Ponytails and Ties

Theory Clarke

To this day I still have random, haunting anxiety dreams where I’m back at the boarding school I attended for two years in England. On the right night, I will find myself in the same hallway, with the same people, wearing the same stupid uniform with a tie, a ponytail, and a kilt – can you believe it? Not a skirt, a god damn kilt. What’s the worst is the smell. That school has such a distinct smell of mold and the weird juice they would feed us during our breaks and lunch. And it always rears its ugly pheromones when I am dreaming about it. I’ll dream of conversations that never happened with people I never hope to see again and made-up realistic events that could have happened at that dreadful school. But then I’ll wake up and go about my day, forcing myself not to think too hard about what my brain is trying to remind me of. Just for that setting to be repeated at an unguessable amount of time later in the future.

I was so excited to have the opportunity to go to such a prestigious school. I was living out my Harry Potter fantasy! Cheltenham College Preparatory School, what a fancy name for such a fancy school, I thought. To be fair, the school did live up to those expectations, excluding the magic and the asshole kids I attended that school with. Every day, I was surrounded by perfectly postured, posh accented preteens who had never worked for anything in their lives. They used stupid ink pens and wore the most expensive and horrifically ugly school shoes just to show off how much money mommy and daddy made at home. The atmosphere, the architecture, and even the fancy food was so accurate to what Hogwarts was like, I felt so cool to be there. Until I was quickly humbled by my peers.

My first year there was not easy. I was so nervous being in a new school, let alone being in a new country. Looking back, I had such a positive outlook on how my life was going, but how could I not? I was at a new school; I was making new friends (or so I thought I was) and I was experiencing an opportunity that most pre-teens will never get to live through. Soon, I learned that I was never going to fit into that community of people. I was American, I was not rich, I wasn’t pretty, I wasn’t white skinned – I wasn’t even sporty enough to be liked in that context. I had no belonging at that school. No one to sit with at lunch and no one to spend my free time with when classes weren’t in session. Prior to attending that school, I attended a way less lavish primary school that was known for being in a shady part of Cheltenham. It was everything that Cheltenham Preparatory School was not. It was a public, lower budgeted school where kids played football outside, trapped inside of a metal fence right along a busy street in central England. It was called Gloucester Road Primary School and Nursery. Which made a lot of sense because our school was quite literally a small building on the side of the road. After a year of attending that school, it was time for me to move up into a Secondary School. Now, my parents were anything but rich, but since my dad is in the Army, the military offered to cover all the costs for my younger brother and I to attend the most elegant Secondary school in the area. Once that information was made known to my fellow classmates, that was the label that floated over my head at school: “The American Poor Girl”. After that I was constantly looked down upon by my peers and even teachers. It got so bad to the point where I was embarrassed about everything about my identity as a young student, why did I have to be so different from everyone else?

I have never in my life felt loneliness in the way I felt while attending the boarding school. Of course, I had people around me 24/7, but I never had real friends, or people I could talk to, or eat all my meals with. I was the textbook definition of lonely. Because of this, over six years later, I developed and still struggle with depression and major anxiety.

As a younger teen and even sometimes now, I can be seen as a very romantic person. So, at school I would (naturally) form crushes on some of the boys I went to school with. I had crushed on some girls too, but I never dared to make that public knowledge, knowing they would have literally burned me at the stake for being interested in girls and boys. It is really not that big of a deal, now that I think about it, that is something that a lot of younger girls go through in their developmental years. From being in that school, I can remember having about three major crushes: David Noble, Joe Blanchfield and Ollie Callonhine. When I had these crushes, I would only talk about it with my “friends” but somehow the word always got out like it was the most exciting news anyone there has ever heard. David was by far the worst crush I had. He was the school’s “it” boy. Imagine Jack Ryan from 16 Candles. That was how David was for me. A tall, handsome boy with amazing hair and the sharpest jawline. Not to mention he was so, so smart; one of the smartest at our school. He was tall for his age, he was strong, and he was somewhat attractive so according to the school, he was the shit. The kids thought they were hilarious; I would be put into group chats consisting of all the “popular kids” for them to embarrass and make fun of me all while David was in the same group chat watching it all happen. He never made any moves to defend me – why would he? It must have been so embarrassing to have the weird girl to be in love with you. In class it was worse. I would be publicly humiliated in front of teachers and countless students. Imagine being put into that situation, teachers looking at you with sad eyes, and the sound of cackling British 11–12-year olds. It was a literal nightmare.

What I remember most vividly is the day I had to go to school when Donald Trump was elected as the US President. The other students were acting as if I single handedly put Trump into the office myself. For days, or even months, after the election I constantly received judging glances and small passive aggressive comments from everyone. That day I came to school, that was all anyone could talk about.

“Theory, how do you feel about that happening to your country?”

“Are you embarrassed?”

“Would you have voted for him?”

“It must feel terrible that the people in your country voted for someone like that, Theory.”

At the time, yes, it was embarrassing and to be honest, it made me feel ashamed to be an American, and that feeling stayed for so long while living there because I was constantly made to be smaller and lesser than everyone I lived with. But looking back on that experience was so mortifying! Already as an American, that period of time was so disappointing and upsetting and just to make it worse, I had to be a pubescent, middle school girl living in a foreign country with the most insufferable kids to spend all your time with.

Things got really bad at one point. Even when I went home to my family, I was met with even more asshole British preteens whose personal goal was to make my life a living hell. Everything about me was made fun of. And the worst part was that my brother was dealing with the same treatment too. Since I was the older sister, I felt as though that was all my fault and I felt so guilty and helpless. It felt like I could not do anything right. To add onto everything else I was dealing with, my parents weren’t happy in their marriage, which reflected onto me. They would tell me how I was starting to gain “an unhealthy amount of weight” and “I should cut back on the food I’ve been eating”. Which resulted in me stopping eating all together. Obviously, that’s extremely dangerous and resulted in me losing a worrying amount of weight and my mental health declining even more. I had nowhere to go, no support system, and I felt so alone. After a particularly rough day I took a long, drawn out walk around my neighborhood, this was pretty normal. What wasn’t normal was the bridge that I found myself on. My family lived in the countryside of Gloucestershire, England, so we were surrounded by dense woods, mountains, and a rushing river. The bridge stood incredibly high over that rushing, frigid river. I stood on the edge of it, feeling the brisk England breeze and found myself becoming more and more fond of the idea of jumping off into the river and never coming back up. If I were to jump off, all my problems would vanish. I would not have to show my face in school anymore, I wouldn’t have to be in physical and emotional pain constantly, I wouldn’t have to go home and listen to my parents’ marriage crumble and most importantly, I wouldn’t have to see anyone who has spewed their unwarranted hatred towards me when I have ultimately never done anything to them to deserve that. And I really was going to do it, until my 7-year-old brother found me and casually asked me what I was doing. In response, I stepped off the ledge of the bridge and grabbed his hand and walked away back in the direction of our house.

I know that everything about this experience sounds bad but there is a good thing that came out of it. I met Georgina Hamer who quickly became known to me as Gina. Gina was just like me, except for being British, she was awkward, kind of messy and sometimes lonely just as I was. We met on a bus coming back from a sports match where she started up a meaningless, stupid conversation with me and from there we never left each other’s side. Of course, I had met her halfway through my second and final year at the school, so I didn’t have enough time with her. But since meeting her, to this day, we have been best friends. I do not know what I did to deserve the opportunity to meet her, and I am not a religious person, but thank God I did. I will never meet anyone even close to as cool as she is.

Gina was such an influential person to come into my life, especially at the time she did. She opened up to me and gave me the pleasure of discovering her amazing, bubbling personality. She was an incredibly talented singer, so unbelievably funny and she was unmeasurably beautiful. She, to this day, is still pursuing a career on Broadway, which meant she exposed me to so many cool musicals. I distinctly remember us spending every break and lunch in the bathroom holding our own performance of Heathers the Musical. I would play Veronica and she would play Heather Chandler (obviously). We would sing and dance every number from the musical in that gross, musty and damp bathroom while other students had to move around us to actually use the bathroom. We quickly became the most annoying duo to be at the school. We may have been annoying, but we were Gina and Theory, and we did not care an ounce about what others thought.

To this day, I still find myself insecure in a school setting, because I am always brought back to that school where I was degraded for anything I did. I find it hard to fully trust my friends when they say they “actually” care about me because in my head, all I can think about is how the Brits said the same thing to me when they very obviously didn’t care for me at all. Living in that cold, dirty country was the worst part of my life and I hope to God I never have to go back. Yes, I learned some really important things about myself, but the things that I went through were unwarranted and it is something that no one should ever go through. Because I sure as hell didn’t deserve anything that happened to me. But the entire point of this recalling of events is to show the fact that I lived through it. I survived it. And sadly, so many other kids have gone through it and did not get to survive it. I wish I could take all that pain away from them. So, in conclusion, you best believe I still cringe when I hear a British accent, and that is never going to change.

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