This I Believe
I left home this past fall with the excitement of a musical maestro who holds a stack of crisp blank staff paper in one hand and a quill pen in the other. My father told me he’d never met anyone my age with a head screwed on so straight. My mother said I was all set to strive boldly in the direction of my dreams. It was time to leap onto the steady ledger lines my parents had drawn for me and scatter notes of my own across the treble clef of time. My first semester of college! I could hear so much beauty in the promise of those words; I’d heard many marvelous melodies before, but I couldn’t imagine the pain the writing would bring. I never dreamed I would come so close to losing touch with myself, my morals, my values. But I’d never met anyone like Jackie.
The first half of the semester ran beautifully. I blossomed under the sunshine of the many smiling faces who were my friends. I made grades which foretold ‘A’s in the majority of my classes (German III and archeology would be my struggles). I wasn’t homesick at all, the world was new, the opportunities magnificent. I started hanging out with a girl named Jackie more often.
At first, the change was subtle. We’d share stories of our pasts, and shared friendly banter on who’s upbringing had better prepared us for college, and the great beyond. We were each certain we were in the right, but were courteously open to the other’s point of view. I became too open. She said she was concerned for me because my home schooled background hadn’t properly prepared me for the “drama” that occurs in real life. This made sense to some extent, so I started to mimic her. The way she talked, acted, dressed…I began to experiment with the things she said were most important. I didn’t really like some of her catty comments and backstabbing behaviors, but I was still curious. I didn’t realize how quickly these little, harmless “character sparks” would turn into an outright inferno. I told myself I was strong enough to follow her, without letting my guard down.
With my parent’s old admonition, “You are who your friends are,” reverberating somewhere in my mind, I’d get off the phone with my mother and tell myself, “Wow! I can’t believe my kite was flying so far away from earth today! How’d I ever let the string go?” And then, the next day, I’d run back and lunch with Jackie again. I became an echo of a person I didn’t want to be.
I gave her the pen to write my sonata. I started to believe what she told me: maybe a B and C student was all I was truly capable of in college, and the extra effort for As would ruin my ability to have a real life. Bs and Cs still meant you were smart, right? Those were the grades she made, and they were satisfying enough. So, I allowed my grades to slip. I became vain. I wore blisters on my feet for the sake of matching clothes. I worried hours away in front of mirrors.
She advised I shouldn’t throw out so many “random facts,” and speaking occasional phrases in German…that was just plain weird. People don’t like those kinds of things. “They might joke with you about it,” she said, “but can’t you see it really gets on their nerves? People think you’re really annoying.”
Our “friendly banter” turned into heated arguments: her temper, fiery and voracious, against my temper of outwardly cool and icy glares. But hatred burned inside. I’d never hated anyone so much, never had anyone tell me my outlook on life was so wrong. When I felt this interior heat beginning to melt my composure, and needed to leave the room so I could maintain civility, she would call me “pathetic” and “weak.” She sneered that I was so wretched; I couldn’t even take a fight.
Afterwards, I’d journal into the wee hours of the morning. I badly needed to let those horrid emotions out of my system. I’d wake up the next morning feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. Often, after a particularly bitter “stand off” I’d cut class the entire day. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, I was so drained! I’d spend hours in the campus chapel, reading in my bible, or just aimlessly riding one of the campus shuttles writing poetry. Anything to escape Her. To escape Me.
In forte, I threw my money at highlights, manicures, clothes, and cologne: things which had never mattered to me before, things I used to know shouldn’t matter. I avoided joining the activist groups and nonprofit organizations I used to love. Jackie told me I shouldn’t care so much about these things; people didn’t want to hear about “world peace” all the time when they had their own problems to deal with. She told me people talked about me in the dorm, that they hated me because of my awkwardness and peculiar thoughts. I skipped class, pushed away homework on purpose, and tried to sleep away the hurt inside. At times, I even forgot about eating.
I cried constantly, believing myself to be homesick, when really, I was sick for my old self. I forgot what I swore I’d never forget; the words fluttered away like forgotten grace notes. My old philosophy, “Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself,” became pianomissimo. Deep down, I knew she was wrong about many things, and yet I still trailed after her like a child, yearning for her approval and acceptance into this place she called, “the real world.”
My siblings could sense the change in me when I came home for brief holidays. My language was brusque and unnecessarily colorful. I was selfish with the time I spent in front of the mirror; my mother commented on my unusual vanity. I spent much of our conversation time discussing my constant struggles with Jackie. I found myself enjoying these grace periods between my interactions with her…I discovered I really didn’t like hanging out with her as much as I’d thought.
When I began to realize what was happening, I knew Jackie and I had to talk. She said she’d only been trying to tell me the truth: that people weren’t nice, and she just didn’t want to see me get hurt. She said she wanted to hold up a mirror so I could see for myself: I was too nice a person, I smiled too much for my own good, and needed to stop trying to bake pies made with sunshine and rainbows. When I finally responded by telling her I didn’t believe her world was the one I really wanted to live in, she told me I was a pathetic wimp who let her walk all over me, called me a bitch, and said she never wanted to speak to me again. We haven’t spoken since.
It still scares me when I look back and see how easily I succumbed to peer pressure, and how terribly its effects mauled me. The scar on my heart might be intangible to the human eye, but a very tangible scar will remain on my college transcript. I let myself be bullied into the opposite of what I wanted to become, a full 180 degrees from the direction in which I’d began. I never needed Jackie’s acceptance…I will never need the acceptance of any person if they stand in the way of what I believe is right. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” I’m proud to write my own song. I should never let the chords of other’s perceptions estrange the melody my heart knows is on key.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.