“You were such a quiet little thing,” my mother once said in a soft, reverent voice, as if carefully sifting through the brittle pages of remembrance. She called me her little porcelain doll back then because I rarely talked, but rather looked onward in a state of curiosity.
When I leaf through photo albums, I find pictures of my rosy face with a withdrawn expression as if lost in a far off world somewhere. My pink lips were always puckered in a perfect bow, instead of exploding with smile. I was not silly or loud and I rarely cried. I was quiet and slight. During games of red rover or king of the mountain, I often felt that I had no force to me. I was easily knocked over and quick to be shoved aside. I was a middle child, the third of four kids. And my older brothers were of that personality that could assert a kind of dominance through demands. My sister was quiet like me, yet she had a robustness that I never felt. I was too sensitive for dark themes in films, while my siblings were unaffected. My mother, knowing this, would quietly usher me aside to another room somewhere.
In school, I was silent. I sat quietly and diligently with my school work. And although I excelled with school, it never seemed that I was anything more than that student that never caused trouble or made noise, like a shadow on the classroom wall. At recess I sat by myself, perched up on the monkey bars and looked onward. I was too shy to raise my hand and answer a question. During class I sat quietly and read while other students passed notes. When I was seven my mother gave me a red spiral notebook so that I could write down my thoughts. And I would sit and write instead of talking to others. I was a quiet little thing, small boned with thin wispy hair.
I adapted as I went, learned to smile more, and I learned to interact even if it was primarily just as a listener. I began to play soccer. When the coach ordered us to dribble a ball around the field I was always last to get back. I gently tapped the ball forward, carefully understanding how to maneuver it, while the other kids recklessly booted it far ahead and sprinted after. I never seemed to care that I was last or that the other players might comment on this. I was lost in a world of my own, figuring it out as I went in my time and way. I was a child independent from the social norm, unaware of the effect it would have on me later.
All that gentle tapping and maneuvering of the ball eventually made me a skilled soccer player. Playing a pick up game in our gym with some high school players, I flew confidently around, dribbling quickly and shooting without hesitation. I was younger than all the others but I secretly felt that I could play at their level. A senior later told me they were all talking about me and my quick feet. And eventually when I moved up to high school, I became a part of the varsity team my freshman year. By sophomore year I was starting and playing the entire match, my four shadows shifting around me from the four stadium lights. I was a weightless shadow of my own with no physical barrier, fluid and in contrast to the light surrounding me. I could dance with the ball, circling around others like a swift shadow play. When our team was down a point, Coach told the team to pass the ball to me and I was instructed to dribble around until I scored. My legs would spring into action with a lightness as if my feet didn’t even touch the ground.
Yet, it felt that my teammates were annoyed with this and even though we’d won, I received very little congratulations. My teammates might celebrate our win, but when I stood nearby their eyes were resolutely forward and averted from mine. They rarely spoke to me and would often become quiet whenever I walked by. It felt that I was silently gliding my way through, stretching for more while my team begrudgingly followed suit. When we had a timed two mile run, I was first to the finish line. I was met with blank stares and cold shoulders after. I resolved never to be first again. I felt like I was unwanted and that the objective of winning must not be the point at all. There was a popular click on that team and I was pushed to the side like some leper in a society of entitled jocks.
Because of this, I was usually reserved around my teammates. I was mild in my response to scoring or winning. I did not jump up and down with excitement like the others, but would simply nod quietly to myself in silent satisfaction. I offered encouragement to others, yet received little response in return. And I spent my time on the bus doing homework and studying, something that often inspired sarcastic commentary from others. I did not make crude jokes or laugh along with my teammates. While I sometimes casually chatted with them, I often felt out of place. I was more serious about life and I often felt that their remarks were vulgar and unkind. I somehow always felt singular and within myself. And I could not bridge the gap between what I felt and what others were like. I thought perhaps this did not matter and that I could continue quietly and unnoticed.
I always took for granted that people would just leave me alone and not mind what I did, or what I thought about anything. In some ways, I might be considered aloof, preferring to disregard much of the world outside of myself. And even in such a physical environment, I often neglected to notice the physical signs around me. Despite my finesse, I was easily pummeled by the other players. And there were times when my teammates aggressively knocked me over during practice. There were also moments when my teammates became quiet around me. These moments became more frequent until I began to notice them in my classes at school as well. It was hard to ignore the fact that people seemed to sneer around me. And later, when I asked a classmate of mine, I learned that my teammate had been incessantly talking about me. She claimed that I was in a cult in which I liked to draw blood from my enemies, especially during soccer games.
I was stunned. I had injured some players in the past, but suggesting that I was into some kind of witchcraft was as absurd as saying I was the Easter bunny. And even though, it was all too likely that everyone understood these absurd rumors were false, it did not keep my teammate from promoting them. My teammate—let’s call her Kristin—was a popular girl. Like me, she was a starter on the varsity team, but we rarely talked to each other. Kristin was chatty and it seemed that she directed that trait against me, using her words like a venomous weapon. And although false, the fervor of her wrath seemed to spur on others in a way that gave them camaraderie over mutual disdain. It was not about the rumor that I was in a cult. It was about the fact that people secretly disliked me and all at once they had a reason to demonstrate their hatred.
I continued on as I always did, quietly ignoring eye rolls and mean glances. However, at the next game I was benched for most of it. And the one after that I sat the bench as well. I asked my coach more than once why, only to be given a vague reply or none at all. All the while, my teammates would strangely stare at me if I spoke, with their eyebrows raised and a smirk on their lips. When I left, I’d hear them laughing behind me as I walked on.
During one particular practice, I cornered my coach and demanded to know why I’d been benched. Coach shifted strangely, unable to maintain eye contact or speak for several minutes. I stood watching him, resolved to understand. He was a middle aged man but he looked like an oversized child in that moment. This was the coach that had encouraged his players to steal forks at the restaurant in which we ate some weeks before. He stated that it was tradition and that it helped with team bonding. I had refused to do so and had even stated I was uncomfortable then, but Coach ignored me just as he was ignoring me now. It seemed ridiculous that a man three times my age would be as petty as my teammates and I could not fully accept that maybe he was affected by public opinion of me. Surely it could not be this ridiculous rumor and the opinion of ten or so high school girls that was sentencing me to the bench game after game.
After a couple long minutes Coach sighed. Slumping his shoulders, he took my elbow and walked me to the side. With his arms crossed and through many awkward pauses he looked me in the eyes and said, “I don’t know if you noticed, but no one likes you. Maybe you should go talk to someone about it…” His voice trailed off.
I stood there in disbelief and just nodded, looking off in the distance and hoping that I could suppress my tears long enough to get away from there. Coach shuffled away and I stood for a minute or so, my mind a blank space muddled by hurt and shock. I swallowed hard and went back to practice and silently played. Afterward, I walked far away and stood behind some bushes where I cried for a long time, shrinking into a dark place that was tearing open inside of me. The field was empty when I left. I remained silent like always and told no one.
Eventually I moved away from that high school. Being at a new school was like reinventing myself. I got a job and bought new clothes. It seemed that all of the sudden all of the cool kids wanted to usher me into their crowd. They invited me to parties and even offered me drugs. I declined. I had learned to be skeptical of others. I was guarded and felt safest when I was alone. I sat off to the side, quietly doing my schoolwork while other students chatted. I was anonymous and singular. The truth is, I felt very alone and swallowed up in an insecurity that I could not surmount. There was a growing idea in my mind that kept getting bigger and exponentially ravenous, shredding all other thoughts to pieces. It was the fear and insecurity that I would never be accepted or that I might never find people that I could identify with. I shrank inward even more. I was collapsing in on myself little by little.
It seemed that I was in servitude to a surrounding darkness and I felt myself drifting further and further away…