Growing a Spine

Growing a Spine

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Be The Best You Can Be

Growing a Spine

A lot of people are afraid to tell the truth, to say no. That’s where toughness comes into play. Toughness is not being a bully. It’s having backbone.

~Robert Kiyosaki

I don’t remember important things from middle school: student council elections, school dances, most of algebra… but I’ll always remember the little things, like a single bench in the gym locker room, because that’s where I started the slow process of growing a spine.

It was seventh grade, and it was supposed to be the turning point of my middle school career.

Sixth grade had been awful. I hadn’t wanted to go to optional sixth grade at a middle school at all — I’d wanted to stay in sixth grade at my elementary school with my best friend in the universe, Jesse. But Mom insisted, and so I went forth to the middle school along with the more “mature” students from my elementary, girls who cared more about nail polish and gossip than reading and pretend. In elementary school, Jesse and I had scorned those girls as being shallow and unoriginal. In sixth grade I found myself trying to fit in with those same girls.

I gossiped and schemed my way into a small group. There were four of us: Tina, Ashley, Katie, and me. Tina was the ringleader, our Queen of Hearts. We spent most of our time trying to get on her good side, and neurotically worrying that she was talking about us behind our backs. And we were right to stress. Not unlike the Queen of Hearts, Tina’s whims were subject to change, and she chose a different group member to ostracize every month. (Only instead of “Off with her head!” it was more like “Off of our exclusive lunch table!”)

You might ask, “Why would you want to stay friends with someone like that?” I often asked myself the same question. What it came down to was fear. I was a spineless little wuss who avoided confrontation whenever possible and had relied on Jesse for protection throughout my entire childhood. The group offered me the same protection — a place to sit at lunch, someone to walk with between classes. Being friends with Tina was better than being confronted by her. Plus, I told myself, it would only last a year. In seventh grade, Jesse would come to my school, and everything would go back to normal.

And that day had finally arrived. I sought Jesse out and knowledgably led her to our homeroom.

While we waited for our new class assignments, Jesse introduced me to her friend Alice, an unsure-looking, fast-talking girl who she’d met in sixth grade. I greeted her enthusiastically, telling her, “Maybe you’ll be in the same class as Jesse and me.” Jesse was the smartest girl I knew, and I had no doubt that she’d get into the accelerated class with me. If Alice was smart too, we’d almost be enough to have a group of our own!

Papers were passed out that held our schedules and class assignments. “7X,” I recited my class name proudly.

“7X,” Alice read.

“7Y,” said Jesse, crestfallen.

I swear, for a moment my heart stopped beating. “That can’t be right,” I said. “Look in the upper right hand corner. It should say 7X.”

She shook her head, and I grabbed the paper from her. Sure enough, she was in a different class with a different schedule. I would be stuck in Cliqueland without an ally for two more years.

We ranted angrily for the rest of the class — Jesse and I for obvious reasons, Alice because she would not know anyone in the accelerated class. “Don’t worry,” said Jesse confidently. “Val’s my best friend. She’ll take care of you.”

At that point, I probably gulped.

You see, our first class was Art, a room with huge double desks. In our group, we had an arrangement. Whenever the class had to pick partners, I was always with Katie, leaving Tina free to sit with the marginally cooler Ashley. So I found myself hovering in the back of the Art room, staring at two empty chairs. Would I abandon Katie and risk Tina’s possessive wrath or would I sit with Alice, who I didn’t even know?

I took a deep breath and sat beside Alice.

I power-walked into the hallway when that first class ended, but Tina caught up with me anyway. “So are you, like, dumping Katie now?” she asked.

“Of course not!” I said. “I can be friends with both of them.”

That was easier said than done.

Alice threw off the number of girls in our class from eight to an uneven nine, and so the partner issue came up over and over. When history projects were assigned, Katie moved her desk expectantly toward mine. “Maybe we can ask Mr. P if we could have a third person,” I said.

“He said only two people,” said Katie, with an air of “there’s nothing we can do.” So, being my typical spineless self, we left Alice alone.

After a few weeks of trying to bounce between Alice and the group, Tina decided that it was time to be more forceful. “Why are you hanging out with Alice, anyway?” she demanded, as we walked to gym class. “She doesn’t even like you. She’s just using you because she has no friends.”

I walked on to the locker room, to the gym bench where our group always changed clothes, fear clenching up my stomach, my heart pounding. Nothing would ever change. I asked myself why I even bothered to help someone like Alice, who I hadn’t really bonded with. We probably, I rationalized, had nothing in common.

Then Alice dumped her gym bag on our bench and Tina said, “There isn’t really room for you.”

I stood silently, watching Alice pull her gym bag off the bench and leave, the words “She’ll protect you” repeating insistently in my head. I listened to Tina laugh, watched Katie smirk, and it hit me — it didn’t matter if Alice and I never got close. The girls in my group were not the type of people I wanted to be.

I wish I could tell you that I confronted Tina then and there, that I called her all kinds of deliciously vicious names and declared my alliance to Alice, once and for all. But I don’t think people go from being completely spineless to speaking their mind in a matter of minutes. A transition like that takes time. But I can tell you that I never chose the group over Alice again.

The funny part is: once Tina saw that I wouldn’t back down, she abruptly decided Alice was cool. We were a group of five for the two months before Tina moved (oh happy day!) to Pennsylvania.

A few weeks after the gym bench incident, Alice called me with a homework question. We somehow got onto the topic of books, and realized we loved all the same authors. We talked for hours.

Ten years later, we’re still friends.

~Valerie Howlett

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