“Pam, will you help me?” asked a terrified looking ninth-grader. “There’s a bunch of girls who say they’re going to kick my ass after school. No one will go with me. Will you come?”
I was 14-years old. I was a pimply faced introvert who could count her friends on one hand. When she told me who she was up against, anxiety flooded my gut like a undammed river. I was scared of those girls. They were the meanest, toughest hardest girls in the school. And she had somehow pissed them off.
I couldn’t say no. There was something in me, some kind of inner code that compelled me to agree to stand by her side in the backlot after school. Come what may.
I was sick with worry the rest of the day. When the bell rang, I met her at her locker. She looked worried, too. By now, rumors had spread all over our middle school with kids coming by whispering words of intimidation. “You are gonna get creamed!” We stood there, hidden by the rows of tall lockers. I hoped she’d chicken out. Her reputation was on the line. Not mine. I was a nobody, an invisible girl who got straight A’s and who never got in trouble.
She headed for the backdoor. I trudged behind her. We made a pitiful pair, walking with deadweight as if we were headed for an execution.
Outside in the school’s back lot, away from prying eyes of teachers and administrators, a crowd had gathered. At least twenty kids were waiting for us, with the Mean Girls– a posse of about five – centered with all their bravada and badassness. It was Disney movie cliché.
I stood next to my classmate. We weren’t even really friends. We had a couple of classes together. Our sisters were friends. I had never been to her house, nor her to mine. She was a nice person, undeserving of the bullying antics of the school’s hardcore riot girls.
Then something remarkable happened. My anxiety fluttered away. As we stood facing all that anger and hatefulness, courage rose up out of somewhere and steadied my frayed nerves. I stood there, knowing that if anyone took a slug at her, I’d be slugging back. She would not be facing this alone and I would now coward out on her. We were the underdogs and even if we got our asses handed to us, I stood there with my head held high knowing that we were the Good Guys. I had nothing to be afraid of anymore. I had no position of social power to preserve, not stake in middle school politics to protect nor an image to uphold. I was an obscure kid who wasn’t going to ignore someone’s plea for help.
No one threw a single punch. The only thing flying were the insults which my friend handled with poise and maturity beyond her 14-years. The Mean Girl club were foul, using every cuss word they could muster up from their pubescent vocabulary. It was actually pathetic. Eventually they got bored with name calling. The crowd thinned out. We all went home. I felt a better person for it. Years later when I saw this classmate at our twenty year class reunion I felt a surge of “Hey, we bonded over that, right?” I invited her to sit with me at dinner.
She snubbed me. I could not believe it. Did she not remember how I stood up with her and for her in the wonder years? I was the only one who stood with her, the only one who braved the lion’s den. How could she snub me twenty years later?
What was a big story for me, was obviously not such a big story for her. I had my life shaped that day in the school’s back lot. Maybe she doesn’t even remember it. I was changed. Perhaps for her it was just another day in the life of dealing with sucky mean people.
She’s not the only underdog I’ve defended, in word, act or deed. My penchant for the underdog goes back to grade school when the biggest and scariest girl in the school threatened to beat up more Michael Scott, the scrawniest, most timid boy in the class. I defended him to her face when no one else would speak a word, not even his best friend. By recess, she was looking for me to beat me up instead. But like most bullies, all I had to do was give her a good shove and once she hit the ground, her respect for me was born and that was that. Her bullying ended, at least in our class, and Michael Scott did not get pulverized and neither did I. I think this is where the seed was planted that helped me find courage in middle school against the Mean Girls.
As an adult woman, I still root for the underdog. I am attracted to the forgotten and the invisible. I am drawn to search out and find the hard to find and hard to reach. I am like a giraffe stretching her neck to get to that last leaf on the end of the tallest branch. This is lifegiving for me.
I can advocate with a mama bear fierceness. I don’t intimidate so easily. I speak my mind. I speak up. I try to be direct and honest and respectful. I love to help people get empowered to speak up for themselves. This is a big reason I wrote Unladylike. My hope with this book is that women will find courage within it’s pages to advocate for themselves and the story they find themselves in.
Which brings me to this surprising quandary I just discovered about myself:
It is easier to advocate for others than it is to advocate for me.
I’d rather show up to your fight and stand along side you, then defend myself. I have all kinds of courage to rally for the underdog, yet when it comes to my own self-interest I shrink back. I have to summon with focused intent to speak up when it’s something that matters for me and me alone. I am not comfortable advocating for myself. There is too much at risk. I might strain relationships. I could be misunderstood. Maybe my self-advocacy is misplaced. And on and on it goes, the dragons of self-doubt thundering into my conscience to keep my own interests caved up. The interests of others are far more important than my own, whispers the trolls in the cave. Don’t be so selfish. You’re being self-centered. Let it go. Tolerate the things that swirl around you and pick away at your soul and energy.
I need to reflect on this some more. I’d love to hear from you. Do you advocate for yourself?