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The Secret Popularity of a 12-Year-Old

I was everyone's confidante, but no one knew it

By Lucinda CookPublished 9 months ago 6 min read
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The Secret Popularity of a 12-Year-Old
Photo by Denis Oliveira on Unsplash

If there was a stampede before, now there was practically a riot when the phone rang.

“Is it Beep?”

“BEEP!”

Doors slammed open from every direction, as fourteen and eighteen-year-old girls alike sprinted to get to the phone first; dressed or half undressed, book or pen or hairbrush in hand and sometimes wielded as a weapon, the girls as one were determined to talk to Beep. If it was Beep phoning, the triumphant victor of the day settled into the phone cupboard and shut the door against the losers with a smirk.

It was never Beep when I was there, even though he phoned daily, and our room was right next to the phone.

If it was Beep on the phone, I was always on another phone way across campus in a teacher’s apartment. For I, dear reader, was secretly ‘Beep.’

I better back up and fill you in a bit about my strange and wonderful life, and explain how I came to have a key to a teacher’s apartment.

It is 1972, I am twelve years old, trilingual and a veteran of six countries, eleven schools, divorced parents and a newly acquired American step-family.

My Australian diplomat father and my step-father-to-be happened both to be posted from Jakarta to London in January 1969. In London, I missed my dad, even though he lived just down the road, and — until I had the major revelation that I would probably miss London once we left, so I may as well start to appreciate it now — I hated England. I longed to go back to Indonesia.

We were atheists, but I invented prayer. Its purpose was to get me back to Indonesia, and for three years the following brief utterance was my nightly ‘prayer’:

“Tables and chairs, bananas and fruit bowls.”

It worked!

My step father was offered a senior management position in Jakarta, and he accepted. I was over the moon, for a month.

Then my mother dropped the bombshell: My older sister and I would not be coming with them, but were to go to a boarding school in the U.S. Even though I was only twelve, my mother had wrangled a ninth-grade place for me in this exclusive high school for girls, whose be-gargoyled campus was often used as a film set for gothic horrors.

I suppose my mum, leaving us behind to travel as far away from us as was geographically possible, imagined that I would be support to my older sister, but my sister long despised me and was disgusted that we were now going to be in the same year. You can guess how much support either of us was to the other for our year there.

The sugar coating on the bitter pill was that my mother had also wrangled a place for our family dog. A young teacher who lived in an apartment on the edge of the campus had agreed to house him, on the understanding that we would walk him every day. By we, read me, for Chartie was my best friend, and my sister never walked him.

At this ivy-draped school my mother summarily left us, giving each a hug, a silver dollar commemorating Susan B. Anthony, and the spare key to Lyn’s apartment. I spent that silver dollar in a blink, while my sister — we adore each other now — has kept hers to this day.

I shared a room on a different corridor from my sister, and barely saw her again till the holidays. A few of my schoolmates were still fourteen, but most were fifteen and up. I was twelve and no hint of pending womanhood was on me, so on top of the age difference, I also struggled to fathom the alien, vacuous and giddy ways of those pubescent upper class American girls.

Needless to say, I had zero friends, and though I wasn’t bullied, I was a laughing stock — “Waiting for a flood?” (I’d quickly outgrown my bell-bottom trousers, and they were nearer my knees than my ankles). I ate alone in the cafeteria three times a day, ‘cause if I sat down next to my sister she would up and leave without a word.

I didn’t like that school much but I didn’t know it until we had already left — yes! back to Indonesia and the International School there.

I did love that I was now unsupervised, and away from my large squabbling family, my mother’s rules, and her constant nagging. I could eat what I liked, leave my bed unmade, my hair uncombed and the night torture contraption that was supposed to be attached by my metalled teeth ignored.

I disappeared from campus whenever I wanted, with Chartie and Nell, an Irish setter who soon befriended us. We — runners all — roamed the deep woods of upstate New York for hours on end, whatever the weather.

Each corridor in that school had its own telephone, and whenever it rang there was a chorus of opening doors and a stampede to answer it. It was never for me. One day I was at Lyn’s apartment, collecting Chartie for a run. Whatever possessed me I cannot recall but I idly picked up the teacher’s new-fangled looking phone and phoned my corridor’s extension. It was quickly answered, but I didn’t speak back. I pressed a number and it emitted a tone.

“Hello?”

“beep.”

“Hello? Is anyone there?”

“beep.” (Oh that’s interesting, that is a different tone.)

“Can you talk?”

“beep beep.”

I hung up, and went off for my walk.

Little did I know, but that was the beginning of my secret identity. Every day after my walk, I called my corridor, and without me speaking one word, Beep and the girls divined a simple code that grew ever more sophisticated. One beep meant yes, two beeps meant no. Aided by the different touch tones having letters attached to them, I could ‘sing’ emotionally-charged reactions, and could eventually then spell out words and sentences to whoever happened to win the phone.

But by that time the girls had already collectively decided that I was a handsome young man — most likely one of the pizza delivery guys, since those were the only males that ever graced the dorms.

I lazily practised total confirmation bias, and to each girl I was whoever and whatever their particular questions or confidences suggested, so each was convinced that Beep liked them best, and that they knew him better than anyone else. The things they confided! I got a crash course in understanding American teenage girls, 101.

Ironic, isn’t it? I suppose, these days, my equivalent would be an internet stalker, but this was long before such things were even dreamed of. I was a lonely 12-year-old, and if not exactly feral, half wild. I was only interested in the power of silence, touch tones, and building the code.

On the last day of school, we each got a yearbook full of photos of the students and teachers. The tradition was to comment and sign your friends’ books under your photo. I didn’t feature, so I just signed Hollis’s front page when, amazingly, she asked me to sign her book.

Hollis was a senior, a sensible working-class scholarship girl who had sympathised with me from time to time. When I signed her book, I rewarded her kindness by writing that I was actually Beep. Well, she laughed her head off, and as my step-grandparents ushered me and my bags out the swing doors, the rumour had already spread. The last glimpse I got over my shoulder was the stunned population of my corridor gawping at me, as a tremulous lone voice filled the silence. “But she can’t be Beep!”

Memoir
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About the Creator

Lucinda Cook

Schooled on four continents, an omniartist and scientist, I present here a serialised open-access guide and Key to gaining a tangible understanding of the bizarre multidimensional realms of quantum physics through my method of crochet.

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  • C.S LEWIS9 months ago

    great work why cant you join my friends and read what I have just prepared for you

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