Tag: school


A week ago I went to talk to my school counselor. Getting help, any kind of help, is something I’d been considering for years. Often I would fantasize about confiding in a woman sitting next to me on the high-speed train to Madrid, the gentleman in the supermarket check-out line, a little-known writer of Sunday columns, or, in a fit of absurdity, Plato (this lead to a series of letters addressed to the most kind Mr Plato, which I keep behind my bookshelf, as furtively and as shamefully as a degenerate child would hide the instruments of deflowering).

Earlier this year I somehow managed to tell the story to two of my classmates, while seated in a swinging lawn chair. I had my eyes on the checkered retractable awning the entire time, not because I would not look at them, but because looking straight in front of me meant coming face to face with my reflection in the glass-paneled doors. The confession was a failure; it left me feeling squalid and ruined, for reasons I will not go into here. I’d like to make clear that it wasn’t their fault, however. She was a darling slip of a girl, all flashing skirts and floral smile, a milder, kinder Lady Green Sleeves. He was a debonair Holmesian character, with an ancient, Romulus air and Roman profile to match. They were gentle with guilty, doleful me, but they were also unprepared.

Afterwards, I lost all sense of the story itself. Where had it began, where was the development, the character designs, the pacing? All the narrative elements that I’d so carefully picked up along the years felt artificial to the point of obscenity when placed against the backdrop of my mother’s relapse and my parent’s divorce. I found that the anger and weeping of those summer days had wiped out the details, leaving a muddled strip of brightly colored, bursting memories. There was that far-away sun, the ice cubes in my mother’s tropical drink, that pair of well-meaning but terrifying policemen (“don’t cry, you’ll get double the gifts on Christmas”). Humiliated, I found that I could no longer distinguish right and wrong in that mess. Where had my sense of justice gone? Where was I, all that time?

Often I was (and I still am) filled with sudden and powerful remorse. I couldn’t believe what a big deal I was making out of this, when in dim and dusty Africa children live and die in white refugee tents. I choked it down, and I tried my best to be good. That period taught me that I’d never possessed humility, and that even if I was not a true egotist, I had cut corners. I learned the pleasure of existing, and that home, and all the extensions of it (everywhere I stepped became home – school classrooms and warm bookstores, marble plazas and tree shadows) deserved genuine respect and admiration. I lost, for sure this time, my fear of associating with other teenagers, and I found that the grinning flashes and little peaks in their intonation, those indications of their goings-about, their evenings at the squash court, their exchanges of loving-constructed in-jokes, brought me joy.

I know I have not been an excellent daughter, sister, or friend. I have been distraught and sordid, but through all the ugly times and door slams I have stayed, if not strong, than at least firm. My one good quality, perseverance, has stuck by me, through, if you’ll permit me the small cliche, thick and thin. Though I am often unsure and confused, I don’t mind being proven wrong, I don’t mind a chiding “No, Emma, look here, it’s like this.”

But still I couldn’t find the sufficient courage to confide in someone. I wanted so badly just to have it be out there, not in written form but in spoken word, syllables leading to the sentences of my shame. I tried to imagine the prototype of the conversation, and each model I trashed as being too casual, too flighty, too stiff, too horrific. I have been accustomed, for as long as I have lived, to think through absolutely everything, which I now realize has caused me to miss out on the spontaneous memory-making of childhood. So when I spotted my school counselor at the reception area, speaking to the secretary, it was in the spirit of impulse and necessity (and a third thing, which started in the pit of my abdomen and exploded out my mouth) that I called out his name. It was with shock that I discovered that he recognized me, despite the fact that we’d spoken only twice, and with even greater shock I found myself asking for an appointment with him.

This leads me to the events of the past Friday. I sat in a straight-backed chair and talked, for almost two hours. He put in a word here and there, but mostly he smiled, hands cupping his face. My breaths were quick and raspy, and my fingers, curled in my lap, twitched and fussed. When I remember it now, I have to laugh at the pretty picture we made: a schoolgirl in sneakers pulling out her whole life story like colored scarves from a magician’s mouth, eyes running and darting, and a middle-aged man with a beatific expression and nodding head. The words, miraculously, did not fall apart under the pressure. I found the bravery of a literary ancestor; I spoke as though I were reading poetry.

At the end of it, my school counselor looked at me, not with pity, as I’d expected, but with something akin to wonder. He said to me, “Emma, you’ve been through a lot.” I’d never been told that before, and with a rush I realized that it was all I’d ever wanted. All I had ever wanted was that acknowledgement, that I had suffered, and that I had worked hard, to defeat something greater than myself. I was a child, looking for an approving tap on the head, any indication that I was doing okay. I came to terms, in an instant, with it all, and my life up until that moment unfolded before me, palpitating and beautiful, in the true sense of that word. He said it again: “You have been through a lot.” I told him, smiling: “No. I have been very happy.”


Parties are always a strange experience for me.

A few Sundays ago I attended the going-away party of a lovely girl. For six hours, approximately thirty youngsters aged sixteen to seventeen congregated and diverted themselves inside a suburban home some ten miles away from the city. We wiped down chairs wet from the previous night’s rain and spread pattered tablecloths on plastic patio furniture, where we, a collection of elaborately coiffed adolescents in glittering jean jackets and floral skirts would eat room temperature cheese pizza and microwave lasagna. Underneath the roar of today’s pop music, the boys and girls pile onto suede sofas, sucking on freeze pops and making faces at the camera. Later on I marvel at photographs of myself seated on the curb in the darkness, or next to a few classmates, unable to recall when they’d been taken. The whole time I am there, in fact, I feel as though I am the patient in an operating theater, aware despite the anesthesia, looking up into a world of masked physicians and bright scalpels that I am undoubtedly a part of but somehow very far away from. Only by virtue of my age do I belong here, among brethren born the same year as I, and raised in similar conditions. With the exception of this, they and I could not possibly be more different.

Throughout most of my childhood the only parties I attended were my own birthday celebrations, and so I am delighted to receive invitations for these gatherings. Like many females in identical positions, I enjoy cleaning and fixing myself up, like a young cat preparing for a nighttime excursion into the underbrush. For a few hundred minutes worth of my fellow’s little games and conspiratorial smiles I will take great pains to make myself presentable. I have a desire perhaps greater than that of most to give an impression of general likeability. I have never had great friends; in fact, I think of them as I do mythological creatures. I’ve never been to one of those sleepovers where giant tubs of ice cream melt on counter tops while little girls in polka-dot dressing gowns share confidences like tiger-eye marbles. The few attempts at good, solid friendship I have ever made have ended in failure or separation. It’s not only my bad luck, no –

Dear readers, you who see me only through what I tell you, know this: for my all of my life I have suffered from chronic social anxiety, and it has crippled me.


A striking young lady in a kimono-style iceberg blue dress. Well-meaning but much too needy. Absolutely impossible to get along with, but count on her to crawl into your bed in a thunderstorm. Stuck with what appears to be super-super-super adhesive glue to Emma’s back.

How to explain, how to explain! Riddle me this, dear readers: girls skin knees on trees, lose themselves over gutsy boys and shopping sprees, dream of afternoon tea with the marquis (petite bourgeoisie!), glamorous anchorwoman jobs at the BBC (hello dearies, here to discuss the Nepalese rupee), girls are devotees of rouge and a number 53 lipstick called red sea, girls work late nights for doctor’s degrees and pretend they are Nancy Drew holding the skeleton key, they are named Bree, Rosalie, Marie, Amy, Katie, they plea and disagree, they call each other sweet pea, they leave when they so will it and (JeSUS is that Tommy Lee macking on Deirdre?) feel free every day of their lives.

Riddle me this: how is it that I fulfill the biological characteristics of What A Girl Is, but I’ve never felt like a proper one? What-what-what do I lack?

A girl riddled with canker sores and beta burns all along her brain-blood barrier, destroying her ability to speak. A girl lacking a Dark Ages backstory to complete her babydoll image, opening her mouth and big surprise, nothing comes out! I was a nice enough girlie, but so stricken by social fear that I could not dial a number or visit a classmate’s house without the mass and temperature of my insides going up by 500%. I accepted without complaint that I’d never be accepted by my compatriots and that the best I could do was appeal to their sense of morbid fascination. I wanted to be the endearingly strange gal, but all I ended up doing was convert myself into a zoo attraction.


Grade school circa 1999, twenty or so children seated around a whiteboard, the teacher seated on a stool and crying out: Be yourself!


Human beings are not the stony stuff of legend. They are not as imperturbable as sentences on the page or rocks in the kidneys. Their characters, with enough determination, can be melted down and remade. Yourself is not permanent.

How to explain, how to explain! Allow me to confide in you, dear readers: I wanted so badly to be THAT PERSON! That person who won’t leave troubled people alone, who’d loan time and heart, homegrown lass in Mama’s cologne, a pure tone like whale song, a little lady who’d drag strangers out of combat zones and across stepping stones, not a bee drone humming along in dumb solitude, no groans, no moans, just an eager, lovable child who knows how to love and how to apologize, girl chock-full of sweet bones. And if I am honest –




“To seek, to strive, to find and never to yield.” I smiled as hard as schoolchildren on bicycles pedal up slopes. I took a real interest in other people’s lives, picking out the bits they loved from the rolling jumps of their jargon. I was as wholesome as Thomas Aquinas, asking for forgiveness without shame. There was no gentleman’s commodity I did not bargain with Mephistopheles for, no code of conduct I did not kill myself to emulate. I spent bus rides with Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and How to Make Friends and Influence People, I slept with them in my arms. I fought tooth and nail to speak cleanly and honestly, at all times, in all situations. The beauty of genuine human interaction: it is something of which I loved to think.

Oh yes, I pinned her down, my horrific elephant girl. We stared at each other, her body buckling under the pressure, but who had fear in her eyes? My twin in everything, insufferable and petty, she was that part of me I sought to disguise, but in a room empty but for me and her, she was the stronger of the two. In my attempt to be extraordinary I had forgotten her, the great eye of all my hurricanes, that secret frontier! In a moment of clarity, I spared her. In all honesty, how could I have laid my hand on her? She pardoned me, and I her. Despite all her faults, that little lady, living three inches inside my forehead, is the best pal I’ll ever have. She was often nervous, at times destructive, but always persistent. That perseverance took physical form in the deepest parts of my gut. It said: WHO YOU ARE NEVER HAS TO BE INCOMPATIBLE WITH WHO YOU WANT TO BE.

Parties are always a strange experience for me. I do my best to be good, but of course I am afraid, I, the simpleton in shiny shoes. I laugh at the roughhousing and the poolside bickering, one madcap lad grabbing another by his shirt collar and delicately dropping him into the clear water. I listen attentively to reenactments of daring escapades, recipes to all possible combinations derived from alcohol and soda fountain alchemy (let me tell you about this rum and cherry coke I had at a bar in Benicassim back in ’09). The core of me has not changed. My responses and little smiles are as giddy and foolish as ever. And yet I have managed to put myself at ease. There is a eager quality to my speech, now that the fright is gone. I am no spitfire, but I am comfortable among them, these dragons and amazons, perched upon blue leather loveseats and fishing in the fridge for Nutella and celery sticks. Above all else, I have come to know that these are children (red-blooded courtesans and courtiers, winking from unlit streets!) I can easily adore. In all probability they will never come to adore me, and for this I do not blame them. I am certain, however, that some other people, some other day, maybe will –

When I walk home, I look back, watching them leave like birds, and I think, arms crossed behind my back, eyes turned towards the road: Oh. How far it is that I still have to go. My elephant friend squeezes at me and, in one of her rare communicative moods, responds: How far it is, that you have come.

The Journey Of Dolore Pinkerton And Emma S

In class we’re given a minute and a half to think up a list of emotions. The guidance counselor tells us: “if it makes you feel, you can think of it as an emotion.” In ninety seconds I have eighteen emotions. After classifying them into columns labeled “positive” and “negative”, I realize that thirteen of my eighteen belong to the latter category. For some reason this isn’t shocking at all. When our guidance counselor asks us to read one of our emotions aloud, I am the last one to go. In a sprawling hand, he writes the words my classmates throw at him. “Surprise”, “hope”, “love”, rubbing elbows with sadder counterparts, “melancholy”, “sadness”, “anguish”. It occurs to me that I might choose any adjective I like, as long as it falls into the realm of human emotion. For a brief moment, I consider “joy”. But it’s not a word that belongs to me. In the end, when his eyes turn to me, I speak the truest of them all: “soledad“. Solitude.

The stepmother’s mirror speaks to me: no, no, that’s not exactly right is it, Emma! There’s something else, a better answer. Shut up. For once I am not a liar. In Spanish we do not differentiate between “solitude” and “loneliness”.

Our guidance counselor tells us it’s good to speak what we feel. But I do not.

A few months ago a classmate asked me if there was anyone I could confide in. “Is there anyone you tell everything to?” The question caught me completely by surprise. I suddenly understood that, whether he’d realized it or not, he’d seen through my ruse. Despite my chatter, urchin smiles and exaggerated gestures, all carefully calculated to inspire amiability and a certain degree of tenderness, he’d noticed the inescapable patterns of my behavior. He’d seen how little I shared however much I babbled, how I’d adopted the strategy of “a good attack is the best defense”. In my shock, I answered that I didn’t have anything to tell. I actually said that, in spite of dreams in which I wandered concentration camps bathed in the light of an orange moon, utterly alone, dreams in which I faced dragons and faceless assassins all on my lonesome. “No tengo nada que confiar.” I have nothing I to confide. My God, how is it possible that I was able to say that with a straight face?

In “Madame Butterfly”, Cio-Cio-san kills herself upon the discovery that her precious husband has betrayed her, spitting on the faith she’d kept alive despite years and an ocean’s worth of distance. She covers her baby boy’s eyes and gives him a little American flag to hold. Then, as she stabs herself, we hear the voice of her beloved Pinkerton coming up a hill, crying Butterfly! In these moments, it’s never for Cio-Cio-san, the butterfly, that I feel most sorry for. It’s for the boy blindly waving the flag of his father’s country, a boy she’d named “Dolore”. Dolore, in Italian, meaning “sorrow”.

Dolore and Soledad, we make a pretty pair, don’t we? Sorrow and Solitude, looking down on a sweeping bay on a golden spring morning. But when the opera finishes, I always wish desperately for Dolore’s happiness, regardless of the juxtaposition of emotion there. I press a fist to my mouth and pray he’ll someday be bold and bright. In Act 2, in fact, his mother says: the day Dolore’s father returns, his name will be “Gioia”. When “Madame Butterfly” ends, his mother is dead and his father is no great tiding. But still I hope he’ll be the Gioia he should be, on his own account, out of his own bravery and strength.

Then he’d be Gioia and I’d be Alegría, and we’d be on our own ship, leaving that bay, holding tight and looking forward, pointing at the horizon like children point at flocks of birds. Gioia and Alegría – different languages, but they both mean so much to me. They are both Joy.

On The Psychology Of Sit-Ups

Today I discovered that one can tell an awful lot about a person by the way they do their sit-ups.

Consider, for example, the bestial child who hammers his hips up and down in the most convincing rendition of childbirth (as performed by a male – bravo!) ever seen in a school room. Or the deeply caustic boy, who pushes himself up and down like a baby being rocked, calves tightening like hard-boiled eggs. Or the fellow who flaps like a bird, neck straight and stiff. Or the super-sprint of the sleek schoolgirl. Or the damsel who begins to swell and purple at the midway mark, huffing and puffing all the way to the finish, mermaid hair spread out on the iceberg blue mat.

I myself appear to be the kind of person who flags three sit-ups from the goal, flopping flat on the ground like a dead cetacean, grunting and gagging on the last available breath before elbowing and easing up again. One. Two. And. Aaaaaaaand. Three.

Day Five Of Operation: Befriend Ants.

During our morning snack break, the girls and boys of the eleventh and twelfth grades gather in the cafeteria. It’s not the one we eat lunch in, but a classier area meant for teachers, outfitted with a bar and coffee machine. For half an hour, after third period, the tiled linoleum, the tables and chairs, the glass doors: these are lent to the pandemonium of the older students.

It’s difficult for me to consider myself an “older student”. I’m shy of even first graders, tracing wide arcs around they and their playthings. School feels like a spherical environment, and I take a path lit by an infinite series of great circles. One of few stopping points: the cafeteria.

The tables are always occupied. The galaxy by the windows, threaded by cosmic rays and globular star clusters, all gravitationally bound, wound up tight. The string of outer space accompanying the bar, populated by the old glowing inapproachable. The mess in between, solar wind and magnetic fields, perilous and easy to trip over. I find a chair and carry it with me to the solar system farthest away.

It’s a quaint place where I am comfortable, if plenty superfluous. If they care they say nothing, fixed as they are on breaking past their orbits and poking fun at dwarf planets. There’s a pair of blazar boys, luminous and disruptive, a shiny hypercompact stellar system, a trio of components of the Orion constellation (three vertices of a triangle, Sirius, Procyon and Betelgeuse) and me, the closest thing to a perfect vacuum.

Nature abhors a vacuum, but you are not nature, you are expansive, wild and intergalactic, spanning light years and eons, you are teenage stars, so, can I ask you, please: don’t hate me.

Day Four Of Operation: Befriend Ants.

When I get to class in the mornings I don’t stray farther than the two foot radius around my desk, and that only to deposit my book bag and take a solid, perfunctory glance around the room. Chalkboard, windows, door; this is my own little private universe, but the sun can be anywhere at all. I don’t know around what I revolve, but I do so willingly.

I am only ever truly tired the five minutes after I wake, but it is not until eleven thirty that I stop telling people I’m exhausted. It’s one of the few conversation openers I know, initiating the inevitable concurrent response, the cycle of shared sleep and lack thereof. “I’m tired.” “I’m tired too.” “How are you?” “Fine.” “Hello!” “Hi.” I am an automaton, I run through lists like names for hurricanes.

For the first time in a while, I hate living in Spain. It’s a feeling that lasts a maximum half hour, but I feel it poignantly, and I feel it absolutely. I can’t do intelligent or passionate discourse in Spanish, despite the fact that I’ve lived here for most of my life. All those who cannot express adoration nor ideals in their mother tongue are failures. On a discrete level in my private universe I am blind to the interpretation of the thoughts of other sentient beings. On a smaller level than even that, lying on the fringe of some dead supernova, I fear that I am blind to their love as well.

There is a sun, but it cannot be pinpointed. There are blue stars too, but they are visible only to those with proper equipment. The only element ever to be mapped here is ground zero, and I already know exactly where that is.

Gorgeous, Gorgeous Amphibian, Clear Glass Windowpane

If the cosmos ever decide to bestow upon me the gift of beautiful photography, this it what I’ll do –

Take one boy, preferably one with a long face and torso, Fitzpatrick skin type IV. Plop him in a poorly-lit changing room, stalls to the left, hooks to the right, no mirrors, no windows. Take off his shirt. Sit him on a bench, one foot up, other on floor, head down. Put his hands on his shoe and his eyes on the tying of the laces, reef knot, the kind used by sailors and surgeons. The air should be full of linoleum, and the mouth of fricative consonants.

Take five steps away and create a miniature of him in the lens, inverted in my eye, shutter.

The anecdote of the boiling frog: if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in tepid water that increases gradually in temperature, it will eventually be cooked to death. 19th century scientists used controlled experiments to validate the claim, but their contemporary counterparts refute it, despite not having conducted experiments of their own.

In my own stupid way I think: how can you know it’s not true? In my own stupid way I think: I want to find out, but I will not. It would be cruel, it would be quite cruel to do so.

A critical thermal maximum, a death, a frog, a human. Throat muscles forcing oxygen and sweetmeats back up, lag, gab, breakdown locomotion. Boys coated in vague light, top hat and they’ll be Victorian, knives and they’ll be butchers. Girls grabbed and plucked, dropped, boil me up, boil me down. Stick your nails underneath my crustacean crust, saltwater shell, and pull, pop me open, ‘course it’ll work because –

the very limits of heat that I can take are locked in you.