That’s what Josh Hein called me as he slapped me on the back in the church parking lot on a cold night in 5th grade.
What did that mean? How was I a freak? What were my freakish features? I don’t want to be a freak.
Those thoughts swirled through my head as I cried and twirled my hair around my fingers. My hair. That I’d labored long and hard to make “perfect” for that evening’s mass. My hair. That was incredibly difficult to manage. My hair. On top of my head. My freakish head.
That slap on the back changed the course of my night, and at least for the next few weeks (ok months). And, for whatever reason, maybe insecurity, maybe mildly traumatic, I’ve remembered that night from time to time. Why did Josh do that? I thought we were cool? I mean. Weren’t we cool? I’m certain it wasn’t because he “liked me.” (I hate that and I wouldn’t do that to anyone I liked).
I thought about that night most recently when I was picking up groceries at Walmart with my family. As I was loading, some guy hung out the passenger’s side of best friend’s ride (like a SCRUB, thanks TLC), and yelled “Nice **** for a little boy!”
I froze. I didn’t turn around. I was thrust back to 10-year-old Danielle– shy, insecure, proud of her ‘do that took hours to perfect. I’m 35 years old. I’m being called a freak. I shuttered. I got back into the car.
What did that mean? How do I look like a boy? What were my boyish features? I don’t want to look like a boy.
Those thoughts competed with my very adult thoughts of: Don’t let some dumb kid bother you. You’re a woman. You’re not a kid anymore. Let it roll.
And those thoughts competed with my friends’ thoughts of: He’s a bully. He’ll say anything to make himself feel better. He’s probably jealous. He probably likes you.
I choked back tears as I twirled my hair. My unmanageable, messy hair on top of my head. My boyish head.
I tried not to give this event a second thought but the thoughts kept creeping back up, third thoughts and fourth thoughts. I sought reassurance by telling this story to my close friends and I got what I wanted, unsolicited compliments and offers to “kick his ass.” It helped. They’re great.
I didn’t realize why it really bothered me until I matched this story up with something that happened 25 years ago. It was Josh. He was calling me a freak again. He was slapping me on the back and invalidating me. Years of growth, success, unabashed vulnerability and just plain life-living and here he was again, to bring me back down.
And it worked! Why? Why did it work?
Why do strangers with an opinion have so much effect on us?
Why do THEY make US feel like freaks?