A soothingly warm breeze rustled the bright green leaves of the maple trees that lined the street. Leaf filtered sunlight dappled the porch and danced along the floor and walls like little fairies made of light. Waiting on her older friend, she relaxed on the porch in a homemade Andirondak chair. Intently peeling away the weathered paint bubbles that had formed on the wide plank arms and in the revealing of each small gray circle of bare wood, she had almost missed it.
Looking up she saw her friend and her friend’s mother still at the curb and leaning toward the open window of a pale blue Comet. She heard words signaling the curbside conversation was wrapping up, “Well, gotta go. Taking Susie to little Becky Massey’s birthday party”. That was all Becky really heard because the birthday party was indeed a surprise. Still trying to make sense of the words she had heard, she saw her friend walking back to the porch with her lips pressed together in consternation. Shaking her head in disbelief, her friend sighed and asked, “Did you hear that?” Becky had heard, but she couldn’t quite wrap her mind around what she had heard.
A birthday party for her? How in the world? People were coming?
To say that Becky was an unpopular child was an extraordinary understatement. Everyday she ran a gauntlet of abuse at the hands of classmates and many of the adults in her life. She lived in pain, but she never thought to question or even to rebel. It had been going on for so long that she had accepted it as her due. It was her reality. What was unreal was the idea that people were coming to a birthday party for her. What it was…was…well…laughable, if it wasn’t so terribly frightening.
She had started school like many children do, with the bubbling excitement of being a big kid. The excitement lasted but one day. But, the fear, embarrassment and guilt that was generated on that day was with her everyday, including today, her 10th birthday. She remembers that day, the first day of school. She remembers playing with the other kids and she remembers when a little girl with gold ringlets looked at her, wrinkled up her little pug nose and said, “You look like a witch”. These five words of childish observation changed the course of Becky’s life. For indeed, the child who had called Becky a witch had called down a curse.
Why these words had so much power was still a mystery. Why didn’t she scream back, “it isn’t true” or give the little ringlet girl some of her own treatment? Instead, Becky received these words as if they had come from on high. She was ugly. She was less than. She then began to act as if she were indeed ugly and less than. She withdrew from the other children and became shy with adults. Her reserve became so exacting that she made herself a target. It did not help that she was also neglected at home. It did not help that she was sent to school dirty and unkempt. It did not help that she never had parent signed papers or money for workbooks and lunch. So, now, being faced with the knowledge that she was being given a surprise birthday party, terrified rather than delighted.
Her friend was the the teenage daughter of one of her father’s friends. For some reason, that Becky didn’t question, she was kind and tolerant of Becky following her around like a little puppy. Today, the teenager had been instructed to keep Becky away from her home for a few hours. “I don’t want to go”, Becky whispered. “Don’t be silly”, her friend said in a voice that she recognized. She knew that her friend was looking at her differently. Becky was very sensitive to tones of voice and expressions. She knew that her friend was wondering,” what little girl wouldn’t want a birthday party?” and Becky instinctively knew that further protests on her part would result in shunning. She could feel her throat tighten and she simply nodded yes when her friend asked if she was just kidding. She was trapped.
The four blocks to her home were an agony of possible scenarios and plans. Although, she did not look forward to spending time with her classmates and their hostile looks and hurtful comments; this wasn’t her biggest fear. Her biggest fear was that she would be exposed. Her mother didn’t know and she couldn’t know who Becky really was. She didn’t know Becky was teased, hit, pinched, kicked and ostracized on a daily basis. She didn’t know people hated her. Her mother didn’t look at her like other people did and Becky needed it to stay that way. She needed it! If her mother looked at her like they did……her throat tightened again.
She saw her backyard from a distance. It was full. Full of people who hated her. Full of people she feared. She had only moments to decide how she would respond. As her mother turned and saw her, Becky managed a look that must have passed for surprise. Her mother smiled and lead her next to a decorated table. In the center of the table sat a Barbie doll dressed in a cake ball gown. It was beautiful and had obviously taken loving hours to make. Becky never took her eyes off of the ruffled pink masterpiece as the rendition of Happy Birthday was sung by the haters and their mothers. With the song’s last strands coming to its uncomfortable end, Becky’s mother whispered in her ear, ” Thank everyone for coming.” Becky, not knowing what else to do, looked up and thanked everyone with a big fake smile on her face. What she saw startled her! She saw a whole yard full of big fake smiles. Suddenly, she realized that she wasn’t the only one who had a need to make this birthday party appear normal. She needed her mother to go on believing she was a normal child with friends. The children at the party needed their mothers to remain ignorant as well. They needed their mothers to believe that they were not the kind of children who would take joy in torturing another child. Becky faced the rest of the party without fear and with the knowledge that she was safe from exposure this day. Everyone had a role to play; devoted mother, nice friends and normal daughter.