The first time I discovered I was no angel, was when I thought my life depended on being one.
I sat sobbing at my desk in my geography class in Portugal, having just been sternly questioned and chastised in the headmaster’s office and told that a letter was being given to my parents to notify them of my delinquent behaviour. Truth be told it wasn’t massively delinquent and could have been so much worse. My colleague, the ‘ring leader’ of my little mishap, sat patting my back trying to comfort me, telling me her parents would just shake their heads and tell her not to be an idiot and to stay out of trouble. It made me feel worse, because I knew my parents would definitely not take it well at all.
Still, it really could have been worse; drugs, alcohol or underage sex could have been involved, but imagine a school with a nunnery and a priest as the headmaster, frequented by the youth of the various villages surrounding it. Any little trouble was explosive. Villages where everyone knows everything and not much happens, so any gossip that could be exchanged or created was a precious commodity.
Then imagine a small group of excitable and impressionable female teenagers deciding and planning how fun it would be to jump over the out-of-bounds back gates after morning registration, to trek to the beach and then return just before the final bell, and jump out of the bushes once it rang so that we could mix into the crowds and catch our school bus home.
Imagine then that someone happens to spy said girls and perhaps revels in the gossip-mongering. I never did officially find out who the snitch was but I had a strong and disappointing suspicion.
Imagining all that, plus some sensitive, worry-wart parents, and you can begin to see the build up of drama and the molehills forming into Everest.
I was always considered to be a ‘good girl’. Quiet from about age 6, a well-mannered old soul, and the jewel of my parent’s eyes. Still a squidgy, curly-haired, perfect cherub in their minds despite the fact I was now a gangly teen and taller than them. I had certain expected behaviours to continue to adhere to or I would be disappointing them both, maybe terrifying them with the thought of becoming the cheeky troublemakers they once were, which in turn would make them feel like failed parents.
I really thought I actually was a good girl and was often some teacher or other’s pet, and internally smug about it to boot, but as I climbed those gates, trekked in the balmy sunshine, descended the rocky cliff face to the beach, stripped to my underwear and pranced about the deserted beach with sea salt in my hair and on my skin, and as I lay on the sand with my eyes closed, I was truly me. Free of labels.
Free from constraints and timetables, expectations or obligations. In that moment at least.
I remember us all lying there, idly chatting after some prancing and splashing about. I was somewhat surprised at myself, that I had agreed to participate. Looking back, I wasn’t forced, I chose. I wanted to escape the rules and to find out what other girls did, I wanted to explore boundaries.
One of the girls pulled out a couple of cigarettes, passed one to her friend, offered me and the other girl one. ‘No thanks’. I watched the ‘ring-leader’ in awe from the corner of my eye as she lifted her arm to tuck it behind her head, exposing unshaven armpits, and brought the cigarette to her mouth with the other hand; making smoke rings. One of the first things she had said as we stripped was ‘excuse my pubes but I couldn’t be bothered’, and now as I observed her I could see she hadn’t bothered with anything, armpits, legs, bikini line…and here I was not even fifteen yet, and already terrified like most girls of being seen with my natural body hair, and here she was not really giving a shit.
A fire in my belly grew stronger then, as I admired this girl who represented everything I was never supposed to be. I found her brashness intimidating but earthy, and her lack of fear of expressing herself envious. Was this what a ‘bad girl’ was? Herself?
She caught me eyeing her cigarette and offered it to me. I screwed my face up. ‘Hmm, no thanks’.
‘Well hold it for me at least, I’m going for a swim.’
She and her friend got up and ran to the water. My other colleague was snoozing, and I was lying with a cigarette awkwardly in my hand, ash falling in the sand, the red blaze dying out in the grains. I propped myself up on my elbows and glanced at the girls in the water. No one was looking so I took a puff. I didn’t cough but I screwed my face up again. Yuck.
NO, thank you. At least I tried for myself and knew it was a definite no.
A bad girl was imperfect, maybe with a nasty vice or two. Messy and real. Yes and no was hers to decide upon.
After all the commotion and telling off and the sobbing in geography, the whole school knew about our adventure. The school’s ‘cool’ teacher called us out to speak to him one by one during the next class. He taught sex-education, religion and philosophy and the after-school photography club. With his compassionate manner, warm and understanding tone and open-mindedness, he was often seen as the unofficial counselor to many of the kids.
He had chosen a tree-trunk sawed vertically in half to sit on outside in the beautiful school gardens, and I sat, embarrassed and uptight, holding my overwhelming feelings close to my chest. He had an ear missing from a long ago accident, and with his kind eyes it always made me think of him as an injured puppy. I was like a closed book whose pages he was trying to pry open, but one thing I do remember saying was, ‘I worry I will disappoint my parents by not being the little angel they think I am.’ I can’t remember his response but I remember that was my biggest concern.
I also remembered that we had seen him after having climbed the gates. As we wandered away we heard someone calling out ‘Hi girls’. We turned and spotted him inside the gates, looking at us through the green bars and observing the rucksacks on our backs with a strange smile on his face; not his usual open smile. The ring leader replied with something vague, like ‘Hi, see you in a bit’ and we all smiled and turned away to carry on walking, hissing under our breaths ‘shit, shit, shit, it’s cool, he’s cool.’
As I sat on the sliced tree trunk, I experienced a rush of alert, panicked goosebumps as I realised he was most probably the snitch. I zipped up my mouth even more, and he let me go on with my day when he saw that I wasn’t going to be more forthcoming. ‘Let me know if you ever need to talk’ he said.
No, thank you.
As I discussed my suspicion with the girls after, they admitted they had considered it, but that there was no way a guy as cool as him could be the snitch. It was probably a security camera or someone looking out of a window, or someone saw us returning.
I went along with their theory externally; there were so many possible options and moments where we may have been spotted, but inside I disagreed.
It was all a massive realisation for a young teen, that you could be seen as one thing but really be another and disappoint everyone in the process. It tested the unquestioning trust I had in many, even in myself. I was seen as a ‘good girl’ by most of society’s standards, but felt like a ‘bad girl’ inside because of my unspoken wants and desires. My teacher was seen as a ‘cool’ caring and kind man but was possibly the reason I got into trouble. Admittedly, if my suspicions were correct, I was disappointed in him.
It was easy for me to believe it was him, because I saw myself in the idea of that secretive behaviour.
If he did tell, maybe he was only concerned; worried about where we were going and what we might be up to. Were we running away? Were we going to do something stupid? He may have told someone and it may have spiraled into something bigger than he imagined.
Maybe being this thing people label as a ‘bad girl’ isn’t really negative at all, but just someone learning about life and growing into themselves through adventures, mistakes and realisations.
Maybe a ‘good girl’ is nothing but a product of a scared world’s expectations.
Maybe we should scrap the labels that create such restriction and pain in us all. I was a girl, pure and simple.