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I Know How it Feels to be an Outsider

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“My father is a registered sex offender.”
The students in the auditorium gasped and began murmuring while some of the teachers looked at each other in surprise but the young girl standing at the podium just looked straight out at her audience and continued speaking in a slow, calm voice.
“You’re probably all thinking that he’s a pervert who preys on little kids and that he deserves to be locked up for life.”
Many heads nodded in agreement, some swivelling to see the reaction of the teachers standing at the back of the room. Mrs. Hughes, the English teacher, was used to the shock aspect of Speech Day; it was the one opportunity to say controversial things in front of an audience, and students sometimes crossed the line, forcing the teachers to shut down a speech, but she had not expected this from Jessica Wilson, the new girl who always sat at the back of the class, and rarely spoke.
There had been the usual sighs and sniggers from her class of teenagers when she reminded them that Speech Day was coming up.
“And before you all ask,” she had said, “yes, you do have to participate, and your speech must be your own, not one copied off the internet or from one of last year’s students, so you can use the rest of this period to think about your topics.”
The students groaned as they pulled out fresh sheets of paper and began doodling and writing about the usual subjects of pets and family holidays. Now that she thought about it, there had been some commotion in the class.
“Ugh, gross!” cried Nick Dobbs, peering over at Jessica’s paper. “Jess wants to talk about sex offenders.”
“Pervs, you mean,” said Elizabeth Culter, “like you.”
“Lock them all up,” called somebody from across the room, and several other voices began to chime in, until Mrs. Hughes quieted the class. She noticed that Jessica’s head was down, her long hair obscuring her face while she wrote.
When the bell rang the students all jumped up and gathered their belongings, moving out of the room in a herd, already talking about other things. Jessica gathered her books and left on her own before Mrs. Hughes could say anything and now here she was, giving her speech.
“He’s not like that, but I don’t suppose you’ll believe me, now that you’ve heard the term ‘sex offender’. That’s all you’ll focus on and you’ll all avoid me and whisper about me behind my back.”
The girl looked directly at the student on the end of the first row, then moved her gaze along, pausing at each student in turn. The room was silent now, and some students began to squirm in embarrassment. Mrs. Hughes glanced over at the school counsellor and raised her eyebrows, indicating the obvious: this girl needed some form of help. The counsellor nodded and Mrs. Hughes wondered if the school had a file on Jessica, whom she had always found to be so quiet and withdrawn you could almost forget she was in the class.
“That’s OK. I’ve been there before; I know how it feels to be an outsider, to be excluded.”
Jessica talked about her lack of friends and Mrs. Hughes wondered if this was a result of bullying, and if so, how long it had been going on for. She sighed; in spite of the rallies and pink shirt days, bullying was as much a part of teenage life as it had always been, and teachers were always the last to know.
“Well, let’s forget about the offender part and talk about sex,” continued Jessica, breaking into a grin.
The students sniggered; they were back onto a favourite topic, one they could relate to. The teachers rolled their eyes and some looked at their watches.
“I know you’re all interested in sex, and some of you have even tried it.”
The students laughed and all looked around, wide-eyed, as if they could spot the cavorting couples. Some pointed fingers at particular students while others whispered in the ear of the person next to them, no doubt passing along salacious pieces of gossip. Mrs. Hughes took a step forward, intending to stop the speech, but the deputy head signalled to her to wait.
“Well, my Dad had sex with my Mom,” said Jessica, “and they had me. Just like each of you is here because of an action by your parents. It’s simple biology.”
The students were now making gagging noises; sex was all fine when it was on TV or between themselves, but totally gross when connected with their parents, or any adult that they knew.
“My Dad was eighteen, the same age as some of you,” Jessica pointed at the tall, lanky boys sprawled on the chairs the in back row who cheered and waved their fists in response.
“This is getting out of hand,” whispered Mrs. Hughes to the deputy head, “should I stop the speech and move on?”
“No, I think this could be interesting,” he replied, “wait and see what point she is trying to make.”
“But my Mom was only fifteen, the same age as some of you,” and here Jessica pointed at the first row of students, and the younger ones blushed and glanced at each other.
Jessica waited until all the snickering and elbow nudging had died down and addressed her audience again.
“And because of that one time, when a teacher found them in their school’s store room, my father was declared a sex offender and placed on a national registry.”
The students were silent now, staring intently at the girl standing up on the stage.
“And do you know what that means? I doubt it, because you probably don’t know any sex offenders. Let me tell you.”
Jessica moved away from the microphone and began to pace back and forth along the edge of the stage, her voice rising in volume as she spoke.
“My Dad is not allowed to come within 300 metres of this or any school. I take a twenty minute bus ride to come here every day just so there’s no chance that anybody who becomes my friend might try to walk home with me. I can never invite kids to my house. My Dad can’t watch me play sports, and he can’t come swimming or bowling with me. My Dad never pushed me on a swing in a playground because he is not allowed in the parks. We’ve moved house six times because the neighbours threatened him after discovering he’s a registered sex offender; one time we nearly had our house burned down.”
The students were all staring at Jessica, mesmerised by her speech. Mrs. Hughes looked over at the counsellor, wondering how many students would seek advice after this revelation.
“You probably think this speech is all about avoiding underage sex,” Jessica continued, “but it’s not. It’s about accepting other people. People like me and my Dad. I’ve been bullied, ignored and threatened, all because of something that’s not my fault. I’ve learned to ignore it, mostly, but it can be hard. My Mom and Dad just want to lead a normal life. Is that too much to ask?”
There was a moment of charged silence as Jessica walked back to the podium, gathered her notes and turned to step off the stage. Then the students at the back began to clap, and the applause spread across the room, with many students standing, and all craning their necks to follow Jessica as she took her seat in the centre of the auditorium.
“Well, how do you follow that speech?” the deputy head muttered as the next speaker stepped up to the microphone.
Mrs. Hughes looked over at the counsellor who was already surrounded by a group of students.
“It’s not Speech Day we have to worry about,” she said. “Just wait until this news gets out to the parents.”
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