High school is a time in life where it’s when experiences start to mold you and you can either stay that hormonal, out-of-control kid who thinks they know everything or you can grow and remold into someone you actually want to be. Other pivotal moments in your life will occur and I was at one.
But let me lay down the past so you can grasp the present.
My life at home was pretty good- my parents and I had our differences but it wasn’t what I could call ‘abusive’. They never hit me and gave me beyond the basic needs; no sad birthdays for me. I did experience a little emotional hurt, but I know they didn’t do it on purpose. It was just that they came from a very different life era and didn’t understand or know how to relate to me and my problems.
My name is Carnelia Ruskin, named after the red crystal that has fiery energy. I am in my late-twenties, 4’11 with bob-length strawberry blonde hair and dark blue eyes. I have freckles across my nose and tops of my cheeks. Not exactly the most ginger of the redheads, but it got me mocked in school anyway. That was part of one of my problems my parents didn’t understand.
Specifically, my bully problem. Neither of my parents are short nor have red-hair but they both have shades of brown. My father does have blue eyes and my mom has brown. Some people tried to tell me brown eyes are dominant, but they don’t understand genetics when three out of four grandparents have blue eyes and both of my grandmothers are short redheads. So, neither parent got the ‘ginger’ treatment. And my dad was in football his junior and senior year and won championships that got him to be homecoming king and prom king. My mother was on the tennis team and brought home many trophies and was voted prom queen. They didn’t have bully-problems.
My father went into the military and so we moved a lot. Thus, not only am I a short redhead with freckles and a weird name, I was also perpetually the new kid. No matter what city, state or coastline we moved to, I was teased mercilessly at school. I’m not saying I agree with the violent methods like the Columbine kids used, but I do understand the feelings of pain from bullies. And that’s what my parents didn’t get; they said I was obviously doing something wrong to make so many kids be mean to me! That I was the common factor. I tried to explain that I didn’t have to do anything to get bullied. I could be in a classroom for one minute and the mockery would begin.
“What kind of name is that?”
“You’re named after a rock?”
“You should wash that dirt off. Oh! You can’t, that’s just your face!”
“Are you sure you’re not supposed to be at the elementary school?”
I heard those lines so many times it was like a song you hate stuck in your head.
Even at the one year I was in catholic school, the other kids made fun of my clothes! We wore uniforms! But they said my socks and shoes weren’t right, that my skirts were too long or too short, that my shirt was wrinkly- is it all stupid? Yes. Did it really happen? Yes. Did anyone believe me? No! In adults’ dumb minds they thought uniforms solved any bully problem. But mean kids will find something, no matter how pathetically petty, to mock.
Every school, every class, and the teachers would shush kids but they couldn’t stop the bullying.
Ever try complaining about being bullied to the teacher, counselor, or principal? Wanna know what happens? Nothing. Sometimes the kid(s) got told to ‘just leave me alone’ but nothing like actual punishment happened. Because bullies are smarter than we’d like to credit them for as they always wait till no teacher is around before they come at you. And they never bully alone; they always bully in packs. When you’re bullied, even if you have friends, in that moment you are alone. And what that means is no matter what, it’s your word against two or three witnesses. And teachers’ hands are tied by the system- if they didn’t see it/hear it, it basically didn’t happen. And for some universe-only-knows-reason, every freakin’ adult or authority figure on the planet evaporates when you’re getting bullied.
My worst time was in high school.
A girl named Amber Repper- a regular bully of mine- was making fun of how my hair looked against the pink sweater I was wearing. We were near the stairwell and when I tried to walk away, she stormed over and pushed me down the stairs. I was crying, had a broken arm, told on her of course, and our parents both got called to the school after I got a cast put on my arm. My parents couldn’t get back to town in time from their jobs. Her mom came and the situation was explained.
Did Amber get detention? Expulsion warning? Grounded? No.
What happened was that when confronted she straight-up lied and said she didn’t do it.
The principal tried to say that physical violence wasn’t tolerated at the school but Amber’s mom interrupted.
“Did YOU or any teachers actually see MY daughter push this other girl?” she asked angrily. “Because obviously this other girl doesn’t like MY daughter and she could just be making stuff up to get Amber in trouble”
I lost my red-head temper. I was crying as I screamed “I KNOW WHO PUSHED ME DOWN THE STAIRS! I HAVE A BROKEN ARM BECAUSE OF YOUR DAUGHTER! I ASSURE YOU I KNOW WHO BROKE MY ARM AND NO I DON’T LIKE SOMEONE WHO PUSHES ME DOWN THE STAIRS! SHE COULD HAVE KILLED ME!”
Amber’s mom pointed out how I didn’t know respect and that I better stop yelling at her.
“You see, this how she acts now. And her parents aren’t even here, so she clearly did this for attention from them. I can see a kid like this flinging themselves downstairs to get attention and try to get a champion athlete kid, like my Amber, in trouble! She's jealous and her parents don’t care, so she desperately pulls this crazy stunt. Maybe schools spend more time get kids like this” she pointed at me “help instead of trying to ‘equal the system’ by punishing kids who are popular athletes!”
As an adult, I can see that it was this was just a good mom defending her kid. No one wants to be the parent who raised a bully. And no good parent wants their kid to be punished for something they didn’t do.
But as a kid, I was furious and hurt.
When asked who else was around, they called her two friends. I tried to say it wasn’t fair to bring in her friends as witnesses because, of course, they’d lied for her. All the other kids who were around that I named either declared they were not really there or that they hadn’t seen or paid attention. There weren’t any cameras in the hallways, only at the first-floor entrances.
It’s not any parents’ fault if they work out of town and can’t get through traffic fast enough for things. But Amber had her mom and two friends there yelling at me, saying I lied, and accusing me of breaking my own arm!
And there I was; crying and alone with only my tears to defend me.
With no teachers or other witnesses and no proof besides my word, Amber was free to go with a warning to ‘just leave me alone’. The principal tried to say something nice to me after they all left, but I just ran crying to the nearest bathroom. There was no comfort for injustice.
My parents did eventually get to the principal and speak their peace but it didn’t matter; they got the same ‘no proof, no conviction’ spiel. And my parents also didn’t help, while I know they meant to, by saying if I was better at making friends, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen to me or someone else would have defended me. They just didn’t understand that most people don’t stand up for bully-victims.
I had been pushed down stairs before, pushed into trashcans, I had food and drinks dumped on me, and I was name-called in nearly every class. But what made the Amber push the worst was it was senior year in late October and by breaking my arm that needed to be in a cast for two-months, I couldn’t be on the swim team anymore. It took another month after the cast came off for my arm to get back to full, not-sore use and to rebuild the muscle. And because there was no proof of me ‘being pushed’, the school declared me a ‘liability’ and I wasn’t allowed to attend Homecoming or any school dances in the fall/winter until my cast came off. My entire schedule for fall semester got re-done so I didn’t have classes on the second floor, which had meant my chosen extra-curricular class called ‘Art Words and Worlds’ got removed from the schedule and replaced with a study hall. I ended up reading a lot of books that semester and fell in love with the escape books provided.
Again, as an adult, I understand insurance more and unnecessary risks, but as a kid, I felt gypped, hurt, and punished. No one signed my cast and I didn’t bother to get a yearbook that year. I didn’t go to prom either because when I tried to buy my ticket (at lunchtime in the middle of the cafeteria was a table to purchase them) so many kids laughed and teased me. They made jokes about me going alone/ having no one to go with and ‘don’t break your arm’ jokes that had riddled my life. I couldn’t handle it and ended up in tears in the bathroom again. If just buying the ticket was hell, I couldn’t imagine what going to the dance would be like. And why would I want to spend a Saturday with a bunch of people who were mean to me anyway?
My parents got on me about that too; prom was special and the memories I wouldn’t have; I told them I was probably better off without them. Especially when I found out Amber Repper had been voted prom queen with my secret crush as prom king. Seeing them dance together under a spotlight might have caused me to get charged as an adult.
I moved out of town as soon as I could. I was 19 when I graduated. I went to college part-time as English Business major and worked full-time in different jobs and positions until I could get into this writing firm I dreamed about called “Loubooktin’.
And this is where you came in.
Books have become the love of my life and I want to be a part of the process to hopefully help someone else. I had interned at a library in college and after graduating, I worked up to a larger library as the ‘book accountant’, basically. I catalogue books into a database for libraries to share books with each other. If your library doesn’t have the book, they can borrow the book from another library through the database. But I wanted to be the person who made books real, tangible things. During a lunch break one normal Wednesday, I checked my email to see the best news; I had finally gotten selected to continue to the coveted second interview at Loubooktin-for Friday! The thrill, the joy, the flow of contrasting feelings of ‘I knew I could’ and ‘can’t believe I did’ all raced through me and I had to consciously make myself breathe. The interview was a dinner interview at a fancy restaurant with three interviewers. Then my eye caught something that nuked the whole elation celebration; one of the three interviewers listed was ‘Amber Repper’. I almost choked on my own breath.
“You have got to be freaking kidding me” I said aloud to my monitor.
I don’t know how long I was staring, glazed over in total disbelief but I didn’t stop until my co-worker, Raz, came up to me.
He tapped my shoulder lightly and said “Carnelia, are you okie?”
I yelped and jumped in my chair and he pulled back with wide, concerned eyes.
“Are you okie?” he asked again. “You look like you saw a ghost on the camera”
Raz has a thick Indian accent and loved books as much as I do.
“No, I just.” I sighed and told him about the interview. I also told him that I knew Amber from high school and she didn’t like me. “So yeah, I saw a ghost of the past, coming back to haunt me”
Raz patted my shoulder and, after congratulating me, said “Carnelia, no need to worry. One- it may be a different person. In America, ‘Amber’ is a very common name. Most people never leave the city they are born in; you and I are very rare travelers. Two- there will be two other people there. So even if it is her and she doesn’t like you, win the other two over and majority rules. And three- you knew her decades ago. People. Grow. Up. We are not the same teenagers. Believe me and be thankful you did not know me as a teenager. I think all my school teachers would have wagered I’d be in jail by this point in my life” he smiled and gave me an exaggerated double thumbs up.
I gave a light chuckle but there was still a rock in the pit of my stomach.
I spent all evening and all Thursday fretting. I tried to just get my resume and portfolio in order to focus on the interview. But I couldn’t picture Amber without seeing that victorious smirk she had that day when the principal had told her and her friends that they were free to go and make sure they left me alone. I had debated doing a google or Facebook stalk-session on her, just to see if it was the same one or not. But it turned out Raz was right; there are thousands of people named ‘Amber Repper’. And she was Amber Repper in high school; maybe she’d gotten married and had a new last name by now. I considered for half of a stupid second cancelling the interview but that was more insane than my broken arm situation. People would kill for the first interview at Loubooktin and I was going to throw away a second one for a name from high school? No way.
I was also worried about me- you know that stereotypical red-head temper? I fit the stereotype. After being bullied so much, by the time I was in 7th grade I had just gone into every class with claws out and snapped at the slightest slight. My mentor-professor, who helped me with my class schedule in college, had even made me take a class specifically on constructive criticism because she said I had to learn not to take everything so personally.
And like Raz said, it was nearly 20 years ago. And I am an adult trying to reach dream goal. I couldn’t ‘win over’ the other two interviewers if I acted decent and professional towards them but then went off towards her. She was already their coworker and someone in some kind of manager-upper position at Loubooktin. Which, to be honest, just renewed my feeling of worldly injustice. It was still hard to make myself get past that my senior-year ruining enemy was at least somewhat in charge of my fate as an adult.
Granted, Loubooktin was one of those firms that if you got to the second interview, you were already practically hired. They didn’t even give first interviews openly or easily. So, if I was given a second-interview opportunity, Amber would probably have to have some superb reason for rejecting me.
And it might be a different Amber entirely. I could go to the interview see that Loubooktin’s ‘Amber Repper’ was a purple centaur from the planet Xiolan.
I read a few books and excerpts of interviewing, reviewed my notes from the last interview and then read a mystery/romance novel until I went to sleep.
I had taken a half-day Friday and then started looking for the perfect Loubooktin interview attire. I needed to look not as desperate as I felt. I looked over the restaurant's menu too. I needed to order something that was good but didn’t look like I was trying too hard and wouldn’t be a mess-risk. I also looked up some wine-pairings in case they asked me to order the wine. Sometimes, higher end firms wanted ‘well-rounded’ people to work for them.
I was a mess, okie? The Amber-thing had me really wound up. How could someone I hadn’t seen and barely thought about it 20 years suddenly shrivel me down to the hiding-in-the-bathroom-in-tears- with frizzy hair and acne teen again just by seeing their name? Raz texted me good luck and reminded me that people grow up. I took what felt like my first actual breath in days.
I got ready and went to the restaurant. The Maitre'd led me to the table and the three interviewers were already there and one of them was indeed, Amber Repper from high school.
She took a breath when she saw me and said “Thank you for meeting with us. I’m so happy to get the chance to make things up to you. I hope you’ll give us a chance too. Your resume is very impressive”
I got hired and later found out that Amber’s promotion was based on how she did during my interview.