Mary Bennet Starts High School

A modern-day Pride and Prejudice character sketch.

For Mary Bennet, high school is a different experience than it is for her older sisters.

Jane, the eldest, is homecoming queen. She’s a cheerleader who’s genuinely kind and sincerely loved, even by people who hate cheerleaders. When she isn’t organizing fun runs for children with cleft palates, she’s volunteering at the pediatric ward of a local hospital and at an animal shelter.

Elizabeth is on the debate team, the soccer team, and the staff of the school newspaper as a photographer. She’s made 99th percentile on her SATs and is running an extracurricular chemistry research project on a local polluted lake. She isn’t as well-liked as Jane, but she’s pretty and witty and fairly good-natured, which means that other people are more apt to accept her unabashed intelligence and occasional lapses in temper.

Mary reads. Mostly nonfiction, though at night under the covers she reads sci-fi and fantasy or skims romance novels for often poorly written but oddly compelling descriptions of sex. (They’re so silly, and yet.) Above-the-covers fiction tends to be 18th or 19th century English novels, especially the ones that have gone out of fashion and weren’t recently adapted for the screen.

Elizabeth reads too, but not like Mary does. Books for Mary are more than a source of information or entertainment. They’re companions. They’re shields. They’re her key to what the world is really like and what people would see if only they wouldn’t laugh at her or look through her as if she were a giant bespectacled dust particle.

Mary isn’t pretty. She isn’t even pleasant. Not because she tries to be unpleasant, but because her face, even when relaxed, has a pinched, mildly disgusted look, as if she’s detected a disturbing odor. (Maybe it’s the smell of her spirit decaying, her soul becoming prematurely middle-aged.)

She gets tongue-tied around people, so she relies on scripts she’s rehearsed. She rehearses them mostly in her head, and sometimes – when she’s sure her younger sisters aren’t around to film it and post it online – in front of the mirror on her bedroom door. To her own ears, her speeches sound sensible. They’re well-phrased. She isn’t quick-witted like Elizabeth, and she doesn’t know how to make the most perfectly timed sweet compliments the way Jane does, but she understands the power of words. Words can wake up the mind and steer people to a better path.

So why do people laugh?

(She knows why they laugh, the knowledge sinks into her heart as she falls asleep or in moments here and there, like during a family dinner, when she knows she could leave the table ten minutes in and no one would notice.)

She doesn’t really care if they laugh. It’s a badge of honor to be treated with scorn. People lack sense. In high school, they’re immature, and some never outgrow their immaturity. Mary outgrew hers years ago.
She’ll sometimes admit that her maturity doesn’t feel all that solid or strong. It’s something she has to keep a firm hold on, like a tower she’s made out of popsicle sticks that’s about to topple, but not if she keeps a steady hand on it.

People think she’s aloof and that she considers herself better than anyone else. But her confidence is brittle and riddled with doubt, especially at night. Night is when the confusion and loneliness nearly overwhelm her. She wishes sometimes that she had a book that could help her interpret social vibes. She wants to reach out to people, but not even the nerds enjoy her company. There isn’t any one topic she’s nerdy about; she just likes books, and usually not the kind the nerds are into. But what’s wrong with that? Improving the mind and becoming a better person is a worthy pursuit.

If only people would think more and read more, the world would be better. The very people who call her a snob look down on others with real contempt, and this makes her burn. She doesn’t look at anyone with contempt. She believes anyone can learn and change. What’s more, she shares her insights with others. Her words have the kind of substance and weight so often missing in the rapid texts and LOLs that fly around from one phone to another.

Her sisters find her amusing and sometimes annoying. Her parents think she’s a joke. There’s hypocrisy all around her. The same people who say, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts,” dismiss her for her lack of prettiness or winning manners. People don’t care about principles or truth; what they care most about is likability and belonging to the right crowd. If they decide they don’t like you, that’s it. No one bothers them about their hypocrisy.

It doesn’t matter what they think. Being different is a badge of honor. She hopes to be seen and understood, and one day she will be, even if it’s five, ten, or fifteen years down the road. In the meantime, her books are steadfast company, and her speech is well-reasoned. She’ll keep improving. All the brittle bits rattling around in her, the searching vines that find no sturdy wall, the thwarted attempts at friendship… they’re the trials given to her on the path to greater wisdom.

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