“Yes, the past can hurt, but the way I see it, you either run from it, or learn from it.”
—Rafiki, “The Lion King”
School should have been one of the happiest periods of my life. Instead, it was the source of my deepest pain—even now as an adult. I remember the taunts and jeers in the cafeteria. “Cripple!” “Retard!” I remember trying to keep up with the others in P.E.
“Run, Forrest, run!”
In high school, I was accepted into the theatre magnet program at my school, a big deal for me. I was passionate about acting. For a while, I was part of a group of kids who were different—creative, outgoing, often misunderstood. We all got along. My ever-doting parents always welcomed all my classmates at my birthday parties. In fact, I became “known” for my house parties.
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But by the time I was planning my Sweet 16 party my social life had taken a drastic downturn. I made a list of all the upperclassmen in the hopes that, by inviting them to my party, they’d accept me. A week later, no one would look me in the eye or talk to me.
I was devastated.
I became bitter. I was friends with many of the “misfits.” Heck, I was one. But even they noticed the change. One of them asked me why I hardly talked to anyone. Didn’t he realize that no one would acknowledge me?
Then came the day I’ll never forget.
His name was Zack. He was a senior, and every girl in school had a crush on him. He too was in the theatre program; he starred in every main production. But what I loved most about him was—he was nice—to everyone, me included. The junior and senior girls alike threw themselves at him. I would just watch him as he moved onstage, and socialized with everyone effortlessly. He made it all look so easy.
One day, I sat on one end of the theatre, watching him discreetly. He sat in the middle of the row, a gaggle of girls fawning over him. Gradually, I moved toward the center, one seat at a time. I honestly thought I was being so covert.
The Meanest Girl—Rebecca—didn’t waste any time trying to embarrass me. She teased me, saying she knew I was going to marry Zack. I went along with her game, sauntering up to Zack and saying coyly, “Oh yes, we’re getting married.”
After class, I was waiting for Mami to pick me up, when I caught up to my friend Jasmine. A senior, she wasn’t like everyone else. She was the only girl in the theatre program with whom I could be completely honest. I told her about how Rebecca had purposely embarrassed me.
Jasmine looked me in the eye, and said, “I didn’t want to tell you…some of the junior and senior girls make fun of you behind your back. I tell them not to, but…”
My stomach dropped 50 stories.
“They know you like Zack,” she said, “and they make fun of that. They also make fun of the way you walk.”
Suddenly, I wanted to be anywhere but there. I wanted to be dead, forgotten, nonexistent. For the second time in one day, I wanted to disappear.
That afternoon, Mami and I sat in the car, parked by the theatre. We cried together. Then, she gave me a very unexpected piece of advice.
“You should talk to Zack,” she said. “Tell him what happened. He’s a good guy; he’ll understand.”
I thought she had gone insane! Me, confide in the high school heartthrob? Tell him about the most painful humiliation of my life? But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I needed to talk to him; to get his perspective.
That night, I summoned up the courage to call. I left a message for him, thinking that was that. Then, several days later, he called back.
I paced around the house as we talked on the phone. My hands were clammy and my cheeks burning as I related Rebecca’s mean prank. (I left out the part where I was madly in love with him, but he was no idiot!) We talked about life, about God. He told me I didn’t need to “overcompensate” like everyone else to fit in. He liked me just as I was.
I hung up with the stupidest grin on my face. Surely, it didn’t get any better than that!
When it was almost time for Zack’s class to graduate, all the theatre students and our families attended a ceremony honoring the graduating seniors. Thespian life is wrought with traditions and silly superstitions. One of our rituals was for each graduating senior to give each rising senior a colorful stuffed monkey.
My fellow juniors and I stood onstage facing our families as a senior wrapped a monkey around each of our necks. I was confident Jasmine would pass her monkey on to me. Facing the audience, I felt a pair of hands around my neck. Smiling, I turned to hug my friend, only to find Zack standing behind me, grinning! He was giving me his monkey! I had Zack’s monkey! I couldn’t believe it.
That night, I read over and over a note that he’d included with the monkey. One line stood out:
“It is unfathomable to me how you manage to survive.”
It wasn’t unfathomable to me. I knew how I survived. It was because he—a guy good-looking and popular enough that he could have been a total jerk and still adored by all the girls—took the time to notice me, and to witness the most vulnerable side of me, without recoiling.
Entrepreneur Nely Galán says, “In your deepest pain is the answer of what you must do.”
It took me eight years to realize it, but the answer for me—what I must and should do with my life—is to share my story, even if it means sharing my deepest pain.
Laurita Tellado is a journalist and activist dedicated to raising awareness about spina bifida, a condition that affects her and 166,000 other people in the U.S. She runs two blogs, Holdin’ Out for a Hero, a spina-bifida advocacy blog, and Espresso Con Leche, a bilingual blog about living in two cultures. Laurita is the director of Latinos in Social Media (LATISM) Central Florida Chapter. Follow her on Twitter @Laurita86.