One of the most painful experiences of high school came at the hands of my friends.
The four of us—two boys and two girls—spent the hot Phoenix summer before junior year together doing nearly grown up things: Eating lunch at The Olive Garden and driving home through the desert at night listening to Matchbox 20 feeling like we were in a movie; cooking dinner for each other and laying on a trampoline afterwards staring at the starry sky, barely speaking. The other girl and one of the boys were dating. The other boy and I were not, but we were good friends and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. At the end of the summer the boy told me he wanted more, and while I loved him very much, I wasn’t interested in dating him.
I left for a family trip to Seattle, and while standing in the wind on a ferry boat to the San Juan Islands, I thought about him and what it would be like to be his girlfriend. I changed my mind, and wrote him a letter telling him I would like to give it a try.
By the time I got home from Seattle, a mere week later, he had already started dating someone else, and he spent the next year of school making my life miserable. Whether it was to alleviate his own hurt feelings or to prove his loyalty to his new girlfriend, I’m not sure, but everyday at lunch he would say something cruel to or about me in front of everyone.
I’m not sure how long it lasted, but I put up with it for a long time. Not wanting to embarrass myself even further or make anyone else uncomfortable, I just endured, but when I’d finally had enough and literally stood up for myself at the picnic table where we ate, my other friends tried to get me to be quiet and not make a fuss, as if I was the one who was doing something wrong. Their silence and complicity broke my heart.
This memory raises so many questions for me now that I’m a confident adult. Why didn’t I speak up earlier? Why didn’t someone else speak up in my defense or take him aside and tell him to cut it out? Why did he feel the need to treat me that way in the first place, as if I was somehow beholden to him and needed punishment when I didn’t submit to his wishes? Weren’t we friends first?
Five years later I married someone who I now think hated me violently. I stayed for three years. Only one person spoke up before the wedding and encouraged me to walk away, and I stopped talking to her for four years because of it. Now, thankfully, she is one of my dearest friends, and I am so grateful for her voice in my life, both then and now. She was incredibly brave and loyal, and her words cost her.
I’m in my mid-30s now, happily married for seven years to someone who loves me actively every day. We have two children, and the oldest is a daughter. I am adamant about raising her to use her voice, both for others and for herself.
In her martial arts class the other day, after practicing kicks and uppercuts on the dummies, she went back to her spot on the floor to stretch. A boy about her age knelt over her, his face inches away from hers, and yelled, “Get in your place! Get behind me!” He was sure she was in his spot and demanded that she move. I watched this all from the side of the room where I sat, curious to see how she would respond. I heard her speak, calmly and politely, and I’ll never forget what she said: “I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”
Rachel Womelsduff Gough and her family ditched the city for a patch of earth in the Snoqualmie Valley. Cheered on by her husband and two blonde babes, Rachel learns by getting her hands dirty, whether it’s gardening, chicken farming, canning, neighboring, or adventuring with soulmates in wild places. She reads constantly, and can’t live without coffee, flowers, and classic mystery stories.