“Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words, killing me softly with his song, killing me softly…”* This is the song that ran through my head as I read I Don’t Believe in Popular Kids: Lessons From One Girl’s Fight for Inclusion, a zine by Heather and Liz Gold (pseudonyms for the girl and her mother, to protect the young author’s privacy).
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a zine is a booklet or “any self-published unique work of minority interest, usually reproduced via photocopier.” Heather’s zine was published by Microcosm Press, an essentially nonprofit publisher in Portland. I say “essentially nonprofit,” because they are not a 501(c)(3) corporation; they don’t want to have to adhere to the requirements for that designation. They offer their publications on a sliding scale, and they like the zine format because it’s inexpensive to produce and makes materials more affordable to the people who could benefit most from them.
Back to Heather! She’s a young woman who was recently diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (a catch-all term for neurodivergence of many kinds). Heather was bullied from the time she was very small. Neurodivergent kids seem to be a magnet for this sort of thing. Heather is lucky to have a mom who advocates for her and empowers her to use her voice.
Chapters in the zine include “Honor Your Weird,” “Show Your Scars,” “Make Space, Take Up Space,” and “Recognize Victim Blaming.” Her emphasis is on being the kind of friend you want to have and creating the kind of community you want to live in. It doesn’t punch back at the popular kids so much as it simply dismisses their hierarchy. Heather and Liz tell stories of cruelty without self-pity, and talk about how to deal with bullies while keeping to the high road.
Heather’s story hits me in the heart. I received my diagnosis of “almost certainly Asperger’s” with the offer of a referral for formal testing when I was 38. A therapist said she saw all the hallmarks in me—my savant spelling skills, my facility with written language that turned awkward with speech, my literal take on everything I heard, and my avoidance of eye contact and social touching. I didn’t need testing to confirm what I’d always known without a word for it. I was different. I was a prey animal in an academic Jurassic Park.
Heather’s stories sounded excruciatingly familiar. Liz’s sentence, ‘One of the girls had conned Heather into changing her appearance, claiming she would be “cool” if she followed the advice,’ took me right back to sixth grade, when the neighbor girl, Linda, said I could only be cool if I unbuttoned the top button of my shirt. To me, it felt like leaving the cap off a pen (a thing I found unbearable and had to rectify any time I saw it, even if it wasn’t my pen). I wish I’d had a friend like Heather when I was 11.
Heather’s practical guide to dealing with bullies starts with learning how to think about yourself and your right to take up space. As her mother says, “Being yourself is an act of resistance.” After she changed schools, instead of trying to fit in with the popular kids, Heather found her tribe outside it and discovered her own way of belonging. It reminds me of Greta Thunberg’s assertion that being different can be your superpower.
Heather’s zine has been distributed to school principals and teachers in her district, and in my opinion it should be part of every school curriculum. I know it would have changed my life years ago.
Out of curiosity, I checked out Microcosm Press’s other offerings and found a series of zines called Your Neurodivergent Friend, designed to help people understand the way the world looks to people who experience it differently. I ordered Volume 2, Being Taken Advantage Of. I had never thought of that as something that happens more to neurodivergent people, but I saw myself all over that zine as well. It’s full of helpful information—not so much direct advice, but in reading it, you learn to see the red flags that say “this isn’t right,” and apply them to your own situations. You see the exact moment that an interaction turned predatory and think about how to head that off in your own life.
Microcosm Press offers subscriptions to new materials on a sliding scale, based on your ability to pay. Unlike social service agencies, they don’t do any means testing to make you prove your need. This small, independent press is a wealth of information on a variety of subjects, all centered on building community, off the beaten track.
* lyrics from Killing Me Softly, written by Charles Fox, sung by many, most notably Roberta Flack