By Jude Casimir
Every kid in Mrs. King’s kindergarten class had been revving up for this, the last day of school, the last thing standing in the way of their summer. The cubbies had been cleaned out the day before, the vocabulary words and the inspirational posters that told us all we can do it, to never give up all taken down, leaving kids like me—who were critical of the world even then, from the very start—wondering what the point of coming to school a whole extra day was.
There was no last minute learning, no end-of-the-year reflection time.
The boys were playing with Lego bricks and toy trucks on the rug near the front of the room. At the tables in the back corner, the girls drew the kindergarten pictures the teachers insisted were great—to boost morale and not stunt creativity!—but really weren’t.
I, however, was doing neither of these things. No one wanted to be at school less than I had in the moment when I went up to the teacher and asked her why no one would talk to me today. I thought I had a best friend a few days ago, Zachary, but now he was cold in the kindergarten type of way where kids passively ignore other kids without really being mean to them.
I walked up to him on the rug right before this, thinking that perhaps the last day we’d most likely ever see each other again would raise some type of emotion in him. Maybe he’d see how much he cared about me and we’d hug it out and say our little five-year-old goodbyes. We’d make promises to keep our promises to stay in touch.
But instead, I accidentally knocked his Lego house down on my way to talk to him, and that, apparently, was the defining moment of our friendship.
“It’s only because it’s the last day, Jude,” Mrs. King said, trying her hardest to keep me at bay. She ran her hand down my skinny arm and her wrinkle-rimmed eyes stared intently into mine, as if she were trying to transfer some imperative secret information through them to me. “It has nothing to do with you.”
And maybe I would’ve believed it if I didn’t spend my free time all year bouncing from group to group, from being mean with the snobby girls with the pink purses and the sparkly shirts who I didn’t like but so desperately wanted to be like, to being in the “smart kid” group whose vocabulary I knew but could never totally fit into. Maybe I would have believed her if Zachary hadn’t stopped being my friend what now felt like a lifetime ago. I probably would have believed her if I hadn’t just been made aware that no other kid had to wear large plastic braces on their legs or that no other kid had to work so hard to write down their answers to spelling questions. If I didn’t have to work with a woman who came to my house twice a week to fix the horrible stutter I had.
But I just sucked it up and told her okay, I believe you.
Because I wanted to believe her. Because kindergarteners were supposed to believe everything adults say. Because adults were always right. They were supposed to know how everyone feels. They were supposed to know everything about everything, so why shouldn’t I have believed her?
But maybe that was just stupid and naive.
Fast forward to prom, where I no longer stuttered and I hadn’t worn braces in years and I was just trying to have the night of my life like all the movies said I would. Pretty dresses and friends and dancing and free fifty-dollar food that nobody was sure wouldn’t give you food poisoning. Why wouldn’t that be a good time? How could that possibly be anything but? You’re strange if you don’t go, you’re a party pooper if your night isn’t absolutely magical.
I wore caution better than I wore my hot pink high-low dress, but it wasn’t just because of the food. In fact, since I’d arrived so late (my mom couldn’t find the hotel, and I’d gotten lost in the lobby looking for the stairs that would lead me to the ballroom) the food was already gone. But I wasn’t as eager to believe what everyone was telling me, though I also might have been.
Sasha, my best friend since the third grade, was supposed to take me to prom with her—we’d been talking about it for the past few weeks, planning it and everything—but she ditched me last minute for another friend, Alexis. She kept attempting to tell me Alexis had actually offered her a ride first, and she’d had to mull it over, and that no, she wasn’t ditching me after all.
In a last-ditch effort to comfort me, she explained that she’d wait in the lobby for me or I could at least call her to tell her I’d arrived and we could walk up together. I didn’t want to call her. I didn’t want to trust her anymore—she’d been pulling away from me for the longest time while somehow still trying to convince me she wasn’t—but she was still the only real friend I had, so I gave her the benefit of several longstanding doubts and trusted her.
I called. I wasn’t expecting her to stay by her phone all night; I’d arrived half an hour late, well after anyone else, so she probably thought I wasn’t coming anymore, but I still hoped she’d pick up. I called her again. And I was again answered by a click that was followed up with an exuberant and polite, “Hi! You’ve reached Sasha O’Connell! I can’t come to the phone right now, but please leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. Thank you!”
I hung up the phone before the message could start recording, panicking a little, feeling frustrated and tired and sweaty, though it was cool in the lobby. I wandered around the first floor, thinking that maybe I didn’t have to go up to prom, maybe I could have my own adventure, maybe discover an old haunted suite the staff didn’t want anyone to know about, until someone that worked at the hotel was kind enough to point me in the direction I needed to go.
When I finally got there, my friends swarmed me, telling me how pretty I was, how much they liked my dress, how I’d made the grandest entrance by arriving so late. I told them the same, because their dresses were beautiful, from black and long and flowing to pink and green and short and poofy, as I let them pull me to their table in the corner. They told me I didn’t miss much with the pasta that’d been served, but I was sad anyway because I’d wanted to decide that for myself.
A few minutes went by, and then Sasha started gushing over a song that had started playing, telling me that we need to get on the dance floor right now. I wanted to tell her, in response, that I’d called her twice and she hadn’t picked up either of those times, but I instead told her I’d catch the next song, knowing full well I’d find another way to weasel out of that one too. I wasn’t sure I could move like the other kids could, but Sasha was relentless, determined to get me on my feet. I reasoned that this was prom, after all, and it was a dance, and it took every ounce of willpower I could summon, but I went up.
I was determined to have a good time, but I couldn’t help but become frustrated yet again as I kept stopping and watching people move to the song. Sasha couldn’t dance for her life, but she could at least move her arms and legs at the same time without having to think about it. Halfway through the shitty dance remix, I went to sit back down.
An hour later, after the prom picture I refused to be a part of because I don’t take pictures—my face couldn’t ever relax itself enough for that, and I’d convinced myself that I would only ruin it—I sat at the table in the corner, scrolling through my Twitter feed.
The Cha Cha Slide came on, and everybody who wasn’t already on the dance floor scrambled over. For a brief second, I considered joining them, but I stayed sitting because the brief second took too long. I watched them two-hop and hands-on-your-knees with this wobbly smile on my face that I was pretty sure made me look like I was about to cry.
Oh God, I wanted so badly to cry. Because I was not having a good time and I was thinking prom is so fucking overrated and—what the hell was I even doing there? I didn’t even want to come in the first place.
But I didn’t cry.
You can’t cry at prom, man.
I instead called my mom, and told her in the most levelheaded way I could manage that I was ready to come home. I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of being right about me not having a good time, something she never said outright but had been hinting at for the past month or so, and I’d been holding out a little longer than I wanted to, actually a little glad I got to see who would be prom king and queen, who would receive the cardboard Burger King crowns one of the teachers had to run out that night for, but the simple fact that I’d called her up before ten o’clock on a night like this might’ve tipped her off.
She told me she’d be there in half an hour, but as soon as the call ended, I ducked out of the ballroom without saying anything to anyone because I was sure no one would care. I hung out with a teacher, Ms. Kelley, talking about books and movies until I felt my phone vibrate in my bag.
A couple months before prom, before I was due to leave Somerville for Hudson, I had a meltdown. I’d had several meltdowns since learning that I’d be moving and switching schools my senior year, but this one, this one in particular, was a big one.
I wasn’t in the mood for the PE teacher’s well-intentioned attempts to make gym class more accessible for me that somehow only ever made feel more embarrassed and less likely to want to participate, and I’d skipped that class for the third time that month, deciding, instead, to work on an essay for History due later that day.
Something else, though, was nagging at me, keeping me from writing the essay. I’d recently decided that I didn’t want to go to college. Prospect Hill Academy prided itself on getting one hundred percent of its students into college, and they’d been preparing us for that since I’d arrived in the eighth grade. But as the college application process started up, with university visits and fairs and practice CommonApp essays, I became more and more convinced that college wasn’t the place for me.
I wanted to talk about that with someone. I dropped the essay and shuffled into my English teacher’s room. Mr. Sullivan was grading papers he’d told us would be given back two days ago, for sure this time, but he looked glad to see me, his green eyes lighting up as he asked me what was going on.
I sat down in front of him and told him that I didn’t want to go to college anymore, and now that I thought about it, I didn’t remember ever really wanting to go to college.
He was appalled. Like, he was genuinely horrified at the prospect of me not wanting to be part of the magical, door-opening world of higher education, like how could I possibly not want that?
“Jude,” he said, stern, “you’re going to college.”
“No, I’m not,” I said, my voice coming out a lot more sure than I felt. “Why should I?”
He set aside the stack of papers. I stared at all the red markings he made on the one on the top, not looking at him as he told me how prepared I was for higher education, how smart I was, how I had a good head on my shoulders.
“Why does that matter?” I finally said. “Why does that matter when, no matter what I do, I’m terrified about people not liking me? No matter what I do, I always feel like I’m trying extra hard to get people to understand that I’m like them, and therefore I’m worthy of their friendship but—” I deflated, tears lining my eyes. Mr. Sullivan was clearly uncomfortable with this, avoiding my gaze, but he tried to make it less clear, shifting in his seat, straightening out the corners of the essays he’d set aside. I couldn’t give less of a shit if he was uncomfortable. I continued. “But no one ever seems to get that. That’s gonna continue into next year, and it’s gonna go into college, and it’s gonna continue for the rest of my life. Can you blame me for feeling like this?”
He told me no, he couldn’t, but he also didn’t think that was a valid excuse to not do things.
When I finally stopped, managing to get myself back in check, he reiterated everything, telling me that no matter what, he was sure that I’d be fine. I wanted to believe that I’d be fine. I wanted to him to be right.
But I couldn’t resolve the discrepancies telling me otherwise.
I nodded anyway. I smiled.
Senior year, my attitude towards college still hadn’t changed. I simply found myself being funneled into higher education because it was what I was supposed to do. Neither my strict Haitian parents—who reminded me every chance they got they came to America specifically for me and My Future—nor my guidance counselor would hear any of this not-going-to-college nonsense, so I resolved myself and told myself it’s only four more years, four more years of abject torture, sure, but only more four years.
And, a year later, I found myself trying to navigate life at Assumption.
Friday nights there were what every student lived for. Not that there was anything interesting going on on campus.
I was sure my roommate, Selina, was having a good time in her friend’s room for the night, though. I’d been picking up signs that she didn’t particularly like me, like how she’d never be in the room when I was there and how, whenever I’d muster up enough courage to ask her something really important or just in the occasional desperate attempt to break down the many icebergs between us, she’d simply grunt or not even answer me. She pretended she didn’t hear me.
So I should’ve been happy she wasn’t in the room tonight. I’d been waiting for her to come to the room so I could finally go to sleep, so when she popped her shiny, pretty blonde head in to give me the courtesy of letting me know she wouldn’t be spending the night in the room after all, I should’ve rejoiced. I should have jumped into my almost completely unbearable bed and fallen asleep smiling.
Why, then, was I sitting on the floor, in the dark, at one in the morning, over an hour since what was probably the nicest encounter we’d had since we’d first moved into the dorms? Why was I listening to Coldplay on repeat, Chris Martin’s sad but comforting voice telling me I don’t have to be alone, I don’t have to be on my own, over and over again, crying so much I feared I was going to drown the whole damn residence hall?
Why was I curling up into a ball, fearing that Selina would come back to the room to get something she’d forgotten, starting whenever I heard someone walk past the door on their way to the bathroom just across the hall, but not being able to stop the tears for the life of me?
I hung out with this group of friends last night. It was the first time since the start of freshman year that I’d laughed and had fun with something that wasn’t on Netflix or from a movie I’d rented from iTunes. I’d finally ventured out of my room, and had met them in the first-floor common room in my building, and I’d tagged along, thinking this was The Day. I was going to shed all my anxiety and molt into something completely new. We had dinner at six, and then late night dinner at 8:37 sharp, and then we swung back into the common room.
There, Tara, who’d been nicknamed Mom, bet Dennis, who’d nicknamed himself Big D, two dollars she could get a d*** pick from any dude because she was on a crusade to prove all guys were inherently pigs. She targeted some random guy and, after applying some pressure on him, she conquered. She passed her phone around the circle for everyone to see, for everyone to judge its adequacy, and then she promptly proceeded to block the poor dude.
After that, we talked about school, life, and how we, as fresh-faced sheltered private school students, had no idea what the hell was going on around us.
After that, we had someone walking by take a picture of the six of us, cramped together on the couch that was only supposed to seat three, Dennis’s legs on my lap and his head on Louisa’s, all of us smiling like we were the most happy gaggle of kids out there, like we weren’t the scared and confused children we were.
I went to bed reeling, unable to stop staring and grinning at the ridiculous picture I’d been tagged in. The caption read, “look, mom! i made friends!”
They forgot to invite me to a movie night they decided to have tonight. But I wasn’t surprised. I was hurt, which might explain why I was lying on the floor, crying myself dry, but I was hardly surprised.
And I was either stupid or masochistic or both—most likely both—but I simply had to check Snapchat to see what everyone else was up to. I pulled myself off the floor, shuddering, and felt around in the dark for my phone, hoping I wouldn’t find it.
I found it immediately, on the edge of my bed. I most certainly could have just left it, but for some reason I needed to feel worse about everything. Through the tears that weren’t doing any favors for my already poor eyesight, I saw people at parties and clubs and in common rooms in clusters. And I was just—just.
Sasha had recently taken to trying to convince me that she would be there for me no matter what, but I was dubious. That was a heavily-maneuvered tactic, I was sure, to get me to stay under her power, to not rebel against her. She’d tried to convince me of this before, a few times, during the year in Hudson, and I’d believed her, though I wasn’t sure she was worthy of me believing her. I was even less certain of that now. I’d been wanting to tell her for the longest time that she should no longer tell me she was forever, because she wasn’t and I wasn’t and nothing else was, not even the universe, but I never got around to it.
I sniffed, messaging her anyway. She didn’t respond, but I waited. I knew she wasn’t asleep, that she had her phone on her. She was one of the people at a club from Snapchat a few minutes ago, drinking double her bodyweight—she was tiny—in beer and whatever else. I didn’t condone that, but in that moment, I wanted to join one of those parties, if only to not be sitting in the dark of my room, wishing I didn’t have to think about sitting in the dark of my room.
I drifted off to sleep on the floor, and when I woke up at around three a.m., my side hurting from the rather uncomfortable position I’d been lying in, Coldplay was still playing on repeat. I shut the music off, annoyed at Chris Martin for making promises he couldn’t be sure he’d keep, promises of never taking anything back. I turned on Netflix, which, I decided, was my only friend on campus, and pulled myself into my bed.
I laughed at some of the shenanigans Shawn Spencer pulled to solve his mystery of the week, and I wished it was more boisterous, more happy-sounding, to spite Selina and Louisa and Tara and Dennis and Sasha and Chris Martin, but it sounded more tired and hollow than anything else.
Once, about a week later, I was looking up inspirational quotes because I needed them, because I’d started a collection of happy things to help keep myself afloat, and I happened across one by an author of a book—or several books—I will probably never read. The author, Rick Warren, stated, with an assumed sense of authority, that “those who follow the crowd usually get lost in it.”
I think he met the getting lost in the crowd as a bad thing. But I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I mean, isn’t getting lost in something bigger than yourself better than feeling so alone, actually being so alone, you start drowning in thoughts of inadequacy? Thoughts like, why don’t people like me, or, I swear I’m a nice person, and even, I know I’m annoying—God, nobody knows that better than me—I’m also awkward and cynical and sarcastic and weird, but I swear I’m not that annoying. I can’t do anything about the awkwardness, I can’t change the weird way i walk or the way I carry myself or the unclear way I talk when I get nervous, but I can try to tone everything else down if you tell me to, I promise. I’ll do anything.
In the couple of years since then, I’ve moved away from this desperate need to fit in, the crushing weight of it. I’ve since become more comfortable getting lunch by myself or sitting in my room watching Netflix—in fact, I’ve welcomed those weekends where I can lounge and binge-watch a new series unhindered. It might sound lonely and it might get that way from time to time, but I find it doesn’t bother me as much. Call it self-acceptance. Call it resignation. I don’t know. It’s just gotten easier.
I still get a little uneasy, though, whenever I hear statements like Rick Warren’s because it’s so easy to say you don’t care about what other people think of you when you don’t have to. It’s so easy to say you don’t need anyone when you already know you have people to turn to. And it’s frustrating to people like me, who’ve been on the outskirts their whole lives, who’ve been forced to get used to being on the outskirts because it’s almost always impossible to break through, when people like Rick Warren think it’s just that black and white.