The Schoolhouse Years
About a year after living with my aunt as an orphan child, with my beloved cat, Oats, I began schooling. My aunt Lilac persuaded me to attend school as a way of encouraging me to socialize more. I told her repeatedly that I was perfectly happy spending my days alone. I procrastinated school for a whole year — aunt Lilac pitied me so much after the loss of my parents that she practically granted me any wish. But finally, she put her foot down, and demanded that I go to school.
Aunt Lilac had never married or had children of her own. She inherited the small cottage from her parents, my grandparents, who passed away years before I was born. She was an apothecary, who made her living by crafting and selling medicines. She was incredibly smart. If she had walked down the road of marriage and motherhood, surely, she never would have gained such an education.
It’s not uncommon for girls in my community to skip schooling, knowing that anywhere from ages thirteen to seventeen, they’d be married to a man who’d take care of all the financial burdens. But most of us are encouraged to have at least a primary education during childhood, to learn how to forage for berries and mushrooms, sew clothing, read and write, understand basic mathematics.
I never thought too hard about the future — I didn’t think I was smart enough nor tough enough to follow in my aunt’s footsteps, but I also found myself disgusted at the thought of marriage. I just wanted to be a kid forever — spend my days playing the backyard, cuddling with my cat, and chatting with the spirits.
I huffed and puffed and dragged my legs like a brat as my aunt walked me through the woods to my first day of school. I was eight-years old. It was a little schoolhouse — and on nice days, we had lessons outside. The boys and girls were separated, so I was only with other girls — about thirty of us.
There were a group of girls who I could best describe as “the loud girls,” who I absolutely despised. They were so… loud… desperate for attention, obnoxious, and completely distasteful. They interrupted our teacher, interrupted classmates, interrupted each other. They bossed the rest of the class around and acted like they owned all of us, like they were above us all. I refused to befriend them, which aggravated them very much.
The rest of the girls in the class were alright, but most of them sucked up to the loud girls. A lot of them were a little too weird, or too boring, or too annoying. Everyone in the class disgusted me. I just wanted to be alone with my cat.
One girl in particular, named Annabella, always sat next to me. She was very eager to get to know me, for whatever reason.
“Hi!” She introduced herself, “I’m Annabella, what’s your name?”
“I’m Valerie,” I answered.
“Your hair is so pretty and orange!” She gushed.
“Thanks,” I smiled.
She became a little bit obsessed with me, even following me home somedays, and I’d have to politely ask her to leave, which was very awkward. But I quickly realized that I actually didn’t mind her too much.
Annabella was on the much quieter side. In fact, she agreed with me, that most of the girls in our class were too loud. We gradually began to bond over our judgment of everyone else. We giggled and snickered at all of them for being so brash and for lacking grace like us.
The next thing I knew, Annabella and I were glued at the hip to one another. We always stuck together and secluded ourselves from everyone else. All of the girls in the class wanted to be friends with us, but we weren’t interested. We didn’t like anybody else. We were best friends, and no one was better than us.
Annabella was constantly boosting my ego, telling me how pretty she thought I was, telling me how she thought I was so much cooler than everybody else. She often went on about how jealous everybody else was, how intimidating my presence was.
Sometimes I worried for Annabella, though. I wanted her to become more confident. As flattering as she could be at times, it was hard to convince her that she was just as beautiful inside and out.
Unfortunately, the reign of Valerie and Annabella came to an end. After four years of friendship, by the time that we were twelve-years old, Annabella found a new best friend. A new girl named Olivia moved to our community and joined our school.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Annabella and Olivia became best friends, and I found myself replaced. At school, Annabella always invited Olivia to join us. Annabella stopped coming over my place, instead going to Olivia’s cottage house. And whenever I hung out with Annabella, she spent the entire time gushing about Olivia, how cool and pretty she is.
I hated Olivia more than anyone else. And Olivia didn’t even care that she was stealing my best friend — she seemed to get a kick out of it. I had a feeling that she hated me back.
I wasn’t going to waste my breath fighting over Annabella. If Olivia wanted her, she could have her. Annabella would have to deal with losing me.
And so, I walked into school one day, and coldly told Annabella, in a very matter-of-fact voice, “we can’t be friends anymore.”
“Huh?” Annabella was totally taken aback. I’m not sure why she was acting so clueless — she should’ve known!
“You’ve changed,” I told her, “it’s time for us to go our separate ways.”
Annabella began crying — which made no sense to me. I thought, if she genuinely cared about being my friend this much, then she wouldn’t have ever become so obsessed with Olivia.
I moved my seat to the other corner of the classroom, where I could finally be at peace. A part of me was relieved to cut Annabella out of my life. I valued solitude more than anything — Annabella was becoming really annoying anyway. I never wanted a best friend in the first place! Now, I would no longer have to deal with her short attention span, her constant fidgeting and knuckle-cracking, how loudly she chewed her food, and so forth.
Later in the day, after class was dismissed, Olivia cornered me.
“How could you do such a thing to Annabella?” She prosecuted.
“What are you talking about?” I rolled my eyes. Was she actually serious!?
“That was really mean of you, telling her you don’t want to be friends anymore.”
“Who cares?” I shrugged and attempted to walk away.
But she grabbed my shoulder and stopped me, “she’s really upset. I think you need to apologize to her.”
“You can’t tell me what to do,” I growled. Who did she think she was, anyway? Shouldn’t she be jumping for joy now that Annabella was all hers now? They could be best friends without worrying about me getting in the way anymore! She should be thanking me!
“So that’s it!?” Olivia called out as I continued walking. “You don’t even feel bad!?”
I ignored her and continued my walk home. So typical of Olivia, trying to butt into someone else’s business and stir up drama.
It was certainly awkward, that following year. Almost every day, I had to deal with seeing Annabella and Olivia, and pretend they didn’t exist. Sometimes they stared at me. Sometimes they tried talking to me. I think they expected me to come around at some point, but I refused. Annabella would never be my friend, ever again, for as long as she continued her obsession with Olivia. I deserved to be the best friend, not the second–best friend.
The awkwardness subsided once Annabella had turned thirteen and dropped out of school. She married a boy a few years older than her named Jacob. She was pregnant and eager to begin her life of motherhood and homemaking. I would probably never see her again.
Olivia, sadly, stuck around for several more years. She made a few new friends. As for me, I made a couple acquaintances. It took me a really long time, but I finally learned how to open up to others, just a little bit.
After my cat, Oats, had suddenly died — I was now seventeen and facing my final year of schooling. I had a bit of an overnight epiphany. One by one, as each girl dropped out of school to become a wife and a mother, it began to feel more daunting. My childhood was coming to a close. Almost ten years of seeing the same thirty, and now closer to just fifteen, girls every day — and none of them even knew me. How could I say goodbye to a group of girls I had known since childhood, who I’d judged so harshly and never gave a chance to?
I realized that I needed to change.
“May I take to the front of the class?” I quietly, nearly-whispered to Miss Summer.
She looked at me with shock, but delightedly answered, “sure!”
The girls all gasped as I stood in front of them. I was the quietest girl they’d ever known, the mysterious one, but I owed them all an apology.
“I just want to say…” I began, my voice shaking. I wanted to give a whole speech, one that would inspire everyone and have them standing on their feet and clapping for me. But I couldn’t. Not just my voice, but now my entire body was shaking. My face was red. I couldn’t do it. So instead, I simply announced, “I hope that everyone has a great future,” I smiled before scurrying back to my seat.
“You too, Val!” one of the loud girls shouted.
Once class was over, I ran over to Olivia before she could get away.
“Olivia, wait!” I called out.
She turned around and looked at me with skepticism, “oh, I thought you forgot my name,” she sarcastically commented.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized.
“For what?” She put her hands on her hips.
“I was jealous of you,” I confessed, “and that wasn’t fair.”
“You stole my best friend…” I slightly whimpered.
“So, you hold a grudge against me for five years? You pretend I don’t exist? You act like I’m invisible?”
I was a little shocked. I didn’t think she was that affected by me.
“I want to change,” I told her.
“I hope you do,” Olivia pat me on the back before turning away and continuing to venture forth.