Friday, February 24, 2012

Life Lessons From A Class Pariah

It's an interesting concept: my high school recently sent me a "Giving Forward" fundraising letter, inviting me to donate to the school's scholarship fund in honor of someone in the Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy community-- past or present -- who has given a gift of themselves to me in some way over the years.

I immediately thought of my beloved Sister Ramona, who brought such joy to my senior year of high school and to my life thereafter, as an inspired teacher and, to this day, a treasured friend.

                                             Sister Ramona Bascom in 1963          

Of course, I'll make a donation in her honor.

And then I thought of someone else, someone less obvious, but no less important: my former classmate Janet Zieschang.

Janet was the pariah in my class of 44 girls.  She was a new sophomore -- joining our class a year after the rest of us had arrived and made friends. She was obese at a time when that was rare in an adolescent. She was shy and could be truculent when she anticipated rejection or ridicule. She had a November birthday and had also skipped a grade early in elementary school. So she was, at a time when this mattered, nearly two years younger than the rest of us. She was, inside, still a little girl, still wanting to hold a classmate's hand on the gym court, inspiring an avalanche of snarky comments about being a lesbian. No one wanted to be her friend.

I felt empathy for her situation early on because I had had a brief experience being a pariah only a few years before and knew it meant daily heartbreak. My own introduction to pariah-dom was in seventh grade. As far as I'm concerned, seventh grade -- indeed, all of middle school -- is the most powerful argument against reincarnation that I can imagine.

My particular seventh grade angst played out at my Catholic parish grade school and started when the principal, Mother Ronan, remarked to my class one day that my parents weren't properly married (e.g. in the Catholic Church) and suggested that people stay away from me.

It didn't take much urging for the "in" group -- a snotty bunch of girls from the parish's major Catholic family dynasties -- to excise me from all social circles. They planned a big party for our class and everyone was invited except me. I found out about it when there was a fracas on the playground: my friend Pat Hill told the "in group" ringleader that she would not attend the party because I was not invited. I was warmed by her loyalty, impressed by her courage and puzzled by my exclusion. My parents' marriage in a Protestant church didn't seem sufficient grounds for pariah status. But, for a time, it was. And purposely being left out of everything felt terrible.

That's why my heart went out to Janet immediately.  I saw the pain in her eyes, the sag of her shoulders as she passed by giggling or dismissive classmates. I weighed the consequences: if I befriended her, would I be a pariah again, too? Worse, if I stood by in silence, would I be just as culpable as those who more actively taunted her? I decided to reach out in friendship.

It wasn't always easy. We had few interests in common. She was reflexively testy. But we shared many values in common and that was enough.

We were both passionate in our interests. My passions were writing, acting and dance. Hers were music, photography and sewing. I respected her for the hours she spent at the piano in the music conservatory, for her appreciation of all kinds of good music and her eye for color and design in her fashion creations. She was heavy when the rest of us were not. But her clothes were lovely and original. And she had an unerring eye for beauty in her photographs.

I marveled at how calmly she accepted what I saw as a pretty grim life history. Her parents had divorced when she was a baby and her father subsequently showed little interest in her. She had been pretty and slim until she was 9 years old. After suffering serious injuries in a horseback riding accident, Janet's eyes didn't track well together and during her long convalescence, she began to put on weight. Her mother was a slim, attractive registered nurse who sacrificed to send Janet to boarding school -- both for a good education and to have a regular, supervised routine with no access to junk food. Janet loved the independence of being away from her mother -- albeit on a hilltop campus with a moat around it. She dreamed of being just another kid in our class, hanging out easily with others. But what seemed a very ordinary dream proved elusive for Janet.

But, to my surprise, she was happy much of the time. From Janet's perspective, the kindness of the nuns, the peace and beauty of the surroundings and a few friendly faces among her classmates all combined to make these the best years of her life. No one loved our school quite as intensely as Janet did.

And I had this dream for her back then: that she would morph into a great beauty with the grace of Loretta Young descending the staircase at the opening of her show. I dreamed that Janet would become a famous fashion designer and appear -- gorgeous and successful -- at, say, our 30th high school reunion and everyone would be sorry they were mean to her in high school.

Janet never became a fashion designer or famous or lithe and lovely like Loretta Young.

But she did become my friend.

She didn't become my best friend but Janet was a good person who was a loyal and caring friend for the rest of her life.

So when I urged her to attend our 30th reunion, she did. And the same people who mistreated her in our teens were quick to mistreat her again the minute she arrived, even more dangerously obese, using a walker at the age of 46. People didn't want to sit with her at lunch, turned their backs on her and giggled the old saying "Goodyear Blimp at 7 o'clock high!".  I sat and talked with her the whole afternoon as others melted away from us. As she was leaving, Janet embraced me "I came to see you anyway," she said. "I don't care about the others." But I was angry and heartbroken that some people, even in midlife, could be so cruel.

As her health worsened in her late fifties, and after her mother's death, Janet was confined to assisted living and, finally, a nursing home. She wrote plaintive letters about how she wanted her life back. And sometimes she  focused her anger on me, telling me that, with my blessed life, I couldn't ever truly understand what it meant to be deprived of everything, including her beloved cat and her treasured piano and, most of all, her freedom to come and go. She was past lamenting that she had never had a date, let alone been embraced and cherished by someone special.  She just wanted her normal life back. But, as her physical and mental health deteriorated, her freedom slipped further and further away.

"Promise me that you'll take me to our 50th reunion," she said one day. "I want to stand up and be recognized and get that golden diploma."

"We'll do it, Janet. The golden diploma will be yours," I said, quietly wondering how she -- how we -- would manage.

Soon afterwards, I discussed the situation with several of our former classmates -- my dear friend Pat Hill and several others who happened to be in town one weekend. We met at a McDonald's -- and stayed for hours, talking, laughing and making tentative plans for our 50th reunion several years hence. (No one there but me had attended the awful 30th reunion and they looked horrified during my recounting of the event.)

I handed Janet's latest plaintive letter to Pennie Eiban, who had been one of Janet's roommates and one of the other friendly faces for Janet among our classmates. Pennie's eyes filled with tears as she read the letter. "How can we help her?" she asked.  Pennie, Julie, Mary Agnes and Pat all agreed that we'd do everything we could to get Janet to that reunion and make it special and welcoming for her.

In the meantime, we all agreed to write to her, to shower her with cards and flowers for her birthday, to call her, to plan a visit. But even as we were planning, it was too late. Janet passed away a few days later  --  on February 26, 2009. Everyone on our class' Facebook page -- even those who had once made fun of her -- expressed sorrow and regret at her demise.

In the wake of her loss, I have looked back and been grateful that I had the chance to know her as a friend. Though our lives were very different, we touched each other's hearts repeatedly through the decades and I felt that I learned and grew in positive ways from knowing her well.

The lesson has endured.

Not long after we moved here to Arizona, we began hearing stories about a crazy lady who lived a few blocks away: how she was frightening all the neighbors by her erratic behavior, how she had threatened neighbors with a gun, how she could seem reasonable one day and would be raving the next. Her across the street neighbor -- a nasty blowhard as far as I could see -- taunted her in the gym one day and the resulting conflict brought several police cars screeching up to our community center. I shuddered when I heard the story, glad that we lived a safe distance away.

One day, Bob and I were among the last in the community to board a bus for a day trip to Jerome, a hilltop artists' colony and historic mining town about three hours from our home. Only one person was behind us -- and slid into the last seat of the three person seat we were occupying at the back of the bus.

She smiled and told us her name. She lived in our neighborhood. I asked which street. She told me and I caught my breath -- linking the first name and the street name with the notorious crazy lady. The shower music from Psycho played in my head. Bob looked similarly stunned.  But then we started talking and the three hour trip seemed incredibly short. We covered an incredible array of topics. We laughed. And I watched carefully between the congenial talk and laughter. Yes, her speech was pressured. Yes, she was anxious. Yes, she was intense. But she was bright and funny and kind.

After all the horrific tales that had circulated about her, she had nothing negative to say about anyone. She was lonely after a recent divorce. Her church meant everything to her. She was starting to join clubs and get acquainted after a year of hiding out and mourning her lost marriage. She was just looking for a chance to blend in, to be accepted.  And whenever we've seen her since, she has been friendly, optimistic and eager to share good news: she has met someone she likes a lot. She's getting in shape. She's feeling much better. And the neighbor who used to taunt her from across the street has moved away. Life is, at last, looking good for her -- and her neighbors.

It was yet another part of the life lesson I started learning so many years ago: that no matter how reviled the pariah, there is a worthwhile, loving person there underneath the label. And embracing someone burdened with pariah status can teach one many lessons.

Janet taught me that everyone has a story, has dreams and yearnings -- and, quite often, these are as simple as casual acceptance and a friendly smile.

Janet taught me that behind every taunt there is a cost -- not only to the object of the taunt, but also to the person who ridicules another.

Janet taught me that, even when things look unpromising, there are little joys to celebrate: a piece of exquisite music, peaceful surroundings, a good talk.

Janet taught me that enduring friendships are possible even when friends lead very different lives.

Janet taught me this -- and so much more. I am sad that she will not be standing with us a year from now to get that golden diploma she wanted so much. But she will be very much with us in memory and in life lessons learned.

And so I'll be "giving forward" to my high school for two very dear people  -- Sister Ramona Bascom and Janet Zieschang. Both have taught me so many life lessons and have been, each in her own way,  great gifts to my life for the past 50 years.

                                     Janet Marie Zieschang (1946-2009) in 1963


  1. What a great post, Kathy... We all are unique and special ---and some of us are very different, one from another. I keep reading about bullying being so bad now... I'm sure it was bad back in my day too--but nobody dealt with it, or named it... I wish all children (and adults) could just learn to accept everyone --and affirm everyone, no matter how 'different' they may be.... Kinda sad that we humans do such a poor job of that, I think...

    Have a great weekend.

  2. I am moved to utter tears. What a beautiful, glorious tribute. Thank you for being the kind person you are. Thank you for taking the risk and reaching out to those others had discarded. There is such richness in these kind of friendships. You are so inspiring.

  3. It takes a certain strength to reach out when it might make you an outcast too. It is heartwarming to hear about - and to do.

    And on a different note, it is incredible that your principal, of all people, would encourage students to shun you because of your parents' marriage in another religion. Egad.

    A lovely post, and makes me think, as do all your posts.

  4. I am always stunned at the cruelty of adults who should know better. What are they thinking? You've got a wealth of material to write about with a Catholic school education. I also attended Catholic school in the elementary grades and then catecism classes until I finally protested when I was in high school. As I look back on some of the odd beliefs and practices, it's sort of like being raised in a cult.

  5. What a sad yet beautiful tribute. Thank goodness she had someone like you in her life.
    Who ever wrote her class description was very thoughtful and kind also.

  6. I woke up this morning thinking of you dear friend wondering how you were doing. I think of you often hoping that your feeling better.
    I was delighted when I found you on my site this morning leaving a comment but more surprised when I found that you were well enough to write a post.
    Your an amazing woman!
    This is a very sad story. It breaks my heart when I hear how cruel people can be to others that they see different from themselves. Thank God for people like you who befriend her and made these years at school happy memories.
    Shocking that after all these women had grown up they still treated her cruel. I guess they never grew up.
    Take care of yourself I pray for you everyday and hope your healing

  7. I receive the same "donation" letters from the girls' school I attended. I can't ever just throw those letters away. I put them in my "correspondence to get to someday" file intending to send a little something...someday.You have made me think back to the relationships I had with my classmates and teachers. I can easily identify a teacher or two who changed my life. I can not as easily remember who might have been the "pariahs" in my class. I will dig out the yearbooks and get going on that. Thank you for causing me to reflect and act!

  8. Another beautiful portrait of life, and life lessons to draw from. These should all appear in a collection, for all to read and draw courage and comfort from.

  9. Another beautiful, profound and insightful post, Kathy. How like you to reach out to the one others shunned and help to make her school life better. Janet had beautiful eyes as well as complexion and it's so sad that her life was blighted by morbid overweight and the unkindness and shallowness of others.

  10. The story of your "Giving Forward" choices was so well told and special. While many of us experience spurts of being a pariah Janet's story is just heartbreaking - to have lived virtually her whole life with little joy is so sad.
    Sister Ramona smiled with her whole face, not just her mouth! Beautiful.

  11. Dear Kathy,
    This poignant tribute to Janet touched my heart and made me remember my grade school days when there was a pariah in our class. Like you, I am glad that she and I became friends. Yet, I'm saddened,too, because I lost track of her after her mother took her out of school. I was never sure why this happened, but I suspected then--and now--that Zoe simply wanted to be home, away from the taunts and ridicule of some of our classmates.

    This tribute to Janet reminds all of us that kindness brings its own rewards. What a fine person you are. What a fine person you have been. Thank you for writing so simply about your friend. You were blessed to have one another.


  12. This is such a moving post, Kathy. You are such a special person with such extraordinary insight. It is so sad when lives like Janet's are blighted when she obviously had so much to give. I will think about this post for a long time.

  13. Very nice, Kathy. You're a kind soul, and a good friend.


  14. Just came across this post.

    THANK YOU for writing it. I feel empathy for much of the sentiment you expressed in this
    lovely and moving post. I have my own stories from school where I remember being the
    only one to reach out to and befriend the class pariah(s). Without an exception, each
    of those friendships blossomed and each of those women showed profound depth
    and capacity to love. It was the other students who only found value in what they
    deemed acceptable (superficially) who lost out by excluding these classmates.

    Recall when I was in college. Took a mandatory PE class where we had to pick
    a partner. On the first day of class, I watched awkwardly as everyone avoided
    picking a blind girl and her service dog. I remember quickly volunteering,
    walking over, and telling her I would be her partner for the semester and
    that we would be great friends. I quickly learned the girl's name was Angie
    and her dog's name was Sarge. It was her freshman year and she was attending
    a large university with no physical help except for Sarge. She and I remained
    friends even after I graduated and then went abroad for grad school. Then,
    after being out the country for a while and after she moved, we lost touch.
    A few months ago and 15 years later, I get a voicemail on my cell phone
    friend Angie saying she found me through the alumni association and
    was contacting me. Called her immediately and it was like time compressed.
    There we were, giggly college girls all over again. At one point her tone became
    serious when she told me she had a daughter. Then she said, "I hope you don't
    mind, but I named her after you..." There was a pause. I enthusiastically said,
    "Really?!" as tears came to my eyes. Then more silence as I could hear tears
    coming to hers. Then my friend said, "Not to sound sentimental, but you had no
    idea what it was like. It was my first year in college-- my first semester. I
    had no friends there and no family. That day in PE I didn't know if anyone would
    approach me when I heard the teacher say pick partners. I waited for a second
    and then heard your cheerful voice..." I heard my friend choke up over the
    phone just as I was tearing up again. My friend continued, "You have no
    idea what your kindness meant to me. When I met you all of my fears
    disappeared-- it had my first college friend-- and you were older!! And I
    felt so important. You are the friend who has made the most impact on me
    over the course of my life. I will never forget you and so I had to name my
    daughter after you as a small thank you for everything you did for me".
    At that point I said through tears, "This is truly the greatest and most
    humbling honor that I have every gotten. Truly, I thank you for being my friend
    because you made my life better."

    None of us can predict what the small kindnesses we do to another
    will mean to that person. WE cannot predict how kindnesses have positive
    effects years later. Therefore, it is my belief that we all must walk in kindess
    and also in unselfishness. There is nothing more important than stopping to
    honor the humanity in another person.

    Thus, it still appalls me that there are some adults out there-- some even in their 90's,
    who still hold on to the pettiness of the past. Some people never 'evolve' even
    if they have spent 90 years on earth; while other people seemed to have born
    as 'evolved' beings. This is one of the mysteries of this life.

    I ask God everyday to provide me with opportunities to express his love.
    Ultimately, in expressing love and kindness, and in saving the life of another,
    I also save my own life.

  15. I was a high school pariah. I was touched reading this. Thank you.