Once upon a time, as most of us were, I was in high school. It was not a stellar experience for me, but it was defining. Aside from the very few people who became my friends, and whom I follow along with even now, high school was populated with people who did not particularly care for me. Then as now, détente was a reasonable, if not always achievable, hope. But for some, there was a literal breaking point: a Rubicon, if you will. It started in sophomore French class.
We had a substitute teacher one Fall Monday. Her English was not perfect, though her French was; she was a regular teacher stepping in for our regular instructor. This was a pre-lunch class, but there were three 20-minute lunch periods. My class had second lunch; this meant that about 20 minutes into French class, a bell would ring, signaling the beginning of first lunch. After another 20 minutes, a second bell would ring, signaling the end of class and the beginning of second lunch.
On our first day with the substitute, when the first bell rang, two boys convinced her that class was over, and no one contradicted them: we left at the 20-minute bell. The next day, the same boys tried the same ruse. Three quarters of the class walked out, but at least two other girls and I stayed: I raised my hand and explained that the first bell was not the end of our class period.
My nickname became then and stayed The Rat. My classmates taunted me and chanted The Rat in the halls. Drawings of rats were stuck to and shoved inside my locker. This lasted until graduation, when we had almost forgotten the origin of my nickname.
When I tell this story now, I don’t look for pity or sympathy: this is a pathetic Lord of the Flies played out in the grey-carpeted halls of a Chicago Gold Coast private school, where the stakes were low so the repercussions were high. This was where I learned about clothing conformity in the guise of Polo shirts, Tretorn sneakers, Levi’s 501 jeans, and Brooks Brothers shirts. I wore my classmates’ fathers’ hand-me-down shirts from the thrift shop; I wore their grandmothers’ dresses. A Rat requires some style.
As an adult, I find that people haven’t changed all that much. The cliques still exist, and while adults don’t usually shout at you, ostracism and snubbing are deployed regularly. But I learned long ago how to be alone, or with a few true friends. Evidence always speaks for itself.