“But it is my firm conviction that the ‘Hell of England’ will cease to be that of ‘not making money;’ that we shall get a nobler Hell and a nobler Heaven!”
— Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present
I was just six years old when I was first condemned.
It was a Tuesday; a dewy, spring morning in the kindergarten trailer. It’d rained the whole night and I didn’t sleep well; I was still groggy and grumpy by lunch — still trying my hardest to wake up — when I guess I stepped in front of Susan in the lunch line.
My recollection of the event is much foggier now, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t on purpose. (Goes to show, even your worst memories fade over time.)
I remember: Susan cleared her throat — loudly — at least twice before I noticed her (but who knows how many times she might’ve done it beforehand; almost the entire cafeteria was already looking at us when I realized what I’d done and glanced around, horrified). She looked me straight in the eyes and spoke slowly, enunciating as much for her audience as she was for deplorable ol’ me:
“I, Susan, formally condemn Sarah,” she’d announced aloud. Of course, the girls surrounding her — her posse, but not her friends — vigorously nodded in approval, outstretching their skinny fingers to point at me with disgust.
Instantly, I felt the entire school’s eyes crawling all over my skin. I hated it.
“I also formally condemn Sarah,” one of the girls announced, and the others parroted her one after the other, each slightly louder than the last.
The cafeteria was silent for what felt like an eternity while the adrenaline kicked in and finally woke me up.
“I didn’t, I mean,” I stuttered at Susan, stressing my mistake.
“Shut up,” interrupted another girl nearby, and then also condemned me.
“Susan,” I pleaded. “Susan, I didn’t mean to cut in line, I promise. I’m sorry, I just didn’t see you there.” I pleaded, begged, and added the only other emphasis I knew might get their attention: “I swear.”
I heard some of the other kids gasp and could almost feel a collective gaze lighten as everyone waited impatiently for Susan’s response. The only sounds in the cafeteria were the soft echoes of rippled condemnation in perpetuity, as kids on the other side of the room felt the need to voice their opinion on what they’d heard about what others heard about what happened today — or was it yesterday? — in the cafeteria.
I jerked back to reality to hear Susan declare, “I do not accept your apology.”
It was all over from there.
If school was unbearable before, it was truly a living Hell for the condemned.
It was harder, sure — which, I guess worked out, because what else was I going to do but study anyway? — but mostly it was the loneliness that made it so hard. The isolation and segregation drove me further and further into my own head, grasping desperately for any escape from the ceaseless solitude.
I held on to my best friends for longer than the others, but eventually the pressure on them from the rest of the school was too much and they, too, publicly condemned me. I didn’t blame them at the time and I don’t blame them now; they were under a lot of pressure from the other kids to denounce my villainous and aberrant ways.
My teacher was my last bulwark but she, too, fell once a critical mass of her students were sieging the foundations of her morality. I remember the day Ms. Ball fell, too. She pulled me aside just minutes before condemning me to explain that she wouldn’t be able to talk to call on me in class anymore, or grade my papers (unless I received a failing grade on one, of course), or help me when I have a question or need an adult’s intervention, like when the other girls got in my personal space.
In that moment, my world flip-turned upside down, but I still remember my response almost verbatim. I retorted: “I know about condemning, Ms. Ball. The whole school knows about it. I don’t think you should condemn me, though. I didn’t do anything to you. It’s not right.”
The look in her eyes, I’ll tell you: this woman almost broke right there and then. But just as quick as the weakness set in, I saw it slip out just as fast and her eyes hardened, brows furrowed.
She pursed her lips at me with a tight frown, then stood up and turned to the class to announce, “I condemn in the strongest possible terms: any and all actions in the past, present, or future taken by Sarah Whitegale.”
I stopped getting grades that day. I still had to do the assignments because I’d fail if I didn’t turn them in (or just did poorly), but they weren’t that bad. I had plenty of time to study, and it felt nice to be bettering myself in some way. Looking back, making the choice to suffer through school instead of just giving up was probably the most important decision of my life.
And so I learned, on my own, inside and outside of school. It wasn’t that bad. I made the school library my home, partially because the kinds of kids that hung out in the library were way less likely to antagonize me, but also because thousands of books lining the shelves each served as temporary escapes from my personal inferno.
I read a lot. All of my textbooks, sure, but also adventures and thrillers and history and poetry. Dante’s escape was a must, for sure, but I also experienced the savagery of society through Piggy’s eyes on the paradisaical Coral Island, found a glimmer of hope for humanity with a bear named Corduroy, and saw life could be much worse from Annie’s struggles — or could get much better if only the magic in Matilda or Carrie were real. The peers I ended up growing up with were immortal: sirens and pirates, Martians and monsters, talking mice and mermaids.
Most of the time I was able to tune out the unending blur of bodies around me; they didn’t bother me and I didn’t bother them (with the exception of a few girls). Sometimes, though, I’d be taken aback by a stranger’s directness, often accosting me for things I wouldn’t even know I did.
Maybe I did, though, and I just wasn’t paying attention.
I always apologized anyway.
I tried condemning people back on occasion, but my opinion was worthless to those who’d already condemned me. If I got a reaction, it was rarely better than a derisive laugh. I had to pick and choose my battles carefully, though; they were rare, but I was acutely aware they always had the chance to escalate beyond control when the adults refused to intervene.
School was hard, but eventually I passed.
No actual grade was given; just “passed”.
After school, I traveled. A lot.
Reflecting on it now, I do recognize that traveling was nothing but a drug for me; a high I chased after every time I arrived somewhere new: no one knew me, no one had any opinions of me — and they’d talk to me. They’d be nice, for a while. When someone waved, it felt like a breath of fresh breath while drowning. When someone smiled or said hello, it filled me up like finding a crumb of bread after a week of starvation.
It usually took about six weeks for the people to start talking, asking around, wondering if anyone they knew had ever heard of a young Sarah Whitegale. News traveled fast, but I traveled faster; I got my basic human decency kick and then I was out of there, on to the next town before the wakes of my past caught up to me.
In each town I took whatever random work I could get to make whatever I could make to eat whatever I could eat before having to resort back to sidewalk scraps and dumpster dives. I always felt like people were more sympathetic to workers during Winter Holiday and consequently I never had too much trouble finding work that let me warm up indoors during the colder months, but come summer the kids would come out and steal all my jobs, leaving me hungry on the sidewalk, emphatically regretting nothing more than cutting Susan in the lunch line all those years ago.
If only I had apologized better.
Deciding to persevere through school may have been the most important decision in my life, but the town of Rashwell was definitely the most impactful turning point of my sanity. My whole life I’d been lead to believe that the condemned were worthless failures, rejects from the mold of a decent human, doomed with a desolate fate worse than death. Rashwell showed me that people like me could still be somewhat decent human beings sometimes.
You see, when people stop talking to you, you usually stop trying to talk to them, too. You can only get so many blank stares back at an emotional plea for help before something in your brain breaks and you give up on the world. It’s a nasty cycle that results in those who never speak up also never finding those who would actually be willing to listen.
In all of my years through school and early adulthood, I never once encountered someone else who was like me — condemned — until I arrived in Rashwell one particularly cold winter and was taken in and welcomed by a host who surprisingly wished to remain anonymous. I was suspicious at the time, but he turned out to be an alright guy in the end. It took almost ten years before I learned that he’d been publicly condemned for not condemning someone who refused to say whether they’d condemn someone who thought condemning people was our God’s job, not ours.
My host and the rest of Rashwell were an oddly private city. People didn’t introduce themselves with metadata about their lives, they answered the phone with a friendly “Hello?” instead of first confirming whether their caller had no recent social transgressions, and they rarely spoke up in public except to people they seemed to already know — and even then, rarely with judgment and accusations.
It was weird, but it was also oddly charming.
I waited and waited in Rashwell for people to finally start talking, asking around, wondering if anyone they knew had ever heard of a young Sarah Whitegale. But they never did, and I’ve been here almost forty years now. I worked at a small paper company for the first thirty, starting out as a low-level clerk and slowly climbing the ladder to Assistant Regional Manager. I retired at fifty-five and no one batted an eye; I picked up some hobbies (mostly playing cards and bingo) and sought out places I could do them in public.
I had friends, too. They came and went, but when they went it was because of my actions instead of who I was. At first I was still just learning how to socialize, you see. I was immature, just a kid at heart stuck in a grown woman’s body. I learned how to be respectful, considerate, and honest — it took a few decades, but I swear I did — and I ended up making a few honest-to-God friends-for-life.
We’re all old enough now that we’re starting to drop like flies each year, but I’m glad I met Ruthie, Rosalind, and Rena. I just wish I would have met them forty, fifty, maybe even sixty years earlier.
Having friends made it a little easier to manage through life, but I still struggle to make sense of what God originally intended for my life. It may be true that some people are born just so they can be buried, but… what’s the point of a burial if no one will mourn your absence? What’s the point of life if no one cares when you’re gone? What happens when the only people who miss you also disappear — and have no one left to miss them either?
Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been different if I’d been paying attention and just seen Susan standing there all those years ago, or if she had had just a little more compassion or understanding when I cut in front of her; how well I would have actually done in school with my work ethic if she hadn’t condemned me to the solitary life of an outcast and dirty vagabond; who I would have met and the diversity of stories I would have heard if anyone (outside of Rashwell) had shared anything but their scorn with me; the lives I might’ve touched if I weren’t a leper; the infinite possibilities of things I would have learned, done, created, shared, seen, smelled, or experienced; in another life — one in which I was actually a decent human being, pure and unmarked like the woke.