DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #53: “A Closed-Circuit System”

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Dear Sugar,

I’m kind of new in school and I want to make friends. All I ever hear is “just be yourself” and “just be friendly” and it’s not that easy on your second day of 8th grade. Everyone already has their own cliques and groups and they exclude me from everything. Everyone already knows who they’re going to pair up with in science class, while I’m stuck with an anti-social kid who picks his nose. I really want to make friends and I don’t know what to do. Can you please help me, Sugar?

Thanks.
Wilda

Dear Wilda,

I peed my pants in 8th grade. I really did. It was in gym class and we were square dancing. Do you square dance at school or have we also left that behind with the No Child Left Behind Act? If we have, it’s a shame because square dancing is a serious hoot. Not only do you get to dance, you get to dance with someone else, which in my case, meant a boy. I was so overcome by the combination of romantic anxiety and delighted do-si-do-induced hysteria that I wet my drawers. As I bet you can imagine, it was a humiliation beyond measure. If someone had handed me a gun right then, I’d have shot myself in the head.

This came on top of another, less dramatic humiliation—also having to do with my pants. You see, I only owned three pairs in 8th grade and there are five days in the school week, which meant I had to rotate through them, and mix in the odd (loathsome) skirt. Two of the pants were tremendously embarrassing, bearing the label that identified them as having been purchased at a mortifying national discount store where my mother purchased almost all of my clothes throughout my childhood. The other was a pair of white denim Levi’s that I bought with my own money, saved up from babysitting.

Those Levi’s were the first “brand name” thing I ever owned. I loved them so much I could cry right now if I thought about them hard enough. You know what I did, don’t you, sweet pea? I couldn’t help myself. For two weeks running I wore them every other day (Monday, Wednesday, Friday). I hoped no one would notice. I hoped they’d only see how cool and fabulous I was. Those white jeans! They were Levi’s!

But of course I was wrong.

Is there any group of people on the planet more eagle-eyed than 8th graders? I think not. Eighth graders are the people we should’ve sent out to locate Osama Bin Laden. They see everything. They forgive nothing. I became The Girl Who Wears The Same Pants.

This was on top of my other nickname: Porky the Pig. I’d been dubbed that because:

a)     I was ever-so-infinitesimally fatter than the International Regulatory Commission on the Female Body had mandated, and

b)    the year before—when I was in seventh grade—a teacher had stood before my desk and announced to the entire class in an amused tone that I smelled strongly of bacon. In this observation, she was imprecise. I actually smelled like wood smoke because my family was so poor that our rented farmhouse didn’t have a working furnace, in spite of the fact that we lived in a legendarily cold climate, so we heated our house with a woodstove that my stepfather made out of a fifty-five gallon metal barrel and planted in a sandbox in our kitchen. The woodstove spewed smoke as well as a horrible smelling black toxic gunge—the lining or remnants of whatever had once been in the barrel, I suppose—which dripped incessantly from the hand-rigged metal smoke stack that went out our kitchen window (and which also happens to be my latest theory for what caused my mother’s death ten years down the road).

Okay, darling, do you follow? I had shitty clothes. I was a teeny tiny bit “fat.” I smelled like something other than Babe and Tickle deodorant. And I peed my pants. In public. While square dancing. With a boy.

At the time of the pants peeing, my family lived in the small house where my stepfather had grown up. We’d been forced to leave the ramshackle farmhouse with the toxic homemade woodstove at the beginning of my eighth grade year because my stepfather had been injured on the job and he’d been bedridden for six months without pay because he’d been working under the table and therefore had no legal recourse. Even though he was back to work by the time I was in eighth grade, we were so far in the hole by then that my mom and stepfather couldn’t possibly pay the rent on the farmhouse, so we moved in with my stepfather’s parents.

It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. My step-grandfather—I’ll call him Frank—had become ill with a mysterious disease we later understood was Alzheimer’s. His wife Lucy had a full-time job in a toy factory and she needed help looking after Frank while she was at work. There was a two-hour gap between the time Lucy departed for work and my siblings and I returned home from school in the afternoons, and another two-hour gap until my mother got home from work. It was up to my siblings and me to take care of Frank during that time. Sometimes when we walked in the door he’d be weeping, bound up and bewildered in some corner of the house he’d built himself, utterly lost in the place where he and Lucy had raised their five kids. Other times he’d sit at the kitchen table and tell lucid, dirty stories about the women he’d slept with in the South Pacific in the years after World War II. Often, he was rabidly delusional, seeing things my siblings and I couldn’t see and talking about them in ways that alternately amused and frightened us. He would call me by my own name at times and other times by my mother’s or sister’s names. Sometimes he wouldn’t be able to think of a name at all and he’d simply call me girl. “Girl,” he’d say. “Get me my cigarettes.” And then he’d light two and smoke them both at once, aware only of the one he held in his hand. He would forget what an apple was called and also the name of the next town over. He would bang on the table and cuss in a pitiful rage over his forgetting. He’d beat his own head with his eternally calloused workingman’s fists. When I tried to stop him he’d tell me to go and fuck myself.

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It was so hard living with Frank and Lucy. They weren’t my real grandparents. I’d only met them a couple of years before. I wasn’t sure if they loved me or if I loved them. They thought my mom was kind of a hippy—and she kind of was. She was older than my stepfather and her tubes were tied; because of her, he’d never have biological kids. There were tense female clashes about what to make for dinner and who should make it and whether there should be onions in it; about whether the TV should be on or off and what show we should watch; about the curtains being open or shut and who should get to boss us kids around.

All this, and yet I was essentially happy. There was so much life in that house. Real life. Life that had nothing to do with what pants I wore or what I did in them while I was square dancing or how microscopically fat I might be or whether I smelled like toxic bacon. You have a real life too, Wilda. Your life is bigger than whatever goes on in 8th grade science class. Remember that.

In spite of my humiliations, I had friends in 8th grade and I imagine you do too by now. Of course your second day at a new school wasn’t “easy.” Second days tend to be fraught with uncertainty, regardless of your age or situation. The exclusion you felt as the new kid at school most likely had nothing to do with you. Your peers weren’t trying to exclude you; they were only trying to include themselves. When the adults in your life encourage you to “just be yourself,” they’re giving you the best advice they have. They’re telling you what they came to know with the perspective of their years: that the only way to overcome your insecurities about being left out is to be comfortable in your own sweet skin.

I know that’s a lot for you to do right now. Eighth grade is a universally difficult year. You don’t yet know how perfect you are and also how imperfect. You’re trying to survive in a social order that’s predicated on conformity and scarcity when the life you’re leading is original and abundant. How can you be yourself when you don’t yet entirely know who it is you are? I don’t exactly know. Or rather, I know, but there isn’t anything I can say that will make the bright anxiety and dark confusion of this time disappear. There are important things you’re learning right now that you can only learn by living them. But I can tell you that the thing that speaks most profoundly to me in your letter is not your own angst about being included, but rather your offhand exclusion of the “anti-social kid who picks his nose.”

It may seem that those two things are unrelated, but they’re not. It’s a closed circuit system, sweet pea. You are not one iota more worthy of love or inclusion than that boy. No matter what happens, no matter how old you are, I know for certain that so long as you believe yourself to be superior to him you will never feel okay with yourself. Until you are incapable of writing the sentence “while I’m stuck with an anti-social kid who picks his nose,” you will never truly believe yourself to be welcome among others. You must love in order to be loved. You must be inclusive in order to feel yourself among the included. You must give in order to receive.

It’s the simplest equation in the world and yet so complex. A lot of people live their whole lives and never work it out. Don’t let yourself be one of them.

Yours,
Sugar

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