17: True Friend

17: True Friend

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Middle School

True Friend

I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody.

~Herbert B. Swope

Springtime had never been so cold. In spite of the warmth of the sun, I could not protect myself from the icy blast of hatred that rushed at me relentlessly during spring of eighth grade.

A few months prior, I had been enrolled in Wagner Junior High School after a year-long stay in California. The year had been filled with trouble and reached a boiling point when a gang-related incident involving my best friend’s brother kept me out of school for two weeks because of threats of retaliation. My mother and sister decided that my staying in California would be detrimental, so I returned to New York to live with my sister.

With a grade point average that was bordering D and two suspensions already on my record, my sister had a hard time convincing the administration that I was really a bright student. As a result, I was placed in the second lowest eighth grade class, a class which consisted mostly of kids with behavioral issues. It didn’t take long before I hooked up with a girl named Sophia. She was an intimidating girl whose mouth was ten times bigger than her borderline-anorexic body. To this day I do not understand why, but there was no mistaking that she was the boss of that class. Eventually, she also became the boss of me.

If Sophia said jump, I jumped. If I liked someone and she didn’t, I instantly adopted her disdain so as to stay on her good side. So desperate was my need to belong, I was willing to do almost anything.

In spite of one failing grade in gym, a result of my adamant refusal to wear an ugly one-piece gym suit that had shorts and looked like a parachute with elasticized legs, my first report card was perfect. Mr. Kasper, one of the gym teachers, became my strongest advocate in a fight to get me placed in a better class, and by mid second quarter, he had won.

In my new environment, I began to flourish. I continued making good grades and my behavior began to improve. I even began wearing that hideous gym suit. I met other students who shared my love of the arts, something I had suppressed but not forgotten. I joined the Drama Club and began participating in other extracurricular activities.

Despite being in my new classroom, I attempted to maintain my ties with Sophia and the gang. It was difficult to say the least. Accusations of me being a phony and a traitor began to fly regularly. They had no problem expressing their utter contempt for me. Crank phone calls to my home became a normal occurrence. In spite of the mistreatment, I wouldn’t let go. Sophia’s world and my new life were on a collision course, and I did not have control of the steering wheel. A crash was inevitable; it was just a question of when.

In the Drama Club, I met a boy who I genuinely liked. He was funny. He was talented. He loved music. He was identical to me, the true me, with two exceptions: he was a boy... and he was white.

Time passed and we decided to try and take our relationship to another level. We never actually became boyfriend and girlfriend, but we came awfully close. One day after school, we went to a friend’s house to hang out. It was there that we shared our first kiss. The very next day, in spite of it being springtime, the season had changed back to winter.

Upon entering the school, I was greeted with stares of hostility by the majority of the black students. People who normally spoke said nothing. I went through most of the day experiencing this excruciatingly painful and well-orchestrated silent treatment, not knowing what the cause was.

At 3 P.M., I exited the school and came face to face with Sophia and about twenty-five other students. Their stares were cold. A few snickered, but no one said a word. Sophia stepped forward from the crowd and handed me a sheet of paper folded neatly into a perfect square. This letter held the answer.

In it, I was called every kind of name you can imagine, names too horrible to repeat. The venom spewed off the page as if it were molten lava erupting from a volcano. One line made my heart stop and my stomach churn violently: Now you think you’re better than us. What’s wrong, you too good to go with blacks, so you had to get you somebody white?

The tears burned like fire and ice. They formed, but wouldn’t fall. I spent the remainder of the day in a stupor and prayed for an awakening, which I knew would never come, from this nightmare.

The following days brought no relief. The silent treatment was in full effect. No one who I knew would speak to me, and my pain intensified. When it became evident that this cruel and unusual punishment would not be ending anytime soon, I resorted to taking a 20-minute crosstown bus ride home and back just to experience a few minutes of peace during my brutal school day.

After finally becoming accustomed to my new reality, the unimaginable happened. I first noticed her on the crosstown bus. She was beautiful and unusually tall. I vaguely remembered seeing her before, but wasn’t sure where or when.

We both got off the bus at the same stop and I wondered if she went to my school. We began to walk in the same direction, and I surmised that she did. That’s when it happened. That’s when I heard the most beautiful sound I had heard in a long time. She said, “Hello.”

That one word caused the icicles to thaw. That one word was the balm that I needed to heal my wounds. She told me her name, Brynne, and I told her mine. We talked. It seemed like she was oblivious to my dilemma and the fact that none of my friends were speaking to me. I didn’t know how or why, and I really didn’t care. She was taking the time to talk to me, and I was so grateful.

I didn’t go home for lunch that day or ever again. Brynne welcomed me into her circle of friends and her family—a place where I could be me without fear or intimidation. Thirty years later, we are still friends.

Eventually, Sophia decided to speak and to let her crew speak to me again. I must admit I was relieved, but her presence in my life no longer held the significance that it once did. At the coldest point in my life, a true friend appeared, and to this day, she remains.

~Nancy Gilliam

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