My Conversion Story: Part III — Finding Truth Can Be A Long, Ugly Road

(Read Part I and Part II.)

We moved 15 times by the time I was 18 years old. Every time my parents decided to get back together from a long separation, we moved across state lines. Or maybe every time there was an opportunity for my dad to move out of state it sparked a much needed hope of new beginnings that my parents clung to for all its worth. Either way, we moved a lot.  

We arrived in Prescott, Arizona, two days after my 11th birthday. I started my new school in Mr. Henderson’s 5th-grade class the following Monday. I woke up on Tuesday certain that I shouldn’t return. Everything was different at this school, from having a computer lab and a graffiti-free playground, to having a room full of small-town, perfectly polished children. I was the obvious new kid on the block and it seemed that friendships were to be earned with blood, sweat, tears and materialism.

Before Prescott, my mom was too poor, too depressed or plain uninterested in enrolling me in any sort of extracurricular activity. Instead, I excelled at truancy. Out of the times I did go to school, I don’t recall having much exposure to art, PE, or any other non-core subject specials. Unfortunately, in this new world, playing sports, mastering fine arts and community involvement were unarguably a direct correlation to social acceptance. I immediately knew my whole family would be in hot water here. And so did they.  

To make matters worse, I was tall, skinny, bucked-toothed, uncoordinated and super, duper dorky. Probably partially because I regularly said things like “super, duper.” I was overly-eager — no, scratch that — I was desperately starving for acceptance and praise. I begged my mom to join Girl Scouts, but the troops at my school claimed there was no more room for me. I tried out for sports, but between severe growing pains in my knees and my pitiful inability to catch any sort of ball, I didn’t make many teams. In 6th grade, I did manage to join the no-cuts basketball team until the first (and last) time the coach took me off the bench, whereby I proudly and obliviously scored a basket for the wrong team. I don’t think I returned after that.

The natural way of a small town mixed with my struggle to fit in or find common ground made my peers’ friendship circles more impenetrable than ever. At long last, almost a year after moving to Arizona, I met and immediately befriended the only other girl I knew whose parents’ marriage resembled anything like mine. Lindsey* also didn’t do extracurricular activities, was also left home alone far too often and had also seen things that most adults only read about in novels. We were instantly attached at the hip and joined forces in a mutual mission for acceptance.

Our mission left us with a target on our backs.

Because I was smart, insecure, and had an “in” with teachers, a group of bullies started ganging up on me at the bus stop and during lunch recess. They would leave notes in my locker threatening to beat me up if I didn’t do various things they wanted, such as their homework or giving them my lunch. On a few occasions when Lindsey and I performed to their expectations, they were nice to us. I would excitedly respond, thinking that meant we were their friends. They would lead me on in the conversation long enough to have someone sneak behind me and hunch down below my waist. Before I could detect their presence, someone else would shove me so that I would topple over the kneeler and literally fall on my head. If I told any adults, they threatened me with more severe beatings. The fear worked. The devil no longer hid under my bed. He overtly haunted my every move.

Lindsey was lucky. She wasn’t tall enough to be unexpectedly table-topped like I was and her parents had tons of money that they freely gave her so she could in turn give to the bullies to keep them at bay. Because of this, she was accepted into the bad-apple circle before I was, although in time and with enough insistence she brought me along as well. I continued doing well in school, but I started wearing black, baggy clothing and strutting my bitter, hurt attitude, most especially to adults.

As my 13th birthday rolled around, my parents were disappointed, confused, angry, and embarrassed by me. Because they didn’t know what to do about me, they also didn’t know what to do with me. I had no rules, no expectations, and no guidance. Mostly they just ignored me. I fought with them and talked back for attention. Eventually we started avoiding each other all together no matter how much parenting my actions should’ve called for. Besides, it was easy to do with my dad living in a separate apartment again and my mom back behind her locked bedroom.

Directed by fear, loneliness, and rejection, I wandered in all the wrong directions secretly aching for a way out. I knew the company I was keeping was disastrous, but without them I felt I had absolutely no one else in the world. The same despair I knew as a little girl crawled back and made a home in the pit of my stomach.

As long as I could avoid the bus and lunch recess, I unexpectedly found a slight reprieve from my desolation by attending school. I started getting rides from a neighbor to and from, or I walked 45 minutes home through country highways to our pine forest subdivision. I remember one time while walking home it started to rain hard, and I didn’t have change for a pay phone. I tried waving down cars for a ride, but no one stopped. I arrived home to find my mom asleep in her room. She just forgot I was coming home from school that day. The adjustment to this community was hard for her too.

I tried several tricks to be sent to the principal’s office during lunch until my mom and teachers figured out that was what I wanted and arranged for the principal to let me stay in his office or the library to keep me safe from any “conflicts.” My close relationships with the teachers grew, and they took me under their wings, each in their own way.

Meanwhile, my willowy stature began forming with grace and coordination. After a growth spurt of 7" in one year, my body’s awkwardness faded (not to be confused with my social awkwardness, which I still endearingly carry with me). Fatefully, this change caught the attention of my P.E. teachers. During our annual fitness tests we were frankly all shocked to discover that as a 7th-grader I could sprint faster than any boy or girl in the school. The track coach personally called my parents to ask if I could join and waived the fee to avoid any excuses.

My beloved track coach and perhaps undercover angel began dragging me out of my hole.

Even though I had as much chance as a wax cat in hell at being elected to the student council, it turns out that Coach Wings (you see what I did there) was also the student council co-leader. She quietly wrote my name into an unopposed office. The first day student council met, every jaw hit the floor when I walked into the room. Begrudgingly, another 7th-grade rep (who was the other student council leader’s niece) pulled out a chair at her table.

During this time, Lindsey and I struggled to kindle our friendship. Mine and Lindsey’s parents had seemingly synchronized their latest marital separations, which made life at home complicated for both of us, to say the least. Lindsey resented and maybe envied my slow, but noticeable changes. The truth is she began to change as well. She started earning credibility among the bullies and became close to one named Sandra*. In an attempt to salvage our slipping ties, Lindsey managed to convince Sandra and her gang that I didn’t need to be beat up.

Even if we weren’t around each other at school, Lindsey and I usually ended up staying overnight at each other’s houses most nights a week. I didn’t care much to go to her house, though. In her parent’s separation her mother held tight to her resources and rarely stocked food in the fridge. Conversely, my dad had been suddenly making very good money, and my mom took the liberty to open the floodgates for us. Our Costco-filled pantry and lack of supervision made my house the go-to place when we could get rides there. When my mom said no more extra kids, Lindsey took to spending nights at Sandra’s place. Sandra’s family’s trailer was in a heavy crime neighborhood on the other side of town that I could rarely whine, yell, or fight my way into being driven to on the rare occasion I wasn’t worried someone would beat me up over there.

Over the next several weeks, still hiding behind my dark, baggy, thuggish clothes, I slowly warmed my way into unlikely acceptance by the student council group, who happened to be the most popular kids in school. Track and field began in the Spring semester and with every successive win I strode closer and closer toward confidence and hope, and away from Lindsey and Sandra. By the time we were planning the end of the year school dance, other council members started inviting me to their houses after school for milk and cookies.

Over chocolate chips and colored paper straws, a few student council girls explained their dramatic plans to give me a makeover. One new friend’s mom called mine to ask if she could take me down to Phoenix with their family to go shopping at Fashion Square Mall for my makeover clothes. We never spoke about it, but I’m sure my mom was just as excited as I was to be finally associating with the “in crowd,” and so she filled my pockets with an unreasonable wad of cash and sent me on my way to procure the right uniform.

I promptly traded my dark lipstick, tightly slicked ponytail and baggy clothes for short dresses, freshly curled hair, lip gloss, and squeaky clean Keds. Next on the list was cutting the cord from Lindsey. I brutally, harshly, and suddenly telephoned her to say, “I’m becoming a preppie now and I don’t think we should be friends anymore.”  She sobbed and begged me not to leave her. She pleaded for me to teach her how to be a “preppie” too. I coldly and selfishly ignored her and her pain. She dropped out of school shortly after and joined Sandra down a difficult path. Lindsey, please, please forgive me.

Walking away from the last day of school, I happily toted my yearbook that had been signed over every inch of space with an equally full summer schedule of sleepovers and parties. Between games of M.A.S.H and Truth or Dare, I learned the other essential part of being a popular preppie was attending youth groups. Determined to keep me on this preferred path, my mom offered any amount of money requested for youth-group trips, activities, or clothing I deemed necessary. My dad was off doing whatever he wanted, so she apparently figured we might as well do whatever it took to make ourselves happy too.

Things started to superficially polish up around my house. We opened credit cards with sky-high limits and spent away any bad feelings. My mom and I were getting along relatively well. My younger siblings were also thriving in their social circles and as a result my mom had an abundance of all the right parent friends too. It didn’t matter how we were all really doing down deep, because that kind of exposure would risk everything that mattered to us then. We tucked away our secrets and put on the right face to go with the right friends to go with the right activities. It started to look like another new beginning… and where there is a new beginning, there are my parents together once again.

My dad moved back home. And so did his raging alcoholism. With a giant, unconcealable splash.

Look for the next & final part IV next month….

* Names changed for privacy.

 

Jessica Schaefer