Everyone has a moment of shame and humiliation that they revisit now and then. A place they go back to whenever they’ve done something they wish they hadn’t.
For me, that big moment occurred late in the fall of 1979 when I was 15 years old. What made this moment so memorably awful was two-fold. First, it happened in front of a room full of classmates. And second: what happened was entirely my own doing.
It was eight a.m. on a November morning when I—for reasons I’ll get to in a minute—climbed under the bookcase in the rear of my homeroom class. Yup, I just sort of crawled under there and curled into fetal position. It was a crime against myself—and my Internal Demons let me know it.
At the time, I felt I deserved their rage. I was a sophomore in high school and I knew better. Especially considering how badly I wanted to be liked by my classmates. Becoming popular was something I thought about day and night.
But there I was, wedged beneath the lowest shelf, like a child trying to mash themselves into their playhouse years after they’d outgrown it.
At that time, I had no idea that I would often find myself transported back there throughout the course of my adult life. Whenever I felt alone, unlovable or like I’d just ruined things for myself by saying or doing the wrong thing, I’d find myself back under the bookcase.
Sometimes even the tiniest gaff could send me back there.
It’s no wonder that I came to consider myself The Girl Under the Bookcase.
Being under the bookcase that day was awful. From my low-to-the-ground vantage point everything moved in slow motion. My classmates laughed and pointed. W’s mouth flapped and gasped for air like a giant carp in a dirty pond. M’s normally handsome face resembled a giddy prune. T pointed and snickered. B wasn’t laughing, but from the concave curve of her cheeks I could tell she wanted to.
Their laughter blended together like the crowing of a flock of sick birds. I stared down at the scuffed linoleum floor to avoid making eye contact with any of them. I wanted to be invisible–or anywhere but where I was.
I closed my eyes and wished for a way out.
At that point in my life, I was, as I mentioned earlier, obsessed with becoming popular. I wanted what every red-blooded, chicken-fried steak biscuit-eating, feathered bang-wearing teen living in Roanoke, Virginia in 1979 wanted: To belong.
I wanted a circle of friends to gossip with in the halls before school and a boyfriend to walk me to class and rescue me from weekend nights spent watching TV with my parents and younger brother. I wanted to be pretty. I wanted people to think of me as smart and talented.
I wanted to be part of a gang…
And my greatest fear was that I would be friendless and alone.
Years later, I’d see things differently. I would understand that being popular, pretty, smart and talented isn’t an all or nothing thing. Popular is weighed on a scale with levels and degrees. Almost no one is ever all the way at the high end of the scale—or all the way at the low end either.
Someday, I would recognize that I was smart—just not the smartest. And that I wasn’t untalented either. But these realizations would come gradually, over the next, say, twenty or thirty years.
At the time, all I knew was that I was stuck—and that it was my own fault.
So how did I get under the bookcase?
Plain and simple, it was a desperate plea for attention. Over the course of the prior few weeks, my entire life had gone wrong in pretty much every way it could go wrong.
First P, the cute, preppy boy who became my boyfriend for a couple of weeks, had stopped liking me as quickly as he started.
It’s amazing how fast you can get used to having someone make you feel attractive and wanted. Even if you’ve never had it before, just a couple of days of this sort of attention are narcotic. Once you’ve experience this sort of validation from someone else it feels like you can never live without it again.
P and I were only a couple for two weeks, but I found myself bargaining internally like someone who’d experienced a crippling loss.
And then, there was the sad situation of my hair. Andre, my hair stylist, had talked me into a short, layered haircut. This was, to put it mildly, an unfortunate choice.
In 1979 pretty girls wore their hair straight with either a headband or feathered bangs–or with a flip-back all the way down the side. Like Valerie Bertinelli on One Day at a Time. She had the best hair of anyone in the entire world. I wanted Valerie’s hair—only in golden blonde.
Very few women can pull off super-short hair—and I learned the hard way that I’m just not one of them.
I looked like a gourd.
Every time I looked in the mirror, Compare berated me for my unfortunate choice.
Things continued to go downhill from there. A few days before I crawled under the bookcase, I found out that I didn’t make the school gymnastics team. I’d been on the gymnastics team all through middle school and had planned to continue through high school. In my teen world where the cool people had labels like Cheerleader and Football Player, my chosen label since middle school had been Gymnast.
Not that gymnast was very high on the social ladder—but it was the only thing I did that any of the popular kids might consider even somewhat cool.
The truth was, I was a lousy gymnast. But without gymnastics, I no longer knew how to describe myself, or where I fit in.
But the worst thing of all, the final thing that pushed me to my limit and drove me under the bookcase, was that my best friend, Carlie, was pulling away.
With Carlie I felt like I fit in…
The thought of losing her made me desperately, stomach-achingly afraid.