I became a student at my Toronto high school at perhaps the worst possible time and in the worst possible condition. Sort of like starting a marathon with shin splints.
As we all know, high school isn’t for the weak.
I showed up halfway through Grade 10, a mess. I had been living in Mexico with my divorced mother, and she had had a manic episode on Christmas Eve and drove our car into a ditch at midnight. An only child, that was it for me.
I called my Dad and told him I’d be moving in with him within a week – for the first time since they had split seven years earlier. His girlfriend, 13 years older than I, wasn’t thrilled
I was a walking wound, delectable roadkill.
I hadn’t been in a classroom with boys since the third grade, but had been attending a private girls’ school where we wore uniforms and took for granted that being smart was cool. Not pretty or submissive. That, I would learn the hard way.
I was pimply, shy and didn’t know anyone – and they had all been attending the same area schools together since kindergarten. A group of boys decided to bark at me every day as I walked through the halls, left a dog biscuit on my desk, howled at me for amusement. They quickly gave me an identity I wouldn’t shed for the next two years – Doglin.
Remember how sounds echo down those long hallways, all tile and metal and glass and wood? Everything is exposed, audible and visible. Being called a “dog” loudly and clearly made those halls a torture chamber.
Then, in my senior year for reasons I still can’t explain, things suddenly got a lot better: I started a high school newspaper, had a cool boyfriend and – the ultimate revenge – was named Prom Queen.
I sometimes go back to my old high school when I visit Toronto, to talk about writing to senior English students. It’s always a little scary to walk through those doors and along those terrazzo floors, as though Brent and his gang of bullies will suddenly re-materialize and once more start shouting abuse at me. But now I’m a multiply published author, welcomed and paid to share my expertise.
I’ll be there this week talking about my new memoir, which goes to the printer within days and which Penguin will publish next spring. I’ll walk through the same echoing halls as my younger, hopeful self, the one who dreamed of becoming a writer, desperate to be published, wondering where or how or if she ever would achieve what felt like the impossible.
I go back to remind myself — and maybe a kid sitting in that English class whose life is also a temporary hell — that I survived.
I want to find my scared, angry younger self, the one who dreaded every day there for years, and whisper in her ear a delicious irony. The very qualities that spurred the bullies to their daily attacks are the same ones that later made me a successful writer — self-confidence, a strong voice and the determination to be heard.
I’d tell that miserable young woman, the younger me – one of the many being bullied for just being alive — what the intervening decades have proved.
It does get better.