The Best Comeback

A harsh reality hit me when I was seven years old.

My next-door neighbor “Jennifer,” a girl two years older than I, announced that she and her family (mother, father, and teenaged brother) talked about me at their dinner table. Jennifer didn’t need to elaborate for me to comprehend that they were not singing my praises. However, to be sure I understood the nature of their discussions, Jennifer stated, “You always act like such a baby!”

That was the first time I learned of someone disparaging me behind my back.

Granted, like almost every other child, I had been called many names to my face: meanie, chubby, and crybaby, to name a few. While I can’t claim to have handled those moments with grace, I gained some satisfaction from responding—e.g., by “telling on” the aggressor(s), defending myself, attacking back, or chanting, “I’m rubber and you’re glue, so what you said bounced of me and stuck to you!”

Digesting Jennifer’s newsflash, I felt her family’s dinner-table conversation materializing as a dark, shameful aura that attached itself to me. Although I wanted to ignore the revelation, doing so would not dispel their opinions of me. I couldn’t block out a vision of the four of them pointing their fingers and laughing at me. Most unsettling was the notion that the adults—who’d always appeared to consider me a pleasant, well-behaved child—had been faking their feelings.

What could I possibly do or say to shake off the embarrassment?

I wanted to continue playing with Jennifer. More so, I didn’t want to be left out when she and my sister, a year older than I, were having fun. Coming up with all sorts of outdoor activities, such as exploring my family’s wooded lot and creek adjacent to our yard, climbing trees, riding bikes, bouncing on a gigantic rubber tire in Jennifer’s yard, and playing hide and seek, we had a blast. At times, Jennifer’s brother would join us, and while arguably a little too old to take part in our games, he always presented exciting ways to enhance them. Thankfully, his involvement didn’t lead to any broken bones!

With Jennifer’s pronouncement hanging over me, I went home and told my mom. Her initial reaction was to criticize their judgment. Why would they waste their precious time together at dinner to gossip about a child? That was childish!

Seeing that her disapproval of them didn’t help me feel any better, she said, “Oh, they just wish they had a smart, beautiful little girl like you in their family. They can’t stop thinking about you, and that’s why they’re talking about you!”

Not buying her pitch, I pushed for something to say to Jennifer when she brought up the subject again. “If she says something like that again,” my mom finally offered, “tell her that it’s so nice to know I’m such an interesting topic of conversation.”

Repeating my mom’s comeback to myself, I decided it was brilliant. Knowing that I knew they talked about me would make them feel silly about doing it. Also, if the seven-year-old next door would happily take center stage in their kitchen, they wouldn’t take so much joy in conjuring her spirit with their gossip.

I couldn’t wait to drop the line, but the opportunity wasn’t presenting itself during my next encounter with Jennifer. Impatient, I said, “Do you remember when you said your family talked about me at the dinner table? I’m glad I’m such an interesting topic of conversation!”

Jennifer retorted, “Oh, we stopped talking about you. You’re not that interesting.”

Not that interesting? Once again, I was defeated. Or was I?

In the middle of ruminating over the fact that Jennifer and her family were dishing on me while serving up their meatloaf and mashed potatoes, until becoming bored with me, I had an aha moment.

Their conversation had centered around my age-related deficits. In all honestly, at times, I couldn’t keep up and whined about being unable to jump over the creek, climb to the higher tree branches, or ride my bike as fast. Those instances would annoy Jennifer, making her wish I didn’t have to tag along. If I couldn’t play, however, neither could my sister.

Yes, my sister and I had our separate friends, but when it came to running around outside with neighbors, she and I were a package deal. Since Jennifer’s family did not have two kids of the same gender close in age, they weren’t focused on why ditching me, leaving me to play alone, would be hurtful. (Considering that her older brother occasionally joined in, I believe Jennifer’s family would have been more empathetic if they were in our situation.) Besides, my “big” sister generally liked having me around—sometimes to boss!

Nevertheless, when I thought about the situation objectively, I couldn’t blame them. If I wanted to play with the older kids, I should act accordingly. No whining! If I stopped crying, “Wait for me!” and started peddling faster, I’d catch up sooner.

Importantly, I realized, if didn’t like what others were saying about me, whether it was behind my back or to my face, I should be honest in determining if they were justified. In other words, were they reacting to something I was saying about myself through my own words and/or actions?

The best comeback, I learned, was to communicate that I was mature enough to be part of the group. My PR campaign was not an overnight success, but it gained traction over time. Through my conscientious commitment to altering their views, my audience stopped seeing me as the baby or referring to me as one.

Thank you, Jennifer, for talking about me at the dinner table, telling me about it, and forcing me to realize that people could be paying attention to how I spoke and behaved even when I wasn’t.

Sallie W. Boyles, a.k.a. Write Lady

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