This is not like it is in the movies, I think, absurdly, as Sara Mohamadeian tests whether I will fit inside my own locker. I don’t; I am skinny but not quite locker-skinny. I am saved by bony shoulders, bony elbows. My bony heel finds the place where her balls would be if she had any. I remember her stumbling body intersecting the disinterested passing crowd, the surprised look on her smooth olive-skinned face.
I am emerging from Tech Ed, squirreled away in a back hall where no one will give much thought to the omnipresent scents of scorched wood and acrylic. A small boy bolts by me, left to right, and as I look left I see his broad-shouldered pursuer closing the distance. My foot seems to find its own way into his path, and though he nearly takes me with him, it is so funny to watch him kiss the floor, potatoes tumbling free of the sack. “Thanks!” pipes the elfin boy, and is gone. The bully is faster on his feet than seems fair for a kid his size, but though I lead him by precious seconds, neither one of us is too swift for the wall of Mr. Paradise, whose unerring hands find our collars with frightening precision. Where the principal lets my would-be aggressor off with a warning, I am given three days’ in-school suspension. “You could have broken his neck when he fell.” No good deed goes unpunished.
Mrs. Covington is making each of us stand up and tell our geometry classmates our names and one thing we like and one thing we dislike. When it’s my turn, it never occurs to me to lie as I get to my feet and say (projecting, but not yelling, like my parents and theater teachers have always urged), “My name is Charlotte, and I like reading in the bath. I do not like boys.” For the rest of the year, I am branded a lesbian. A weird lesbian. A few months later, I discover I do like one boy. He is in my geometry class.
I don’t curse and I tell other people they shouldn’t, either. I correct others’ grammar. I’m just trying to be helpful. The bathroom walls let me know that I will not be thanked for my efforts.
I fake sick as much as possible. My mother’s policy is to refuse to keep us—me, my brother, and my young sister—home unless we are A) vomiting, B) running a fever over 100 degrees, and/or C) bleeding from a massive head wound. The school nurse, however, is more easily manipulated into giving me brief reprieves from pains imagined and real (the constant knot in my stomach is very real indeed, and I am often pallid or watery eyed). Soon the clinic bed is among my only reliable friends.
Not a single boy asks me on a date.
At a mandatory school dance, a cluster of girls takes pity on me, drawing me away from the wall. I stare at the orbits their broad hips circumscribe. “I can’t do that,” I confess.
Cue the encouraging chorus of Sure you can! Come on!
“No, I—I think I was born without some vertebrae or something.”
I demonstrate. My underdeveloped midsection can only rock side-to-side or back-and-forth, a fused unit without grace or autonomy. The others laugh, delighted, and I flush brightly enough to attract small moths. One girl sidles up and puts her manicured hands on my hips. “Loosen your spine. Like this.” Like… this? “Wow, okay. Maybe you really are stuck.” Maybe I really am.
The thing that most eludes me is the art of initiating conversation with another human. I plummet headlong into passionate soliloquys about some facet of natural history or meteorology or astronomy, and look up to find the sea of glazed eyes are now meeting one another with baffled, unsubtle mockery. This happens often enough that eventually I learn not to speak to my peers or, if possible, to anyone.
I bury myself in literature. I wonder how people get to be authors or actors or artists or politicians. I wonder how a person gets anyone else to listen at all.
Private school helps. Eye contact and attentive, patient smiles are more common there. I act in two school plays a year. I take voice lessons, for whatever those end up being worth. I join clubs and learn to manage more than two friends at a time. I come to crave the rush I feel when an audience approves of me; I begin to seek audiences whether or not there’s a stage.
The internet helps. The internet goddamn saves me. I use bulletin boards and roleplaying games as focus groups for facets of my personality. I practice being clever, until eventually I start to actually be clever. I am perfectly at home in this vast world without faces or status, where anonymity and intimacy are one and the same. From the earliest days of screeching modems, I am amazed to find that I am not alone, and I see how much we need each other.
I realize that everyone is scared as shitless as I am, and just like that, the world sheds its mystery.
One year at Dragon Con, I gather enough courage to approach Todd McCaffrey, Anne’s son, after a panel. I ask him to sign my badge, and as he obliges, I ask about whether there might ever be hope for a book of fan stories about Pern. He likes the idea but thinks the legal logistics would make it nearly impossible; he hands my badge back to me with a smile, and I walk away in a daze. Oh my god, I think, I just had a conversation with Todd McCaffrey. He writes actual books that actual people actually read.
Nearly ten years later, after Todd makes a good-natured quip at my expense during a panel, I scoop sand from our painted wooden “firelizard clutch” in a casual pass behind the panelists’ table. In moments, applause and hoots of laughter follow me from the room as Todd sits in a comical stupor, sand falling free of his head and clothes, calling “Thank you, Charlotte!” at my corseted back. In Dragonwriter he’ll describe me as “a force of nature,” and gawking at the words I’ll wonder if there’s sand in my hair.
In the last two years, I have thought often of the day I was pushed into my locker. I thought about it when a video I wrote hit 100,000 views, the Huffington Post, and Dan Savage’s Twitter feed. I thought about it when I got on stage in front of hundreds of people—twice—to explain why nerdgirls are awesome and writers are (lovable) assholes. I thought about it when I marched against Amendment One. I thought about it when the advance check came for my first published piece of writing. I think about it every time any artist I admire pays me a compliment or, miracle of miracles, becomes an unlikely new friend. Most recently, I thought about it when I inked my name into the offer letter promising me my dream job.
Every time. Bang. Bang. Bang. I look back on it now and think, When did I pop the fuck out of that locker? I am still me, I have always been me. Who is this woman with the firm handshake, with laugh lines beginning to show? How did she possibly grow up without noticing? Is she worthy of these people? Did this shit really just happen?
My 17-year-old cousin, a talented artist and member of her homecoming court, the kind of windows-down, speakers-up girl my inner 14-year-old still regards with awe, recently tweeted, “I wonder if freshmen look at me like I looked at seniors when I was a freshman. I thought they all looked so old. But I don’t feel like I do.”
It’s rare to glimpse an opportunity for wisdom and know that moment for what it is. It’s rare to know exactly what to say. My fingers wasted no time finding the keyboard:
“You should probably get comfortable with that feeling.”