At the beginning of third grade, I walked into my class hoping to make new friends. Everyone introduced themselves and said what they like to do as a hobby. I said I liked to go shopping and quickly after I heard three girls say, “Me too”. When lunchtime rolled around I sat down by my- self until the same group of girls sat down and started asking me questions. “What’s your name again?” asked the first girl. “What are you eating?” asked the second. “Do you want to hang out with us during recess?” asked the last. My face lit up with enthusiasm. I was so surprised they wanted me to hang out with them. Me? Little regular me. Of course, I agreed. I couldn’t wait for the bell to ring for recess. I always wanted to know what it was like to be part of a group. I was never part of a real group because girls would make fun of me, call me names, and use me for homework and food. At this point in my life, I was very vulnerable and an easy target. While walking outside they ignored me. I debated leaving, but the thought soon disappeared when I heard, “Melissa, can you spot me?” from one of the girls. I had no idea how to do this so I felt lesser than them. I didn’t even know how to do a summersault since I never thought of being a gymnast. “What do you want me to do?” I questioned nervously. “A cartwheel,” responded one of the girls. I will never forget the look of disappointment on their faces. I felt small, I felt excluded, I felt like I didn’t belong. I began realizing that they only wanted me in their presence to make themselves feel better or to make sure they didn’t fall while they did flips. On my way home from school that day, a thought kept going on in my head. What if they want to use me? What if they don’t like me? What if they spoke badly about me in line back to class? Suddenly, I thought if I want to be included, I need to look like them. Compared to them, I felt ugly and unworthy. Whenever I looked at them I saw naturally long, brown, straight hair and it was beautiful. This became a huge insecurity of mine and to this day my natural hair is an insecurity. That night, I went shopping and bought a few pairs of leggings, some tee shirts, and a new pair of converse. I even bought my first flat iron and straightened my hair. I wondered if my pony- tail would be good enough, if my socks were girly enough, or if I bought my converse in the right color. The day arrived and I woke up extra early. I told my mom to pack me some extra grapes and to do my high slicked-back ponytail. Before leaving I tied up my brand new laces and put my new glittery scrunchie in my hair. When I got to school, no one noticed anything. The whole morning was spent get- ting up to sharpen a pencil, getting a tissue, and dropping a pencil hoping that someone would notice my new look. No one did. At recess, I was being treated the same way I was before. “Melissa, could you make sure I don’t fall? Melissa, can I have a piece? Melissa, can you get me this? Can you do this?” This went on for an entire school year, but I preferred to be treated like this than be alone. One day, I began to talk to a new girl in my fifth-grade class. She was sweet, kind, and treated me like I deserved. My new friend taught me my worth and encouraged me to stand up for myself. I did and told the other girls I didn’t want to be friends anymore. Today, I look back and think, how did I let myself be treated that way? My new best friend was everything I ever wanted. Becoming friends with her was a tremendous part of the journey to finding my worth. She taught me how to love myself and pulled me through hard times. I will forever be grateful.
© Melissa Perez. All rights reserved. If you are interested in quoting this story, contact the national team through this website and we can put you in touch with the young person’s teacher.