when she returned my satire to me, it was accompanied by a look of disdain and confusion. “Oh well,” I thought, “What did you expect? But maybe they’ll all want so little to do with you now that the last months of school will be easier.”

Yet, this was not to be. Immediately after English, and before the following period began, two different girls from the cool side of the tracks asked me if I had modeled Cathy Coolness after them. The halls were buzzing with the news of my presumptuous little satire. It was harsh! It was MEAN. Who the hell did I think I was?

Over the next week, a number of girls complained to their parents about my satire and claimed that I had written it about them. Their parents in turn complained to our headmaster, and he certainly was not inclined to ruffle the feathers anyone who might donate forty thousand dollars to the Upper School. He immediately confronted the eighth grade English teachers and, as I recall, demanded that I rewrite my chapter. I had simply hurt too many delicate (read: expensive) feelings to be permitted to keep it as it was.

I do not recall the exact sequence of events, but somehow my parents were made aware, either by the English teachers or the headmaster of the Upper School, that I had transgressed some sort of boundary. Thus, measures would have to be taken to mitigate the controversy. In an inspired act of parental support, my dad sent a letter to the headmaster, at the top of which was written out the full definition of the word “satire.” He proceeded to explain in his letter that I had fulfilled the assignment exactly as I was asked and that I would not, under any circumstances, rewrite the chapter. My satire, probably accompanied by my father’s letter, was then sent to the headmistress of Sunnydale School for review. In the meantime, my classmates continued to hassle me about why I had felt compelled to write such a scathing review of Sunnydale (I don’t know that I ever had much opportunity to respond). They also, I might add, began to write their own satires about our school.

Finally, the two eighth grade English teachers held me after school one day to discuss what was to be done about my chapter. Having never been held after school before, I was mortified and, in the midst of my anxiety, forgot to call my mother to tell her that I wouldn’t be at carpool that afternoon. Instead, E.H. waited for my mother so that she could tell her that I was being held for interrogation. (E.H. also waited for hours after school ended so that she could be there when I finished my meeting.)

I will always remember the dread with which I awaited that meeting, and I certainly will never forget the meeting itself. As it turned out, my English teacher, a very kind and sympathetic woman, did not want me to rewrite the chapter, but she was new that year and, I suspect, nervous about causing trouble. The other English teacher, a brilliant, irreverent woman, had been at Sunnydale for years and was outspoken about her utter lack of respect for our headmaster, a man she regarded as both spineless and unjust. I also had heard from friends that she was notoriously critical of writing and, as it turned out, the very first thing she did in that meeting was provide me with a thorough critique of my satire, introduction to conclusion. I was unsettled. I had come to this meeting expecting a lecture, punishment of some kind, maybe an “F” on the assignment (the last of which was, of course, the worst of my fears). But this woman was talking to me both seriously and earnestly about my writing. She told me that the satire was “very good” – “not perfect,” she emphasized, but promising. I learned that both she and my English teacher had fought for my satire and that the headmaster had finally backed down with the request that I change one, particularly scathing (and, as I recall, not very good), sentence. I agreed to this condition. Then, the English teacher sat back in her chair to take my measure (I, in the meantime, was crouched in the corner of my desk, barely capable of squeaking out responses to her questions).

“Well, Rachel, ” she smirked, “You certainly have caused a great deal of trouble. But do you know how much trouble Mark Twain caused with his writing?”

I don’t remember exactly how I answered that question, or if I even did, because it was about this time that my mother stormed into the classroom. E.H. had told her that I had been held after school to talk about my satire, and my mother, determined to rescue me from what she assumed was unjust punishment, set out to secure my freedom.

My mother was no great fan of Sunnydale. After I completed seventh grade, she met with the headmaster to discuss my classmates’ behavior. She left without much assurance that any steps would be taken to combat the bullying (none were, to my knowledge). She had listened to me sob day after day as I choked out who had poked fun at my nose, or thrown balls of wadded paper at me as I left the girls’ bathroom. As far as Kathy Vorona was concerned, I could write what I damned well pleased after being tormented by a bunch of spoiled brats. And this is precisely what she told the English teachers before I could assure her that things were not what they seemed. Once my mother was caught up to speed, we concluded the meeting; I went home to make small revisions to my satire; and, as is the case with middle school, the controversy was largely forgotten within a few weeks. So it goes.

But I speak with complete sincerity when I say that this is, ultimately, one of my most positive memories from Sunnydale. If you had posed this scenario to thirteen-year-old me as a hypothetical and asked what I would have done, my response would have been unremarkable. I probably would have responded, sadly, that I would have rewritten the satire – that is, I would have offered to rewrite it. I was not at all brave, I would have explained to you, and I certainly was not the kind of girl who wanted to cause trouble. The very notion of receiving an “F” made me sick to my stomach. And yet, when actually faced with this dilemma, I never once considered a rewrite. I had merely written what I had observed, after all. Didn’t I have that right? As my father had pointed out, I had been asked to write a satire – what made Sunnydale immune as potential subject matter? Moreover, I had observed how my parents, each in his/her own way, had fought for my freedom to write what I felt was true. The Sunnydale English teachers had done the same. What is more, they had spoken to me in that meeting not as a problematic little girl, but as a burgeoning writer who was attempting to find her voice. And that’s precisely it: In a time when I so frequently silenced myself out of fear, shame, and insecurity, I all of a sudden said something because I believed that I should. In middle school, I was not in the habit of being terribly impressed with myself – I never felt that I had much reason to be. Nor did writing that satire–and fighting to include it in my autobiography–overwhelm me with self-confidence. I was still often unhappy with myself, still scared to speak. But after writing that satire–and facing the aftermath–I looked forward to another day when, scared or not, I would raise my voice anyway.

For E.H.