When I was in elementary school I had a strange love/hate relationship with a girl named Leila. She was probably the most vile person I ever had to go to school with.
When I was in the first grade, my father ended up finding a better job. From the good fortune we received, we moved from our Habitat for Humanity house on the south side, to a better part of town into a much nicer home. Due to the move, I of course had to change school districts, which led to me going to a completely different school in the first grade. I was always an incredibly shy child. I was so shy, I couldn’t even talk to some of my close relatives. I’m sure you can imagine the horror that I felt on the first day of my new school.
I remember my mom telling me that after she dropped me off and walked me to my classroom, I clung to her crying. I was devastated that my mom had to leave me, but before I knew it this boy Skyler befriended me. We were inseparable…well, until the day he moved away the summer before sixth grade.
Skyler was a quirky outcast, and I was this racially ambiguous shy kid, still unsure of where I belonged in the world. We were a perfect pair, but we were also perfect targets for Leila. There was also a mousey girl in my first grade class named Kelly. Kelly and Leila were best friends. Leila was the stronger of the two personalities, so naturally she bossed Kelly around. The two always reminded me of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall in The Shining. One was a loud, intimidating, person you didn’t want to get angry. The other was so timid, if a pin dropped, it would startle her because she always tried not to not step on any toes.
That being said, Leila was a bully. She wasn’t just awful to Skyler and I, she was a hellion to everyone she’s ever encountered. She knew every soul crushing insult in the book, and she wasn’t afraid to get physical. It was almost as if she fed on causing trouble and loved it when people feared her. Almost as if she relied on that control in her life.
For the most part, Skyler was the only person I played with during recess. I did however, have two other friends that were also in my class. Renee and Bri. They were two feisty girls that that didn’t take crap from anyone. I don’t know why they chose me to be their friend, but they were always my protectors that year, especially at recess.
There was this one particular time where I was on the slide, keeping to my close knit circle. Leila and Kelly approached me, and of course Leila was the instigator. I can’t remember all the details, but I remember her wanting to get in my face. Renee and Bri immediately started yelling at her, screaming at her to leave me alone. Of course, since Leila was outnumbered in extroverts, she backed off. It was like this for quite some time.
I always liked Kelly, even though she was friends with the person that harassed me almost daily. Since Leila wasn’t in our first grade class, that gave Kelly and I the chance to bond. Somehow, during my elementary school years, Leila warmed up to me and we became friends. I suspect it was Kelly’s doing. Even though Kelly and Leila were now my friends, Leila was still unpleasant to us. We put up with it though. Most likely due to fear and our lack of a backbone.
[FF >> to the 4th/5th grade]
It was a sweltering summer day during Memorial Day weekend. Leila invited me to spend the night at her house, which I was very much looking forward to. Her house was less strict than my house was (and they had cable!). Her dad was never really home, which was fine by me because whenever he was around, the atmosphere changed and made the house feel uneasy. Her mother however, was always around and I absolutely adored her.
The company Leila’s dad worked for always rented out a section of one of the facilities on the property of the local swimming pool/park. They had live music, free food, and employees got to invite their friends and families to come swim for free. This particular year Leila invited me, so I was beyond stoked to go.
Throughout that day we swam at every single pool (there were three), went on the bumper boats, and went down various slides. Eventually we went to reapply our sunscreen. We saw her mother frantically walking towards us. She approached us as calmly as possible, and told us that we had to get into the car immediately. I think Leila already suspected what was going on. I on the other hand was completely oblivious.
We rushed outside, and I noticed all four tires on their maroon 1980s Buick had been slashed. Even with the now four useless tires, we got into the car and Leila’s mother drove slowly back to their house (which was close by). Much of that day is a blur, but I remember Leila and I rushing into her room. She had a white metal framed day bed in front of one of her bedroom windows that faced the backyard next to their garage. We were crouched by her bed, peeking out the bedroom window. Her mother was waiting outside.
Leila revealed to me that her dad must’ve been drunk again, and when he gets drunk he sometimes gets violent. Part of me wasn’t completely surprised. When her dad was home he wasn’t always sober. If ever. I will never forget the concern in her eyes, not for herself, but for me. I think it was the first time she was genuinely kind to me.
She told me,
“Keisha, if my dad comes into the room I want you to crawl through the window and run to the garage. Grab my bicycle and ride it to the church down the street and get help. Have the police come”.
The fact that she was willing to put herself in harm’s way, is one of the most incredible things anyone has ever done for me. Especially someone at such a young age. It is one of the truest acts of kindness that I’ve experienced that I will genuinely never forget.
Thankfully, that scenario never had to happen. Unfortunately, a terrible situation did arise. While her mom waited outside for what seemed like hours, (but was most likely 30 minutes maximum) her dad showed up. He was visibly drunk. From here it gets hazy, but I’m pretty sure Leila’s parents were arguing in the driveway next to the garage. That’s when I witnessed her father punch Leila’s mother in the mouth. I was horrified, and I’m positive Leila was too…even though it’s likely she has witnessed domestic violence in her household before.
She grabbed the pink Pocahontas blanket that laid on her bed, and we hid under it.
We sat in silence.
From that moment on I saw Leila in a different light. I no longer saw her as a bully, or as Jack from The Shining. I saw her as a person that was so angry because of the home life she endured. Being so young, children don’t really think they can talk to anyone about it. I don’t think she had any other outlet than to just explode. Granted, it wasn’t an outlet she should’ve chosen, but I no longer blamed her. In fact, I understood her better. My heart hurt for her.
Even though I wished she didn’t have to endure that life, I’m grateful that I could be there for her that day and she didn’t have to go it alone.
I guess my point in telling this story about a childhood friend, is that even the meanest of people can have their layers washed away. They have their reasons, and I think it’s important that we as people try to understand one another. Even if a person is incredibly angry and rude, there must be a reason, and I believe there’s always hope for people.
If anyone is wondering about Leila, sometime during the sixth grade she moved to a different part of the state with her mother. I got to see her the summer after, and she was a completely different person. She was happier, made a lot of friends, and joined a lot of extracurriculars. Since then, I only got to see her once more a few years ago. She’s happily married and has a great job. She has even traveled abroad quite a bit. Her mother is also doing quite well.
There is always light within the darkness, and I’m glad she found hers.