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Chapter One – Meet Mel

You know how some things go together and some don’t? Spaghetti and meatballs, movies and popcorn and shoes and socks are famous pairs, but pickles and ice cream, popcorn and milk and spaghetti and tuna are definitely not.

I always felt I am one of the things that don’t go with any other. I’m Melinda.

Melinda was my grandmother’s name. She died before I was born, so my mother wanted me to have her name. My mom says grandma was a spitfire, but unfortunately all I inherited was her name.

I’m one of the unseen people; I exist in the shadows on the outside looking in. I pride myself on blending into my background, like camouflage. And it helps my art; it makes me an observer. I watch people and I draw what I see.

I notice the shy boy desperately trying to ask the girl he likes for a date, while the girl’s fruitlessly trying to encourage him by flirting.

I spot the band, drama and choir students who can’t help themselves from breaking into song at any given moment, everywhere they are. It must be nice to have that kind of talent.

I observe the awkward outsider kids at their lunch table, the ones who luckily found each other and are free to happily be themselves. They seem like birds flying in whatever direction the wind blows them.

And I spy some of the football team acting like the biggest men on our high school campus by torturing poor freshmen and mathletes, spilling their lunches and knocking their books down.

When I draw this type of bullying behavior, I usually illustrate them as funny-looking monsters with big snaggy teeth with hunched backs and horns all over their bodies. Sorry, not sorry—that’s how I see them, so their outsides match their insides.

But I also view the cracks in their armor when some of them are alone and the power of numbers is gone. On their own, I note their confidence and self-esteem often fade as some struggle to keep up in class. Without numbers, they are only one.  

When you take yourself out of the narrative and open your eyes, unrestrained by outside influence, you see things as no one else can.

My favorite subjects of observation are the beautiful girls in school. They call themselves “The Glam Squad.”

Every day, I can’t wait to see what they’re wearing or how they do their hair. Drawing them is pure pleasure.

They seem to splash right out of the posts and videos of Seventeen magazine and Teen Vogue. Designer shoes, clothes, backpacks… the bling is literally blinding.

I’m the plainest Jane in the world. My curly, frizzy hair is an uncontrollable mess and my clothes are hand-me-downs, but secretly I have a passion for everything beautiful. I follow every fashion influencer on social media and never miss a thing.

I have to admit, I look at them with awe and envy. They’re so confident and pretty that they pull the attention of everyone in their wake like magnets like goddesses. It’s amazing.

So when I draw them, I show them on pedestals or in the clouds surrounded by stars and wind gliding like flowing doves as they wield their god-like influence over the students here.

They’re truly unique rarities in the normal student body. Then again, aberrations describe everything I experience at this school.

Last year, the high school in my area closed and the district redrew the boundaries to split up the kids into neighboring schools.

The administration says it was a cost-cutting measure, but I heard many parents say it‘s an attempt to integrate kids from poorer and working-class families with rich kids. I understand there were even lawsuits to prevent it from happening, but it did anyway.

I heard one teacher call it “a sociological representation of the real world in a microcosmic bubble of high school.” Makes me feel a little bit like a Petri dish in a vast trial of humanity, as seen through a teenage lens.

But as the authority figures experiment with their live subjects, one thing they always fail to factor in is reality. It’s tough enough to be a teen with a constantly changing body and outsider perception of yourself. The constant struggle is just to exist every day and try to learn something. But add in the separation of culture and wealth and it can be a continental divide that’s difficult for a young person to navigate.

 To double the pain, all my friends since elementary school went to the other high school. So, I started as a freshman last year completely and utterly alone.

The first day of school was like waking up on another planet. From the fancy phones carried by all the students and designer wardrobes to the cars parked in the parking lot, it all smelled of money.

In my head-to-toe Goodwill hand-me-downs, I feel like Cinderella going to the ball in rags instead of a gorgeous gown. And there was no fairy godparent around. I definitely don’t fit in.

Very quickly, I became fascinated by the extraordinary and flagrant display of wealth. It’s so different from the life I lead, the only child of a single mother with two jobs living in a tiny rental home on the “other” side of town.

I think that’s why I’m so captivated by the glamor girls in the squad. They’re out of this world. It’s something I can never hope for, but can enjoy from the outside looking in.

I watch and record this high school experiment in my drawings. I don’t know what I’ll do with them, if anything, but now in my second year, I have accumulated 15 sketchbooks so far. I fill about one a month. Along with pencils and gel and sparkle pens, I buy them on clearance or at garage salesanywhere I can get them cheap. I babysit in my neighborhood and do odd jobs after school to make money for my art habit. I’ve also learned to use every square inch of paper and every bit of pencil lead down to the nub.

For months, I sat and drew without notice—until I met Ev. She’s remarkable, the self-proclaimed queen of the school outcasts.

She’s from the other side of the tracks, literally, in a section of town that has constant railroad traffic from freight and commuter trains. It’s very noisy and sometimes even shakes like a mini-earthquake.

But Ev is a warrior. She takes no prisoners and gives no apologies for the way she lives her life. Her hair is usually spiky, but she changes the length, style and color as often as the richies change their expensive sneakers. And she always picks the most electric thing to wear. She’s a rock musician, so I guess that’s part of the uniform.

She’s edgy and cool and calls me Mel. I like that. It makes me seem trendy, even though I’m not.

It’s strange. I crave what makes others unique, but I don’t want to stand out.

We first met when I was in my usual chameleon mode, trying to blend in and draw what’s around me. Most of the time, this worked and people left me alone, but she noticed me and invited me to sit with her group.

I declined. I told her I like to maintain focus on my artwork. But really, I use that as a cover. I’d like to have friends, I think. I just don’t know how to fit in.

For weeks, she invited me every day and asked to see my work. I was stunned. No one ever acknowledged me or my work.

To me, they’re just doodles of what I see through my mind’s eye. But with her creative palate, Ev sees them better than I do.

“These are wonderfully detailed representations of people and things showing their innermost feelings and true colors.” She pointed to a few drawings and explained what she saw in them.

“This picture of a man reading a book shows the depth of his interest in the subject and the wonderment reflected in his face. And this drawing of an older dog with a ball in his mouth, but his eyes show the young pup who always wants to run and play. You see inside people—their emotions, wants and needs. It’s a special gift.”

That was it. We bonded over our creative spirits. I prefer a one-on-one friendship and she never pressures me to do otherwise.

She laughs when I draw her exploits. Whether she’s standing up for bullied kids or trying to make changes in the school to benefit everyone, she’s a superhero. And that’s how I draw her, because that’s what I see.

She always laughs at my depictions of her.

“Why do you always draw me with muscles and a big ‘A’ on my chest?” she asks.

“Because you are the strongest person I know and I think you’re incredible,” I answer.

I love her artistic soul and continually admire her bravery and talent, in spite of her obstacles.

It’s not easy being openly gay in high school. There are only a few others who are out. She takes on everything and leads the charge for acceptance of every disadvantaged kid in the school, no matter what.

I may have only one friend, but I’m glad it’s her.