“Priscilla,” you called out. It took me a few seconds before it registered and I stopped and turned, responding to a name from my past.
My family had always called me Pierra. But in grade school, when I was fed up with the boys making fun (“Ford Fiera, beep beep,” they would chant), I insisted everyone call me by my safe, generic second name when the new school year rolled around. And so it began.
“Hey,” I said, engaging in random small talk about the decades gone by, complimenting you on your mini me running circles around us, before he pulled Daddy away. “Nice seeing you, Priscilla,” you called out over your shoulder. I smiled. Priscilla. Who was that?
Third grade, section C. The Priscilla you knew always had her nose in a book. I practically lived in the library, spending every break wandering blissfully through the maze of shelves, or hunched over the community table, devouring fables, fairy tales, Bible comics, Nancy Drew, everything but actual food. While the other girls played with Barbie, jackstones, or Chinese garter, my library card was my prized possession.
I lived in my head, oblivious to the world around me, marching to the beat of my own drum. I had no qualms about standing up to the cutest boy in class, telling you to shut up when you began picking on our classmate, the new girl from Africa. You made fun of her skin color and kinky hair, reacting the way most people do, to something unfamiliar, to someone who is “different.”
Navigating the minefield that is grade school, I would later learn to blend in, fly below the radar, play by the rules. Never. Be. A. Target. For. Envy. Or. Ridicule. I learned how to deftly skirt stereotypes and playground politics, perpetually on the defensive. Luckily, I would befriend the cool kids and be golden by association, trading in my eccentricity for diplomatic immunity.
But back in the third grade, Priscilla was still wonderfully off-kilter, bright-eyed and brave, speaking her mind or shutting the world out, whatever and whenever she felt like it. The new girl and I were as thick as thieves, kindred spirits giggling conspiratorially, or sitting side by side in comfortable silence, absorbed in our own books. We held picnics in the soccer field, walked hand in hand in the halls, and in class, passed each other notes written in code. When she moved away and I resumed my solitary ways, some of the taunts were redirected toward me. How queer you are, I was told.
When I look back at how you used to tease me by sticking your hand into my book, splaying it on the page so I couldn’t read, I realize you were trying to play, the only way a third grade boy knew how. But back then, I thought you were infinitely, infuriatingly mean, and I refused to acknowledge you (though at night, you inhabited my geek girl dreams). All the more, you were amused.
When did you stop teasing me? Probably when I started to care what people thought, and started to conform. When I tried to emulate everyone else, never completely blending in, nor standing out, neither here nor there, always on the fringes… Better boring than bullied, I told myself; this was survival of the fittest.
Today, I wonder, which Priscilla you remember—the girl with her nose in a book, occasional classroom referee, unabashed introvert? Or, the nice but bland teenager, pretending to be a social butterfly, wanting desperately to be liked?
* * * * * * * * * * *
I’ve since reclaimed my name, embracing the quirky, original way “Pierra” rolls off the tongue. I forgive my survival instincts for kicking in; I understand conforming to everyone’s idea of “normal” can sometimes come in handy, even in adult life. But when I remember my favorite version of myself, I realize: all these years, I wasted so much effort, miserably trying to fit in, when it is perfectly cool to quietly stand out.