When I started this blog a couple years ago, I told myself I was going to fill it with first drafts. Just write and publish, a little bit every day, until I could get comfortable with shitty first drafts being a thing.
No matter how mundane or how personal, I would just write and publish and not look back. That was the plan.
But that plan lasted all of a few days, max. I did write pretty consistently at first, but as soon as my parents started reading, my need to please had overpowered my desire to create anything worth reading. Now, I rarely write because I can’t stop censoring myself.
And if it ain’t real, why bother writing about it? The good stuff goes in a journal now, and then it gets recycled.
This morning is different, though. Something has happened and I am compelled to try to put it into words.
It’s 3 a.m. and I have been tossing and turning for 3 hours, unable to sleep. Maybe it’s time to try something else.
So, fuck it. Here we go. One shitty first draft, coming right up.
Here’s what happened:
A few weeks ago, my high school band director passed away. Hearing the news triggered feelings of Mr. Holland’s Opus, and at first, I secretly hoped that someone would organize a tribute concert for him. He was that kind of educator. He impacted a lot of lives over the course of a long and inspiring career. That’s generally how everyone is talking about it.
This man was important to my life in a few ways. I knew him for years because I used to be a pretty serious musician. He gave me my first clarinet when I was in the fifth grade after my stepfather did some work for him. And he eventually became one of the few adults in my life who I was willing to be myself around. That mattered a lot.
Four years after he gave me my first clarinet, I was auditioning for his top wind ensemble. As a sophomore in high school, I landed first chair. By that time, I’d also taken up the bass guitar and I was playing in the school’s jazz ensembles. As weird as it is to say now, that was a big deal back then. Our little high school jazz program in white suburbia was actually a bit of a powerhouse. Some big careers were launched there, under the tutelage of this man. And I was a relative hotshot in his program.
My memory of high school is heavily centered around hours and hours spent in the band room. I had at least two classes a day in there, and sometimes three, plus after school rehearsals for musicals and competitions. And then all the concerts and pep rallies and marching band practices.
The band room was like a second home. I had a locker somewhere in my high school but I never used it. I kept everything in my band locker since I spent so much time there.
Music was everything to me then. I thought I was eventually going to play the clarinet in a major symphony. It was the only life I could imagine wanting. It’s sort of bizarre that I was so sure about that; I had never even been to a reputable symphony until I was in my 20s. But somehow, as a teenager, I was convinced I would play in one and that doing so was the only life for me.
Anyway, I digress. The point is that band was huge for me.
I’ve been debating whether I could take a couple days off to make it to the memorial but I’ve been hesitant to pull the trigger. I’ve been trying to remember when I last saw this man, whose name I’m avoiding saying now, but I’ve been stuck. I can’t remember ever having said goodbye.
These days, I can’t imagine leaving someone like that, knowing their impact, knowing it could be months or years before we reconnect, and not making a memorable fuss about it. But I don’t remember even giving him a hug. It’s the weirdest thing. I’ve racked my brain for weeks and the memory is totally gone.
And now, tonight, I know why.
See, a few hours ago, I came across a blog post written by a guy I went to school with. We were not friends, but we played in bands together starting back in junior high. I remember him as a decent trombonist who also dabbled in the piano.
In his blog, he wrote a tribute to our former band director. He talked about what a huge impact this man had on his life, similar to what I remember. And then he talked about how he took up the bass guitar, “when the girl who used to play bass just quit with virtually no warning whatsoever.”
That girl was me, of course. I’d completely forgotten that as a senior in high school, I quit the band.
It wasn’t without warning, though. In hindsight, anyone paying attention should have seen it coming for a long time.
Right after senior year started, I was invited to join the Academic Decathlon team, an honor extended to only 9 people in the senior class. I couldn’t fit Decathlon and band in my schedule, and I suddenly could not pass up being on that team. It was an excruciatingly difficult decision, but I gave up the band, just a couple weeks into the start of the fall semester.
Anyway, I saw this guy’s blog post because he shared it on social media, and one of our mutual contacts responded to it. He said, “I completely spaced that Jess quit (probably because of Dustin lol)….”
My first thought was, “Dustin? Who?”
It took me a while.
And then I remembered. And now I can’t stop remembering. And I can’t sleep. I could have lived the rest of my life without thinking of Dustin, and that would have been OK.
As an adult, I know now that Dustin was a bully. Simply put, he was the youngest of several boys in a poor family, and he came to school and took his shit out on me. Probably on a lot of people, actually. I don’t know, but definitely me.
As a teenager, Dustin was the outspoken leader of a group of boys in the band program, a veritable pack of hyenas. This group seemed to jump at every opportunity to fuck with me in demeaning and horrible ways, and I let them do it. I was terrified of them. I could barely speak to them. And I saw them at least two classes a day, plus all the rehearsals, concerts, and competitions. I was social roadkill, tagging along with vultures.
As an adult, I can see that I really didn’t have the resources to deal with those boys in the way I would now. I didn’t even have the self-esteem to believe I deserved anything better than a lifetime of Dustins. I certainly didn’t have anyone in my life who was telling me that. And I was so ashamed of all of it that I never told anyone what I was going through.
So, senior year came, and because of my test scores, I was given a way to bow out if the music program without having to confront Dustin. I took it. I told myself I was quitting the band because of Decathlon. But as an adult, I can see right through that bullshit. I wanted to play in a symphony. It was all I had ever wanted. I quit the band to save myself.
At some point, dear imaginary reader, you might be wondering why I called this post “White hot shame.” Let’s take a quick detour and I’ll explain.
Once the Dustin/hyena memories came flooding back this evening, I sent a text to my best friend from high school. She was in band with me so she knew all the personalities.
I told her I was thinking of our old director and I was boiling. I rambled with some of what was coming to mind. She asked, “Why didn’t you tell me back then?” And I told her I thought I had, but then I quickly realized I had no memory of ever telling her what all was going on. If anything, I had probably downplayed it back then to avoid the humiliation. Or more likely, I pretended not to care.
I asked her to bear with me. “These are teenage memories,” I said, “foggy, but the emotion is unmistakable: White. Hot. Shame.”
Even right now, at 3:53 a.m., the edges of my ears are burning. My jaw is clenched. I’m frozen in place on the couch, like a rodent trying not to be seen by a nearby predator. This behavior is bizarre, really. I live alone in quiet suburbia. I am free to move around. No one is going to care. But I’m overcome. This feeling of remembered shame is wholly paralyzing.
Hey reader– Didn’t I say this would be a shitty first draft? Promise kept!
Back to those hyenas in a moment. Another detour for context first.
In the fall of my sophomore year, I went to Homecoming with my brother’s friend, Chris. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a disastrous move for me. There was a girl in my math class named Rainey who had a crush on Chris. In Rainey’s mind, they were an item.
Chris didn’t go to our school and I had no idea they even knew each other. He never mentioned her.
As I looked forward to the Homecoming dance, I hoped the night would be a game-changer for me. I understood that I was a social bottom-feeder and that no one in my class would go to a dance with me. But there I would be, showing up at with an attractive, older guy. I hoped this would change the way people saw me. I hoped they’d realize I could fit in. Also, I had a huge crush on Chris myself.
At the Homecoming dance, Rainey’s friends saw Chris walk in with me. They didn’t say anything at the time, but I remember the three of them looking me over like I was a slab of beef. I smiled awkwardly, hoping they were impressed by my hot date. Stupid, stupid me. I cringe, thinking about the social cues I missed in that moment.
At the end of the night, I left the dance imagining that my social status was improving. Boy, was I wrong.
The next Monday morning, Rainey and her friends (who were also in my class) made it clear that I had fucked up. From that day forward, they unleashed. Every day in math class, they did what they could to remind me that Chris was “hers” and I was insufferable shit.
The group of them started calling me “Paint,” referring to the fact that they thought I wore too much make-up. Not just in the halls, but actually in class, in a very public way. If I spoke (which was rare), one of them would say, “I disagree with Paint because….” The idea was to bring the whole class into their cruel joke. If I got up from my seat to go to the bathroom, one of them would come over and write on my things—my desk, my notebook, my textbook, my calculator. I’d return to my seat and see “PAINT.” “Slut.” “Stay away!!!” “Bitch.” “Whore.”
It’s strange to imagine that this was my life once—that I handled this so passively. It feels like a different person lived that part of my story. I was afraid of those girls. I would walk into class and avoid eye contact, even as they were openly mocking me. They’d make fun of my clothes, my shoes, my hair, or my weight. They’d say things like, “She’s such a slut, she doesn’t even care that her bra doesn’t fit.”
I would go straight to my desk and pretend not to hear. I’d take my seat and stare at the projection screen in the front of the room and count down the minutes until class ended. I never fought back. Not once did I even look at them. I just took it. Like an abused animal in a shelter.
There’s a lot of stupidity here, if you get past the cruelty. As teenage girls, we should have all bonded together on the fact that this dude had played two of us. What were we thinking? And why didn’t my math teacher intervene? How come none of my classmates spoke up? And how come I never spoke up for myself? I didn’t even know Chris knew Rainey. I had no reason to believe I’d done anything wrong. This was an absurd misunderstanding.
Anyhow, the taunting went on for a while. But at some point, I went to my guidance counselor and told him a watered-down version of events. I was too ashamed to tell him all the things they were saying and doing, but I gave him a general feel. I asked to switch into another math class. He told me to work it out with the girls and he sent me back to class.
Later, I learned that he called them into his office and told them to be nice to me. I learned that because they cornered me in the halls one day as a group and threatened me. If I ever said anything to anyone to try to get them in trouble again, they said, I would regret it.
Eventually, I just stopped going to class. I forged notes to explain my absences to the school. I sat in the band room in the morning and practiced my clarinet. I ended up getting a D in math, which was a shame; it had always been my strongest subject. In fact, I had been so strong in math that I was years ahead of my grade. So I gave that up. But at least I survived the year.
My band director never asked why I wasn’t in class during those hours when I’d hang out in the band room. I imagine he had an idea, though. He always seemed to know what was going on socially. As an adult, I wonder if he allowed it just so he could know that I wasn’t out getting into trouble.
Anyway, things with the girls calmed down when I stopped having to see them every day. Eventually, Rainey got pregnant and stopped coming to school. Her friends still gave me dirty looks in the hall, but they mostly left me alone. I hoped it was over.
But then, in junior year, the hyenas came out.
In the band room, the bassists were given our own special room, the Bass Room. It was a glorified closet. Because string basses are so large and so fragile, we got a private room for storing them instead of lockers. The room was painted by each class of senior bassists and there was a wall that had a “Hall of Basses,” with the name of the principal bassist from each year for the previous decade. When my turn came, my name was added to the wall.
To be honest, the Bass Room was weirdly important because I really had no personal space anywhere else. My parents, as a matter of policy, freely entered my bedroom whenever they wanted, unannounced. They might knock as they opened the door, but they’d never ask permission to enter. It was their house. As they saw it, my room was their room. I was a guest in it.
It’s worth noting here that my childhood and teenage years had a lot of rules and restrictions. For instance, my parents would set a timer when I got in the shower. When the timer went off, my mom would knock on the door and tell me to get out. If I left clothes on the bedroom floor, my parents would pick them up and lock them away for a month or more. This had been going on during the months when Rainey and her friends were ridiculing me for my clothes and my hair (which was often greasy because I didn’t manage time well and could never get all the conditioner out before the shower timer went off). And I didn’t have a ton of clothes to begin with. It was a perfect shame-storm.
I’m not trying to be a victim here. My point is just that conditions at home and conditions at school were exacerbating one another. I imagine my parents didn’t really know what was being said about me at school, or I hope they didn’t; and I’m sure my classmates didn’t know my clothes were getting taken away. I was far too ashamed to tell anyone about any of it.
Also, I had a baby sister. She was not yet three then and she would wake up in the middle of the night crying. In my teenager view, I used to lament that not even in my sleep could I find my own time and space. I had no privacy anywhere.
There was not one square foot of the planet that I knew was mine and that no one would fuck with. I know—I’m such a first-world kid. But that kind of psychological homelessness was hard for me. Even to this day, I have weird issues about personal space.
So anyway, the Bass Room, as ridiculous as it sounds, was special to me. I shared it with another bassist, but as the lead bassist, I controlled it. I practiced in there. I got ready for concerts in there. I studied in there. My best friend and I even hid in there when we had substitute teachers and we didn’t want to participate in class. It was the one little corner of the world where I mostly got to be me—no parents, no scary bully girls, no teachers, no crying baby sister.
But then one day, I came to school and found that someone had broken into the Bass Room and they’d written all over the wall around my name. This is a redacted version of what they wrote:
“Jessica, I am going to _____ your ______ until I _____ all over your _____ and when I’m done with that, I think I will ______ your _____ until ______ ______.”
I was was stunned. I stood and stared at it. I inspected the handwriting, trying to figure out whose it was. I took out my own pen and corrected the spelling. I closed the door. Eventually, I just sat on the floor and cried.
As I saw it, there was no one I could tell. I couldn’t even ask around to find out who’d written it. There was nothing I could say to anyone. And anyway, what could I possibly say that wouldn’t be even more humiliating than seeing that?
I don’t remember if I ever said anything to anyone directly. Someone else must have. Eventually, my band director told me privately that he would have it covered up. I asked if he knew who did it and he told me to “let it go.” He said I should try to “stop being such an easy target.” He told me to “toughen up.”
For a long time, I let his reaction define how I understood what happened. He did nothing to hold anyone accountable because he thought I’d brought it onto myself. And I believed him. I didn’t get angry at the boys. Instead, I just hated myself for provoking them, as if I was actually responsible for their actions.
That logic is wrong, though. I didn’t put a Sharpie in anyone’s hand and make them write. I didn’t give them those words. What my band director did is not unusual, though. His behavior is part of a cultural phenomenon which is so common that we have a name for it: it’s called victim-blaming.
Victim-blaming is the reason that rape victims often don’t go to the police right away, or at all. They know they’ll be asked if they were “really” raped, or if maybe they are at least a little bit responsible. They know they’ll be slut-shamed. If reading that word is uncomfortable for you, just imagine how it feels to sit in a police station and live it right after having someone physically overpower you and then force himself or herself onto you. Just imagine how hard it would be to bring yourself to say anything.
There is a widely-held belief that if you are called a sexually explicit name, if you are harassed, if you are touched inappropriately, or—much worse—if you are raped, you must somehow be responsible for bringing it onto yourself. And that is utter nonsense.
It took me years to understand that I am not responsible for the behavior of other people. I do not owe it to anyone to “let it go” so that they can avoid the discomfort of being held accountable for their actions. What those boys wrote was filthy, violent, threatening, and cruel. In the very least, they needed to be taught not to talk like that. They should have been the ones who were too ashamed of themselves to speak. Not me.
Within a week, the Bass Room got a fresh coat of paint and the writing was covered. But if you knew where to look, and you turned your head in just the right way, you could still see the reflection of the ink underneath. And everyone—absolutely everyone of my peers—had seen it before the painters came, anyway.
Let’s be honest. It wouldn’t have mattered if they’d burned down the damn building. There was no way to take those words back.
So paint wasn’t the end of it. It continued and continued and continued all year. Vandalism on my things, comments made during rehearsals, notes passed around in class. I hadn’t known how to “work it out” with the girls and now I didn’t know how to “let it go” with the guys.
I felt worthless and trapped. I saw no way out.
What I knew was that I was humiliated and I couldn’t ask an adult for help. I couldn’t tell my friends because I didn’t want to risk becoming any more untouchable. All I could do, I thought, was endure.
By the end of that spring I was hospitalized for clinical depression. In the hospital, I told no one about all the bullying and the body-shaming and sexual comments that were happening at school. I wasn’t trying to hide it, though. I wanted the people in the hospital to accept me and I thought they wouldn’t if they knew how my peers saw me.
Thinking about it now, I doubt it actually occurred to me that a trained therapist was exactly the person I should address these problems with. I really didn’t believe things could ever get better. And even if I had believed it, I don’t think I would have believed that I was worthy of a better life.
While I was in the hospital, a family member called and asked if I was suicidal. I brushed off the question as if the whole thing was all a big misunderstanding.
“No…” I said. “Of course not.”
For fuck’s sake.
This is keeping me up tonight, I think, in part because I am feeling conflicted. My band director really did shape my life in a big way. But while everyone sings his praises, I remember him joining the chorus of well-meaning adults who brushed me off in the moments when I really needed an advocate. I needed someone to be on my side and show it.
When I had the chance to bow out of the band for another opportunity, I have to believe that he understood how hard it was for me. But when I told him I was quitting, he piled on guilt, telling me I was letting the band down. As he saw it, I guess, I was letting down the boys who were slut-shaming me in permanent ink on the classroom walls. I owed it to them to finish the year.
So tonight I realized that I can’t remember our goodbye because there wasn’t one. He dismissed me and we never really spoke again. And it seems that the whole episode was so painful that eventually, I just blocked out the memory so I could move on.
Reliving all of this now is a landmine I didn’t know I needed to worry about today. Holy shit.
There’s a lot I still don’t know about how to be an adult and I’m really feeling it right now, trying to process this H-bomb of white hot shame.
I don’t know how to stop myself from feeling guilty for not going to the memorial service this week, but rationally, I know I should not be there. I don’t know why I donated to the fund for my band director’s hospital bills, but I did, and I didn’t even hesitate. I don’t even have a job right now! I think I felt bad for his kids with all those bills.
I wonder if he ever felt bad about how things ended, if he ever considered saying or doing anything differently. I actually think he genuinely cared about me, but didn’t know how to proceed. Hell, even I didn’t know. This stuff is hard.
I also don’t know where my passion for empowering women to stand up for themselves originates—why it’s so strong in me, and only getting stronger. I know plenty of women and men who care about gender equality, but they’re not on-fire about it in the way I am and I haven’t been able to explain it.
I know this isn’t the whole answer, but writing this now has brought me to realize that part of my passion comes from the permanent ink that’s buried under layers of paint in a band room at my high school.
I know that I’ve never met a woman who deserves to go to a sacred space and see those words written about her, and I didn’t either. I know I want fewer girls to become women who battle those memories when they’re geting dressed in the morning, and every time they walk into a room and feel themselves getting sized up, and every time an an accused rapist hires a lawyer who blames the alleged victim in the news.
I don’t want women to become CEOs and then have to wonder if the men on their boards were the Dustins in high school. And if all the teachers looked the other way.
And I know, above all else, I don’t want to leave this planet until I believe I’ve done all I can to help solve these problems.
I used to wonder why I was compelled to spend so much time and effort on my appearance, why I always had to overdress, why I’d become so conservative in my attire for my age. But I know why. It’s because I know what it is to walk into a room and feel shame. Mostly, I’m just trying to avoid that.
I know that I can’t spend my life being upset with any one of these characters. Because while they were shitty to me, I’m sure I’ve been shitty to other people, maybe even to those same people, in ways I didn’t understand at the time. And I imagine, even if those boys and girls knew they weren’t being kind, they probably had no idea how deeply their words and actions were affecting me.
Teenagers are inherently self-absorbed; they don’t see the grief they cause. I don’t want to make excuses for those kids but I also think we all have to recognize the humanity in one another. I don’t think there is any other way forward in this life.
I am trying to imagine if someone had said to them, “18 years from now, she’ll remember this day as clearly as if it had just happened, and she’ll be paralyzed with grief. All of that self-doubt will come surging back. She won’t be able to sleep or eat. She’ll cancel her morning meetings and lie in bed, staring at a wall.” And as I imagine a conversation like that, I just can’t believe that they would have kept it up. But I don’t really know.
* * * * *
A couple years ago, I discovered the work of social psychologist Brené Brown. She studies the connection between vulnerability and fulfillment. She says only when you learn to be vulnerable can you really lead a fulfilling, whole-hearted life.
In her research, she’s found that shame is what keeps people from being vulnerable. Shame prevents conversations that could save marriages. For me, shame prevented dialogues that could have ended a lot of suffering. I could not overcome my white hot shame to ask for the help I needed.
You might wonder why on earth anyone would write such a personal disclosure as this one on a blog. And the answer is about overcoming shame.
I started this blog after I discovered Brené Brown’s work. I was intrigued by the idea of vulnerability as a tool to unlock a better life and I knew that getting past shame would be really hard for me. It always has been. I would need practice. This blog is my practice. And believe it or not, it helps.
Maybe I sound naïve when I say that those kids might not have meant so much harm if they’d known better. Let me end by explaining why I think it’s true:
When I started studying meditation, I was introduced to the concept of “basic goodness.” The idea is that deep down, humans are basically good, but goodness can be covered up by other things. Like when shame prevents us from showing our best attributes. It’s just like how clouds sometimes hide the sun even though the sun is always up in the sky. We can’t see it, but we know it’s there.
As a teenager, I wouldn’t have been able to believe that underneath it all, a group of teenage boys is basically good. But as an adult, I am sure of it.
In my own life and even in my career, I have learned that when I treat people as if I know they’re hiding their own sun—as if I can see it anyway—they change. On my best days, I try move my own clouds out of the way as if other people deserve only the best from me. I try to make myself vulnerable and invite them to do the same. And sometimes it works.
Eventually, they feel safe. They pull back their own clouds. And that bright light—that basic goodness—shines through. Because it’s always been there.