As we turned off into the high school parking lot, a dread-feathered raven began to hysterically beat its wings in the cavity of my rib cage. The looming weight of another silent, lonely day beat me back into the passenger seat, restraining me just like the seatbelt. Today had to be the day I wouldn’t be able to make myself get out of the car; every time I stepped out and climbed the steps into the building, I was walking into a hungry lion’s den. But every day my mother drove up next to the building and put the car in park, we both knew that I had to go.
“Callie, please get out of the car,” my mother would say after five excruciating minutes. She always waited for the hyperventilation that was caused by simply entering the parking lot to subside before asking me to leave. Once these words escaped her lips, my eyes would again fill with tears and my lungs couldn’t find the air to inflate more than halfway, but I hid it. My mom never asked me to get out of the car until she thought I was better.
“Bye, Mom! Have a good day!” I choked out, with an attempted ‘bright smile’.
“Alright, bye, Sweetie, love you!” I would close the door and she would drive away.
Just like that, every morning, I was left completely alone for the next six hours. Once the car was out of sight I let myself shut down. Eyes down, away from any poster or statue or depiction of Someone Else’s Lord and Savior Jesus Christ looming over me, away from all the perfect, happy girls laughing and talking with what seemed like an endless supply of friends. Shoulders folded in, it was my sole mission, walking through those halls, to blend in and become as small as possible. These strangers–my supposed peers–had more important things to pay attention to then a stupid, ugly girl who accidently stepped into their path. I just didn’t want to get in the way. Listening, why bother? No one was going to bother talking to me anyway. It was better to ignore the giddy chatter, being alone was easier when I could make myself forget what I was missing.
I trudged through school, through days on end that were carbon copies of this one. Every minute was spent trying to get to the next while still keeping the pieces of myself together. There was no one to help me. If a part of me, my personality, my happiness, my emotion behind my eyes, broke off I wouldn’t dare suffer the humiliation of kneeling on the ground to pick it up. I just had to leave it there, to be trampled on the floor. I was crumbling. My smile, my humor, my empathy were all just discarded pieces. I couldn’t find the room in my arms to carry them.
There is an art to escaping from class to the bathroom at just the right time to skip mass. You can’t leave early and then just hide in there; you’ll have to grab your backpack on the way out and fall under suspicion, scrambling for answers to remarks like “Just where do you think you’re going, hmmm?” and “You had better be leaving my class early to get a good seat for the mass, young lady. I’ll keep an eye out for you.” You can’t sneak into the bathroom during the unavoidable mad rush in the hallway that happens at 9:10 for the 9:15 mass. There will be a line, and you’ll fall in the middle of it. At a place where every single girl, whether blond haired, blue eyed, and sporty, or skinny with dark hair and eyes and a talent for theater, or maybe tall, curvy girls with loud laughs and witty answers, has found a pack to run with except you, the last thing you want is all of them noticing where you hid and gossiping about why you stayed in the handicapped stall until everyone else left. They’ll spread rumors that you’re throwing up in there. It won’t be too far from the truth. The trick is to get in there at 9:14 so you’re the last in line. You can easily sneak into the biggest stall, hang your backpack on the hook and hop up onto the toilet seat when a teacher comes to check that no one is hiding. That way, she won’t find any evidence, neither shoes nor backpack, visible under the stall door. The hardest part is, of course, holding your breath while you know she is right outside the door. Like a monster that can smell fear the slightest peep will bring you to her attention. In fact, any noise at all and you’re in too compromising a position to deny what you’re doing. The first time they catch you skipping mass the punishment is suspension and lots of JUG, a Catholic high school’s take on detention, formally known as “Justice Under God,” the next time you skip, you get expelled.
Out of the five masses my school hosted that year, I skipped four. I only went to the first because it was before I lost hope that the gossiping, smiling, laughing, girls would reach out to me and to confirm my suspicion that attendance was not taken. As the second mass approached I knew, after days spent using all the effort in me to hold myself together, I couldn’t bring myself to attend another. Led by a man preaching acceptance to all, even those who didn’t practice a faith similar to your own, when I knew he would later be in the basement reminding me and the rest of my Theology class that he would be happy to convert us any time during the course of the school year. All we had to do was ask.
The first time I skipped mass it gave me a small sense of power. For the first time all year I didn’t feel like I was at the mercy of everyone around me. At the time, skipping felt like my own little rebellion. I was taking a stand. For the hour that I was hiding in the bathroom, a teeny, tiny idea crept into my mind. Maybe I wasn’t utterly worthless, utterly useless. I knew that there were people outside of school who loved me, and worried about me, and asked me how my day was going. Maybe they weren’t just doing it to be nice. Maybe they actually cared. Maybe I didn’t have to be alone. I mean school was just school, right? I got there at 7:40 and left at 2:20, I didn’t have to be in their clubs or on their sports teams. I only had to go there to learn; I could disconnect the rest of my identity from it.
This revelation didn’t immediately bring on profound change. A ball of air glowing with hope did not swell in my chest. I did not suddenly feel brave enough to walk through the hallways with my head up. I was not about to start making eye contact with the strangers that I went to school with every day. A seed took root that with proper care would flourish did not take root in my chest next to my lungs and my heart. The feeling was so subtle I barely noticed it. I just chalked that unfamiliar sensation up to nerves from skipping. A small change was beginning, though. I hadn’t reached out to a single friend since I had begun high school. I spent hours watching my phone wishing the screen would light up with a text from one of the girls I had been friends with since we were eight. Throughout the beginning months of my freshman year, I was unable to think of a reason they would want me to text them, so I just left conversation starting up to them. But in the handicap stall of a high school bathroom, I had a moment of victory. I shot a quick “what’s up” to one of my best friends, and although it doesn’t seem like this would be a surprise now, seeing the text bubbles come up on the screen did make my heart swell with joy. Just this tiny interaction, the smallest of victories, brought a little life back into me.
Of course, exiting the bathroom after mass was over, being swamped with what I had just so briefly escaped, I couldn’t well hold on to this triumph. I spent the rest of the day peeking at my phone under desks and smiling to myself in the halls. Even though I was sitting alone, I didn’t feel quite as lonely at lunch that day.
Completing each day was still an uphill battle, but with the door of social contact ajar, the hill felt a little less steep. When defeat built itself up like a wall in my face and I had nowhere else to turn, I could text a friend who was on the other side. Loneliness still weighed my shoulders down, but it didn’t feel quite as heavy. I skipped another mass and I found the courage to smile at another girl walking alone in the hall. As I escaped the bathroom after the third, I was caught. I tried to get out a little too early. I channeled the self-assurance of the friend I had been texting moments ago and let an embarrassed lie about forgetting to change my tampon roll off my tongue with ease. Throughout these months my friends had been helping me without even being there. Just knowing, both in conversations I had with them while hiding from mass and seeing them and smiling and laughing with them outside of school, that they would be by my side if they could was enough to empower me.
I began to notice a growing confidence and power and used it as a sling for the pieces of myself I was worried about. There were moments in the days that made me feel like I might be worth something to people. The lightness in my fingers and toes as I heard about a friend’s new cat, the first time I raised my hand, from the back of the room in history, to answer a question without any remnants of the stutter I had developed. My biggest victory was the day my mom drove me into the parking lot and I didn’t feel terrified. I knew that I would be able to get out of the car and go to school that day. I wouldn’t cry, and so what if I ate lunch alone? I had made myself a solid support system. I got an email from my mom that day. She told me that she loved me and that she was proud of me. This is when my heart swelled with joy, I felt brave enough to walk through the hallways with my head up, it didn’t matter if I made eye contact with the people here because I had people, so many people, outside of this school who loved me. And maybe I was starting to love myself, too.
Callie Banksmith is a junior at Waynflete School, to which she transferred for sophomore year, where she participates in Linguistics Club, Math Team, and Science Olympiad. Outside of school, Callie enjoys reading (any type of fiction), going on long runs, and working part time in a candy shop.