[I wrote this and read it at the most recent Storycatchers event here in Appleton. Thank you to my dear Jenna who encouraged me to submit something. It was a blast!]

I was twelve and I was terrified.

I was in English class and I wanted to disappear.

I sat in my chair, completely paralyzed. I couldn’t move. It was difficult to breathe.

My blood ran cold and my heart raced.

Had anyone noticed? Was it possible that it hadn’t even happened?

I stared straight ahead, right into the back of the person in front of me, not chancing a glance to either side. Maybe if I sat still enough, quietly enough, no one would remember that I even existed.

But then something caught my eye – he was moving. He was talking to me and walking into the middle of the room and bending down. Then he was standing up and looking straight me.

“You’re a stuck up bitch,” he said.

And just like that, my fate was sealed. Welcome to middle school.

Maybe this all sounds a bit dramatic. It was English class, after all. What in the world could have happened during a middle school English class to send me into such a tailspin? What on earth could have provoked that offensive reaction?

I had tripped and knocked over a small waste bin in the center of our classroom.

I know. Pretty shocking.

You see, I was painfully shy. Mortified whenever noticed. If I could have blended into the background and quietly tiptoed through middle school without drawing even the briefest attention of anyone at all, I would have. It would have been horribly lonely, yes, but the pain that always came as a result of my awkward attempts at social interaction ran deep.

Runs deep.

After I knocked over the waste bin and crumpled balls of paper spilled onto the floor I put my head down and made a bee-line for my desk. I sat. (That’s where we began this story.) I prayed and prayed that no one would have noticed, but of course how could anyone have missed it? Our desks were in a circle.  

And so people looked at me and waited for me to clean up the mess I had made. And I sat, staring resolutely ahead, incapable of moving. I didn’t even remember how to stand up. Did my feet go first? My hands? All logic – gone.

And so the meanest boy in class, the loudest and most outspoken, who also happened to be the most popular (something I will never understand), got up from his desk and cleaned up my mess.

His parting words were the last words he ever spoke to me, and I never took the opportunity to correct him.

I never took the time to tell every one of my classmates just how terrified I was of them. Maybe I expected too little from them? On the other hand, my god: what thirteen-year-old has the mental or emotional capacity to hold that kind of empathic space for a peer?

I never tried to correct him, to say I wasn’t stuck up. To say I wasn’t a bitch. To say I was in a brand new school with brand new people—one thousand adolescents in the grips of puberty—and no one had ever taught me how to make friends. Social graces, expected of children and presumed to be obvious, were never that clear to me. I was a self-taught seventh-grader and I was failing.

I’m a self-taught thirty-five year old now.

I’m still not stuck up. I’m still not a bitch.

I’m still shy and I’m still sensitive and I’m still quiet and I’m still awkward. I’m also silly and I’m also thoughtful. I’m still in learning.

I’m also braver now. I think I’m finally ready to go clean up that waste bin.