Guest Blogger, Hilary Hattenbach: One L or 2?

I want to thank each person who has written and shared their “bullying” story. (And please keep them coming.) It’s been an interesting endeavor because everyone’s story is different and yet, of course, there are common themes.  I think feeling like an outsider and seeing others as being more included are both just part of the human condition. Even now, I think of my bullies and marvel, did they ever feel like outsiders too? At some point, they must have.

9 year old meMy friend Hilary, a cookbook author and blogger too, shared a childhood story and sent it with the qualification, “it’s wasn’t exactly bullying per se.” And well, I can kind of seeing how it might not be bullying PER SE, but it does seem to be needlessly cruel. And not to give away the ending, but a little mysterious too.

I asked Hilary if she had a picture of herself from around that time and of course, that is the picture that accompanies this story. Just a sweet little girl, trying to figure it out, trying to make new friends in a new situation.

One L or 2?

When I was nine-years-old, Ma married a nuclear physicist. Shortly after that, we abandoned our beloved, long-in-tooth West Hollywood rental for a boxy, personality-free apartment in Beverly Hills. I’d been attending Rosewood Elementary, a public school where I loved all the teachers, had a diverse mix of friends, and often stayed after school as a teacher’s helper. Up until that point, I was a relatively happy-go-lucky kid. We were broke, my parents were divorced, and my dad was barely in the picture. But I was a big “bright-sider,” often telling jokes, drawing, and trying to cheer up Ma who struggled to raise two kids without child support. Despite how difficult things were, they never seemed that bad. That is, until we moved to Beverly Hills. 


Right around this same time, my ten-year-old brother, Chris, realized that his lengthy campaign to get our parents back together had gone down the crapper. “I’m moving in with Dad!” he announced. 


“Fine. Go live with your father. You two deserve each other!” Ma said.


And thus began our wildly divergent Prince and The Pauper-type journeys. I was enrolled in Beverly Vista, a foreboding, brick structure of a school where every kid got dropped off in a shiny, foreign car. Chris went to live at Pop’s studio bachelor pad in West Hollywood and stayed at Rosewood. I got stuck with a bunch of spoiled, rich, nine-year-old a-holes while Chris palled around with juvenile delinquents and only went to school when he felt like it. At the time, it seemed like he got the better end of the deal. In retrospect, not so much. 


On my first day at Beverly Vista, I met another girl in my homeroom named Hilary. It was a bit like meeting a unicorn. Back then, the name was pretty rare, akin to “Apple,” “North,” or “Latte” now. And this Hilary was fancy. She rolled up to me in a white rabbit fur coat, brown hair cascading down to her shoulders like a mini Charlie’s Angel. A couple of her friends stood behind her for backup. “One L or Two?” she asked.


“One,” I said, hoping that she had two because everyone knew that two L’s was the pedestrian spelling of the name, Hilary. My mom told me that. Even if I was wearing plaid hand-me-down knickers with Snoopy knee socks, the superior spelling of my name surely trumped her flawlessness. 


“Me too.” She flipped her hair and flashed a knowing smile at her friends. 


Since it ended up being a draw in the L battle, I thought we had bonded. Two Hilarys with one L in the same class! What were the odds? We’d be the best of the pals.

Maybe she’d let me borrow her fur jacket and show me how to get the frizzes out of my hair. I imagined the hilarious hijinks that would ensue any time the teacher called on “Hilary”


“Which one??” we’d say in unison and break down in hysterical laughter. But alas, that initial confrontation was the last time I ever exchanged words with Fancy Hilary. She continued her reign as the only true “Hilary,” ignoring my very existence as did most of the other kids at the school. And when I think back, ignoring someone is probably one of the cruelest types of bullying that exists because it renders one completely invisible. 


For the first time in my life, I felt utterly alone. At Rosewood, my quirky, artistic persona fit right in with my classmates. Most of us were being raised by a single parent and money was scarce. At Beverly Vista, a school that reeked of privilege, I felt like I’d crash-landed my broke-ass spaceship on a hostile planet. 


Then one day, in my giant and immaculate homeroom with large windows spraying LA sunshine on the backs of our heads, the teacher led the class in a calligraphy lesson. Yes, part of the fourth grade curriculum was to learn the very useful fine art of Japanese lettering. I noticed a quiet Japanese girl in front of me essentially crushing the assignment. She flicked her wrist with ease, creating beautiful black brush strokes on the parchment. I craned my neck to look at her paper and commented on how amazing it was. Her name was Yuko. 

Yuko, a perfectionist who never had a rumple on her pressed cotton pants, became my first friend at Beverly Vista and quickly introduced me to her bestie, Kanae (pronounced Can I – emphasis on “can”.) Kanae was heavier-set and more of a gabber like me. In a sea of white faces, Yuko and Kanae, were the oddballs, the outcasts. We quickly bonded over our similar plights and became inseparable. The three of us all freaking loved Sanrio. We traded stickers and admired each other’s collections. We went sticker shopping, ate lunch together, and gossiped about other kids at school. Having a couple of friends made life in Beverly Hills finally bearable. But then something changed.


I came to school one morning and Yuko wouldn’t talk to me. Later, when I saw Kanae on the playground, she marched ahead as if she couldn’t see me. In class, I tapped Yuko on the shoulder. I called her name. But she just sat staring forward, her perfect posture rigid in her wooden chair. I stared at her short ponytail, waiting for it to turn but it never budged. It was like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” As if somehow I’d never been born and life as I knew it had completely vanished. At recess, I approached them, I asked them what happened, and I was sorry if I had done something wrong. But like Jimmy Stewart desperately shouting at the people who can’t hear him or see him, the two friends acted like I wasn’t there. They just talked to each other until I walked away. I tried for days to get them to forgive me for something I didn’t even know I had done but they never came around. And so after a few days, I gave up. 

At home I sat in the closet in my room and cried. For hours I sobbed and tried to replay everything I had done and said to Yuko and Kanae to make them suddenly hate me. Ma called me for dinner and when I didn’t answer, she sent the physicist to look for me. He opened the closet door, saw me sitting there in the dark and shouted, “She’s in the closet.” Not knowing what to do, he awkwardly shuffled off, leaving me there to sulk. 


I remember this time as my first foray into total inconsolable sadness. It seemed that Yuko and Kanae had broken my heart though it was probably intensified by the veritable trifecta of Ma getting remarried, my brother moving away, and starting at a new school where everyone hated me. I never made another friend at that school. When the year mercifully ended, we moved to a new house in the valley and my brother came back to live with us. I made friends easily at the new school and normalcy returned. 


Unfortunately, my stepdad got transferred a year later and I had to once again start at a new school. It was something I did over and over again as kid and I can only say that after Beverly Vista, I honed my ability to recognize “my people.” I never had another Yuko and Kanae experience. I did have some thuggish guys push me in the school cafeteria but it was nothing compared to the psychological warfare waged on me by a couple of nine-year-olds. Their unflappable ability to completely freeze me out still haunts me to this day. It’s something I’d never wish on anyone.

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