Love, Shame, and the Human Pecking Order

January 18th, 2007.

I have often been criticized for portraying myself as ‘too perfect’ on this website despite my constant assurances that I’m anything but. This morning it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps people were having a hard time suspending their disbelief because I have very rarely discussed my mistakes in this medium. So today, we are going to talk about my mistakes.

During my sophomore year of high school, I elected to be a library aid. I have always been an avid reader and hanging out in the library as opposed to study hall seemed vastly more entertaining.

Library aids in my school were generally chosen in pairs and my partner in crime was an upperclassman named John. After a few months of carefully whispered conversations as we meandered through the rows of shelves putting away books, John developed a little crush on me.

John was a tall, skinny guy with the pasty white skin. His pants were always a bit too short and his hair was always a bit too long. He donned a pair of the thickest eyeglasses I had ever seen which made him appear faintly owlish. His voice was a little on the nasally side and he sometimes hiccupped when he laughed. In other words, John was a textbook geek.

Back in high school, I had no problems befriending a geek. However, I was not particularly interested in them sexually. Obnoxious class clowns or quiet introspective artist types were more to my liking back then. To say that I did not consider John to be boyfriend material would have been an understatement.

Still, I did not discourage his crush.

I wish I could explain to men the reasons why women lead them on. The philosophies and rationalizations make perfect sense in my head, but I have a hard time articulating them in type. I guess all I can say is that if a magic fairy swooped down in front of any high school girl and offered to make every single boy in the school fall in love with her, she would likely feel like she had died and gone to heaven. Keep in mind that said girl is likely only interested in one particular the boy. But the idea that all boys might worship her? All boys might constantly shower her with attention? Boys might become like little chocolates that she can choose and consume at will? Well, my friends, that is a scenario that very few women could resist. Generally, women are greedy when it comes to attention and they simultaneously intensely fear rejection.

But, back to John and me.

I continued to laugh at all of John’s jokes and I would periodically punch him playfully in the arm thinking that nothing harmful would ever come of it. Unfortunately, John interpreted all of my signals correctly and began pursuing me more aggressively. Cue the flowers and the poems and the invites for movies which I had to frantically make up excuses not to attend. Cue the sexual innuendos and the arm casually draped over my shoulder. Cue the rumors that John and I were dating.

I had lost complete control of the situation.

Realizing finally that I had gotten in over my head, I awkwardly tried to let John down easy. I refused his gifts. I gave him the ‘lets just be friends’ speech. I made positive comments about other men and would discuss my latest crush loudly and within his earshot. I even outright started avoiding him. But, by this point, John was a runaway train and nothing I did was deterring him.

My friends, vicious harpies that they were, started teasing me. Jokes about when I was going to take the poor boys virginity amidst cackling evil laughter became the norm. After awhile, I started to blame John for all of these problems. I mean, why didn’t he realize that I was totally out of his league?

Did you feel a little dirty reading that last sentence? Well, I felt dirty typing it. But I must warn you, it only gets uglier.

One day, John presented me with a gift that cost him a fair chunk of change for a high school kid. It was a heart shaped pendant, encrusted with diamonds, on a gold chain. When he gave it to me, he smiled his big goofy smile and told me that he had been saving for a few months now to buy it for me. It was at this precise instant that I. Just. Snapped.

I tossed the necklace aside and angrily informed John that I didn’t want it. I told him that I hated him and if we were the last two people on the planet, I would never date him. I called him a loser, a wimp, and a social retard. His face crumpled as I viciously emasculated him, but I couldn’t stop myself. I was fueled by anger and resentment and guilt and embarrassment. Finally, John weakly tried to defend himself and he whispered hoarsely that I was a bitch. Furious, I called him a dork and stormed out of the library, my cheeks hot with rage.

Oh, we’re not done here yet! Stick with me; it’s going to get uglier!

I sought out my friends and recounted, with sudden remorse, how I broke John’s spirit. I thought that they would be disgusted by my cruelty, but they only laughed and egged me on. They thought my parting insult, DORK, was the epitome of comedy and humor. From that point on, whenever we saw John in the halls, we’d scream at him and taunt him and oh so nastily remind him that he was a DORK. This went on for weeks.

Whenever I look back on all of this, I remember John’s face. I remember the look of dread that reflected in his eyes when he turned the corner and realized that we were there. I remember the way my own voice sounded, merciless and cruel, and I remember how our mocking laughter echoed in the halls. Most of all, I remember how I couldn’t resist myself and how I gleefully let something nasty and hateful in me take over simply because I couldn’t face my own mistakes and inadequacies.

In the midst of this, John wrote me a letter. In it, he told me he once thought I was beautiful and smart. He said that he was initially attracted to my sweetness and my sense of humor. He said that now that he’s gotten to know me better, he could plainly see that he had made a mistake. He said that my behavior made me ugly and he wanted nothing to do with me ever again. He asked that I please leave him alone.

During lunch, I read the letter to my friends. We all laughed and chortled and picked on all of his spelling mistakes and grammar errors. My friends asked me how it felt to have my very first stalker and I made some silly little joke about sleeping with a baseball bat from now on.

But inside? Inside, I felt the deepest shame.

That boy thought I was beautiful, so I emasculated him. That boy thought I was smart, so I degraded him. That boy thought I was sweet and funny and kind, so I humiliated him in front of large groups of people. That boy’s only mistake was that he was kind to me and I responded by making him regret it.

Me, who always prided herself on being an individual and doing the right thing, succumbed to vicious pack mentality and outright cruelty. I wondered to myself, what is it about humans where we always feel the need to establish a pecking order? What right did I have to determine that John was out of my league in the first place? What was missing in me that caused me to feel better about myself by degrading someone else? What kind of person was I that I could reward someone’s kindness by spitting in his face? I felt that if my father were alive to see what I had done, he would have turned his back on me.

I look around the world today and it hasn’t changed much. Even on the Internet, there is this intellectual snobbery prevalent that makes me wonder if our species will ever progress. Just the other day, I was reading a website were the webmaster had received letter from a fan. The kid in the letter had nothing but good things to say about the website and he complimented the writing and the author profusely. The webmaster posted this letter on his message board and all the little jackals that posted there promptly commenced with the abuse. They very publicly tore that letter apart making fun of everything from his name to where he chose to insert his commas. Obviously, they felt that they were far superior to that kid. And maybe they were. But does superiority give someone the right to be hateful to those who try to be kind?

I’m afraid I don’t know all the answers.

But what I do know is that while I write this, John’s letter to me is sitting a few inches from my keyboard. I have kept it all of these years. I did not keep it because I wanted to continue to mock him or show it to more of my harpy friends.

I kept it because it hurt me to read it. I keep it as a reminder that someone out there once thought I was smart and beautiful, but my behavior changed his mind. When I’m feeling really low about the direction of my life, I read it and I think to myself that it took a boy that I abused to reveal to me my innate character flaws. When I put it down, I make a silent vow to show kindness to those who show me kindness. Sometimes I fail others and in doing so, I fail myself. I suspect that throughout my life, there will be many more failures. But I keep John’s letter in the hope that that incident in my life will remain my deepest shame and that I will never stoop any lower.

My greatest fear is that John’s dry observations about my character still holds true today.

*Want to know what happened to John? Find out here.

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