When I was fourteen years old, I regularly babysat for a couple down the road from my house. They were a very sweet pair and had one little girl, a toddler, and I adored her.
On one particular day I was scheduled to babysit, I arrived to find another teenaged girl quietly sitting in the living room. I was quickly introduced and told she was their niece from out of state and would be staying with them for the week – and was it okay if she kept me company while I babysat? It seemed a little odd to me that they just didn’t have her babysit, as we appeared to be the same age, but it was fine with me and soon we were left alone.
I don’t remember her name, but I do remember that she was extremely quiet and shy. I was not – and never have been. And anyone who knows me knows well that I hate awkward silence, and so I usually attempt to fill it (sometimes a little too enthusiastically.) I tried to make this new, shy girl feel at ease. I remember asking her lots of questions – to which I’d receive a lot of one-word responses in turn. I tried to talk to her about school, her friends… None of it seemed to be working. So, then I started to talk about my school and my friends in order to initiate conversation and fill the silence.
I was in the middle of my freshmen year of high school then and school pictures had recently been handed out. I don’t know what kids do these days, but back then we’d hand out our photos to all of our friends and write sweet, short notes on the back to one another. In my last ditch effort to get this girl talking, I pulled out my small wallet album and began to show her each photo of my friends. This seemed to spark her interest and she began to ask me questions about all of them. Finally, I thought, she’s talking! After we went through the whole album, I returned it to my purse and the rest of the day seemed to go smoothly. The parents eventually returned. I said my goodbyes, told their niece that I was happy to meet her, and I walked home.
Later that afternoon, I went through my purse and my small photo album was missing. I searched everywhere. I specifically remembered putting it back in my purse. A sneaking suspicion rose in me, but I squashed it. Finally, after looking all over, I called the house where I had babysat. “I am so sorry,” I said, “but I think I may have dropped a small photo album or it fell out of my purse. Could you just look when you have a chance?”
A few minutes later, the phone rang.
“Jennifer, I want you to be honest with me. Was this album in your purse?”
“Umm, yes, I think so.”
“That’s what I thought. We will be over shortly.”
Within thirty minutes, both the girl and her aunt were awkwardly standing in my kitchen.
“Do you have something to say?” her aunt prodded.
“I’m sorry I stole your photos,” the girl said quietly, as she looked to the ground.
It was so sad and pitiful and more than both my mom and I could take. “It’s ok! It’s fine…” we both chirped simultaneously, trying to make the awkwardness of it all go away.
“No, it’s not okay,” replied the aunt sternly, “I really hope this doesn’t affect our relationship and that you will still babysit for us.”
After my mom and I assured her that I would, of course, still babysit, they quietly and quickly left.
It was only later that day that I noticed she had begun to scribble my name off the back of the photos where my friends had began their messages.
I have relayed many funny stories about my childhood and adolescence over the years, but this one has never been funny to me. I admit that I have retold it – and I’m usually met with “How creepy!” and other not very kind words. And yes, I’ll admit, it did seem creepy – especially to my then 14-year old self.
But mostly, it was incredibly sad.
I have thought of that girl often over the span of decades that have since passed. How lonely she must have felt at that time. Maybe the faces of my friends represented a life she wished she was a part of? Maybe even pretending with that album would have made her feel less alone? Or, maybe, she had planned to take that album back home with her to show others that she had made new friends?
High school was easy, socially, for me. Other than some (internal) weight insecurities, I eased right in and made friends quickly. But I know it’s not that easy for everyone. In fact, it is not easy for many. And it terrifies me thinking of our girls entering an arena that can be so hard and harsh and miserable for so many.
And as much as it terrifies me that they could experience the pain of loneliness, ridicule or rejection aimed so often at so many, the thought of either of them being part of those who enforce such agony on others terrifies me more.
“Don’t ever be that person. Rise above it. If your friends are being cruel, be true to yourself – be better than that.” I think we’ve said this to our (nearly) 14-year old a thousand times, not for anything she has done – but more so as a warning of the impending high school atmosphere.
I want to raise strong, intelligent, independent women. But I also want to raise kind humans. Sometimes, these days, I think kind often gets associated with weak. However, in our home, I refuse to let those words dissolve into one another.
Being assertive is one thing. Being an a$$hole is another.
I don’t know what happened to that quiet girl from that day so many years ago. I hope she found her way through the twists and turns of adolescence and the awkward years of learning what ultimately matters.
I hope she found her voice in the deafening sea of noise that is high school.
And I hope she found herself – after navigating through four years that can so easily trick you into thinking that life is nothing more than pretty faces in a photo album.