One of the scariest moments I’ve ever lived through happened in fifth grade. I was eleven going on sixteen (or so it felt) and I was hitting the stage of life where number of training bras and leg shaving were positively correlated with popularity status. I had an obsession with Ashton Kutcher, which manifested itself in this fan book I used to carry around and pretend to makeout with. I also considered myself to be a punk rocker. I could strum out a few chords on an electric guitar I bought on Ebay, I listened to Good Charlotte and Avril Lavigne constantly, and I had this JC Penny shirt that read, “Blame My Parents.” Clearly, I had an image to maintain.
One day, I was talking with a group of classmates. We were devising and debating our own list of The Worst Names Ever. The list included names like Bertha and Dorcus. I offered up the name “Frederick,” which was the name of one of my alter-ego characters I pulled out at slumber parties to make my friends laugh.
Can you tell I liked being the center of attention?
However, always the “edgy” one, I had to spice up my contribution to the conversation. I had a punk persona to uphold, after all! I had to make Avril proud.
So, I then said, “You know what would be an even worse name than ‘Frederick?’ Fucking Frederick.”
I kid you not. That’s what I said. I don’t know where exactly I learned that word or if I even knew what it meant, but I think it’s pretty clear that I had it stored up in my Cool Girl Arsenal for future use and that this seemed to be the perfect moment to whip it out.
I looked around at my friends’ faces. They were shocked. They were awed. I was feeling cool. Until one boy, we’ll call him Mikey, gasped, and then breathed, “I’m telling Ms. Smart.”
My stomach twisted in a giant knot and dropped all the way down to my feet. Sure, I liked playing the roll of Edgy Carly, but there was no hiding the fact that my true self was Teacher’s Pet Carly. I had perfect grades, I read way above a fifth grade level, and I loved hearing the fabulous things that teachers said about me during Parent-Teacher Conferences… What would my teacher think of me? What would my parents think of me?
What was the punishment for using the F-word? Detention? Suspension? Expulsion? Incarceration?!
I felt paralyzed with fear. I begged and pleaded with Mikey. He wouldn’t budge. I tried for some sympathy points: “My parents will never let me watch TV again if you tell on me! Please don’t! Pretty please?” Apparently, eleven-year-old boys don’t sympathize very well. I went on to bargain, my voice now shaky and on the verge of tears: “I’ll do your homework for you today! I always get one hundred percents on my homework! I’ll even do your book report if you want!” And, while I did do Mikey’s class work that day, he still made no promises. I was getting desperate so I moved on to a slightly unusual tactic. I tried taunting him a little bit: “If you tell on me, you’ll be a tattletale just like Alicia, and hardly anyone likes Alicia. You don’t want to be a tattletale, do you?”
Close, but no cigar. I went home without Mikey’s promise of silence and I lived in fear for the next eighteen hours. I couldn’t focus at dance class. Every time I thought about The Incident, my hands would clam up, my stomach would roll over on itself, and a ball would form in my throat, rising up, threatening to spill out. I felt physically ill.
I wrote in my journal that night. It was a light blue David and Goliath journal, with a yellow cartoon chick on it. The words, “Chicks Rule!’ were scrawled across the front. I used this journal to bash my best friends during fights, often testing out curse words, including the one I had used that very day. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, moving from feelings of anxiety and fear to anger and frustration. I brainstormed excuses I could give to Ms. Smart when Mikey told on me. I came up with a genius idea. I would tell her that I didn’t say the F-word, but was instead talking about the movie Meet the Parents and the last name Focker. Looking back, I don’t know where or how I’d heard about that movie, but I was thrilled with my new idea. I would feign innocence and claim to not know what the F-word even was. Armed with that solid plan, I fell asleep feeling marginally better about the situation
The next day, I dragged my feet all the way to school and saw Mikey waiting in lineup with the rest of our class. It turned out that he too had done some serious soul searching the night before, because he finally assured me that he wouldn’t tell Ms. Smart about The Incident. A 6,000-pound weight was lifted off of my shoulders. I could breathe again.
I went home after school, tore the last night’s pages out of my journal, ripped them up, and threw them in the trash. I wanted no evidence of my transgression.
After a week or two, I stopped worrying that Mikey would tell on me. Even as a fifth grader, I understood that these things have a Statute of Limitations. A few months after that, I stopped cringing with shame every time I thought about The Incident. A while longer after that, I was able to look back and laugh about it. And today, I can recognize that things are never as bad as they seem in the moment.
I know that I can just write in my journal (this blog), come up with a plan (drafted in my iPhone), and balance the Edgy and Teacher’s Pets versions of myself.
I think Avril would be proud.