The Tall People of Bell Prairie: A Creative Nonfiction Piece
Written May 13, 2019 for a creative writing course.
Hopefully, this will be just one part in a series of essays in which I will reflect on and attempt to reconcile with past life experiences. I hope you enjoy it.
Hello there. I’m Lillian. I’m currently a high school student. I’ve been told that I’m “mature” for my age, but I’m not sure how true that is. In some ways, maybe I am. Mayhaps my diction is more elevated than that of my peers. Maybe I know more facts and formulas. Maybe I’m more certain about my career field. But in other ways, I’m certainly not.
To tell the truth, I am stuck. Not physically. (Maybe a bit, as I’m only five feet tall.) Mentally and emotionally, I am stuck somewhere between North Kansas City and Lee’s Summit, Missouri. I am stuck at ten, eleven, twelve, and thirteen years old. I have grown as a person since then, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are people and things from that period of my life that, to this day, I haven’t legitimately confronted and reconciled with.
I’ve written about these people and things before, but not adequately. I wrote about my experiences from a condescending and one-sided point of view, and I wish I hadn’t. I hope that now, years after my first attempt, I’ll be able to give a more accurate and introspective account of what happened in these years. Maybe finally writing about everything – finally trying to think deeply and critically, to see things from all sides, to put these complex feelings and experiences into words – maybe it’ll help me let it all go. I don’t want those awkward years, those past mistakes, and those ghosts of friends to continue to dominate and define me. To haunt me, even.
With that said, I’ll begin at the beginning.
Bell Prairie Elementary School. When I first came, it was a new school, its teachers beginning to teach just as I was beginning to learn. I didn’t live in the school zone; I should have been going to Gracemor, which was much closer to my house in Claycomo (Clay County, Missouri). Thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, though, I got to choose where I’d spend my formative years. I picked Bell Prairie, the new building with that new-building smell, where in August 2009, I was among the first three-hundred-and-fifty-six young learners to walk the halls, touch the walls, and dirty the restrooms. How exciting for a five-year-old.
Like most people, I don’t really have any guilt left over from my early childhood. All things considered, I was a pretty good kid. Even those not-so-good sides of me (the nose-picker and nail-biter, the shouter and the boundary-pusher) can be labeled as normal phases that a child goes through. Things didn’t start getting complicated until a bit later.
I never had a fourth grade year. Near the end of the third grade, my instructors told my parents and me that I could just skip it if I wanted to, since I was excelling in class. It was a fantastic opportunity, and I’m still extremely grateful that it was offered to me; I know not everybody has that privilege. Naturally, I took advantage of it, so my mom had to homeschool me about fourth-grade topics over the summer. Long division, short division, essay writing, Missouri history, and Tom Sawyer, then into the fifth grade in the fall.
At the age of eleven, I had short brown hair, even shorter than I remembered. In photographs from the beginning of my fifth grade year, I appear to have had a 1950’s-style bob, curls and all. By the end of the year, my hair came down as far as the middle of my neck, but was still curly as ever. I had bangs at the time, which covered an acne-adorned forehead. I looked thin, but not malnourished. And I was short. I was convinced that I would grow taller, but no. And I am still short.
Previously, I’d been the tallest student in my grade, save for the coach’s kid, who seemed to have had to do Kindergarten twice. Now, as I stood among a different age group, it dawned on me that I was (at best) around average height for a fifth grader. I felt mildly threatened, to be completely honest. I gravitated towards tall people for protection. Names will be changed to protect the following tall people.
Hannah had rectangular-framed glasses and gray-blue, deer-in-the-headlights sort of eyes. Her pupils were always dilated, it seemed. Her face was round and milky-white. She had silky, dirty-blonde hair that she usually wore down, but sometimes put in a ponytail or under a cap. She told me that she wanted to dye it black when she got older. She’d wear the same jacket every school day for weeks or even months at a time. First it was a neon pink one — it was how I recognized her at first, before I memorized her face. When she switched to a magenta jacket, it really threw me off. By the time she changed into a cyan jacket, though, I was familiar enough with other recognizable features to identify her. Her small apartment faintly but frequently smelled of cigarette smoke; her mother smoked indoors. Hannah didn’t smile; she just stared at you with her big, beautiful psycho eyes, and sometimes stuck out her tongue.
She didn’t take social cues. She was a quiet, indecisive person. At first, I liked her because I thought we had a shared interest in Minecraft. Later, though, she told me that she’d only pretended to like it so we’d have a reason to be friends. She was lonely, so she had become a social chameleon, saying whatever it took to get close to someone. We bonded over role-playing (not the sexual kind; we were fifth graders, for God’s sake). Thankfully, I was past the stage of biting my tongue hard enough to draw blood and telling people I was a vampire. Hannah, though, managed to convince me (at least for a little while) that she was a werewolf. She was my best friend for a very long time.
Baron had square-framed glasses and deep brown, always-smiling eyes. His face was round and freckled. He had brown hair that I’m sure would have been curly, had he let it grow beyond the almost-buzz I remember him having. He was tall like his father but fluffy like his mother. I remember going to his large but cozy house, playing with his puppy and being frightened by his older dog. I might have liked his puppy more than I liked him.
I came once to watch him play baseball with a team called the KC Phantoms. I made him watch videos by a group called “The Yogscast” who played video games together and who I thought were extremely funny (he did, too). We bonded over Minecraft and hyperactivity. I projected onto him an image of warmth, comfort, and acceptance. It wasn’t hard to do so, because he truly was a kind person. He was just a tad more affectionate in my mind than in real life. Baron was the boy I called my boyfriend, but I don’t know if fifth- and sixth-grade “romance” counts.
Lawrence had these slightly-squinted eyes that I can’t quite picture the color of. Like Hannah, he didn’t smile. I can’t recall him ever laughing, only frowning and looking serious. My mom said that she remembered the same thing, so I know that it isn’t just a false memory. He had dirty-blonde hair, I think. His face was a creamy tan. In a sense, he was the odd one out in my eyes. I just never connected with him the way I did with Hannah and Baron. I wish I had tried harder.
From the age of nine onward, I thought about boys a lot. Fictional boys, celebrity boys, and even a few that I actually knew. I had a deep desire for affection. I craved warm hugs and clammy hand-holding. I longed for movie dates where I only partly watched the movie and mostly just thought about how close my arm was to my crush’s. I wanted to shout with glee and tell corny jokes and make painful Yogscast references in the backseat of the car, snorting unattractively in laughter and annoying the hell out of my parents as they drove us to a pizza place or something. (Is that too specific?) Anyway, I wanted to be with someone, and I didn’t really care whether it was Baron or Lawrence. When Hannah told me that she had a crush on Lawrence, it made things much easier on my part.
I liked Baron. I liked him a lot. Based on the rumors that Hannah told me, he also liked me (and so did Lawrence). But there was a problem, one that fifth-grade-should-be-fourth-grade me didn’t fully consider. My family and I were going to move from Claycomo to Lee’s Summit, Missouri over the summer, which would make it hard for Baron and I to be “together,” whatever that meant. Since I was a needy person, it definitely wouldn’t have worked out for me, any way you sliced it. As I mentioned, though, I didn’t really consider the problem. On the last day of school, I asked Baron to be my boyfriend.
It is recess time. The area that is sometimes the parent parking lot is gated off, and it is our play area for a half-hour each day. Today, I bring him over by the gate to talk where nobody else is playing right now.
“Hey, Baron, I like you and I wanna be your girlfriend.”
“Okay. I like you, too!”
My first regret: hurting Baron like I did. It was inconsiderate of me to pursue a relationship like that without thinking about what was ahead. We spent a fun summer together, but unsurprisingly, we grew distant once the next school year began. I developed affections for someone else (Hayden from Lee’s Summit). The following February, I cut ties with Baron.
I broke up with him via eMail.
An eMail to his dad, because he didn’t actually have eMail.
I did see him once again after that, and he was amiable enough, so I guess he eventually got over it. But immediately afterward, and for at least a year or more, he gave me the silent treatment. Fair enough; I probably deserved it. I’m sorry, Baron. I hope that your baseball is going well, if you still play. Thanks for the hugs. Sorry for the pain.
Hannah was similar to me in that she wanted someone to make her feel important and loved, but she hadn’t had the same luck with Lawrence that I’d had with Baron. When Lawrence had been informed that Hannah liked him, his response was, “Oh.” She never told me how she felt in that moment, but it can’t have been great. I wish I’d been more supportive of her in general, and this was one of the times when I failed at that. To be fair, though, it wasn’t easy for me to understand her hurt. At ten, I wasn’t exactly a professor in psychology; I don’t think that most fifth-graders can read others’ micro-expressions.
She and I stayed in touch even after I left the school district, continuing our stories over the phone and in Google Hangouts chats. Real-world events in her life kept pushing her deeper and deeper into our fantasy worlds, and I let myself be dragged down with her. She was Josh Jones, who was part-human, part-fire god, part-fairy, part-werewolf, and an elite assassin; I was Tox, a wannabe adventurer with more personality than actual skill. She and her characters always dominated the story while mine sort-of followed along. I was alright with that for a long time, but eventually, I became bored, tired, and uncomfortable.
Hannah’s stories and characters were always a bit dark and edgy, but it had started to be too much for me. Heads exploding, discussions of sex, and descriptive body horror weren’t things I wanted to deal with in the sixth and seventh grade. Plus, as she got into shows like Naruto and Dragon Ball, she would shoehorn characters and elements from those universes into our world, and I didn’t understand (or care to understand) them. Our friendship became more and more strained as we subconsciously realized that role-playing was the only thing we had in common. I remember the moment when that realization truly dawned on me.
Hannah is at my house. We are older now, and it seems like things have changed between us. Because it’s so difficult for us to talk, and she won’t tell me what she wants to do, I decide to show her a browser game that I find funny.
The game is about a stick figure man who has to escape from a high-security prison. It is a choose-your-own-adventure, and almost all choices result in a punchline relating to the popular memes and jokes of the time. I find it very entertaining. Hannah isn’t saying much.
I turn to look at her. “Are you having fun?” I ask.
“No,” she replies.
I turn off the game.
“Well, what do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. I’m asking you.”
There is a pause. Both of us know what she’s going to say. It always comes to this.
“I guess we could role-play.”
And because it’s so difficult for us to talk, we just open up a text document and type out character interactions without saying a word. It’s the most fun she has all day, actually. As for me, I just feel sort-of empty.
After the move, I met new people with similar interests to mine. I had other options – other people to create more interesting stories with. So I just stepped away.
My second regret: ghosting Hannah. Instead of immediately confronting the problem with her, I just avoided her. It was rude and immature, and an awful way to handle my feelings. I eventually did send her a comprehensive explanation of why I’d been ignoring her, but when she didn’t change and I felt myself being dragged down again, I ghosted her again. It was probably the best choice I could have made at the time, since I wasn’t yet old enough to really understand how to navigate interpersonal relationships and help other people. I still haven’t quite figured that out. Still, I wish that I’d had the wisdom to handle the situation better, and maybe even be a good influence for her.
I’m sorry, Hannah. Sorry it was so difficult for us to talk. Sorry I didn’t know how to be a better friend and role model. Sorry I left you in the dust when better company came along. People have done that to me, and I despise it. I guess I’m a bit of a hypocrite. Maybe someday soon, I’ll work up the courage to tell you all of that myself. Or maybe you’ll stumble upon this essay one day and read for yourself. Either way, I hope that you can forgive me. Thank you for being a friend.
Lawrence was the only one of the Tall People who I didn’t stay in touch with after the school year ended. I never disliked him, but out of all the people in my inner circle, I bonded with him the least. I don’t actually remember much about him other than that he gifted me a colorful charm bracelet with turtle-shaped beads during lunch one day. I found it recently, and I wear it on my right wrist. I also remember his fascination with zombies.
I remember a certain interaction between us during an indoor recess period, where we had to make our own fun in the empty cafeteria because it was too cold to go outside.
Hannah and I are playing over by Lawrence. Baron is somewhere else, perhaps spending time with other friends. Lawrence has a book on zombies that he seems excited about.
“Give me your arm,” he half-requests, half-demands. I oblige.
He takes my forearm, gently rotates it underside up, and feels it with his thumb. I stare quizzically at his hands, as does Hannah.
“Yep,” he tells me, “you’ll turn soon.”
His diagnosis was incorrect. I still have not turned into a zombie, unfortunately.
Years later, and months after my initial draft of this essay, Hannah reached out to inform me that Lawrence had taken his own life. It came as a shock to me; I had been aware of the increasing issue of teen suicide for a while, but never had it been so close to home – someone I had actually known and spoken to on several occasions. Someone I had called a friend.. From what I read in news articles about Lawrence, it had come as a shock to his loved ones, too. He hadn’t demonstrated any noticeable signs of suicidal intention.
My third regret: not having done more for Lawrence. Part of me believes, of course, that to regret such a thing is ridiculous. Lawrence and I had not known each other for several years. In addition, I had since moved several states away from where I grew up. It’s unrealistic to imagine that I could have prevented the tragedy that occurred. However, another part of me feels somehow partially culpable. It feels like if I had reached out to him more and been a better friend, maybe I could have been there for him when he needed someone. I can never know now whether I could have made a difference or not.
I’m sorry, Lawrence. Sorry that I wasn’t there. I will keep wearing the bracelet you gave me and be reminded of how lucky I am that I have never felt so desperate. I will wear it and be reminded of my actions’ effects on the others around me. I will wear it and be reminded of you. Lastly, thank you for your earlier diagnosis, but I have not yet turned into a zombie.
Goodbye, Tall People of Bell Prairie. You can’t haunt me anymore.