Sticks and Stones: Five Years After High School

I cannot believe I am stuck in this ridiculous class. This was my most common thought the second semester of my sophomore year of high school during health class.

Actual multiple choice test question: What is the purpose of the World Health Organization? (Answer: "advancing global health")

Actual multiple choice test question: What is the purpose of the World Health Organization? (Answer: “advancing global health”)

Most days, I spent the whole time flipping dutifully through my textbook while staring at the clock.

Except that day.

“Amy Green,” my teacher said, waving a note that had just come in from the office. I stood up to collect it, then, hopefully, to retreat to my seat as quickly as possible and resume being invisible. No such luck.

“Does anyone else here think Amy is too smart?” my teacher asked the class.

I froze.

“Come on, raise your hands.”

And I watched the hands go up, looked right at the students attached to them. The guy in the front row, someone who I happened to know had a higher GPA than me, flinched when my eyes met his and lowered his hand just a bit.

My teacher stood, handed me the note. “That’s what I thought. It was the same way when I was in high school, and I learned that I just didn’t have to take it. You know, five years from now at a class reunion, you can throw hair in Amy’s cake or something.” The teacher laughed in the awkward silence. “Just kidding. Don’t be mean to Amy.”

As I sat down, all I can remember thinking—besides the panicked throb of Did that just happen?—is that someone like me must have hurt him once, and badly.

My teacher went back to the study guide on emotional health. “Can someone read the definition of ‘affirmation’ out of the book?”

Someone read off the answer: “Positive feedback that makes others feel appreciated and supported.” And I wanted to laugh and ask if the study guide also had a definition for “irony.” But I wanted to cry too.

I’m sure everyone in the class has forgotten about that day and no one will throw hair in my cake if I happen to attend my five-year reunion this summer.

But I haven’t forgotten.

Me at age sixteen, part of a Scarlet Letter project I never finished because I couldn't explain why I felt a connection to Hester Prynne.

Me at age sixteen, part of a Scarlet Letter project I never finished because I couldn’t explain why I felt a connection with Hester Prynne.

Let me be clear: my high school experience was not awful. Sure, I overhead a few negative conversations about me. I was picked last in freshman P.E. I got some strange looks. Several people who thought I was too…something. Too smart, too goody-two-shoes, too arrogant, too meek, too loud, too different.

But I’d be the first to admit that I got off easy. I had a loyal group of friends, my parents constantly encouraged me, and by senior year, I was well-liked, in a vague sort of sense, even by the popular crowd. I didn’t stand out quite enough to get the really hateful labels.

No one ever called me fat or ugly. No one called me a slut. No one told me I was worthless or stupid or a waste of space.

But I heard my fellow students being called all of those things, and more.

Maybe you can still hear them too—those mocking words you can’t forget, not with all of the compliments people have given you and written in birthday cards in the years since. They’re burned into you like a brand. Years later they are no longer raw, but the scars are there all the same.

Sometimes I still see fake smiles and hear that little twist in innocent words that make them cruel. Or I imagine I do. And it still makes me wonder if I stand out too much. If I should be a little less myself. If I should leave something unsaid, not because it’s insensitive or arrogant, but because it might be too smart.

And I fight it. I fight it for my classmates who were labelled right in front of me, when I didn’t say anything to defend them, and for the high schoolers I know and love now.

But there’s a reason I’m able to fight those lies. I no longer believe that I am too smart because some of you told me that I am wise. You sent me a Facebook message saying that my blog post made you think about things in a new way. You gave me a hug and told me I needed to be a writer after I read my paper to the class, even though you were two years older than me and hardly knew me. You asked for my opinion, and what I said really mattered to you.

You were the one person in my health class who didn’t raise her hand, and who came up to me afterward and said you couldn’t believe the teacher said that about me.

The reason I no longer believe I’m weird is because some of you let me be different. You could have laughed when I dressed up like a pirate for a scavenger hunt or used the words “exegetical impossibility” in everyday conversation or brought in cookies with one dyed green as a psychological experiment. Instead, you appreciated those things about me and told me so.

The reason I no longer believe I’m unloveable is because some of you loved me.

And I am so grateful to you, to all of you. Because of you, I know who I really am.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you should substitute the approval of other people for the approval of God. Even if no one else told you that you were worth loving, Jesus saying so would be enough.

But sometimes God speaks through us.

We have the wrong idea of what it means to show others God’s love, I think. It’s not always dramatic. It’s admiring someone’s singing voice and actually letting her know. It’s noticing that kid who holds the door open for the custodian carrying boxes and thanking him. It’s countering gossip, not laughing at a racist joke, stopping when you ask “How are you?”, refusing to believe that any labels—yours, mine, that kid who no one notices—are true indicators of worth.

Say some of those things to others today. Speak loud, speak often, speak words of life. I know they matter, because they mattered to me.

3 comments

  1. People have said that about me, too. I think too much, I use too many words, I should be using words that aren’t so high-brow, blah blah blah. I’ve even been told that I sound like Loki and I shouldn’t do casual Tom Hiddleston impressions (say what?! I’m not even a Hiddleston fan!)

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