Content disclaimer: Mention of emotional disturbance and turmoil. Minor manipulation (the episode is titled “Pretender,” what can I say?). Mention of suicidal thoughts.
That’s the front area of my high school.
Depending on where you went to school, maybe it looks massive. Maybe it looks beautiful, or maybe it looks run down.
What it is, objectively speaking: it’s on top of a hill. It’s nestled into the Fells, the forest that occupies part of Medford and the surrounding towns. There are trails that come right off the parking lot beside the school and snake into the woods. Those trails were laid when I was in high school. I never walked on them then. Now I do, sometimes.
The summer before my freshman year of high school, I decided I wanted to play soccer. I had a friend who would be trying out with me. I looked up the tryout requirements and the dates and did nothing to prepare.
Luckily, neither did the other freshman girls who showed up.
Our first test, 6:30 AM on a hazy, sunny August morning, was a two mile run. I’m fairly certain that none of us, with the exception of my friend, had ever run two miles in our lives. I was a pretender. We were pretenders. All bluster and no game. When the coach started her stopwatch, all of us — except my friend — went off to the races. We sprinted about half a lap in a pack before realizing that was not how you ran two miles. My friend passed us. We had to walk, heads hanging, while we caught our breath.
I resolved myself not to finish last, and I didn’t finish last. I finished second-to-last, but in a pack of others. We ran the two miles in about twenty-four minutes. Which is a really bad time. I made the JV squad and was pretty proud, though. By the end of the season, I got my two-mile time down to fourteen minutes, twenty seconds. Which is not a bad time.
The first day of tryouts, I met some of the older girls while in the bathroom. They were all surprisingly nice. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting — one of those stereotypical situations where the juniors and seniors beat up on the freshmen?
It wasn’t like that. The older girls were perfectly nice, for the most part. Although they were all about one of the other freshmen, a girl who was good enough to make varsity during her first year. They took her and her friends for a tour of the school, leaving the rest of us freshmen to our own devices. At some point, we had to take a break from tryouts to attend freshman orientation. We felt cool because we’d been there before everyone else.
That’s one of those feelings that, once you leave your teenage years, you’ll never get back. Feeling cool about something as small as that.
But getting there beforehand didn’t stop me from getting a little bit lost on the first day. I caught the bus late because, to be honest, neither I nor my parents really knew where the bus stop was. I arrived a little late, along with a couple of others, and wandered my way through halls I barely knew until I found my homeroom. And I faked it till I made it. I was a pretender.
Some kids at Medford High say it was designed as a prison. Others say it was designed by a prison architect. Yet others say those are just myths.
I believe that the second might be true. Medford High was built in 1971, which is why it has that very gray, concrete look about it. It has a strange arrangement — three or four interconnected wings, depending on who you ask. In the 2000s, they built a field adjoining to the school. In 2013, the year I arrived, they began renovation on another wing of the school, the science wing, and also started reopening the pool.
I actually work at the pool today. It was closed in the 1980s after a man drowned in it, and for financial reasons. Today it suffers from all sorts of mechanical issues, as does the rest of the school. Instead of conducting all these “improvement” projects, I think Medford High should have been torn down and rebuilt, with the aid of government grants of course. Maybe it’ll happen someday.
Anyway, for the first half of the year, my history class moved from one part of the building into the vocational wing, into a tiny, cramped classroom along the side of the school. I got seated next to a kid I’ll call Jimmy. Jimmy was nice enough. He had very long hair that everyone always made fun of him about, but in a joking way.
I decided to make it my goal to convince Jimmy I was a pretty, but dumb, girl. During history period, I ditched my glasses. I sprawled out across the desk. I asked him for help whenever possible.
And I pretended. It was a little like make-believe, and I did it in almost every class in some different form. In English I was quiet — at first. Then I clashed with my teacher. In math, I was a genius. In science, I was the teacher’s pet, but I didn’t mind because the teacher was my pet. I adored him. He remains one of the best teachers I’ve ever had in my life. He knew how to make me click, by giving a lot of options and relying on us to self-direct.
The act I kept up with Jimmy lasted through the first quarter. Then grades came out, and people found out (somehow) that I was sitting at the top of the class. Not that it mattered then, nor that it ever mattered to me. Jimmy was flabbergasted. And I had this sense of vindication. My little act had fooled someone.
In another life, I might’ve become an actress. I might’ve started acting freshman year or even back in eighth grade or, at the very least, in junior year, when I had an actor English teacher who did a lot of Shakespeare with us. By then I had other problems.
But in freshman year, I didn’t see a reason to act in a play when I could act in real life or act on the page through my characters. I’d begun writing a dystopian novel about kids who were drafted into a war that actually wasn’t going the way they thought it was. Not an original premise, but one that slowly morphed into another, which then morphed into something else: into this conflicted, almost-romance between two male best friends. To this day I haven’t gotten a real handle on their story, though it shows up in almost all my work — even in historical fiction work about real people who existed long before these two characters, but who happen to match them lockstep.
People spread rumors about me my freshman year. Probably because I was pretending, so they didn’t know who I was, and to get a handle on me they needed to make something up. They spread rumors that I was involved with my two best guy friends, that we were some kind of menage a trois. Not a chance. They spread rumors that I drank a lot and did drugs. Not sure where they got that from. They spread a rumor that I was a robot.
No one ever said I was a pretender.
No one really knew me.
I got to know my future boyfriend during my freshman year in geometry class. He seemed to be the only one who could rival me in mathematical ability. In speed, that is. We shared Spanish and biology, too, and we came to be friends. I’d had a distinct idea when I met him that we could be friends. That’s usually how it is with people. And in his case, he was so different from me. My exact opposite, it seemed. Yet we could talk.
Beneath my facade, beneath whatever persona I chose to adopt at a given time, I was emotionally disturbed. By then I’d become pretty numb. I was like a shell. There wasn’t much to me. I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t have anything beyond this burning ambition to write. Which was more than many of the people around me had, as we cast of the cocoons of childhood and took our first flutters on wispy, wet wings.
When I wrote a packet of poetry for a project, most of which reflected a disturbed emotional state, I half expected that this was the moment, this was the time when they’d send me to guidance and I’d be “found out.” I half-hoped for it. Because maybe then I could find a way, with help, to scale back the emptiness. I tell you that in some ways this vast, gaping emptiness was worse than what comes later. This pit, this abyss — and the abyss was inside you.
My teacher didn’t report me to guidance. That teacher did a whole lot of other stuff. By the time I got on the National Honors Society, which she headed, we had a history. And not the good kind. I could talk to her, but we challenged each other. And she wasn’t comfortable with that. I don’t think you can ask a teacher to be comfortable with that.
She was, though, the only teacher who ever saw how unhinged I was. Who ever saw what a pretender I was.
My life was inside-out.
From the outside, I looked like I had it all. I was sitting at the top of my class. I was skinny, I was pretty, and I was playing JV soccer, running a six and a half minute mile. Fastest girl in my gym class. I seemed cool, mostly because I wrote and sparred verbally with teachers, though I wasn’t popular. I didn’t belong to the popular crowd. My closest friends were guys, a whole flock of them, but I sat with girls at lunch. I came in third place in the school science fair. My peers were fascinated and intimidated by me. Gee, it looked like I was… perfect?
Looking back on it, had I been looking from the outside-in, I would’ve thought the same thing. I would’ve confused myself. And I would’ve assumed that there had to be something more. Some nasty habit or something scandalous. Something to damage what looked and seemed perfect.
I wrote a novella about a girl named “Perfect,” who was marshaled by a commanding woman, and at the end was broken out of her “cage” by a soldier, a saving grace. I hadn’t read The Handmaid’s Tale at that time, but its ending was similar to the ending of my story (minus the pregnancy bits).
There were times when I thought I was driving myself crazy. When I couldn’t hold all the pretending inside my head anymore. When I stepped back and took a hard look at myself and saw that I couldn’t be who I was or know who I was if I was being a different person every period of the school day, and then a different person at home.
I thought about joining the Gay Straight Alliance, because I was pretty sure I was at least bisexual. But I hadn’t told anyone. My parents were (and are still) pretty religious, and I wasn’t sure how they viewed the issue. And I didn’t know how people would look at me if I “came out.” So I didn’t go. I didn’t go to the Asian Club, either, because I didn’t feel Asian enough. I felt like a pretender.
Nothing was quite enough. I wanted to break out of myself, but I didn’t know how. I wanted to be someone, instead of being a pretender, but I didn’t know who I was. I lied to everyone, all the time, but never felt bad about it. How can you feel bad about something when you don’t feel anything inside?
The suicidal thoughts from my late childhood continued. Most of them were passive. Like throwing myself in front of a car or off a bridge or slowly starving myself to death. But every now and then I would find myself on the bathroom floor, eyeing up a line of pills, wondering how many I’d have to take to die. I figured no one would care if I disappeared. The kids at school would figure out what the dark secret had been, and they’d be satisfied. My family might mourn a little while, but they’d forget about me.
In the end, I always wondered what would happen if I failed, if I woke up in a hospital bed instead of in the afterlife, whatever afterlife there was. And the urge always subsided, and left me ashamed. I was a pretender in this, too.
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