Good friends are better than pocket money.
This proverbial saying has recently taken root in local Jamaican pop culture. However, never has it proven more true for me than in the past four months. My time in the U.S. has definitely taught me not just the value of friendship, but the importance of building strong relationships with good people.
But we get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning…
My family moved around a lot when I was a child. By the time I was nine years old, I had lived in seven locations and attended four different schools. In fact, until I turned thirteen, I never spent more than two years at any school.
Most children would have hated that – to be separated from friends and familiarity every few years. But not me. I loved it! My parents were glad of that. I adjusted easily, and my mother marvelled at how quickly I made friends.
Yet, one incident left her perplexed, even to this day.
It happened when I was much younger – maybe about 5 or 6 years old. Thrilled at how well I was getting on with children at school, my mother thought it might be fun to organise a surprise playdate for me.
I was in my room – maybe painting or playing the keyboard – when she summoned me downstairs. She had made treats and several of my friends from school had come by to enjoy a little get-together. I greeted everyone, grabbed a plate of my favourite treats and returned to my room. I didn’t come out again.
Afterwards, my mother asked me why I hadn’t come down to play. I was confused. I was supposed to play with them? Why? I hadn’t invited them. I told her I didn’t know why I hadn’t. I was already having fun in my room. I didn’t need any more company. My mom stared at me for a moment, but was at a loss for words.
She never invited my friends over to play again, and I didn’t ask her to.
As I got older, this strange paradox continued to manifest itself and became more and more ingrained in my personality. In high school, I kept my circle small, but every year there was some new kid claiming to be my best friend. Half the school hated me for being “different” and the other half respected the fact that I dared to.
It was impossible to bully me.
The people who tried either got a taste of my sharp wit, or was met with my bored nonchalance in response. Eventually, even teachers learned to leave me alone, or risk being embarrassed in front of the class.
By the time I made it to college, I had soared to the peak of my popularity.
Once again, half the school hated me, while the other half continually tried to work its way into my company. Amidst all the death threats (yes, I said death threats) for my dark fashion sense, heavy black make-up, rock music and LGBT friends, there were still people who respected what I stood for – and some who just wanted a place in the limelight.
Suddenly, the very people in high school who had tried to pick on me were standing up for me against the “cool” set of sophomores. Before I showed up, they had been the talk of the town. Now, no one cared much for what they did or why. Whether they loved me or hated me, the fact remained that I was now the unrivalled “it” thing on campus.
In an attempt to embarrass me, they would follow me around the hallway taking pictures and calling me a “freak”. But that only threw more attention my way.
In response, my own circle of friends continued to grow. In just a few weeks there were about 50 of us sitting at our table, and another 20 or so I had separate friendships with from class. We fit by rotating based on our schedules, and often times, ended up camping out on the floor between classes.
One day my best friend who went to school three hours away called me to say, “People are talking about you here, too. I don’t know how you do it. How does the most antisocial person I know, also have the most friends?”
Before that, I can’t say I really noticed my popularity (and simultaneous notoriety). I spent my freshman year of college in a daze. I started that year still living with my biological father, and after a few months, moved out, and then got a judge’s permission to live on my own. I also had to get a restraining order against my father, which he continually violated.
I was seventeen years old.
It’s no surprise then, that I wasn’t too concerned about what was going on around me. I had escaped into myself and the outside world got very little of my attention. Most of what I know now, was pointed out by friends, or related to me when I made it to my sophomore year.
By then, people got used to me, and half the things that had been so taboo the year before now became normal and trendy. People learned not to judge a book by its cover, and then my network of friends grew even larger. Meanwhile, the need to discuss my every move finally died down.
Most people will tell you the popular and rebellious kids must have the worst friends in the world. I can’t speak for everyone, but that couldn’t be less true for me. My friends helped me out with school during that custody battle between my parents, and even helped me pay for exams. They also dragged my butt five hours away to the university I would later attend, though I insisted there was no way I could afford a bachelor’s degree.
I graduated four years later with honours and no debt.
Today, most of my college friends have moved on to other lives, and we no longer speak. But, a whole new host of friends from around the world rolled in to replace them. These friends let me stay with them when I gave up my apartment and decided to be homeless for a month before coming to America. They encouraged me to write and freelance, and sought out opportunities for me I never thought of on my own.
And once I got here, I made even more friends, who took me to the gym, taught me how to climb, paid for plane tickets, and let me stay with them while I travelled. Friends who set up bank accounts in their names and gave me a card, so I could stash my savings somewhere safe while I was in the country.
I mean… the people in my life have been amazing, and after surviving an abusive home, you can’t imagine how surprising that is and how grateful I am for that.
I wanted to share this part of my odd life’s story for two reasons.
The first one is to show people from dysfunctional backgrounds like myself, that there is hope. We don’t have to be the stereotypical products of our environment. While not all of us will be the next Oprah Winfrey or Bill Clinton for our efforts, there are still success stories waiting to be written by all of us.
I also want to encourage people to give fresh chances to newcomers in our lives. Not everyone has come from a dysfunctional family or suffered abuse, but all of us have dealt with deception, rejection or betrayal at some point. It makes it hard to trust, and pretty soon we start painting everyone with the same brush.
If I had done that, I would never have experienced the amazing relationships and opportunities I have today. I’ve built great friendships, enjoyed healthy relationships, fallen in love (twice), and learned the true meaning of being as great a value in other people’s life as I want them to be in my own.
It won’t be easy and your judgement won’t always be right, but the reward is well worth the (calculated) risk in the end!
I still wonder how this (anti)social butterfly came to be, but perhaps it will be some more years before I figure that out. For now, I’m just grateful to count my friends as true allies, and for their continued support.
In fact, thanks to their concerted efforts, it looks like Atlanta is about to become my new home. I have no idea when I’ll be returning to Jamaica, but for the present, my place is here. It’s been a long road riddled with risk and uncertainty, and I couldn’t have done it alone. I look forward to an adventurous life here with family and friends, and to growing my freelancing.
Here are pictures from this weekend’s adventure.