I can't say that I was very well-known by my classmates in school. Me and my best friends were somewhat on the fringe, with friends in various "groups," but not really in any groups ourselves. We had our own little side group, and we were happy that way. But my high school was small, so we all knew each other a little. The reputation that I did have was a simple one: I was the "innocent."
Multiple times throughout high school, people commented on my "innocence." Some found it sweet, others bemusing. A lot of them found it funny to try and "push" my innocence, to see if they could make me uncomfortable or get me to do something that was against my beliefs. A lot of this had to do with me being Mormon--"Mormon-baiting" was a pretty common occurrence at school. But for whatever reason, I got it a lot more than the others. My best friend, who was also Mormon, was often asked about my innocence, as if she had the master explanation.
To be fair, I'm a privileged white kid, I had a very sheltered childhood, and in high school especially, I was an anxious, morally scrupulous kind of person, thanks to my then-undiagnosed OCD. I also am a loyal member of the LDS church who follows their strict principles. That means that, in a lot of ways, I am innocent. Still, I always found it weird that my peers saw that as my defining quality. In the end, it wasn't just weird--it was damaging.
Thanks to the OCD and a number of other issues I've faced, I have a bit of a complex about being "weak." I've spent most of my life feeling incompetent and ineffectual, like a useless side character in my own story. Being called "innocent" all the time only worsened that feeling of powerlessness and made me hate myself more. After all, what do people associate with "innocence?" Childhood, girlishness, naivety. An "innocent" is not someone who's intelligent or strong. You don't think about "innocent" people having an impact on the world. Innocent people need everyone else to help them, because they can't even take care of themselves. Because people at school thought of me as innocent, they didn't expect me to do anything worthwhile. They didn't expect me to have an opinion. They didn't expect me to matter.
Now, to be fair, "innocence" is a pretty benign quality to have assigned to you in high school. There were plenty of people in my class called worse things. Two boys in particular come to mind. One was known for being unintelligent, the other for being unstable. We called them "D the Idiot" and "Hitler."
One of the reasons I was known for being innocent is that I was always nice to people. I knew these boys and their reputations, but it didn't stop me from being kind. I had a couple of classes with them, and we got along well. I didn't judge them by their nicknames, because I knew they came from bullying. In retrospect, however, I wish I had done more. Being nice was good, but it wasn't enough.
Because even I called them by those names, though never to their faces and never in a mocking way. I called them that because everyone else did.
Because when other people called them those names, both in a mocking way and to their faces, I said nothing.
Part of that was because my OCD insisted that I be non-confrontational. Part of that was because I saw it as normal. I remember once, in a class with an English teacher I quite liked, D spoke up and said that he wanted to become a doctor. The teacher outright laughed at him. I'll never forget that, not only because a grown adult and a teacher was perpetuating the stereotype, but because of the way that D said the words. He spoke of his dream almost as if he was mocking himself--but if you paid attention, you could tell that deep down he really meant it. There was a hurt in there that hurt me, too.
That's the biggest danger of being stereotyped. Because the other reason I never stood up for those boys was that I had internalized my own reputation as an "innocent." I didn't believe that I had the strength to stand up for anyone. I didn't believe that I could make a difference. So, too, had these boys internalized their reputations. Yet when I talked to them, I saw something very different from what I'd heard.
"D the Idiot" actually didn't strike me as being that stupid. I don't know his actual IQ, and I don't know what his grades were, but in my opinion, he was a pretty average guy. (Of course, the IQ or grades of a person don't determine their worth.) He seemed like a good, compassionate guy, and there was no reason he couldn't succeed. Yeah, he acted out a lot, and he said ridiculous stuff, but it was always really obvious to me that most of it was an act. D was playing that part that other people had given him. He was emphasizing the quality that they had chosen to know him by. He saw himself as stupid because that's how everyone else saw him--even though, really, that was only one potential quality that he had, and hardly the most important.
The same was true of "Hitler." Everyone thought of him as a "psycho." I heard multiple people say that he was the guy who would end up carrying out a school shooting or some other form of mass murder, which is why they gave him that horrible nickname. But he didn't deserve it at all. When I talked to him, I found him to be a perfectly reasonable person. Like D, he had a tendency to dress, speak, and act in a way that was abnormal and thus fit the way people saw him, but beyond that was a really brilliant guy, an original thinker who didn't frighten me at all. I've known cruelty, and I've known people who are capable of violence. He never struck me as being one of them. I actually liked him a lot.
And so it was with me. I didn't have it nearly as bad as those boys, but I, too, internalized the idea of my own weakness. Because others saw me as an "innocent" and nothing else, I saw myself that way too. And it broke me, in a lot of ways. Thankfully, once I finally got my OCD under control, I was also able to undo the damage that the prejudice and stereotyping had done on me.
This is why it's so important to me that I speak out about social justice issues and about damaging tropes in storytelling--because those things are just the adult versions of high school bullying. When you stereotype someone, when you minimize them down to a single trait, you are actively harming them. Because in real life, no one can be encompassed by a single adjective. We all have multiple qualities, multiple identities, because we are diverse, complex people who were never meant to fit into a 2D space like that.
I may be innocent, but I'm also smart, passionate, and strong. I'm a spoonie, a woman, a Mormon, a social justice warrior. I am all of those things and so, so many more. I am me, in a way that can't be expressed in simple words. So it is with everyone else, and so it should be with fictional characters, too. Because we all need to stop looking at other people the way that high school bullies do. We need to look at every human being for who they really are, in all their complexity. Otherwise, we'll be missing out on so much.
So whoever you are, at whatever age, I encourage you to look at the people around you and to reconsider the way you perceive them. Reconsider the way you perceive yourself.
To those boys and to everyone else that I wish I would've defended, including myself: I'm sorry. You're so much more than what they made you to be.
Thanks for reading. I'll see you again on Tuesday.
Images via BonesawBabydoll on Polyvore, egrollman.com, and theodysseyonline.com.
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