The long, dark nights of the soul are not reserved just for grownups. When I was running a workshop at a high school in Minneapolis, Debbie, a 15-year-old student told me about her Hell.
Going to her locker everyday, going to her classes, she ran a gauntlet of torment from the other girls. “Pig! Heifer! You’re fat! You’re ugly!” Debbie said that her name had become the fad catchword for someone who was unattractive, heavy, unpopular. “You’re such a ‘Debbie,” became the ultimate putdown one girl could give another. From the boys it was worse. They didn’t say anything. No calls, no dates, no notes.
They were all in the gym for a class meeting. Choosing candidates for some dance, some “Snow Prince and Princess.” The cool girls were nominating the cool boys, and the cool boys were nominating the cool girls. Then one of the jocks, one of the popular boys, called out, “I nominate Debbie!” She said that for one single moment her heart stood still in hope. Then another boy yelled, “I second it!” Another, “I third it!” and they all laughed. She was sitting by herself on the far right bleachers and she had to cross in front of the entire class sobbing, to escape out the exit on the left.
Her only friends were food, which was always there for her. Or shopping for new “things.” The things she would buy would never leave her. Never call her names.
Debbie said she wished she looked like the “girls on M-TV.”
A recent PBS program, “The Marketing of Cool,” discovered that 3,000 times a day, in every television show, magazine, and billboard, our children are given the same message by our media: “You’re not happy. You’re not beautiful. You’re not popular. You’re not cool. See these people wearing our clothes, drinking our sodas, playing our CDs? They’re happy. They’re cool. You’ll never be happy and cool till you’ve bought what they’ve bought!” The advertising agencies work 24 hours a day to come up with more and more ways to sell unhappiness. It’s hard to fight so much distortion, especially when you’re young and don’t have a lot of experience to give you a reality check.
I have a friend who battles an eating disorder and is often down on herself. But she’s found a way out of her Hell. When things are especially bad, she visits her friend, Mo. Mo’s real name is Mary, but everyone calls her Mo.
Mo isn’t what the media would call typically beautiful. She doesn’t look like the girls on M-TV. She’s 53 years old and has Down’s syndrome. She doesn’t have a tooth in her head and she never wears her dentures. She’s a large woman and sweat pants are her preferred attire.
Mo loves to watch All Star Wrestling. In her eyes, she is each wrestler. She cheers them on, “Go, Mo!” And she always wins, and runs through the house giving everybody a high five. There’s no pretense with Mo, no game playing, and if you ever get a hug from Mo, you know it’s real. There are few things more precious and true in the world than a hug from Mo.
For years foolish people called Mo a “retard” or a “mongoloid,” but she never listened to them. Mo sees to the heart of things. She knows the truth. She spreads beauty, joy and passion wherever she goes. She loves rhinestone tiaras. She puts her tiara on and looks at herself in the mirror and gasps, “Mo is beautiful! Mo’s a princess!”
And she is. A real one. She is a rare and royal soul, acting with beauty and grace, sharing her love, as we all do; “royalty in exile.” Because it’s often hard for us to believe it and act like it.
I didn’t have much to offer Debbie in the three minutes between workshops. Self-esteem is a hard thing to give someone else, hence the word “self.” I told Debbie to just hang on, to keep trying; reach out to others with kindness even when they gave her so much unkindness. I told her that those cruel boys carved their own hearts as deeply as they carved hers, and that in her wisdom, with her own healing, perhaps someday she could help them to heal. I told her that when she goes to her 20 year high school reunion, nobody will really care who the Snow Princess was. Nobody will really care who ran the most touchdowns. What people will really remember and care about is who was kind to them, and who was cruel. Combined, courage and kindness are the two elements that are the essence of true “cool.” She can turn people around with her heroism, change their outlook and hearts, even though it’s hard and often comes at a price. I told her about Mo, and advised her to search for the presences of Mo in her life, the true friends that are so hard to find, but so worth it when you do. I told her that with all her uniqueness, she too was a real princess.