Growing up I was always told that being nice to people was the way to make friends.
Every person of authority--parents, teachers, neighbors, church leaders--all practically bludgeoned me over the head with the same message: be nice and you will have lots of friends. Be nice and everyone will like you. Be nice and no matter what happens, good things will happen to you.
So imagine my confusion when I first stepped out of the safety of the nest and into the clutches of the real world (or, as you may call it, elementary school.)
Kindergarten in the bowels of Blackwell Elementary School. Miss O'Dell's class. Wee Erin, a new Blackwell Bee, (or Blackwell Bear. We had two mascots. Yeah. Like LSU we were.) dressed in her 5 year old finest, is seated at a table, being nice. Her hair is in a ponytail. Her heart is on her pink sleeve. Her feverish brain repeating only one thought: "I want that guy with the red hair sitting net to me to be my friend. And how do I make friends? I know! I should be nice."
So I introduced myself. And, to my astonished delight, the boy was nice.
"This is going swimmingly!," I thought as I continued what was turning into a very nice conversation. "I should do this all the time! This making friends thing is easy! At this rate, I shall be friends with every Blackwell Bee and Bear before lunchtime!"
So caught up was I in my reverie, that it took Miss O'Dell two tries to get my attention.
"Erin, is that you talking?"
"Put your head down on your desk and be silent."
Face flush with embarrassment, brows knit in confusion, I dropped my head on my desk--a low thunk barely audible over the snickers of the class. And, like any nice student, I contemplated what I had done.
Too young to undertand why it was a cardinal sin to talk during Miss O'Dell's presentation of The Letter People, I had innocently but none the less crossed a before unrealized boundary--an addendum to the "be nice" rule. Be nice, sure, but not while someone important is talking.
Duly noted. Logged away. Won't make that mistake again.
Days and weeks and months passed, and I held fast to what I had learned. I WAS NICE. To everyone I met. So long as someone important wasn't talking. And teachers loved me.
But the kids...?
Turns out, the kids loved designer clothes and Hello Kitty Boxes. Therefore, if you had designer clothes and Hello Kitty Boxes, you were their friend.
I did not wear designer clothes.
I did not have a Hello Kitty Box.
But surely these handicaps could be overcome! Surely my parents and my teachers and that creepy guy on the street who SWORE he was nice and offered me some candy--surely all of these authority figures would not steer me awry. So, I did what I always did. I was NICE.
In my second grade class, the epitome of beauty and popularity was Amy Dennis. EVERYONE wanted to be friends with Amy Dennis. Amy had the best clothes. Amy held the market on Hello Kitty. Amy's mom crimped her hair everyday. Amy had white Keds with ruffle socks.
I had none of these things.
Watching Amy Dennis from across the room--longing to be her friend, to hang out at her house and play with her Sanrio treasures and maybe, just maybe, have her mom crimp my hair too--I took out a pen and began to write.
I wrote her a poem.
More than one.
Maybe even one for every day we were in class together.
And I gave them to her. Hid them in her desk when she left for recess so she would have them. I never signed them. And, even at age 8 or whatever you are in the second grade, I had the foresight to change my handwriting in the event she might know it was me.
Aside from perhaps David Bowie, Amy Dennis was the first love of my life.
And we never became friends.
After second grade I moved. New county. New school. One mascot.
And things got better.
Cherokee was more rural. And more poor. The children here did not wear designer clothes or care a fig about Kerokerokeroppi. Kids here were nice.
Before I knew it I was making friends. Lots of them. Nearly every student in my class. And, much to my young relief, my faith in the Golden Rule was renewed. Perhaps that previous place--that place with money and things and beautiful people was an oddity; an exception to the rule. Perhaps I was really safe here.
Turns out, Cherokee County was just a couple of years behind.
In 4th grade, people started paying attention to the clothes I wore. And no matter how nice I was to everybody, they seemed to judge me--to disapprove of me. So I fought back the only way I knew how--the way I had witnessed at Blackwell. I made a cognizant decision right there in Miss Burke's 4th grade classroom: "Fuck nice. I'm going to be popular!"
If I couldn't have a lot of friends, I would have an entourage. And, unfortunately for the children at Chapman Elementary School, I was smarter than almost all of them. Which meant all manner of not nice things.
I landed the coveted lead in "Romeo and Juliet" that year--my first role ever on the stage. Later in life, I would come to realize the lasting effects this would have on who I would become--but at the time, it sufficed that I staked my station as the most popular girl in class by beating out the formerly most popular girl for the role. In a display of what can only be called in retrospect "brass balls," I then told said girl she could play the narrator. The role I had chosen for her. The class--which determined by vote who would play what role--then voted her into the narrator spot. Had my smile not been missing some teeth at the time (tooth fairy and whatnot), I am sure it would have been sinister.
Aware of my position as a criminal mastermind, I started being the opposite of nice.
Like Hitler before me, my proverbial rejection from art school was the jumping off point of my psychosis, and I began forming my 4th grade SS. Hair pulling, insults and sabotage ensued. By 5th grade, no one would dare mess with me as doing so would result in guaranteed social leprosy.
This was the time when I used my wit and influence to make other children cry. A time when I, with my Ginsu tongue, would slice right through the other kids' expensive Hypercolor T-shirts to the raw of their delicate, frangible souls. As Paul Muad Dib so powerfully realized, "My name [was] a killing word," and I was taking no prisoners.
By 6th grade my game was catching up with me. Other children were picking up on the lessons I was teaching them: namely that nice wouldn't get you anywhere in this crazy, fucked up world. To rise to the top, you had to be the meanest, most conniving SOB on your 6th grade team. And that mantle now fell to my "best friend."
Seems the rumor mill of 6th grade decided to tell said friend that I was attempting to snag her boyfriend.
Not that the truth matters.
So she started a rumor about me.
And the only thing to spread more readily than plague germs in an elementary school is a rumor. And this was a doozy. Step right up everyone and stare! Erin Greer IS A LESBIAN!
Now before I continue further, let me say that, ironically, this one particular girl was the only one who had managed to secure my genuine allegiance to this point. She was the one person I actually would not cross--and not because I was afraid, but because I sincerely considered her a true friend. But I guess none of that mattered in the face of who would date the coveted Michael Knight.
The very essence of popularity is eliminating a threat. And I guess I was less of a "threat" as a lesbian.
Not only that the rumor caught on, but that it backfired. I actually became MORE popular following the incident. The number of invites to social events and parties spiked. I couldn't leave the building without being pursued by a flood of onlookers and admirers. And if THAT isn't a life lesson, then I don't know what is.
I should have been blissful at this turn of events. Thing is, though, the increased popularity no longer had the same taste. It no longer held the same power. For the first time--and for reasons unknown to me--I was viewing myself outside of myself...and taking a hard look at these other people.
I didn't like what I saw.
So fucking terrified were we all of each other, that we were willing to tear each other to smithereens just to distract the masses from seeing our own scars. And beneath it all--the designer clothes, our parents' money, the cutest hairdos and bookbags, the cutting insults--we were all hideous. Monsters in pretty dresses.
We were mean.
And I was unhappy about it.
It was a conscious decision, really. The decision to change.
I knew I had more "friends" as a dictator...but with friends such as these...well, it was just no longer what I wanted. I could have a following if I continued my Third Reich reign, but I liked myself better when I was nice.
So I dug the old Erin out of the closet. I dusted her off. I looked a little closer at her. I looked past her non-designer clothes and stick-straight hair. She wasn't my ideal, but I figured she was alright. I tried her back on for size.
Within months of my being nice, I was no longer popular. I no longer hung out on the popular side of the playground. I sat alone at the lunch table. I spent a lot of time alone on the swings.
But middle school was approaching. And with it, changes.
Not in the overall social order, per se. But in how I approached that social order.
I would enjoy middle school more than most other people I have encountered. And, while it had its battles, I enjoyed high school too. During these times, the arts provided me a voice, and people became drawn to me, not out of fear, but out of shared interests and talents. No following; just friends.
To this day, our world seems to cater to the mean. I can't tell you the number of times I have been stepped on, walked over and completely discarded because my attempts at "turning the other cheek" have been perceived as weakness instead of what they are: a cognizant choice. But I continue to make that choice. Not because I am better than you...but because I have been you, and I didn't like what I saw.
If the day comes and the situation warrants, I know I am smarter than you. I know I can cut you if I choose. After all, Ginsu knives are renowned for their continued sharpness. In our digital age, I can easily find where you live. Where you work. And make untold trouble for you.
I am no better than you because I have that in me.
But, I am different from you. And, luckily for the both of us, I am choosing to play nice.