The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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How I Learned What a Real Friend Is
Support from a school counselor and my mom helped me find true friends
Caitlin Ward
headshot

Names have been changed.

I didn’t have too many friends in elementary school because I was shy. It was usually my books and me since I read so much. In the novels I read, friendships were close and supportive. I assumed that’s the kind I would have.

Books like the Monster High series, the Heroes of Olympus, and the Blue Bloods series were my favorites. I particularly liked the friendship between Frankie, Cleo, Draculaura, Clawdeen, and Blue in the Monster High series. They were so supportive of one another and stuck together.

But life isn’t always like books, and in 3rd grade, I had my first experience with what I call fake friendship.

I met Brittany at a hair salon while our moms were talking. She and I went to the park, each other’s houses, and talked on the phone until our parents told us to finally get off. Then, halfway into the school year, she left me for the popular group, which I didn’t feel pretty enough to join. Then a couple of weeks later, she apologized and I forgave her, although I didn’t think her apology was genuine.

I thought one reason she wanted me back as a friend was because my grandmother worked at the school and sometimes she brought me candy or board games during lunch. I think Brittany liked getting that special treatment too. Or maybe it was because the other girls had gotten her in trouble for bullying another girl and she wanted to stop hanging around with them. Or both.

I had this type of friends-not-friends-then-friends-again relationship with other girls I spent time with in elementary school too. I never asked any of them about it. I thought it was better for me to just go with it. I didn’t understand at the time that this was not how friendships are supposed to work.

Me Always Apologizing

During middle school, Brittany dropped me again after I got jealous when she started hanging out with other girls. We made up again. I was usually the one apologizing and making up with her, since she made me feel like I was wrong—even if I wasn’t. This became a pattern, her getting mad at me and me apologizing. Looking back, I realized I was letting her bully me because I wanted to be accepted.

In 7th grade, we became part of a larger group. I was usually left out. There were many times during lunch when everyone would be talking about a boy or something, and when I would try to join in they would laugh or discredit me. I would have ideas on how to help them and they would say things like, “What do you know? Boys don’t like you. You’re too ugly to understand.” And “Caitlin, no one cares what you have to say. Honestly, just shut up.” No matter what I said, they would talk over me.

I learned to be silent and read. The dull throb in my heart from being ignored was my only companion besides the black and white pages of my books. The girls talked as if I wasn’t there, and the only sound louder than the blood rushing in my ears was their laughter over a joke I wasn’t in on.

These girls called me “ugly” and “a b-tch,” but when I called them names back, they would get mad at me. It was as if calling me a b-tch was a right only they had, and I wasn’t allowed to say it back to them.

Finding Comfort in Books

Every time I was dumped or treated badly by these girls, I’d come home in a bad mood. My mom always asked, “Why are you friends with those girls?”

And I’d reply with a variation of, “I’d rather try to fit in with these girls who don’t care about me and are nasty to me than sit by myself and read.”

I knew she was right—I shouldn’t be friends with girls who treated me badly—but I ignored her. I wanted friendships like the ones I read about, where everyone was close. But I was too insecure to tell those girls that they were mistreating me and that I wouldn’t stand for it. I was so worried that once I did I would become even more of an outsider. I didn’t want that, so I endured their cruelty.

When I got to middle school, I continued to find comfort in books. I tried to make friends, but I wasn’t good at it. People seemed to hate me, for reasons I’m not sure of. I assumed that it was because I was childish, and a bookworm. Or because they thought I was a know-it-all.

I Woke Up

It wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that I finally woke up. One day, after an argument with Brittany, I decided I was done apologizing to her and I stopped talking to her. After I found out that another “friend” had spread nasty rumors about me, including that I used magic to harm the family of a boy I liked, I realized that I was way too trusting. I stopped talking to her, too, and I began learning how to ignore other people’s mistreatment.

image by YC-Art Dept

I had gained this newfound confidence because I had started seeing my guidance counselor a few times a week. I knew I needed help making real friends. With her help, I began to build the confidence I needed to say no to these girls, stop being a pushover, and to protect myself.

She worked on improving my self-esteem. For example, she’d ask how I felt I looked.

“Gross,” I’d say.

“Build on that. What’s gross?” she would ask.

“My hair, my face, everything. I’m ugly.”

“How? What’s ugly?”

“Everything, I can’t really explain.”

“How is your hair ugly?”

“It just is.”

“Well, that doesn’t make sense. If you don’t have a reason, then you’re probably wrong. I think your hair looks nice.”

And it would continue like that.

About a month after I started seeing my guidance counselor, I confronted the “friend” who had started those rumors.

“I can’t be friends with you anymore,” I told her, leveling my gaze. She didn’t ask why, nor did she stop me as I continued. “I have gone through so much crap with you. You want to be cool, that’s fine. But I’m done with you.”

I hadn’t realized it then, but I’d changed. I saw how harmful these kinds of friendships were, and I felt good enough about myself to have the courage to end them. Also, my mother’s lectures had finally taken root in my head, and I realized that she was trying to help me.

At around the same time that I started talking more with my guidance counselor, I joined a school band with three girls and five guys and started playing electric bass. Right away I noticed the group’s playful, nonjudgmental air and instantly felt safe. I don’t feel like an outsider with them. Looks isn’t an emphasis with them. They aren’t obsessed with being popular. They like that I’m not judgmental. We like to play and listen to the same music. They don’t put me down because I’m not just like them.

I continue to see the guidance counselor and I have also made friends with two girls in school who read as much as I do. We talk about books, TV shows, animals, and YouTube. We’re nice to each other. If I have a conflict with one of them, it’s a mutual makeup with both of us taking responsibility. I finally have real friends.

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(NYC-2019-11-14)