Why I Regret Becoming Homecoming Queen

For most of my life, the story of how I became homecoming queen was a story of good overcoming evil, of the bullied taking back her power from the bullies. But in recent years, I have come to reconsider it.

I spent the final two years of high school at the bottom of the popularity pyramid. I transferred into a private school where the division was not between jocks and geeks, but between lifers and newbies. If you had been in the school since grade school, you were part of that insular in-crowd. If you joined later, you were one of their victims.

A few months after my transfer into this hostile environment, it was time for the annual ritual of nominating candidates for homecoming queen and king. Each class nominated two candidates by secret ballot in class meetings.

I was in the junior class, and over the years, the lifer girls had more or less taken turns at being on the court. One of the most popular girls, named Charlotte, hadn’t yet had her turn. Not only was it her turn, but it held great romantic significance for her. Charlotte had been dating the same boy since kindergarten, but he was a senior, so this would be their last opportunity to be king and queen together.

The lifers in our class rallied behind Charlotte’s nomination. But each class had to nominate two people of each gender. They wanted Charlotte and her boyfriend to win, but they were concerned that if they nominated one of the other popular girls, it might split the vote.

So I was the other nominee—the one no one would vote for.

When the nominations were announced in assembly, the entire school burst into spontaneous and sustained laughter.

Our school had a strange way of voting for homecoming queen and king: They placed large (unused) Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets with lids in the hall. A small slit was cut in the top of each to allow students to cast votes using spare change. Each cent equaled a vote. The proceeds went to the athletic booster club.

The system ensured an unfair outcome. Guys would drop as much money as they could afford into their girlfriends’ cup. Some doting parents stopped by the school to drop $20 in quarters into their child’s KFC bucket.

I wouldn’t have cared if it wasn’t for the bullying. Each morning was a fresh hell as Jeff, our class’ chief bully, used the weight of each bucket to asses the girls’ worth. Each day was a new opportunity to mock me.

About halfway through the miserable contest, the daily cruelty broke me. I became filled with fury and decided that I was not going to be bullied anymore.

I devised and began to carry out a quiet plan for winning a rigged game. At least that’s what I told myself. The truth is: I was out for revenge.

I went into hyper-drive raising money for our school’s booster club. I spent weekends and afternoons going door-to-door soliciting funds. I never told the people I solicited that there was a homecoming contest involved. As far as they were concerned, I was just a sports fan trying to help the team get new equipment.

Of course, even as I collected funds, I left the bucket at school empty. There was something magical about having a plan. Suddenly the taunts of bullies didn’t bother me so much anymore. In fact, I sort of took pleasure in them.

After the last day of voting, we were all sent into our class meetings to count the money and to report to the office which nominee would represent our class in the homecoming court.

Just before the meeting, I joined my fellow nominees and collected my bucket, doing my best to look as ashamed and defeated as I was meant to feel. On my way to the meeting, I stopped by the restroom. I chose the stall furthest from the door, and after locking its door, I opened my heavily laden backpack.

I reached in and lifted out two large lunch bags filled with contributions. I had collected a little over $300, a veritable fortune by that day’s standards. Some of it was in bills and checks, but there were enough coins to fill the bucket to the top. I somehow managed to get the bulky thing back into my backpack and zip it closed.

Somewhere between the restroom and the class meeting, the enormity of what I was doing hit me. These were vicious bullies who eviscerated me daily when I was completely innocent. What would they do to me now that I had provoked them?

I shook in my seat, praying that I would not have to have a direct confrontation. And for a little while I thought that I might be able to just turn in the money to the office quietly.

Unfortunately, just as we were about to end the meeting, the class secretary spoke up. She was one of Charlotte’s best friends, and the epitome of a mean girl. “Wait, we need to get the bucket back from Lynn and find out exactly how much was in it.” She smirked. “I think that some other people had mercy on you, Lynn. And you might have gotten a whole dollar. We need the exact amount.”

I looked around at the faces of my fellow students and saw nothing but mockery and contempt on their faces. A cold and quiet determination rose inside me. I would never be their victim again, and the power of that choice felt like a wave of electricity rising from my chest, straightening my spine as it went through me.

I unzipped my bag and sat the bulging bucket on the desk with a decisive thunk.  Then I spoke very quietly and deliberately: “The total is $311.62. You can count it if you wish, but it will take a while, and I guarantee you that I am right.” The last words were delivered at a volume barely above a stage whisper, making them more effectively venomous than if I had yelled them.

The room was silent as everyone stared at me with slacken jaws.

Charlotte was the first person to snap out of her shocked silence. I was looking away from her, so when she slammed her clipboard on the desk, all I heard was a bang that sounded like a small caliber gun going off. It was like a starter’s pistol, and Charlotte was off and running. For the next week, she alternated between tears, screaming at me, and pointedly sulking.

On the appointed night, I was crowned Homecoming Queen and Charlotte’s boyfriend was King.

It was awkward, and felt both righteous and terribly wrong. The truth was that I did not care one whit about being homecoming queen. I found it frivolous and shallow.

It was, however, very important to Charlotte. She had grown up with an idealized version of romance. Being homecoming queen with her boyfriend as king verified their destiny as a couple. It was her dream that I had dashed. And when all the screaming and crying was done, my victory did more to paint me as delusional than it did to silence my bullies.

Within a couple weeks of my win, Charlotte and her boyfriend broke up. Six months later, she was a pregnant drop-out. I can’t help but wonder how much my actions figured into the trajectory of her life.

For most of my life, the story of how I became homecoming queen was a story of good overcoming evil, of the bullied taking back her power from the bullies. But in recent years, I have come to reconsider it.

Sometimes it is the fighting that matters, not the winning. Sometimes we go a little past reclaiming our power and start to enter the morally ambiguous area of vengeance.

In retrospect, I recognize that I might have needed that moment, that instant where I said, “NO MORE!” But I wish I had stopped at the moment when I won, when I plunked down the cash. I wish that I had given the title of homecoming queen to the woman who actually wanted it.

Justice is not a zero sum game. We hear this over and over, and yet few of us really believe it. But we really can stop at the moral victory and allow the bullies to have their empty victory. Sometimes, kindness is more important than justice.

My family still says that I did the right thing, and in moments I believe them. But now that 20 years have gone by, I wish that I had given the bullies what they wanted, while denying them the right to continue bullying me. I wish that I’d given Jeff a taste of his own medicine and left Charlotte to her romantic ideas.

I wish I had known that refusing to be a victim doesn’t necessarily involve vanquishing your oppressor.

Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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