A Lesson in Ivory Tower Building
My adolescence, was a messy time. A head full of frizzy hair that was transitioning from blonde into a dingy brown. Skin that resembled eggshell wall paint, spotted with tiny red dots brought on by puberty. I was still one year away from getting braces, and my mouth was an indictment of the fact that my teeth were too big and my mouth too small. But as a young girl it didn't bother me. I liked me. My sense of self was a product of the people closest to me and their perception of me.
My parents told me I was a good girl.
My friends told me I was funny.
And my big brother called me tough.
But adolescence is funny like that. One moment you are riding bikes with popsicle stained lips and the next you are keenly aware of your impending adulthood. The hormones that had begun brewing and churning within caused me to question who I was. And then suddenly I wanted to be a glamorous grown up girl that "he" could love.
I SAW "him" in the halls at school. I heard his name while eavesdropping on other girls whispering about him.
What happened next was quite an epic love story. Romance. Young love. Scorching passion. Raging hormones.
A tale of two star crossed lovers that had never met. Or spoken. Or even made eye contact.
I was suddenly aware of my awkward, undesirable appearance and overcome with self consciousness. Middle school is funny like that...you want to both stand out and blend in all at the same time.
Needless to say I was completely enamored of this new boy in school. And by enamored, I mean clinically obsessed. Had I been evaluated by a mental health professional, I can only imagine they would've had me hospitalized. In the early 90's this "stalky" behavior involved lots of creeping around, spying, calling his house and hanging up, picking up waste paper he dropped in the garbage and taking it home to scrapbook-it and (my personal favorite) hurrying over to his seat when he walked out of class and enjoying the warm spot he left behind.
Listen, I'm not proud.
It was a dark period of my adolescent life. I mean we are likely talking about some borderline personality disorder stuff.
And you can bet I was planning our prom, wedding and the birth of our children. I was both perfectly blissful and miserable in my delusional romance.
Until one day, just like that, he was appropriated by a girl that wasn't even trying. And this girl, here she was exuding confidence like her own personal musk. From afar, I could see him enjoying her company and her mindlessly tossing her shiny brown hair, causing him to laugh at her witty banter. I imagined she was one of those girls that was one step ahead of everyone else and read Seventeen Magazine in a reading nook at home. I also decided she was the kind of girl that got all A's and had impeccable penmanship. In my minds eye, teachers just loved reading her assignments, they would smile as they graded her essays because she was so insightful and entertaining.
In reality, she was a petit girl with a big personality. She had a beautiful face, thick yet groomed eyebrows, clear mocha skin and pillowy lips that were always covered in rosy gloss. She was unlike the rest of us thirteen year old girls that struggled to select the perfect color in the Rite Aid beauty isle. She artfully made up her face like it was a fresh canvas that she displayed her talents on daily. She also had a go-to hair style, a signature look.Unlike my hair, tamed only by a scrunchie and a fist full of Salon Selectives mousse. Her hair was long, straight and glossy and her bangs held the perfect architecture (which was a thing in the early 90's). Standing near her in the hall during a fire drill once, I decided that she smelled both fresh and perfumey. On that same day, I decided that her waist was so tiny that it was nearly the size of my neck (I was thin, but in a boxy boy-next-door sort of a way).
I observed the two beautiful objects of my obsession.
Him because I wanted to marry him and her because I wanted to be her.
I watched as they cultivated a friendship and it began to morph into something more. He was shy and she was outgoing. And witty...so witty.
He was painfully handsome and she was elegance personified.
They were both so out of my league that it became less personal and much more like my favorite glamorous storylines on General Hospital. In hindsight I was pretty much vicariously vampiring off their lives and ingesting it secretly as my own.
So..not sick or weird at all.
I wasn't mad that she had his attention.
Sad at first, and undoubtedly jealous, but not mad. She was everything that I wasn't and wanted to be. She was the complete package and I couldn't fault him for having good taste. I also couldn't fault her, she was just born flawless and special.
The school year finished and a just a few years into high school...I was finally over him. It took a while for that sickness to wear off.
But she stayed on my radar as we navigated in and out of parallel social groups in high school. I always innately knew to stay away from any boys that she might show interest in because history stated that she could have them if she wanted.
Not by force. I'm quite certain she was only partially aware of her super powers. And I was still no competitor for her charms. And thats what she was, ever charming and increasingly beautiful.
By the time high school was winding down she looked and behaved like a person that you just knew was destined for great things.
She had star quality.
And still..I had no animosity. I looked up to her as who I wished I could be. Cool. Brave. Glamorous. I prayed that God would just sprinkle me with a little bit of her specialness and then maybe I could be a vanilla, watered-down version of her.
Throughout high school, she dated charismatic, handsome boys. The kind that I was friends with but in a non-romantic sort of way. Slowly my sharp knee and collar bones filled out a little and my teeth were rescued by a determined orthodontist. My hair began to recover from the Lilt home perms of early adolescence. I began to experiment with lipstick, mascara and Covergirl pressed powder. Like a fawn with wobbly legs, I began to find my own style and way of moving in the world.
Still though, I observed her and took fashion cues from her. On occasion we even spoke and went to the same parties. We would talk from time to time and shared friends in common. I guess you could call us acquaintances.
But I still didn't have the ability to see her as a real person with flaws. She was securely seated in an ivory tower I had built for her in my mind. Maybe I needed her there to look up to.
On a spring day near the end of high school, I sat in a dark classroom full of students taking notes while the teacher wrote on the overhead projector. I heard footsteps move toward the exit. The teacher asked if I would "go see where she went". As I walked out of class I had no idea who I was following as I hadn't seen who left. The girls bathroom was around the corner from our classroom so I decided to check there first. When I walked in, one stall was occupied. I quietly squatted down to see the feet. I knew these feet. I had admired those shoes more than once before. They were her shoes. She was in the stall weeping.
Immediately realizing I was outside of my pay grade and not the person she likely wanted to see or talk to in her time of need, I cautiously and quietly said, "are you ok?"
She slowly collected herself and flushed the toilet without saying a word. The stall door and she walked toward the sinks. As she wiped her face with the coarse brown school paper towels she looked at me through the mirror and said "Thanks for checking on me, I'll be ok."
"No problem" I said. I waited for her to reapply her rosy lipgloss and fluff her hair. I watcher her retie her shoelace and tighten her tiny little belt before we left the bathroom together and went back to our darkened classroom.
I'm not sure what it was about seeing her come undone and watching her put herself back together again but something clicked for me. She was real person. Not a character. She had been struggling just like I had been. Everyday putting on a brave face and trying to figure out who she was. I will never know why she was upset that day. It could have been a break up, it could have been the stomach flu or any number of other reasons.
I didn't ask. And as sorry as I am that she was suffering, in some way that day, it was an important moment that changed my perception.
No matter if we are looking down on someone or looking up to them, we aren't doing them or ourselves any favors. Comparing myself to her drove me. It caused me to try to be someone that I could never be. I couldn't be her because that position was filled. I could only be me. Flawed, unpolished, socially stumbling...but completely original.
In an effort to show just how tied to reality all of this written account is, I wanted to share a conversation I had with my husband about 10 years into our marriage. He had been one of the boys she dated briefly in high school. And after a few cocktails on the deck one night I asked him, "Have you ever thought of me as vanilla, watered-down version of her?" and he looked at me with a surprised expression. He asked me what sort of a question that was and why I had even thought to ask such a thing. I told him I didn't know "just being weird I suppose". He thought for a moment and took a sip of his beer. And then he said "No. I never thought that. I knew her and she was very pretty but insecure. The kind that doesn't show on the surface. And when I met you I thought, she is someone who really knows who she is. You are not vanilla or watered-down.".
And maybe that's what everyone needs to hear. Our perception of others and ourselves is an ongoing narrative in our brains that all too often we need to tend to. To reign it in and pull out the weeds. Shine sun on the helpful parts and get rid of the sick, overgrown areas. Even as adults, we need to force ourselves to look at the conversations we are having in our minds and who we are comparing ourselves to.
And for me personally, somewhere along the way I was able to let her out of the DIY ivory tower I built for her and see her and everyone else at eye level. All of us are filled with faults and capable of being a giant disappointments, but thats what makes us human...organic, non-GMO, undiluted, not from concentrate humans.