My senior year of high school, I became friends with a girl I'll call Nora.
I had known of Nora, and been vaguely acquainted with her, since our first year of high school, after students from the two local junior highs poured into one giant freshman class, mingling uneasily in the suspicion-soaked demilitarized zone marked by our former rivalry. I was from one school and she was from the other, owing to our residence in different parts of town; her neighborhood had a name, which was displayed on a stone marker at the entrance to the subdivision. I just lived on the corner of two unremarkable streets.
Even though our new unified class was more than 650 students, we knew each other distantly by name and face. We didn't have classes together, but we shared friends in common among the intersecting social circles formed around student activities. By senior year, she was head cheerleader and I was the editor of the school paper—disparate endeavors that nonetheless left us with more in common than the kids who weren't joiners, who came to school every morning with dragging feet and vacant expressions and left at the end of each day, right at the buzzer, the same way; the kids we never saw hanging event posters in echoing hallways long after even the teachers had gone home.
Senior year was the first time we had a class together. It was physics, taught by a Russian immigrant who was nicked for selling black market goods out of the trunk of his car and scandalously had an affair with one of the chemistry teachers, both of which had naturally turned him into a legend among teenagers. He flirted mightily with his female students, but was also encouraging: "Women can do science," he told us. "Women should do science."
He had a laissez-faire approach to teaching, giving us swift and intense lessons, rather than trying to stretch the material to fill the hour, after which he would sit at the imposing black-topped table at the front of the room, reading the financial pages of the Chicago Tribune and cursing, but making himself eminently available to us for individual instruction if we approached. We were otherwise left to our own devices, allowed to use the time to complete the assignment or fuck around in the most egregious ways, including unsupervised and unsavory use of the Bunsen burners.
It was in that void of structured instruction that Nora and I became friends. One of my two best girlfriends, who were also in the class, was friends with Nora, and she got pulled into our little group, where, some days, we did the assignment together, and, other days, sat around talking shit, leaving the assignment for homework. Nora and I, unlike the other two girls, liked alternative music; she had the cheerleaders dancing to Nine Inch Nails during halftime, and I was getting letters to the editor admonishing me to "stop reviewing albums by fags" and demanding "more Warrant!"
I should mention here that Nora was (and, I imagine, still is) beautiful. That is not incidental to this story, because I ardently admired Nora's beauty. She had a golden complexion she'd inherited along with a lyrical last name from her Italian father, and long, wavy, honey-brown hair and crystal blue eyes. Her body was everything that mine was not—tall and slender and built perfectly for wearing fashionable clothes. She had an impeccable natural style that gave her what passed for sophistication in a small-town high school, and she was confident enough to be goofy.
She was that beautiful girl written about in stories who so intimidates boys that she never has a date. And, when prom rolled around, no one asked her. She brought a gorgeous college boy, a friend of her older brother's who hadn't even gone to our high school, and was a patently ridiculous specimen. She might have been embarrassed if she'd decided to go to prom with the other cheerleaders and their football-player dates—but, at our table, she wasn't being judged on his adequacy.
When she was called up onstage as part of the prom court, we cheered wildly for her. Someone else—a nice girl, who was a star on the softball team—was named prom queen, and when Nora returned to the table, she expressed a genuine happiness for the girl who'd won. It seemed almost silly that Nora would have been nominated to something as provincial as a high school prom court, standing there in her sparkling gold column dress, with her hair down and curly and wild, while everyone else was in disastrous neon gowns, their hair trapped miserably in awful, hairsprayed up-dos. She was already a woman, among girls.
After high school, we went our separate ways and promised to keep in touch, but didn't. There was no internet, no email, no mobile phones with texting and free long distance. We each wrote a letter or two from our universities in different states, but failed to form a habit. We had new lives to build. I nonetheless still think of her, both because she is embedded in some fond memories of that time, and because my relationship with her is so intimately associated with my feminism.
Because she was beautiful and smart and funny—and, perhaps more importantly, because she had no ego about these things—Nora was the kind of girl about whom other girls said, "I hate her." Sometimes, those who were meaner, or just bolder, said it right to her face—"I hate you," in that way that's somehow meant to be a compliment, despite its being delivered in a tone of contrived affection that cannot conceal the underlying spite. "God, you're so pretty; I hate you." "God, you're so thin; I hate you." "God, you're so perfect, Nora. I hate you!"
She would laugh nervously, uncomfortably. "I'm not," she'd insist, and look away. I felt for her. There was no response she could have offered to make herself less "hateable," but nothing quite piqued the ire of the mean girls in the way that her authentic humility did.
In truth, they didn't hate her; they envied her. And so did I. But I didn't then understand that their "hatred" and my affinity for Nora had the same genesis, its expressions made distinct by my security. I wanted more of her in the world, not less. Their insecurity made them destructive toward her—which is something I can only describe in retrospect, given the benefit of maturity.
At the time, I thought maybe I fancied her.
All I knew was that I was different, because I didn't "hate" her the way the other girls did. And I didn't know what that difference was. I guessed, even though I'd never had the urge to kiss her the way I wanted to kiss boys, that maybe I was a lesbian. I'd sure been called a dyke often enough by bullies; perhaps they were right after all.
It wasn't until I'd arrived at university and started taking classes in women's studies that I finally began to understand what set me apart from the girls who hated Nora: I am a feminist.
I'd heard of feminism before, and I had a cursory understanding of it as a belief in gender equality. But as the concept of a comprehensive feminism began to really take shape for me, I realized that my relationship with other women, especially women I admired, was different because I viewed them as complements to me, not competitors.
Suddenly, here was this explanation for my intuitive (and totally unconscious) rejection of the endemic idea that women cannot appreciate and cherish each other's strengths, cannot be role models for one another, but instead must regard each other mistrustfully and competitively. I saw a distinction between the warm and aspirational envy I felt toward Nora, and the destructive jealousy that I saw directed at her by our peers.
Women, contrary to nearly every message on the subject I'd internalized since birth, could be inspired by other women they respected; women did not need to axiomatically feel threatened by the kind of women they wanted to be.
It is terrible that this was a revelation to me half my life ago, and that it is a revelation to many young women (and not-young women) still.
My friendship with Nora was unlikely, given the peculiar way relationships are built in an American high school. We were a bit like two Breakfast Clubbers who'd decided to keep speaking after a profound day in detention. But the lack of judgment on superficial bullshit that we offered each other, providing space for one another to be complex creatures and deviate without reproach from stereotype, was rare and lovely. We accepted each other.
I was part of an artsy-fartsy crowd; my people were writers for the school paper and the yearbook and the literary magazine, photographers, painters, drama club kids, glee singers. Nora was part of the popular crowd; her people were cheerleaders and athletes and the Student Council officers. We gushed longingly and lustfully for Eddie Vedder—and deconstructed his lyrics. We flirted back with our physics teacher. We talked quietly in class about being misfits, and confessed our insecurities, and reassured each other. Existing in that space with another woman, whom I did not judge and who did not judge me, taught me about the kind of woman I wanted to be with other women.
I think about that, and her, with an abiding fondness when I think about how feminism is not just about the idea that women are not just men's equals, but each other's. We are taught to tear each other down, instead of building each other up—but feminism teaches us how to build, how to be partners.
We can create spaces in between us, free of judgment and rich with encouragement, in which we can gaze on each other's enviable qualities with appreciative smiles.