A Flower on the Wall Blooms

"Nobody likes you."

  • Shyness has a strange element of narcissism, a belief that how we look, how we perform, is truly important to other people.
  • — Andre Dubus

I had it all planned out. During the last week of August I practiced my behavior in my head, figuring out how I would react to each imagined scenario. Reacting was the only thing I'd do -- for my plan to work, there would be none of that "initiating" business.

I would be a flower on the wall. I would be mysterious and alluring -- an enigma worthy of investigation. I would speak in a series of riddles, relinquishing few words at a time, revealing nothing about myself. Perfecting my new behavior was crucial for survival.

My sisters had helped me to see the flaw in my old personality. One warm July day we were in the back yard by the pool, and I complained to no one in particular that I was not liked. I had learned I was not liked on the last day of school, when Sara, after flipping her long blonde hair over her shoulder and smiling the way Wile E. Coyote did when he thought he had the Roadrunner cornered, delivered the message to me at my locker.

"Nobody likes you," she said. "You are not invited to Jessica's party, so stop asking for your invitation." Jessica was my friend, and she had invited over 70 people to her end-of-the-year party by way of rolled-up invitations that looked like little scrolls. I had assumed my scroll was nestled among those of my friends in Jessica's Esprit tote bag. Sometime in the last week of eighth grade, Sara had become Jessica's bearer of bad tidings -- she was a natural.

Jane, my eldest sister, was first to respond to my open-ended complaint.

"I think I might be able to help you," she said. "You talk too much." She then pointed out that interrupting others and flapping my lips more frequently than exercising my ears made me annoying.

Like most 13-year-olds (though I now realize age has nothing to do with it), I found criticism to be more painful than helpful. But when Heather agreed (Heather had just finished being a popular junior and was about to become a popular senior), I had to consider the possibility that Jane was right.

Because moderation is not one of my talents, I decided extreme measures would be necessary. If I was going to be likable again, I would have to become the complete opposite of who I was. I would have to be shy. My only obstacle was inexperience. It can't be that hard, I thought.

When Mom took us shopping for back-to-school supplies, I selected dark clothing for the "quiet, brooding girl" look I was going for. I considered the Garfield folders but decided not to take a chance -- people might think I actually liked Garfield (which I did), instead of assuming my choice in cartoon-character-covered folders was intended as irony (which it wasn't). In the end, I settled for plain colors -- no room for misinterpretation there.

I had spent the summer lying low, a caterpillar transforming into a more desirable package. The night before my first day as a ninth grader, I laid out my outfit and rehearsed nonchalant facial expressions in the bathroom mirror. The next morning, I was eager to show off the new me, but I masked my excitement with the somber "I wonder what she's thinking" expression on which I had worked so hard.

I did my best to keep my head down and shuffle my feet as I made my way from where Mom dropped me off to my new locker. Don't make eye contact. Keep to yourself and they will come to you. I slipped a shiny new Master combination lock through the hole on the front of my locker and recited the combination to myself three times before clicking it closed.

As the first student to enter my first-period class, I had my choice of seats -- a choice I did not take lightly. The old me had always sat front and center, which meant the new me should sit somewhere in the back and off to one side. With less than five minutes to go before the bell, students began to file in and take their places. No one's sitting next to me. Is that good or bad?

There were some girls who had received their own little scrolls to Jessica's party -- the one I had been officially uninvited to. They whispered to each other at the other end of the room, where they sat side by side. A girl in a yellow dress sat next to me. I smiled at her and struggled not to say anything. Remember your training. Keep to yourself.

I made it through the entire first period without breaking character. The girl in the yellow dress had not once looked in my direction during class. I had stared openly at her -- analyzed the way she kept her head down, I should practice that angle, listened as she mumbled a timid "here" as the teacher took attendance. She was pretty, she was quiet, she was a yellow wallflower, a mysterious new student -- she was everything I wanted to be, the opposite of the old me.

I followed her outside, called her name when she was getting too far ahead. When she turned around to face me, she looked surprised that I had remembered her name from roll call -- the old, extraverted me paid attention to other people's names. She had no idea what mine was, I could see it in her face and hear it in her voice when she mumbled a meek "What?"

"My name is Barb. You wanna have lunch with me today?"

"Yeah, that would be great," she said, her face lighting up to match the brightness of her dress.

"Cool," I said. So much for being shy. I can't wait to tell her all about me.

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