On Being the Consolation Prize
I like to share stories about my various mishaps and foibles because I believe that it is at our very worst that our humanity shines brightest, and that when we share our mistakes and hurts, we are breaking down a very destructive tendency of actually believing there are pristinely perfect and happy people in the world. We have all been to hell. And really, there are few hells as hot and as bad as high school.
I actually attended boarding school for high school. I try to explain the situation as thus: imagine if you lived at high school. You slept, ate, and studied with not only your classmates but your teachers as well. I was from California, and my boarding school was in Massachusetts. I had been sent there, as my parents and I had the not uncommon disastrous teen-parent relationship.
I have what I believe is an ordinary form of shyness. I would rather die than approach a person and ask them to do something. However, if someone asks me, I am always thrilled, and when I am with people, I am open and outgoing. I was a junior when a girl in my dorm had asked me to dinner. There was a new Indian restaurant opening, and she asked me if I wanted to join them. She used words such as ‘we,' ‘us,' and ‘they’ when discussing the matter with me. I was thrilled. When it was time to go, I met her in our dorm hall. She was dressed very casually and without makeup. I, however, had really gone for it (at least in my mind) and was a little caught off guard by the imbalance in dress. We had almost made it all the way down the stairs when a very nicely dressed boy had entered the dorm and in seeing us trotted up to the first landing. He beamed as he greeted my girlfriend. He then eyed me quizzically as if questioning why I was just standing there and not either going down the stairs or going up. I too was feeling odd as I was wondering when the rest of this ‘us,' ‘we,' and ‘they’ were going to show up. The young man then asked my girlfriend if she was ready to go. She then said, that she was too tired but that he and Jenn (me) should still go. His face dropped. He looked as though someone had asked him to taste something and when he did he desperately wanted to spit it out. It was completely obvious he was crestfallen. As for me, I was humiliated. In just a few seconds I had gone from excited, to confused, to annoyed, and then finally hurt as it was very clear I was not only the consolation prize I was in the gentleman’s estimation one of little consolation.
Of course, I quickly exclaimed that it was okay to me that we cancel the dinner and surely it would be more fun if we all could do it together and that I absolutely would not be bothered if we just don’t go. Much to my shock my disappointed young man gulped and said that no, we should still go. My girlfriend seemed very pleased by this and gently goaded me to go.
I did go. And actually the dinner was delicious. I always felt a little less like I was in exile when I was out to dinner because it felt a little like ordinary life. We talked the entire time gregariously, and really it was fun. I had only known him by sight before, and it was fun to learn who the stranger was as strangers in boarding school are complicated as we all study, eat, and sleep together. It is a relief to get to know them a little better as it makes the situation more comfortable. However, it’s always important when you are the consolation prize always to remember that you are the consolation prize. It would be fun to give you a John Hughes’ movie ending to this story where the bad tasting consolation prize suddenly turned into the lovely prize of the evening. But that is not what happened. The cab ride back to campus was chilly and awkward. It was clear as we rode back to school that the earlier romantic disappointment had reemerged in our young man’s mind and that the good food and pleasant conversation was no match for the fact that it was not the night he had wanted. I was fine in not being the prize belle, as I was never a girl who sought to win favor. I only feel safe with people who like me as I am. I do not remember talking much, but I do remember a kind of delicate exchange that implied closure. We were not going to be friends after this.
And we did not. To be sure, it was a little hurtful that somehow it was necessary to make me so low as to act as though I did not exist. It could have been a situation where hellos were said in passing or pens would be loaned on occasion. Senior year we had a class together that was small, and by its nature, close-knit, as there was a great deal of open discussion. By then the event was nearly washed away for me, as years for teenagers are lifetimes. However, I did in class marvel at his want or need to behave as if he had never met me in his entire life, and to be honest; I still have no understanding why he took such an effort. I had outright enemies at boarding school that I still time to time had lunch with and chatted away merrily.
We often find ourselves in embarrassing situations as I did in being made (quite unwittingly) the consolation prize. But these times can be useful too, as this memory always reminds me to be loving and friendly to the person I did not want to get stuck sitting with at dinner. Our bad times can remind us how much it hurts when people are careless with us—making us redouble our efforts to take extra care with others.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.” You can follow Jennifer on her Instagram here.
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.