When Amber was eight, she was moved to a new school.
This place was unlike any she had ever been. Filled with highly intelligent children.
For some reason, she had associated cynicism with intelligence, and the shock of this being an untruth, a tell of sorts, sent her spinning like a turtle into her shell.
The sharp, sting of wit and quick, darkly gleeful jabs she had grown to know as intelligence were absent.
The sinister edge of unsurfaced intent was absent.
The punctured jugglers were absent.
Or too quiet to be the majority.
Amber felt terribly alone in a room of children in a way she had never known before.
These intelligent children were not precocious. These intelligent children did not appear to be cut open and bleeding.
There was no bad kid. And of the dorks and the nerds, there was suddenly a pecking order. Quiet teachers pet ranked pretty low.
She doesn’t remember much about that year. Only that she read Hitchhiker’s Guide and that she had somehow made a bad first impression with her teacher.
That was the worst. Amber had never known a teacher who didn’t love her. Her teachers were like her parents, in some weird way, the way that young orphans are more likely to look for mom and dad qualities in teachers and social workers.
Amber had been raised to please. And holy shit, she was intuitive enough to anticipate any given need of each person that she came across.
She had God given gifts and it’s not like anyone guided her in developing them, honing them, or accepting and using them with grace.
As a child, Amber watched what others with these gifts used them for, and the least harmful of it seemed to be fulfilling the needs of everyone.
So, intuitive people-pleaser eight-almost-nine-year -old Amber, had not, until that point, encountered an adult outside of her inner circle, that she could not impress.
(Except that one who she really wanted to believe was impressed but was perpetually having a bad day.)
This woman was not impressed. Unforgiving, even.
Maybe it was the need to please the majority that took over. Maybe she was coming to a point in her life when she was starting to feel peer-starved.
And there was a need to show loyalty in a moment on the very first day at that new school.
See, the thing about loyalty is that it comes down to one or the other. It’s scarcity mindset. The belief that there’s not enough love, attention, kindness, or friendship for everyone.
But Amber didn’t know there was anything else.
So she struggled. Feeling very caught in the middle.
After being torn apart by her parents during their divorce then re-marriage, etc, Amber could not handle being stuck in the middle.
She didn’t know what to do. The middle, she knew, was the loneliest place in the world.
She was no stranger to withstanding the brief if sharp burts of hatred from an adult, but she had never been hated without the facade of another adult creating a buffer or a distraction to give her time to slip away.
Amber had no way of understanding the consistent reference to a towel in Hitchhiker’s Guide. She didn’t have Alice or a rabbit. She had a whale. A killer whale.
These were the years she lived within the dark, rock tunnels that snaked out like octopus tentacles.
These were the years when her mother’s parade of men seemed limitless.
All of her mother’s black and brown boyfriends were genuinely nice to her. The white ones, not so much.
Her mother went all swoony and gross at the combination of sweet and smooth in the accent of many of these deep voiced men.
Amber’s mother melted, more like butter than she’d ever witnessed, when a man with rich chocolate skin – the richer the better – said hello.
The white men were thin lipped and beady eyed and stern, very stern, so prim and proper in public, expecting the same from everyone else all of the time.
The white men had two faces.
The white men ate their steaks rare.
The white men had no respect for boundaries.
Amber grew to understand that while men had a tendency of putting women into separate boxes, women also had boxes for men.
There were boxes for strict daddy bosses. And boxes for lovers who knew how to dance and trace lines with passion.
It wasn’t really fair of Amber to draw conclusions based on the man parade of her mother, but she did. She came to see white men as harmful and black men as safe.
If only this entire section of the world had the same sight.
Or maybe not, Amber decided. Taking that thought back faster than she had snatched up the last piece of shepherds pie offered by the most recent white man, knowing that he was taunting her and that he would force her to watch him eat it if she wasn’t quick enough.
As she grew up, she learned harsh truths about a need for discernment.
The towel. Don’t forget your towel, said the guy who knew what he was talking about to the guy who didn’t in that book her father had given her to read.
It was an odd year. This was true enough even before Amber knew a thing about astrology. Before she knew a thing about mental disorders and addiction.
The pressure to live up to the label of genius was crippling. Especially as she was struggling with a teacher who didn’t like her.
Amber worked hard to regain the favour of her teacher. She felt absolutely groundless without it. She went to school each morning terrified that the worst of her punishment for having sided with her peers was yet to come.
She dreaded the public humiliation that she knew was coming.
Amber just knew that this teacher was waiting to get her back. And the anxiety was killing her.
She tried her best to separate herself from her peers. In her stomach, she knew she had made the wrong choice.
She brought her book to school, reading each lunch and recess.
Amber had been used to not feeling liked or accepted by her peers. But she found out that year how it felt to have her female teacher not only not like her, but choose to be unresponsive to Amber’s attempt to make amends.
She felt iced. She felt slated for the dungeon.
But it wasn’t as bad as finding out that her classmate Ed secretly hated her.
The whole class was outside one warm October afternoon about to set off plastic rockets that they had assembled.
Ed had offered to help Amber put the ignition together.
There was a sick feeling in her tummy because Ed had not helped her with anything in almost two months.
But she wanted to be liked, to be noticed. She was starved.
Amber said yes when he asked if she’d like his help.
When he got close she felt swallowed by a thick, heavy nothingness. There was no other way she could think of to describe it. A nothing feeling. No nervousness, no excitement, no irritation or frustration, no rising anger.
This is what came to mind years later when she was in another school learning about the novel A Separate Peace.
That October morning, Ed worked very hard on her rocket. He made sure everything was perfect. He was particular about each part and how they connected. He took extra time with the ignition.
When it came time to set them off into the pale blue sky, Ed’s rocket zipped up with no trouble.
Amber’s didn’t. The teacher who was indifferent toward her, sped over with a lighter, lit her fuse, and was about to go to the next student when something went wrong.
Amber was holding the rocket when it started making a funny fizzle noise.
“Let go!” Her teacher shouted.
She was afraid to let go. As the fuse was lit, Amber had had a terrible daydream that the rocket was out of control, flying sideways into her classmates.
She thought if she held on, it wouldn’t hurt anyone. Except maybe herself.
The teacher got frustrated with Amber’s disobedience and silence.
She took the rocket out of Amber’s hands and set it on the ground. The rocket lifted off the ground and then veered toward a tree.
The tree took the hit. Nobody was hurt.
But the teacher called off the whole thing. She told the others that they would have to set their rockets into the sky at home.
All the students glared at Amber.
Ed’s eyes had a spark of dark delight, something she recognized but couldn’t explain.
The sick feeling in her tummy came back. She wanted to make that feeling disappear. Not here, she thought. It’s already bad enough.
She ran to Ed to try and quash that feeling in her tummy.
Being next to him made the feeling disappear. She felt the nothingness. But this time it hummed with something.
What was it?
She asked Ed what he thought had happened.
He smiled. An electric thrill hummed through her and she narrowed her eyes at him.
This startled him. He quickly erased the smile. He replaced it with a nothing expression, a sort of plastic home base position for his face.
She knew what came next and it terrified her without him having to do anything.
Amber was super nice to Ed. She apologized for the unintended reprimand with her actions (without bringing the issue to light).
She pretended not to care or to even really notice that her rocket had been sabotaged and could have hurt her and the class.
She asked him questions about his rocket. How cool was it to watch his rocket launch into the sky and disappear for a second, how did it feel to build such a wonderful thing?
The two became friends. He invited her over to his house after school a lot throughout the year. He had her over to watch him and his friend play games on his Atari.
Amber spent so much time with him that year, she almost forgot about the rocket incident.
She didn’t want to believe, no matter what Ed did while they were together, that he secretly hated her, even though deep down she knew.