When I was a kid, I always wanted a JanSport backpack.
They just looked so damn cool. Not only that, but they were cool. I knew they were cool because all the kids who were cooler than I was had them. Which is to say everyone, since I pretty much occupied the dungeon-level of my school’s hierarchy of coolness.
Every girl in the group of coolest girls had one. Including the coolest girl of all of them — or at least that was how she wanted to look to everyone. She was the diva, the queen of the school, the one who could veto anyone else’s involvement in her group.
How did I know that? Well. It had to do with a JanSport backpack.
Sometime during my eighth grade year, I started being friendly with a couple of the Cool Girls. Not super-friendly, but they’d talk to me at lunch and sometimes walk to class with me. We never hung out after school or on weekends, and they never confided in me, but they weren’t actively rude or mean. Which for me at that point, felt like heaven.
I remember I was sitting in English class one day and we were probably discussing The Outsiders again, because somehow I read that book about eight times a year for six years, so every single memory of English class is irrevocably tied to that book.
I remember the Queen Cool Girl was sitting two seats up from me, whispering conspiratorially with a couple of her friends. Coincidentally, the two of her friends who had been being nice to me. I remember I could hear her saying she was getting a new backpack, so she had added some…artwork…to her old one.
I tried to pretend that I wasn’t paying attention, scribbling in my notebook and making believe I couldn’t tell that the boy I had a crush on was in the seat behind me.
As she held out the olive green JanSport backpack between the desks, I clearly saw what she had written on it in stark black sharpie.
Under that was written a bunch of familiar names. All the girls in the Cool Girl Group, of course. I wasn’t surprised to see that mine wasn’t there, but…wait.
IT WAS. MY NAME. THERE. AT THE BOTTOM.
Then she moved her arm out of the way.
Under the bulk of her friends’ names, between theirs and where mine took up the bottom space at the edge of olive green, she’d scrawled:
… … … … … … …
Today I was getting off the metro after my first full week at my new job. And on the escalator in front of me was a JanSport backpack, looking just as cool as I always remembered them looking.
That first glimpse of it twisted everything back from seventeen years ago, feeling that hot well of shame that bubbled over in me, knowing my crush could see it as well as I could, knowing she knew I could see it, from her smirk.
Still, though, I found myself wanting a stupid JanSport backpack.
… … … … … … …
A few years after the JanSport backpack incident, I would sing a solo at our tiny school’s end of year recital. I picked a b-side of Mariah Carey’s, and to this day I’m not entirely sure I know how I found the courage to get up in front of that Queen Cool Girl and sing that song after everything she put me through, backpack notwithstanding. When I said she was the school diva, I mean that pretty literally. She ran the choirs, got her pick of solos, and provided the soundtrack to almost every major event of my school career.
The song I picked was Mariah Carey’s Looking In.
I still remember Queen Cool Girl coming up to me afterward, looking me up and down, and then saying, “I didn’t know you could sing.”
… … … … … … …
A big part of my life — almost all of it, really — has been characterized by the pathos inherent in that song, and the humiliation I found in an olive green JanSport backpack. That constant nagging fear that I’ll always be the one going, “Hey guys, wait up!” and that when all the cool kids are gathered, the closest I’ll be is however smushed I can make my nose against the window pane.
The tag-along. The unwelcome follower. The one who wasn’t invited. The one who’s just not enough to be wanted.
Gods, but this year has been that year. So many years of staring into the publishing world, only to have things happen that have made me feel like someone scrawled my name in the tag-along column when I thought we were friends.
I feel that way almost constantly. Amanda Palmer calls that voice the Fraud Police. Some people call it an inferiority complex. To me it’s the feeling of your nose on smooth, cold, unbreakable glass.
Which is why I’m writing this now, because something extraordinary has happened to me in the past couple weeks. I’ve been trying to do everything by myself. Two weeks ago, I closed my eyes and turned away from the nose-marked glass, sat down cross-legged on the ground, and said, “I need help.”
When I opened my eyes, I was surrounded by faces.
There were hands clasping mine. Arms around my shoulders. Tissues extended. Hugs offered. Kisses on my forehead.
When I turned away from that glass, after so long of hoping that the more I pushed my nose against it, the closer I’d be to getting through it, I found something I hadn’t fully allowed myself to accept before. Community. Not a clique.
So, friends, instead of numbers on a page, I’m going to show you what you have done for me in the past two weeks.
And I got sick. Which has nothing to do with any of this lovely food — it’s just a fact that sucks a lot, because I just lost my health insurance. But because of you all I could afford to take yesterday off work to get better. And I could keep my symptoms under some semblance of control because you allowed me to get these…
And…amazingly…as if the above weren’t enough?
You all paid off my car.
On top of the car? I’ve been being hounded by collections for a bill from my ended marriage…I was able to settle it with them for almost half what was due.
The day I posted that blog almost two weeks ago, I woke up in a near feeling of panic. I was more afraid than I think I can remember being in my adult life. Funny how the thought of not being able to eat or pay my rent was somehow less scary than asking for help for so long. (It had to get to the point where sitting on the nail hurt enough for me to get up off it…see Amanda Palmer’s book in 3…..2…..1….)
A good friend not only donated to my “I need help” fund, but she also gifted me with Amanda Palmer’s book, which, quite appropriately, is called The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help.
The day all this started, a friend saw my Facebook post and asked what was up. I told her. She told me that her door was always open and her table always had a place for me. I told her that my car was paid off, because of people literally all over the world. She told me she was in the process of starting a GoFundMe page for the Gemmell family, who that same day lost three members when a plane crashed into their home in Gaithersburg, MD. Within 24 hours, that page she started had raised almost $300,000. Now it’s nearly at $500,000.
The point is that there will always be a group we can’t seem to break into. Whether it’s a coveted job or a lunch table. But if we look around, right next to us, there are people who genuinely want to help. It’s not the cliques that keep people out that are important; it’s the community that invite one another in. Whether it’s in the face of tragedy or poverty or simply the joy of sharing, if there’s anything the last two weeks have taught me, it’s that for all I’ve tried to do this on my own, I’m not alone.
I started this blog six years ago. In that time I’ve found so many deep, abiding friendships. So many caring people.
Thank you all for holding me up when I was about to fall.
I wish the happiest of holidays to you all.*
*I couldn’t resist the dumb rhyme. I mean…THERE IS SOMETHING IN MY EYE OKAY
**I may or may not have bought a literal donut because of this passage.
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