‘Worst thing happened at my high school reunion’
OK SO let me be clear - I haven't been through a witness protection program, nor undergone serious plastic surgery … so of course there were a few people who knew who I was.
But I can say with 100 per cent certainty I was asked 'Who are you here with?' three times more often than 'Wow, haven't seen you in ages'. Awkward.
Let us go back to the beginning. Primary school was the bomb. I had stacks of friends, a cute 'boyfriend' and I was pretty darn normal looking. I even ended up being awarded Dux in year six - easily one of the highlights of my life to date. Stepping off the bus on that first day of year seven … things changed.
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The girls I had been friends with for the last few years decided I wasn't cool enough to be their friend. No seriously, they actually said 'you aren't cool enough to be our friend'. My 11-year-old self was thrown for a flipping loop … what the hell had happened?
The months and years that followed were a pretty full-on shame spiral. I was bullied to a ridiculous degree by those girls and their new friends - and to be quite frank, life sucked. I was anxious and unsure, figuring out how to blend into the background and sit on the edge of groups in the playground - so I wasn't on my own but not quite in anyone's way either. It was a couple of years before I made one solid friend.
Related: Stefanie Jackson writes: The Body Image Advice I'd Give To My Younger Self
And she was a good one. While I was just relieved I'd found someone to cling to, she was keen to make more friends. There were other girls in our year she was desperate to know, to hang alongside, to be seen with. I had no interest in catering to the whims of a whole new bunch of girls but I let myself be taken along for the ride - safety in numbers right?
Life wasn't exactly peachy from that day on but things did slowly start to change. I got through the braces and the glasses … the bullying eased off and I started to grow into myself. It might have taken years but all of a sudden I was OK. I wasn't the cool girl, the pretty girl or the smart girl … yet I found my niche - I became the girl who was everywhere. I joined clubs and teams, won awards, went to parties, became sports captain … and by the end of high school, everybody knew who I was.
Or so I thought.
I moved away the very minute school ended, but I did make an effort to rejoin my friends every now and then … Wednesday nights at Tracks, Thursday nights at the Tavern or Friday nights at the Fiddler. I went to 21st birthday parties and engagement parties and weddings and was happy to be downgraded to the girl everybody said hi to but nobody really knew anything about.
Then all of a sudden it was reunion time. I should have been excited to rejoin those I'd lost touch with, but in reality I was worried about seeing those bullies again. It sounds stupid as a fully-functioning and somewhat successful adult - but that feeling of powerlessness never leaves you. I decided the best course of action was 'fake it til you make it' - and I strolled into that room with my head held high.
I walked in to squints and a few blank stares. My hair had changed but my face was exactly the same. A tiny blonde bounced over, 'Hey, who are you here with?' and I replied with 'Um, me? It's Stef'. She squinted again … 'Sorry? What's your last name then?' I again said my name (er, I was the only Stef in our year) and refrained from reminding her about the time I slept at her house in year four and how we stood next to each other in our consecutive roll call lines for six years.
Then it happened again. The boy who I shared my first (and only) high school kiss with was talking to a girl I sat next to in art class. She asked me my name. I told her - and while I waited for it to trigger something, he just stared at me. Neither of them responded. I stood there awkwardly for a moment before deciding my best course of action would be to slink away.
When my fellow sports captain said he didn't remember me, I was broken. I spent the rest of the evening alternating between hiding in the toilets and standing next to the half dozen people I was still in touch with. And then it happened.
I came face-to-face with the group who spent their time making my high school life a living hell. And not a single one recognised me. I didn't understand. These were the people who had carved out the most significant memories of my teenage years, their faces forever burned into my mind - and here I was, not even a blip on the road map of their lives. I wanted to cry … but what was the point?
I read somewhere that bullies don't feel bad for what they've done … most don't even consider their behaviour to be bullying at all - so my rational brain was not really surprised - your life only happens the way you perceive it. But my heart? Well it hurt.
I'd striven for so many years to be OK with who I was … and all of a sudden I felt like it was 1995 all over again. Only it wasn't.
Right then and there I made the decision to rewrite my history. I pretended we had been friends all those years ago. I told them we'd hung out together in film and video and we'd laughed together at school camp - not that they'd smashed bananas into my hair and tried to break my fingers on the school bus. I talked about the times we sat together down the back quad and how we walked to art class together every week - not that they'd called me fat and ugly or pulled out my chair every time I sat down.
And you know what? It worked. Maybe the copious amounts of weed they smoked had wiped their memory banks or maybe they just lied - but they nodded along with every single word I told them. I walked out of that room with a clean slate - and I've never let myself feel that small again.
Kids can be so mean.
- Continue the conversation with Stefanie Jackson on Twitter @stefmjackson