Hello, dear readers,
Let me tell you a story.
I was eleven. I was away from home for the first time ever, and I was crying into my pillow.
But this wasn’t a case of ‘I miss my mum and three days of camp is soooo loooong’. This was boarding school, stuck out in the pine forests of the Himalayan mountains. I’d been away from home for ten weeks, and I was going to be away for another ten. There were no breaks.
There was also no phone, no internet, no messaging and no Skype (nup, it hadn't been invented yet). So my pillow got wet. Almost every night.
It would have been easier to cope if I’d been at boarding with my best friend. You see, that was where most of the problems came from. When we’d made the big decision in our family that I would go to boarding school, I was excited. Because I knew my best friend would be going too.
What I didn’t know was that she wasn’t going to be my best friend any more.
My best friend, who became my ex-best friend, was called Sally*, and I have to rewind a few years to get you into the picture properly.
When I met Sally for the first time, we were both six. I looked at her and she looked at me. We were both wearing red t-shirts and white skirts with red flowers on them. We smiled at each other. And then we asked the most important question you can ask when you’re six: “When’s your birthday?”
Cue the squeals. Get this. No, seriously: get this. Our birthdays were one week apart. Only one. This is a HUGE deal for six year olds. I was literally only seven days older than her and both of us were overwhelmed with delight. Having birthdays only a week apart could make us twins. Actual twins. Like, can you even believe it? We held hands and pretty much didn’t let them go again until her family had to leave.
From that point we were best friends. Now, we didn’t see each other a lot. We were both English-speaking kids growing up overseas in a non-English speaking country. I went to a tiny school in our city with not many kids in it; she home-schooled with her mum in the remote town they lived in. We wrote letters to each other, once we could write, of course. But the few times a year we were able to spend a couple of days together were the highlight of my existence.
Sally went off to boarding in Grade Four and I was excited to join her in Grade Six, when I was eleven. I’d grown up reading good old British boarding school books and it all appeared to be a lot of fun. Especially if you had your best friend with you.
Except then I found out.
At the beginning of Grade Four Sally had become 'official' best friends with someone else. (Official best friends happens like this: “So, do you want to be best friends with me officially?” “Yes.” “Okay.” Bam. Done.)
And that someone else was not happy to see me. She had to assert her rights over her friend. And she had to let me know who was boss in this school. I’d been dumped, and now I was going to have my nose rubbed in the dirt as well.
She used the usual eleven year old girl tactics: exclusion, gossip, making fun of me and playing practical ‘jokes’. When I got upset, she told me I didn’t have a sense of humour. “Seriously, Cecily, you need to be able to take a joke.”
There were six of us girls in Grade Six, and we all shared a bedroom. There was no escaping from the sideways looks and snide remarks about my clothes or my hair, or the shape of my legs, or the way I blew the hair out of my face sometimes.
She even picked on the way I spoke. “Don’t say 'drawer' like that. That’s wrong.” From the time we got up in the morning, to the time we went to sleep, I was her target. My only time out was when we were in the classroom, or doing my piano practice. I got quite good at the piano that year.
Things escalated. She got the girls to gang up on me, tricked me into going into my sleeping bag headfirst for a game, and then dragged me in the bag down the hall into the Middle Boys dorms. I was mortified.
Then one evening I came back from piano practice to our bedroom. ‘Strange,’ I thought. ‘Why is it so dark in here?’ No one had turned on the lights. And it was quiet.
‘Where is everyone?’ I thought.They were there. They were hiding from me, and then they jumped out at me from behind beds and cupboard doors, with sticks in their hands. They hit me with them, and then laughed. “Can’t you take a joke, Cecily?" And then to each other: "Ha. Did you see her face?”
I had no idea what to do.
As an adult now, it seems so simple: just tell someone. But when you’re eleven, it’s complicated. If I told, I’d be bringing more punishment on myself. There was no way a staff member would be able to supervise all of us, all of the day and night, and kids find ways and means to pick on each other, even when people are watching.
I could have gone home, but there weren't any other real options for me to be educated where my parents lived. Besides, if I left the school, I’d forever be ‘the girl who couldn’t handle boarding’, spoken of with scorn by my peers. It was a small English-speaking community and my disgrace would be felt forever.
Also, bullying was handled differently then, too. I don’t remember a single anti-bullying lesson in my whole school life – ever. There was a certain amount of aggravation that was expected; you simply put up with it and trusted it would stop eventually.
Being eleven, in Grade Six, was the loneliest, hardest year of my life, and my heart breaks for girls who suffer at the hands of other girls at that age. The desolation and the desperation that young pre-teen and teen girls feel is real, as is the unending search for ‘true’ friends and mentors who care and understand.
Remembering that year of my life is why I write for girls, and why I write realistic fiction. I want girls to know two things: there is always someone who cares, and there is always hope and a future.
Yes, things might be tough, but there’s a way through it. It’s not an easy way, but it is a way.
Young girls have so many opportunities to make choices that will affect the direction of the rest of their lives; through my writing I hope to help them make the good choices – choosing truth, loyalty, strength, kindness, resilience and persistence.
My miserable year wasn’t wasted. There were silver linings. Because of it I gained empathy and compassion and faith – and a calling to write clean, quality, warm-hearted fiction for girls.
What are your silver linings? I'd love to hear about them.
Cecily Anne Paterson xxx
PS. I’m sure you’d like to know what happened to my bully, right? The story is pretty long, even though it’s a good ending, so I’ll tell you in another post coming soon.
*I changed Sally’s name. Because I still know and love this girl (who’s a woman now) and I don’t want her to get embarrassed.
Cecily Paterson writes uplifting, warm hearted fiction for young teenage girls. Read more of Cecily's work on her blog here