Your Important American Historical Figure
by Kristen Felicetti
In middle school, I enjoyed some moderate popularity with a clique of girls named Jenny, Jen, Kendall, and Naomi. Halfway through eighth grade, Jenny called my home and ceremoniously informed me, “I don’t want to be friends anymore.”
I had been sorely friend dumped and the next day the other girls followed suit.
Kendall repeated a variation of the same thing Jenny said, and Jen, the little coward, couldn’t even tell me in person. She passed me a note folded like a fortune cookie that when opened read, “We shouldn’t be friends. Nothing in common. Sorry.”
I don’t know why it came as such a surprise. After all, I had participated in doing a similar excommunication of Naomi with them over the summer.
A small part of me felt relieved. I’d never quite fit in with them and the process of hiding that had been stressful. I didn’t have the nice families and homes they had. And I spent a lot of time studying how they acted and what they talked about, so I could then go and do a similar thing the next time we hung out or sometimes even only a half hour later. An exhausting charade, but it was over now, and I could finally retreat into my head and fully obsess over what I genuinely liked. I had begun logging some serious internet sessions at the library. I’d joined a Tori Amos mailing list and a Fiona Apple message board, and started making friends on there.
The problem was I no longer had any friends in real life and that made day-to-day eighth grade existence rough. Lunch period especially. Maybe that’s why I went a little off the rails with my Fiona Apple presentation.
For Mrs. Gardner’s social studies class, we all had to do a presentation on an important American historical figure in talk show format. Another classmate would act as the show’s host and guide the interview. On the day of our presentation, we were encouraged to come to school dressed as our important American historical figure.
At first, I was stumped as to how I would dress as Fiona Apple. We didn’t have any physical resemblance, me being Asian and all. Nor did she have any identifiable outfits. She mostly wore loose-fitting skirts and midriff-baring tank tops, the latter of which I was definitely not doing. Then I remembered a story I had read from her now infamous Rolling Stone profile. It ends with her talking about a fantasy she has, where she enters the school chapel and sprouts wings. Everyone who has ever teased her, or thought she was weird, is suddenly amazed that she has this extraordinary ability, and as she rises and flies away from them forever, they all whisper in awe, “Fiona has wings… Fiona has wings…” I bought some cheap costume angel wings and called it a day.
During the presentation, I talked about Fiona Apple’s music, but after briefly touching upon her career successes, I mostly used the opportunity to portray Fiona’s complex and troubled self. I quoted extensively from the Rolling Stone profile, which by then I had completely memorized.
I told my classmates to go with themselves, and how I ate nothing but split pea soup for my entire tour. I talked about how I was currently on psychiatric medication because I had wanted to die before. I talked about how in fifth grade I’d said, “I’m going to kill myself and take my sister with me,” and how I used to stab the back of my closet because that was better than stabbing someone. I spoke about how when I read my first bad review, I scratched my arm until it bled.
And I saw Jenny, Jen, and Kendall watching this and thinking, “Wow, we really made the right choice dropping this crazy bitch.” But in the moment of the Fiona Apple presentation, it was the one time I didn’t feel bad about them dumping me.
Instead, I felt triumphant.
Yes, I was very proud of this presentation. I’d stayed in character the whole time. I’d also brought up serious topics that scared me to talk about, like rape and self-injury, but that I knew were necessary to mention as part of Fiona’s personal history and important to discuss with my peers in general. And I could tell I’d held my classmates’ attention. They had not been bored. If there was any flaw, it was maybe that I’d not done it with enough humor. The real Fiona Apple would have done this with a little more subtlety, a little more of a wink, like how she described her music video for “Criminal” as tongue-in-cheek. Overall though, it had been a great success.
Apparently Mrs. Gardner felt otherwise, because the next day she slid me a pass that said I had an appointment with Ms. Burke, the guidance counselor.
“Have you ever tried to harm yourself? Or had suicidal thoughts?” asked Ms. Burke. Her voice always sounded like she’d been sucking on helium.
“I wasn’t talking as me,” I said. “I was in character as Fiona Apple and communicating how she felt.”
“Yes, about that,” she said. “Mrs. Gardner told me the assignment was to present on an important American historical figure. Did you not understand the assignment? This means someone like George Washington or Susan B. Anthony.”
My first inclination was to respond, “Fiona Apple is an important American historical figure,” but I knew that would not go over well, so I didn’t say anything.
Ms. Burke folded her hands in her lap. “Ellie, how are things at home?”
“Things are good.”
“Well, it’s interesting to hear you say that, because I already called home. I heard about your mother. Why don’t we talk about how you felt when she left?”
I was not going to talk to this airhead about my mom. “It’s not a big deal. And this has nothing to do with that.”
She smiled like she pitied me, which I hated. I stared her down.
“I sense a lot of anger here,” she said. “At me, and at yourself. I’m going to recommend you go to Group.”
That got a reaction out of me. “No!”
Group was a program run by the drug and alcohol counselor Mr. Davis. It was almost exclusively populated by the Bad Kids, a clique of goths that loitered near the front entrance before and after school. I no longer had any friends, that was clear, but I really did not want to be seen as someone who went to Group.
But my sulky self had sealed my fate with Ms. Burke, and later that week I was pulled out of class and forced to attend Group. Half the Bad Kids were there, sporting the latest Hot Topic fashions. Their most recent incident was campaigning for a Satanic Bible Study outside the Christian Bible Study Club. They sat around a table waiting for Mr. Davis to arrive.
I picked an open seat across from my old friend Alice Sharpe. Alice used to be my best friend in third grade, but we never had a falling out like I’d had with Jenny/Jen/Kendall. We simply drifted apart in fourth grade when we weren’t in the same class anymore. That drift took us to different places in middle school. She wore a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt that was at least two sizes too large for her, a black choker with studs, heavy eye makeup, and black lipstick. I, on the other hand, wore a rainbow striped t-shirt with floral decals, which had been purchased from Limited Too.
“Hey,” she said. There was some recognition of our elementary school friendship in her voice. “I heard about your Fiona Apple presentation. Did you really say you were going to kill yourself and take your sister with you?”
“Yoooo! That’s tight,” said a boy at the table wearing an Insane Clown Posse t-shirt.
“Yes. It’s called acting,” I said.
Alice didn’t seem to care about that. “I like Fiona Apple too. Are you also into Ani DiFranco?”
“Yeah,” I said, surprised. I hadn’t met anyone at school who liked either of them, only people on the internet. “Not as much, but I like Little Plastic Castle. It’s a little front-loaded though. I think the better songs are in the beginning.”
“What? Are you kidding me? ‘Independence Day’ is my favorite song ever.”
But she wasn’t mad that I’d disagreed with her about this latter album track. She was smiling like she’d found a worthy sparring partner.
“Lesbian music!” groaned ICP T-shirt.
“That’s offensive,” said Chris Walsh, who wore black nail polish.
“That is offensive,” said Alice. “Besides, Ani, like moi, is bisexual, so the term lesbian music is not even accurate.”
“Whatever, dyke,” said ICP T-shirt.
Alice promptly flicked him off. I saw my chance at making the high school honors track fly out the window if I spent more time with these delinquents. But Alice was still focused on me. “What about Tori Amos, do you like her?”
“Boys for Pele.”
She grinned. “Mine too.”
Mr. Davis walked in with his dog and immediately, some of the Bad Kids jumped out of their seats in a rush to pet the black-and-white Border collie. Mr. Davis was bald and kind of weird, so a lot of people said mean things about him. For example, there was a persistent rumor that Mr. Davis had a dog because he was blind and this was his Seeing Eye Dog, even though it was clear he was obviously not blind—I had just watched him stroll into the classroom and check the attendance sheet. The dog’s purpose was clearly to provide ease and comfort for the kids he counseled. The other mean rumor about him was that he had AIDS.
In Group, I had to introduce myself because I was new. I kept it brief.
“Hi, I’m Ellie. It wasn’t my choice to be here.”
Then everyone else talked about how things had gone for them since last week. Despite the tough front they put on by the school entrance, some of the kids really got into it. They talked about their messed up home lives or the drugs they’d done or some abuses they’d suffered. There were tears and shouting and Mr. Davis just sat there calmly with his dog, and as I listened to him respond to them all in a soft, soothing voice, I noticed I was the only one in the room not wearing head-to-toe black. The whole scene was tragic. The only thing that could have made me consider returning was the opportunity to see Alice (she didn’t contribute much to Group either), but that did not outweigh the fact that I knew I had to do whatever I could to get out of this situation.
The next day I booked an appointment with Ms. Burke and showed up to her office with a huge smile on my face. There were two spectacular performances in this whole experience. The first was the Fiona Apple presentation itself. The second was the one I put on during my follow-up visit to Ms. Burke’s office.
I told her how upset I’d been about my mom abandoning me and how the Fiona Apple presentation had really been a cry for help. I thanked her for helping me realize that. I was going to be seeking my own counseling outside of school to process my feelings, but in the meantime, it was counterproductive for me to attend Group. There was a lot of negativity in Group, which didn’t feel healthy for me to be around right now.
The following week, when I walked through the school entrance, Alice stopped me. Instead of the choker, she wore a red ribbon that reminded me of that scary story where a girl has a ribbon around her neck and then when she takes the ribbon off her head falls off too.
“I see you’re too good for Group and got yourself out,” she said.
When I opened my mouth to object, she shook her head and said, “You’re lucky. I wish I could do that too. But that’s never happening for me.” She reached into her bag for a pen. “Maybe we could hang out sometime. Like we used to?”
“Yeah, that’d be cool.”
“We can listen to some albums.” She handed me the pen and rolled up her sleeve. “Write your number.”
As I wrote my number on her arm, I noticed red cuts, like tally marks, that had been hidden by her sleeve. I tried not to look at them, but it added a deeper understanding to why she wasn’t going to be able to lie her way out of Group.
“I’ll call you,” she said, and then slid back into the Bad Kids clique.
I waited an embarrassingly long time for that call. I don’t know why. Sometimes I stayed home after school, instead of going to the library to use the internet, because I thought this might be the day Alice called. But then I realized it was just another interaction that held more meaning for me than for the other person.
Mr. Davis mysteriously got fired, so Group was taken over by Ms. Burke, and later, dissolved completely. I returned to the library and calculated the number of days until I would officially be an adult. The answer was a whopping 1,542.
Kristen Felicetti is a writer, the founding editor-in-chief of The Bushwick Review, and a lifelong Fiona Apple fan. She lives in Rochester, New York, but travels often.
Photo: Iñaki del Olmo/Unsplash