Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Ballad of Kirsten O.

There was this girl in class, Kirsten O. Everyone hated her. She was the type of outcast that gave every single other person the feeling they belonged. The weirdest, awkwardest, most preyed-upon geeks could vilify and ridicule her – and hardly anyone missed an opportunity. We'd pan her with gazes of sneering scorn as she walked down the hallway from class to class. She was never safe and she was always alone.

Why she was the object of such extravagant contempt is perplexing, as such things usually are. She was ugly, but she wasn't the ugliest. She carried herself with what seemed to be a bit of a haughty air, preposterously – a chin-up, tight-lipped pout which had a regrettably princessy effect. But that's not why everyone hated her. That was her reaction to everyone hating her. It was all she had to offer in defense. There seemed to be something about her that was tragically askew, accursed. Maybe we detected in her what we detested in ourselves. Maybe we just sensed, primitively, some malignant aura about her. None of this was any fault of her own, of course, but in the ruthless calculus of twelve-year-olds' minds she emerged as the village scapegoat.

And keep in mind that as I'm not her I must count myself among her tormentors. It's only fair to say.

One day we were called into the Language Arts center, the entire class, must have been the seventh grade class. One of our teachers announced to us that Kirsten and her single mom had been the victims of some kind of home invasion, some murky attack by a deranged man with a hammer. One or both of them were raped – at least that was the insinuation. I don't think the teacher was willing to assert that there had been a rape, to use that term. I don't know what happened - something horrible happened. Everyone adopted a posture of appropriate solemnity upon hearing the news, then promptly forgot it. The upshot was, Kirsten won't be in school for a while, but be supportive, that kind of heartwarming shit you get from teachers. God, I'm now realizing that the teachers had no idea what an extreme pariah she was. They assumed we'd be mortified to hear this news and that we'd all - her friends in particular, she must have friends - reach out to her, be there for her, that type of shit.

Eventually she crept back into our midst and we walked ever wider circles around her, keeping in her in a sort of perpetual quarantine.

But that's not why we're here. What I can't shake from my mind is not any particular incident of Kirsten being berated by kids, it's one of her being berated by an adult. I remember I was sitting in the cafeteria and I spied her sitting alone - of course - at a table against the wall. Our principal, Mr. Perotti, was strolling about imperiously, chit-chatting with the students. He passed by Kirsten's table.

"Mr. Perotti, look!" she exclaimed cheerily. She never spoke a word to other kids. "I was feeling especially hungry today so I bought two ice creams!"

Sure enough, all she had to eat were the strawberry shortcake ice cream bar she was gnawing on already and the crushed almond one still in its wrapper, before her on the table. I'll never forget the way she over-articulated the word "especially" through her braces. Es-pesh-ee-ully.

Mr. Perotti paused a couple of beats and drew back, aghast. "YOU mean to tell ME that ALL you're having to EAT FOR LUNCH is TWO ICE CREAMS!?"

Kirsten recoiled. Every head turned.

"Are you CRAZY? What kind of lunch is two ice creams?! Do your PARENTS know this is what you eat?! What's the matter with you?"

I'd never seen Kirsten Olsen more humiliated and unhappy than at that moment under the shadow of that looming, shouting, shaming man.

Goddammit, Mr. Perotti. Dammit. Why'd you have to do that. Why, why, why, why, why.