Advice from Rachel Vail!
So, my friends are planning a Halloween party and they have chosen the theme New Orleans Voodoo. First of all, is that already over the line cultural appropriation? All I know about the culture is from the James Bond movie "Live and Let Die", but I imagine skeletons and music with a swampy, cajun vibe... But, though I would like to think it could never happen, I fear that someone is going to show up in black face, ala a voodoo practitioner. If that happens, I would be mortified and probably have to leave (note: I'll be playing in the band). But to avoid that happening I have to ask my friends essentially, "How racist are you?" How do you start that conversation?
When the question in your head is, “How racist is this?” the answer is usually, “Too racist.”
I’m thinking yes, “New Orleans Voodoo” may already be over the line in terms of cultural appropriation, which is why you’re feeling squicky about it. Trust your instincts when they tell you this feels not okay. Just “New Orleans” is a fine theme for a party – eat some beignets and listen to some New Orleans jazz, all’s well. It’s the “voodoo” that’s trouble, such that even if nobody shows up in literal “black face,” you are probably already in racist territory. “New Orleans Voodoo” has a complicated history – you can Google it and read up on the history and commodification of it, but generally it’s probably a good idea not to use anyone’s actual heritage or religious practice as a Halloween costume or party theme.
You know your friends better than I do, obviously, but maybe you could say something short of “How racist are you?” which, I agree, can seem judgy and horribly uncomfortable. Try something more along the lines of I’ve been thinking maybe the VOODOO aspect is kind of crossing over a few lines, you know? and then maybe your friend will be like huh yeah you think so? Hadn’t thought of it that way but sure maybe? And then you end up with everyone wearing mardi gras beads and listening as your band plays some Neville Brothers covers. OTOH, you might find out your friends are way more racist than you’d realized, in which case maybe you’ll be happier handing out candy to neighborhood kids from your own front door. You might also suggest that a fun alternative theme for a Halloween party is: Halloween. Either way, it’s good you’re thinking this through ahead of time and trying to be culturally sensitive. Not easy stuff to navigate but important nevertheless.
Dear Rachel Vail,
There’s a Halloween party at my school. What should I wear? Some people are going as a thing together but I don’t have someone to do that with. Please give me a lot of suggestions because I don’t like any suggestions so far. Everything is dumb or embarrassing.
You could go as a lawn (wear all green, pin a plastic flamingo on your shoulder; the main character did this in my book IF WE KISS) or as your favorite cartoon character. Is there an animal you like? You could make and wear the ears of that animal on your head and maybe a bit of color on your nose, with a tail pinned to the back of your appropriate color pants. I’m always impressed when people who are craftsy make a costume of some random household object like a pencil or a garbage can. Fictional characters are fun – I went as Professor McGonagall for a few years (wear black, including a hair-cutting cape if you have one available, a witch hat, glasses down your nose).
When I was a kid, I dressed up as historical figures (with props) I had to explain at people’s doors – Thomas Jefferson, with a white wig and a pink silk jacket/bathrobe, carrying a copy of the Declaration of Independence and a quill pen in addition to my trick-or-treat bag; then the next year as Mozart in the same costume but with a violin. You are welcome to steal those ideas.
I may not be the most qualified person to ask for “not embarrassing” suggestions, obviously.
If a lot of kids at your school are pairing up for thematic costumes and you’re wishing you could do that too, maybe you could ask a teacher you like if there’s someone else in a similar position, and you two (or three) could brainstorm costume ideas together. Sometimes working on a project together is a fun way to get to know some kids you’ve not really hung out with before, which could be the best treat of all. (Unless there are fun-size chocolate bars. Then those are best treats.)
Dear Rachel Vail,
A boy named Brendan followed me when I went down the hall to the bathroom at a party at my friend’s house last weekend. He tried to kiss me. I was kind of squirming to get away from him. He said what’s the big deal nobody can see us, come on. And I was like Sorry. But he kept trying to kiss me so I kind of kissed him a little to get it over with. He pressed up against me and put his hands on my waist. I said I had to go to the bathroom and he was like okay I’ll wait for you. I stayed in there a long time, until my friend was like what are you doing in there? I said I had a headache and went upstairs. I was scared Brendan might come up so I locked the door. He didn’t come up. My friend afterward said I ruined her party and I shouldn’t be a drama queen and I was kind of flirting with him before he followed me so what did I expect? And that obviously if I didn’t like him I shouldn’t have kissed him so maybe I do like him. I keep feeling a little freaked out and like what did I do wrong and how can I be not scared and awkward in front of Brendan now?
I’m so sorry this happened to you. What Brendan did was wrong. He could have handled trying to kiss you more tactfully, for sure, (GUYS: saying "I'd really like to kiss you -- would that be okay?" is smart and kind and amazingly romantic...) but that wasn't the worst part. It was when you were squirming to get away from him that things went from awkward and yucky to worse. You had every right to resist a kiss you didn’t want, and to feel uncomfortable and upset when your boundaries were not being respected. Even if you were flirty with him before the incident in the hall, that doesn’t give him the right to press himself onto you. If you were squirming to get away from his attempts to kiss you, you were trying to give him a very clear signal that you weren’t interested in kissing him. He was not getting that message. Why not? Either because he didn’t understand or just wasn’t paying attention to what you wanted. And I think he did understand at least on some level that you were uncomfortable, since he was making excuses to try to convince you to kiss him (“nobody can see” “What’s the big deal”).
So Brendan was in the wrong and you were right to put a locked bathroom door and then some stairs and a locked bedroom door between you and him, and you didn't do anything wrong or cause him to act inappropriately.
I’m also sorry your friend didn’t support you, and in fact made you question your own perception of what happened. A lot of us do that when we want an uncomfortable situation to be okay – we say nothing happened, or no big deal, it’s fine, don’t make a thing of it. And we shove our feelings (or our friend’s feelings) down until we don’t have to pay attention to them.
Next time? Be even more clear. If you aren’t sure or think maybe you don’t want to kiss, put up your hand between you and say NOPE, NOT HAPPENING. If he starts arguing, instead of saying SORRY, say thanks for being a good guy and not pushing this. Then walk away, into the bathroom or to your friends.
Our culture has told boys especially that they should be aggressive, persistent, not take no as the final answer. This kind of forcing themselves onto girls who are wriggling away is a terrible perversion of the lesson of resilience, for sure – and sometimes boys (and men) forget to consider that a girl (or woman) is a person, not a goal to be achieved or a thing to be grabbed. If we’re going to make the world better, safer, kinder, and happier, kids like Brendan will need to grow up into adults who check in with romantic partners to see what they want, what makes them feel good, and are feeling enthusiastic about what’s happening between them.
It’s not your job to teach all this to Brendan, of course. It’s your job to keep yourself safe and strong and to listen to yourself about what you want or don’t.
Finally, regarding your friend: You were hurt by her, too. You can learn from how she handled the moment when she was stressing about her party instead of being present for you -- so that in the future if a friend comes to you with a similar situation, you will respond with more empathy. Because we need to be good friends and allies to one another, regardless of gender. If your friend says something happened that made her (or him) uncomfortable, don’t try to dissuade or shame; listen. We don’t have to choose to be either silent or drama queens. We are so much more complex than that, every last one of us.
Dear Rachel Vail,
How do you know when the thing you're writing is bad? Or if you're just procrastinating? And how do you know if you should keep going or toss it?
If you can't bear to read the story you're working on, start a fresh file. The one you're avoiding is probably bad but who knows -- you might go back to it someday and find something worth stealing from yourself. If you realize you're alphabetizing the refrigerator or researching postal rates for packages maybe you'll send someday when you mean to be writing, you are procrastinating. Give yourself five more minutes of doing that nonsense, then get back to work. If your butt fell asleep, go do something sweaty for at least half an hour. Your butt knows when it's time for a break. Obey your butt.
Dear Rachel Vail,
When friends come over to my house, my mom is so embarrassing. She makes jokes and tries to act cool and hang out with us. I’ve tried hinting to her afterwards that maybe she could try not to embarrass me but she acts like she has no idea what I’m talking about. So I said maybe don’t try to make jokes they aren’t funny. Especially when the jokes are about me. So of course she told me not to be rude and oversensitive. What should I do? Never have friends over?
It never feels funny to have someone make jokes at your expense. And honestly, it’s mean to tell someone who calls you out on that kind of teasing that they’re being “oversensitive.” Especially when it’s your own kid. It’s not fair of your mom to mock you.
Her intention may be sweet – trying to be with you, get to know your friends, make your home a welcoming place. But it’s not working if she’s making you feel stressed and picked on. It’s good that you’ve told her how you feel.
At some calm time, not right after a friend has left and you are feeling raw, you should probably try again. Tell her something like: Mom, I know you are trying to be fun and friendly, which is awesome – but when you say negative things about me to my friends, it feels awful to me. Even if you think it’s funny, it doesn’t feel funny to me.
She may be able to hear you and try to change. She may not.
If not, you can try to spend as little time in the hang-with-mom part of the afternoon! Sometimes parents are hard to get through to.
Feel free to roll your eyes about the situation with your friend once you are alone. We all get frustrated with our nearest and dearest sometimes.
A girl in my class is very spoiled. She whines if she has to do anything she doesn’t want to. She has a stuffy/runny nose all the time and sometimes picks it in a sneaky way as if nobody can see her. She also smells bad. Nobody wants to be partners with her for projects, or have to sit next to her, for obvious reasons. We all get in trouble. But they never ask us why we don’t want to. Maybe we are being mean but we do have reasons. Teachers don’t ask anything though. They just say You have to be polite and you can’t leave anyone out. I am one of the nicer kids but I am thinking I shouldn’t be anymore because I just get stuck with her more often. What should I do?
Not Actually That Nice
Dear Not Actually,
Find a teacher or other adult in the school (like the school psychologist, nurse, guidance counselor, even the principal) to talk with – someone who seems open to listening to kids. If you aren’t sure which adult to approach, you might consider talking first with an outside-school adult like a parent, for help in reaching out to an educator. Emphasize that you are not blaming this girl for being bullied or for being less socially adept – but that there are some aspects of social behavior that seem to be blocking her from getting along with other kids. Try to stay calm and non-defensive. You don’t want to be justifying behavior of other kids towards this girl; you want to get some help for her from caring, discreet adults. It’s good that you are “one of the nice kids.” This can be a really nice thing to do for someone.
If it doesn’t work/if she is still whiny, smelly, and off-putting? Still be kind. If she whines about doing her part on a project, you can say something like, yeah, sucks. Still, we gotta get it done. You might even need to get up the courage to have the horribly embarrassing conversation with her about her habits, even if just to say, hey do you need a tissue? Here you go.
Dear Rachel Vail,
For homework, we have to write to someone famous. Well, I wrote to you.
Do you know JK Rowling? Her books are good.
You should get movies made of your books.
Well, yes you did. Thanks for writing to me.
I don’t know JK Rowling but I agree: her books are really good.
Congrats on getting your homework done and good luck in the coming year.
Thanks for the advice about movies! I’ll try.
Dear Rachel Vail,
I’m in seventh grade and I don’t have a “thing.” I’m decent at school but not great, not a genius or anything. I’m just regular. I just feel like I’m blah and my whole life is going to be blah. My mom says I should volunteer to work with homeless people or old people and get some perspective on what real problems are, but I don’t want to. I guess I am a terrible person. Should I suck it up and volunteer? Should I just randomly choose some activity and be all into it, in hopes of getting good at something? How do you keep up your interest in any one thing? Or should I just resign myself to being blah and having a boring life?
That's an awful feeling you're having. I know: I was the exact same way in seventh grade! It was horrible. I played saxophone terribly (never practiced; got bottom braces; bloody disaster). I tried After School Gymnastics; I sucked. Art classes: no talent, kept falling asleep and gluing things to my hair. Tai Kwan Do? Chess? Oh just kill me now, I told my mom. I campaigned for a woman named Erma Oppenheimer for I don’t know maybe City Council with my mom (her version of your mom’s do something for the world idea) and ended up after a few hours just shoving flyers at scared people in the shopping center, yelling Erm! Opp! Neimer! until my mom took pity on the townsfolk and dragged me away. I got onto the (no cuts!) Track Team, which was mind-bogglingly boring until I decided I would do the hurdles, at which point it became both terrifying and ridiculously damaging to my body and self-esteem.
This ^ was basically me, but while I was doing it, there was no triumphant music, no inspiring captions, no life-lesson. Just me face-planting repeatedly. Every time I did the hurdles at a track meet I knew this was going to happen, for sure – and it did! I’m not even adult-pivoting and saying but you know what? by the end of that year I won the race at the all-state whatever and that trophy still sits on my… NO! Every single time! I never improved! The only reason I wasn’t always dead last is because I was usually disqualified!
And really, even when I wasn't literally “running” (into) the hurdles, it felt like I spent all day every day in seventh grade doing basically the equivalent of flinging myself into barriers and splatting myself onto the hard ground.
Seventh grade is brutal.
Is basically my advice.
Don’t pressure yourself into finding your passion right now. Seventh grade is hard enough. Be kind to yourself. Definitely do some things if they seem at all interesting and not likely to break you in any way. Try a variety of activities. It’s fine to be terrible at them; it’s fine to not love love love any one thing yet. Try above all to be patient with yourself, even though that’s so hard.
Talk to yourself the way you’d talk to a beloved younger cousin, when you are the hottest of messes. Be game to try, be open to experiences. Maybe take your mom up on the volunteering idea – if you aren’t into the homeless shelter idea, maybe at an animal rescue or something with kids or baking or a coat drive? Instead of volunteering in order to see how bad it is for others and prove how good you have it, so there, be ASHAMED, you can actually see if doing any of those things make you feel good about yourself and happy in doing it. That's okay, not selfish. Sometimes the best way out of a funk is to find a way to help someone else in a way that makes you feel competent and positive.
You might even try doing some stuff at home: help make dinner from a recipe you find online, or do a chore that used to be beyond you like helping with younger kids, pets, or chores – sometimes being useful is just the thing to shake off a bad case of blahs. And sometimes a person just needs to read a book, write in a journal, doodle, watch a movie, stare at the ceiling a bit.
Don’t pass any verdicts on the blahness of your life yet. It’s too early for that. (It is always too early for that.)
Good luck. It gets better. I promise.
Maybe not right away. That's me, top front, with the hair, the arm. 8th grade can be rough too. But eventually it does get better.
PS If you sign up to do the hurdles, good for you being so brave but: ask someone HOW TO DO IT. I never did. Being too ashamed to ask for help when I needed it has always led to me slamming my face into the ground. Literally and otherwise.
Dear Rachel Vail,
I live in Florida and as you probably know, there’s a pretty major storm coming at us right now. We have a generator which makes us very popular. My mom can’t say no to anyone, so too many people are packed in our house right now. I know this is a looming crisis but some of these people could have gone to a shelter. It's a bit sticky balancing all the kids because they are not all in the same friend group, and some people (kids and adults, including my parents though they try to hide it) are very stressed. I’m exhausted already and the storm isn’t even here yet. Any advice?
No wonder you’re exhausted, after all the prep you and your family have already done, including having various mismatched people move in to your house. Plus, stress itself is draining. Other people’s stress is particularly tough to deal with, even more so when it’s your parents’ stress. Mixing friend groups is never easy, but this is of course even more intense because there’s no leaving, no getting a break from one another for who knows how long.
I think the key here is to be a little kinder than you feel, to everyone – and that includes yourself. When you need a break, some time alone to think, to breathe? Take it. If that means slowwwly making a snack, checking in with your parents, taking a shower, or just saying you’re going to read or nap for a while, that’s fine. You don’t have to be the party entertainer the entire time people are bunking in even though it’s your house, and you are not responsible for easing everybody’s feelings (including your parents’) or ensuring the smooth functioning of every relationship.
Sometimes doing something relaxing during a scary time, like watching a movie, can be a good break from the tension – and an easy way to hang with a mismatched group. Finding something helpful to do (like a cooking or cleaning project, nailing up storm shutters, finding flashlights and candles, or filling water bottles) can make you feel more productive and bonded with people – and also can have a calming effect. But playing card games or board games, listening to music, or doing some kind of art project can be fun and fine, too.
If you can include anyone who wants to join a group activity, without pressure, you’ll be setting a chill, welcoming tone. If some friends are into watching a movie and others want to chat or play a game, that’s okay. It could be a long night or few days ahead. The important thing is to stay safe and not make more drama for yourselves than the storm is already delivering. Lean on a trusted adult when you need to; it's okay to need comfort. If in the midst of it all you can have some fun with the mismatched gang of people, and even feel good (despite the stress) that your family welcomed others in, you may end up making some meaningful memories that will outlast any damage a hurricane can do.
Good luck. Stay dry and safe.
Dear Rachel Vail,
Yesterday I farted when a friend was over. I am sure she heard it but she didn’t say anything and neither did I. We just sat there working on our homework together in silence. And then it was too late. It was so awkward. Obviously I can never be friends with her now but what should I do next time I’m in a situation like that, other than, hopefully, not fart?
OMG the worst. You should probably ask your parents if you can move, because how will face that girl in school now?
Just kidding. I get it. Totally embarrassing. It happens. Even worse happens. Don’t think about it, but trust me. Bodies are so weird and humiliating sometimes.
Next time? Maybe just say “Wow, you just farted so loud!” to which of course she’ll say, “I did not! You did!” and you can be like, “No way!” and then you can both laugh because, really, farts are funny. Another way to deal is to say what you are actually thinking, like, “Oh, no, that can NOT just have happened I am so embarrassed GROSS. Sorry.” And then she’ll laugh and/or tell you not to worry.
Of course, you could just be mature and say, “Excuse me.” I am hoping to be mature enough to handle it this way someday. Unlikely.
I’m about to start middle school and I have a weird fear about it I hope you can help me with. I’m scared I will put my lunch and books in my locker the first day and then not be able to get it out. I’ll forget which locker is mine, or I’ll forget the combination. It’s actually kind of wrecking the end of summer for me. I’ve even had dreams (nightmares!) about standing in front of my locker sweating and crying and then I’m late for class or everybody is laughing at me. It’s horrible.
I had the same exact fear! Even as an adult, I have had stress-dreams about my locker. And I have heard from many other kids who also feel like a wreck about this exact worry. So the first thing is: it’s a totally usual, normal concern – not weird at all. It’s a practical problem, but also goes deeper (more on that in a sec).
Let’s deal with the practical first: write down your locker number and combination on a piece of paper, cover it on both sides with tape, and carry it in your pocket. Make another tapey-paper thing to put in your wallet if you have one, or on the back of your ID card, or even in your sock! Tape another paper with the numbers on it to the inside of a cabinet at home, and make another version to put inside your underwear drawer. Make another copy and give it to an adult you trust/ can call in an emergency. This way you have multiple places to find the crucial info. But more important, the act of writing the info down by hand over and over forces your brain to learn it! If you have a phone with a camera, you can also take a photo of it, but this probably won’t even be necessary once you’ve written it down so many times. Final tip, on the practical part: the faculty at your school is totally used to kids forgetting or struggling with their lockers, and they will help you. You will not be the only one asking for help, I promise. (Though if you’ve written it out so many times, you may be one of the few not needing help!)
On a deeper level, OF COURSE you are worried about getting locked out of your locker. It’s scary starting a new school, or even a new school year, and one of the big worries is what if I am locked out – of a friend group, of understanding what’s happening in class, of fitting in somewhere. Of being able to handle it all. Your brain makes that fear concrete by focusing you fully on the locker situation. But here’s the good news: the exact same techniques that will help with your locker will help with the rest of it: take a breath, prepare, write it down, ask for help. And look – you are already doing those things, just by asking me this question! Even just by thinking about it! It’s okay to worry, and to catch yourself worrying – that just means you’re thinking things through, practicing in your mind what you will do if this happens or that does. Stepping into a new situation calls on your courage. Take a breath, tell yourself, I got this, and pretend to believe it until you do. Remember if you mess up you have resources for coping! Right there in your pocket, and your underwear drawer, and your sock.
You got this.
Good luck with the start of school.
Thank you for starting this column. Maybe you are hoping to delve into deeper content but right now the advice I need is: How do I get this [adjective deleted] cardboard milk carton open without getting it all mangled and squishy?
Thanks and good luck,
Here’s one technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hko1N9sWoPQ
Otherwise just get the kind with the screw-off caps.