Many of you know that I’ve been working on a fictional novel about my experiences as a fire dancer. They’re so wild that I couldn’t make them up! Almost. In the first drafts of this novel, I included too much back story about my main character, based on yours truly. But instead of simply deleting what I crafted, I decided to post the first few original chapters here, so that my story can be told at least in my little corner of the internet. The rest of the novel? It’s still in progress to be a New York Times Bestseller. 🙂 For now, this was chapter 2 of Becoming a Confident Fire Eater: The Story of a Pretty Girl Who Can Dance.
My intention to share this chapter in particular is to give others who’ve dealt with bullies and consistently rude people some kind of hope or inspiration. The part of my life that’s represented here is so far in my past that it feels almost like it wasn’t my life, and that’s one reason that I’m okay with sharing it now. Don’t feel sorry for me. The main character here ends up on top, so keep that in mind!
Chapter 2: Crater Face
I continued dancing, thanks to both my Dad and Mom, who signed me up for the holy trinity of dance classes: tap, jazz, and ballet. I took solace in these weekly one-hour sessions, and they became the foundation that would prepare me for the reality of becoming a teenager, with all of the associated angst, self-doubt, and insecurity that came with it. Just over 11 years old, I thought I was only average-looking. My hair had darkened from sunkissed blonde to what was described as an unflattering “dishwater blonde” in the teen magazines that I would read in my room. My weight and build were average; although I was healthy and slim, I never could understand why my thighs looked so incredibly huge when I sat down. I attributed it to being a dancer and having a lot of muscle. In reality, it was just genetics.
When I started going to middle school, the three years of 6th, 7th, and 8th grades brought new knowledge and subjects, new friends, acne, bullies, and more acne. Between my hormones and the stress of becoming a teen, the acne never really ceased, no matter what dermatological wonders the doctors would experiment on me. Creams, pills, popping blackheads under their magnifying glasses—it all ended in frustration for me, as well as for my parents, who were spending hard-earned money to pay for the treatments. My peers began to notice my imperfect skin and the inevitable teasing began. But at least I had my family, who loved and supported me unconditionally.
Perhaps the only exception to this was my older brother. Older brothers are notorious for being a little mean to their little sisters, yes? When I announced at home that I wanted to try out for the 8th grade cheerleading squad, he jokingly pointed out that I wasn’t bleached blonde and said that I definitely wasn’t pretty enough to be a cheerleader. This was a comment that I carried with me for decades as my self-esteem rode valleys and peaks.
Disheartened, I auditioned for the drill team instead, and was accepted. While my brother let up (thanks to threats from our parents), my peers did not. I was given demeaning nicknames and was teased relentlessly by the “preps,” the kids who were somehow popular, despite how nasty they could be to other people. The teasing was enough to make me feel worthless, and I couldn’t see that all of this was temporary. With high school graduation beyond the foreseeable future, I just wanted to die. My parents picked up on this mentality that I had fallen into, and they, with best intentions, signed me up with psychologists and counselors. These adults, challenged with the duty of helping me to look at things with a more mature perspective, had their work cut out for them and guided me into my freshman year of high school, where the abuse peaked.
It seemed as though I couldn’t walk down the hallway without someone calling me a random, insulting name other than my given name of Summer Reed: “Summer the Bummer” and “Dumber Summer” had become popular alternatives, as meaningless as they were. I looked forward to each class because it meant that my peers would have to be quiet, although they were talented at finding ways to pass harassing notes to me that said things like “Why are you so ugly?” I wasn’t a model by any means, but even if I were an ugly human being, you would think that they would at least take pity and not rub it in. Ironically, one of them was a boy who had been greatly burned in a house fire. After he healed, his face was left scarred, a landscape of wrinkled skin that was whiter than the rest of his body, since the skin had been transplanted from his buttocks to replace the skin that had been burned off in the accident. I remember the uncaring look in his eyes as his best friends would ridicule me for my acne, and I’ll never forget the irony. His silence had almost the same effect as their insults.
Teenagers in particular can be a special breed of jerks. One day, for example, I left a wonderfully productive counseling session on “understanding the reality of a situation versus one’s perspective,” and on how to not take things personally. It included using an outsider’s eye to look at each “bullying” situation that came up. Was the comment truly directed at me, for example? Could it have meant something else, something completely different from an insult? Through this, I learned a skill that has benefitted me ever since and taught me the art of diplomacy. I left the psychologist’s office, got into my car, and rolled down the windows as I drove because it was 75 degrees and sunny in the greater Cincinnati area. A day like this is a gift because the weather is usually either humid and sticky or freezing cold, depending on the season. I was several blocks from the psychologist’s office when another car pulled up next to me at a stoplight. Two teen boys that I had never seen before were in the car, and they too, were enjoying the perfect weather and had their windows down. The boy in the passenger seat looked at me, and said matter-of-factly, “Crater face.”
While it wasn’t unusual for my high school peers to make fun of my complexion, which featured a changing landscape of pimples and blemishes, it was shocking to me that a complete stranger on the street would find it necessary to inflict me with this abuse. My guard was down, and the malicious comment welted my ears. In that moment, even though I had just had an hour of training on how to react to situations like this, I knew that if I owned a handgun, and if it were within reach, I would have shot the owner of this insult. I wanted to kill him. I wanted to kill myself.
Later in life, I could look back and be grateful that I didn’t own a handgun, and that there wasn’t one within reach. Fortunately, and somehow, I didn’t kill anyone. Instead, I had movement. Dancing was my outlet—a gift that my parents gave me that would not only last my single lifetime, but would also radiate and bring joy to others. I took these dance classes along with other girls with whom I never quite fit in. I was always the odd one out, especially in my late teens, when I began expressing my individuality, as they say. “Summer, we’d love to keep you as a class demonstrator, but our parents don’t want their girls learning ballet from someone with purple hair and tattoos,” is what my ballet teacher told me in my senior year.
One thing about math is that it doesn’t lie. My life plus peer insults, minus dance, equaled depression. It was a valley that I couldn’t climb out of, and so one night after a particularly frustrating evening of ballet when I was given a two weeks’ notice of being let go as a demonstrator. When I got home, I took all the pills that I could find in our house. I left a note that simply said, “I’m sorry.” Then I went to sleep.
When I woke some time later, I was sitting in the front seat of my dad’s car. He was normally a driver who followed all the rules, but the first thing I noticed was how fast we were going down the nearly empty highway. His blinkers were on.
“You awake over there?” he asked.
“It’s a nice night out. Stars are out because the humidity is low. No clouds. Awfully pretty.” I felt groggy, and it didn’t escape me that he was talking about the most notoriously boring subject that one can choose when one doesn’t know what else to say: the weather. Normally, I would prefer to discuss anything that’s more interesting, but given the circumstances. I was grateful, however, that I didn’t have to think or talk, for that matter. Dad went on about the following day’s weather prediction, then traffic, then the “goddamn government wasting our time” with extended red lights, which he slowly drove straight through.
We arrived at the local hospital’s emergency room where he checked me in and a nurse asked me endless questions. I was already feeling guilty for scaring my parents so much. Dad explained that my mom stayed home because she was hysterical, and that my brother would be bringing her soon. In the meantime, my stomach was pumped and it was confirmed that I would not die, at least not from trying to overdose.
Through the additional consequent sessions with a psychologist, I found my will to live again. This was made a little easier since high school graduation was soon on the near horizon and I could count the days until I would be free. My dad relaxed when he saw my depression begin to lift and I eventually did recover from it, but I’m not sure my mom ever did.
I got my first tattoo, ironically, as a symbol of my maturity. I turned 18 and practically before the smoke on the birthday cake candles had time to dissipate, I began getting ink. But in addition to it being a celebration of my age, I found that tattoos were a great way to distract others from my facial scars. By that time they had faded for the most part, but I still cringed when I saw my reflection in certain lighting that highlighted the unevenness on my cheeks. In a way, the ink was an approach for me to show control over my own body. I’ll tell you what to look like, I wanted to say to my skin.
Having gone through four years of tortuous high school, public bullying, and the general hell that so many of us know simply from being or having been teenagers, it’s probably no wonder that I eventually would become a fire eater. When I threw my square cap in the air, it symbolized freedom from overhearing things like, “I thought she looked good until I saw her face.”
Day after day I had made it through high school, and even college, where I found myself among individuals who were more open-minded, polite, and smart. I fit in much better, and did well. My complexion began clearing up, perhaps because I wasn’t under as much stress. I was away from the cliques and bullying that I couldn’t escape while attending classes and riding the yellow busses in high school. I dreamed of growing my hair into dreadlocks like I saw a girl sporting on campus one day. She was a different kind of pretty, something that I felt like I could relate to. I was trained to believe that my beauty wasn’t naturally on the outside. To a certain extent, perhaps denying my physical beauty prevented me from allowing others the ability to demean me based on my looks. I began getting tattoos that would eventually turn my entire back and arms into a canvas of permanent, floral art.
In college, in addition to my courses on biology, geology, English literature, and calculus, I found a safe space in the fine arts building, where I discovered modern dance and infinite possibilities of movement and expression. The tap, jazz, and ballet classes I had known until then were more technically structured. My teachers weren’t as concerned with experimenting with movement as they were with their students’ leg extensions and teaching the choreography for the end-of-year recital. I was fortunate in that although I lived in a small Kentucky town, nearby Cincinnati had spread its urban fingers far enough that even Northern Kentucky University felt a claim to big city dance. And it was the intuitive movements of modern dance that helped me express myself. Any time something terrible happened—the death of a grandparent, the loss of a pet, or a subtle look from a stranger that would catch me in the wrong mood and make me feel ugly—I could dance and it would all seem fine, or at the very least, tolerable. The music was enough to take my mind off of anything other than counting the beats and finding movement to flow with the words and rhythms. ~CH
There you have it. If you’ve experienced anything like this, feel free to comment here. I hope that if you’re not already exceedingly kind, that you’ll consider how your words and actions can affect others, especially young people. As I’ve grown, I’ve learned to care very little when others are negative toward me. It’s quite freeing!
Peace, love, and fire,