how I survived high school with a (really) bad reputation

This is a topic I’ve been wanting to speak on since I began to feel the weight of it at the age of fourteen. It’s not easy to talk about, but I know how alone and out-of-place I felt at times in high school. I wish I had known someone from this community who wasn’t ashamed of having a bad reputation, someone who was willing to own it right in the faces of those who labeled her in the first place. I sound like I think I’m some kind of hero, but really it’s this pandemic that has made me realize that you never know when your ability to speak could be taken from you by powers outside of your control, and this is something I’ve always wanted to say. It’s also just a big part of my life and a major influence on my personality, so if the point of this blog is to show who I really am…I kinda have to talk about it. I want to lay out a bit about my experience having a bad rap for those of you fortunate enough not to be familiar with it, and I will also tell y’all how I got through it with my head held high and best friends that would kill for me to this day (and vice versa). 

Growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, there are very stringent rules of conduct if you want to thrive, or even survive, socially. Obviously we have very traditional and conservative views down here, and there is a specific outline for the type of person who will be truly accepted or respected by the community (in northeast Jackson especially). Modesty and temperance are all but required of young girls in Jackson if they wish to be liked by those around them. We seem to conflate abiding by these rules with respecting our family; we think that failing to comply with the standards established long ago by our forefathers means failing to value our people, our clan, where we came from. You can honor your family while refusing to perpetuate the cycles they have put in place. Change has to happen somehow, and living your life with such need for affiliation or your ancestors’ approval that you conform without giving it any thought keeps that wheel from turning. It keeps us from progress we desperately need to make. This isn’t a political point; it’s a plea to people like the women who didn’t ask me to make my debut when my grandmother and sisters did, a plea to look up and out into the world instead of sticking fast to our own insular frame of reference and guidelines. Why expend energy scrutinizing each other for diverging from the norm? Seriously, I’m asking, why? I honor my family by doing my best to live with honesty, kindness, grace, and love, not by conforming to a certain image of what is “ladylike” just because older women told me so.

I knew from the get-go that I was not going to fit that mold. Growing up in a relatively liberal household, I recognized from an early age that my views weren’t like many of those expressed by my friends. My interests never concerned being proper (polite is a different story) or well-liked by groups of girls. My religious views were personal and precious to me, and I kept them that way. Now please don’t get me wrong, there is NOTHING wrong with living life the traditional Southern way and holding yourself to those standards; some of the women I admire most — including my grandmother, sisters, and some of my best friends — have managed to build a happy life while abiding by Jackson’s guidelines for Girls That Will Be Happy on Bid Day. That just wasn’t me, and I knew if I forced it I would live a life of inauthenticity, and that was the opposite of what I wanted.

The first encounter I had with mean girls was halfway through my eighth grade year, when my being in a car with my older boyfriend at the time — which is of course in hindsight a bad decision — resulted in their sitting me down in public (in front of all the boys) and telling me that they had to distance themselves from me because they didn’t want my reputation to tarnish theirs going into high school. After a few months of devastation and depression in the wake of all the girls I thought to be my best friends deserting me, I had somewhat of an epiphany. The people who are your real friends will stay by your side no matter what. Like my very wise and very best friend Alexis once said, “The point of being best friends with someone is that you accept their flaws, not judge them for it.” Those who criticize you and, especially, those who feel the need to vocalize their assumptions about you seem to go out of their way to highlight the fact that you don’t belong. If you’re on the receiving end of this type of judgment, it can be hard not to start to see yourself through their eyes. This is the fact I had to cling to during the times of most criticism: those who spread hateful things about you were determined to see you that way in the first place, and whatever they’re saying stems from their own insecurities. I know that isn’t exactly a novel concept, but it’s essential to remember for those who are being shunned by the majority of their peers. I’m sure some of the people who were most reproving of me are reading this right now, and I want to address them directly —

Seek to understand those who are different instead of tearing them down. We are all humans made up of good and bad, all of us. It is not your job to be the governor of all high schoolers’ behavior, even if you’re a parent. You can’t know everyone’s story, but I assure you that if you listened to them you would come to see their sins with different eyes. Many of those who judged me the most harshly were proud Christians with Bible verses in your instagram bios. The fundamental tenet of Christianity is grace. What we are planning to celebrate this upcoming Sunday is Jesus’s self-sacrifice for us. He recognized us as sinful, imperfect beings, and he chose not only to respect *all* of those sinners but also to lay down his life in order to redeem them. If you truly believe, why not follow His example? I know that once I opened my heart and mind to others with customs and beliefs different from mine, even people who acted in ways I didn’t agree with, I only came to be wiser, gentler, and all-around better for it.

Even in high school, I recognized the importance of grace. Those who had wronged me in the past were readily accepted into my home and heart down the road. We are all growing and learning, and, if you’re doing it the right way, making mistake after mistake after mistake. I’m not at all saying that I’m perfect; I’ll actually talk about my regrets in a bit. I just wanted to open with a call to those who are coming to this post with a preconceived idea of me and what I stand for, a call to at least try to see through my eyes, even just for this brief moment.

The funny thing about my time bearing one of the worst reputations in town is that I am indescribably grateful for it. In fact, I’m proud of it. Going through that when I was a pubescent girl at my most self-conscious armed me with thick skin, the ability to adapt, and the courage to stand my ground and defend myself. As you probably know, I did a lot of really dumb stuff, but at least I know that I never once allowed social pressures to push me to conform, to keep me from living life on my own terms. I learned how to be recklessly and unabashedly myself.  I cemented my self-esteem and knew my intentions and my heart were in the right place (well, most of the time…we’ll get to that), so no outside criticism or bullying could shake me or cause me to question my place in the world. I knew that they thought their rulebook was the Immutable and Inarguable Truth, but I knew that that couldn’t be true. St. Andrew’s had shown me enough about the diversity of the world for me to understand that somewhere out there it had to be different. Thankfully, I came to find that down the road. The world is beautiful precisely because we all come from varying backgrounds with varying beliefs. It’s not one color, and it’s sure as hell not black and white. I believe we can all coexist in solidarity, as long as we recognize that everyone on earth has an equal right to be here and an equally valuable contribution to make.

Practically, there were many steps I took to help me survive relentless judgment from northeast Jackson “high society” that may be helpful to some. First, being “recklessly and unabashedly myself” no matter the circumstances led me to friends that truly accepted and appreciated me, flaws and all. I left high school with best friends who have fought with me and for me always, best friends who will, God willing, be by my altar and my graveside. Even their families (looking at you, second moms) stood up for me when provoked. Some of my best friends could not be more different from me. Mary Parker Davidson? Are you joking??? She’s the picture of a proper Southern sorority girl, and I respect the hell out of her for it. She has always loved me though, even when I was doing things she wouldn’t dream of (because she actually does this crazy thing called consider the consequences of her actions). You may not find your people today or tomorrow or even this year, but they’re out there. I’m so grateful to have found mine in high school when I needed them most. They have surrounded me like the water buffalo in this video. Yes I’m comparing them to water buffalo. It’s fine. 

Something else that tremendously helped me feel like I belonged in high school was reaching outside of my usual social circles to find my own niche. For me, my high school quiz bowl team served as my safe space and point of pride for many years. I joined my sophomore year and was actually made captain as a junior. With quiz bowl I found an undiscovered skill of mine and a completely new group of intelligent, hilarious people that neither knew nor cared about my reputation in the wider community. I would encourage anyone struggling to feel socially accepted to try to find their place where they haven’t thought to look before. I thought quiz bowl would be one thing, but it ended up being something totally different and totally valuable to my success both socially and academically in high school. Don’t be afraid to widen your friend group, especially when the existing ones aren’t acting like true friends to you.

Again, I don’t mean to sound like I have all the answers or like I was on the right side of things morally whatsoever. I do have regrets, but they all surround one particular tendency — that of being hateful or bitter to others. Being labeled a certain way, regardless of whether I had earned it or not, definitely wore on me. At times, I was too quick to defend myself and too rash to know whether I had crossed the line. The moments I regret are moments I let myself become the type of person that judged me — someone who sought to tear other girls down instead of building them up. If you happen to be one of the people I targeted, I want you to know that I’m sorry for every second I spent spewing my pent-up anger and resentment out into the world. Despite knowing intimately the pain of being rejected and attacked, I would reject and attack those who threatened me at times. Nothing constructive came from those moments of weakness and insecurity. I want to promote kindness and acceptance, and I have acted in ways that wildly contradict that goal. I have since learned to be calmer and more composed in the face of opposition, and I hope to continue my growth in that direction.

Okay! I’m so sorry for how long-winded I am, but this is a part of my story that is essential to who I am now. Miraculously, the girl who wreaked havoc on her hometown found her happy ending. I couldn’t move to California fast enough, and I found people there that understood and accepted me fully. The accusations people threw at me in high school — many based on false accusations or one-sided perspectives — did not stop me from going out into the world and experiencing the magic of youth, as silly as that sounds. I studied abroad, I got into the sorority I idolized and adored, I made friends and carved out my own little place in the world. Without my bad reputation in high school, I wouldn’t have been able to do that with the confidence and self-assurance I had cultivated as a teenager ostracized for having different values than those of my peers. There’s nothing I can end this with that isn’t a cliche, but I do want to say something to those who may be facing similar struggles. As long as you do right by yourself and those you cherish, remember that you have a right to be just the way you are — unfiltered despite judgment and unwilling to compromise who you are just to fit in. Don’t be afraid to shake things up. It may backfire at times, but at least you stood up for something.

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