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On the outside

I watched her that day with a heaviness in my heart. A heaviness that still aches even though it was so long ago now. I wanted to whisper in her ear that she was perfect. That she was good enough. That she was enough, just as she was. But I couldn’t, she didn’t want to listen. She didn’t know how to listen to me back then. So instead I watched her. And as I watched, the tears slowly trickled down my cheeks, tickling my neck as they dried.

kali-bell-primary-school-gaansbaaiHer long wild hair was in a perfect blonde ponytail. Her light blue skirt and white collared shirt sat neatly on her small frame, and the white socks they had told her she needed came to just the right height above her ankle. And then the shoes. They weren’t her dream ones, because they couldn’t find them, but they were what was expected at school. Black with a little strap and buckle over the arch. She didn’t dare let her parents drop her at the school gate. Instead she walked from a few hundred metres away, already independent, somewhere deep inside she had already decided she didn’t really need anyone.

She had figured out how to walk tall and pretend that confidence flowed off her small shoulders.

Her heart beat fast making her palms a little sweaty. The iron school gates were wide open and a mass of children, all shapes and sizes, were flowing inwards towards the dominating stone building. Finding their row and dumping school bags down to hold their place. An older girl told her which line she belonged to. She walked over, taking each step a little slower and more carefully and put her bag down. Was it the right bag? Would the kids laugh at her because it looked so new? She didn’t walk away from her bags like all the other kids, because she didn’t know anyone yet. She stood, awkwardly, waiting for the bell to ring. A group of three girls walked over to her and said hello. She greeted them and smiled back. She was so scared to say much in case they found out. In case they realised that she wasn’t at all like them. She was a fraud, and sooner or later if she opened her mouth for too long they’d find out.

How could I change her thoughts? How could I make her realise everyone there was different to everyone else. She didn’t need to be the same as the pretty girl Maryke with the long brown plait who had lots of friends. She didn’t need to know and do the same things as them to be friends, she could just be herself. And if they laughed at the things she did or said, that was OK too, she could never please everyone.

On that day, nearly 25 years ago I saw her make a decision. She didn’t know she had standing-on-the-outsidemade it, but as an invisible bystander I saw the very moment it happened. The instant something clicked and she told herself that she had to be the same as everyone else to fit in. Some girls were making fun of the story one of the smaller boys was telling. She could never show her difference. Being different was bad. I could see she knew she was different to all these kids and she didn’t like it. She wanted to blend in…not to be noticed, not to be different. For people to just see her as one of them.

She wasn’t one of them. And no matter how hard she tried she could never be one of them. Not because there was something wrong with her, quite the opposite. It was because she sparkled. She sparkled like nothing they had ever seen before. And even though she didn’t know about her sparkles, and even though you couldn’t always see them with the naked eye, they could sometimes feel them. I could see them of course, but I’m different.

She sparkled with the love she had for nature. She rejoiced in a newly hatched chick quietly cheaping from under the safety of its mum’s wing. I watched her spend countless hours helping baby chickens out of their shells when they were taking too long, carefully removing tiny specks of shell to give them enough room to do the rest themselves. When she kissed the caramel angora rabbit, Dusty, his soft fur would tickle her nose and make her giggle. I swore it made her kiss him even more.

She saw light like noone else. She saw magic everywhere. Glimpsing movement on a bright pink fuscia she knew a fairy had been there. Nestled safely in a hole in an old rotting poplar trunk, I had seen her leave gifts for the woodland folk, carefully stroking the soft moss they danced upon on the full moon nights. She judged a person on their heart and how deep their smile was, not on the colour of their skin or their language.

I watched her delight in the ice cold water that froze her tanned legs when she threw herself into the wild waves down at the beach. She shrieked with joy as the foaming bubbles skrinkled and popped around her, tickling her naked skin.

on-the-outside

Of course she never talked to anyone about any of these things. She had never heard them talk of such things, so to fit in and be ‘normal’ she didn’t dare either. She learned very quickly what were the right things to talk about and share and what weren’t if she wanted to be like everyone else. They talked a lot about the cartoons they watched, but she didn’t have a television. She couldn’t join in. She’d laugh with them though, pretending that she understood the story they were relaying.

Despite all this hiding, her sparkle still showed through. It was in her eyes when she was concentrating on something in the classroom she really enjoyed; they sparkled and a light shone brighter. You couldn’t see it but you could feel it. I saw people noticing sometimes, without knowing what they were noticing. When she laughed, really laughed, that’s when no amount of trying to blend in could hide that special sparkle. Her whole body joined in and her being vibrated in pleasure with those giggles. In those moments I laughed with her, and felt her joy cart wheeling up my spine.

Noone could ever pinpoint just what it was, but they sensed her difference, and as they sensed it more, the more she pretended it wasn’t there and the more she felt on the outside. The more she felt on the outside, the more she buried those sparkly bits that made her so beautiful, so unique, so different. And the more she put herself on the outside, because that’s where she believed she belonged.

I could see her pain and anxiety at being on the outside. Probably not many others could, but I saw how she wore her cloak of confidence. It was something she could drape over her when required, but there was no self esteem to back it up.

She didn’t realise that no one had actually put her on the outside. Noone had said you’re different from the rest of us, so you belong on the outside. She’d made that decision herself. On. That. Day. The decision that because of her life, because of her family, because of her thoughts, because of the way she was in the world, she couldn’t possibly fit in. No one would be interested in her story. And since she had decided that fitting in was the only form of success in the world, she was therefore a failure. No matter how hard she tried, no matter that from the outside it looked as though she ‘fitted in’, on the inside it never felt right. It never felt comfortable in her skin.