In high school, everything was about what you had – in other words, what your parents could afford to buy you. You needed designer jeans, high heeled boots, an assortment of different flats, and a pair of earrings to match each outfit.
Olivia Benson didn't even have her ears pierced. She had one pair of shoes, a tattered pair of sneakers that were several sizes too small. She came to school in oversized t-shirts she'd picked up from thrift shops and ratty cutoffs she'd been given from the Salvation Army. Her coat was a heavy, black hand-me-down from the neighbor's son, who had given her his old coat because he'd felt sorry for her.
In other words, Olivia Benson was not cool. In fact, she was the farthest thing from it.
When Olivia had started ninth grade, she had been optimistic. Here, she could have a fresh start, maybe make some friends. Yet this was not to be. The kids still mocked her, teased her for being smart and for wearing the same old clothes three days in a row. She tried so hard to fit in, but to no avail.
As a child, she had been teased mercilessly. While other girls her age played with Barbies, had seen all the Disney Princess movies, and wanted everything sparkly and pink, Olivia spent her nights cleaning up after her mother after she'd had a heavy drinking binge and scurrying around so as not to bother her while she was hung over. She learned when she was in kindergarten how to do laundry, how to vacuum, how to make her own lunch. She was self-reliant and more independent than other kids her age on so she didn't fit in.
When she was six, her whole class had teased her because when she lost her first tooth, her teacher had asked her what she wanted from the tooth fairy. Olivia had looked perplexed. Her mother didn't believe in fairies and so she didn't know what one was. "What's the tooth fairy?" she had asked her teacher.
Everyone had laughed at her for not knowing.
Another time, the other kids had taunted her for weeks when her mother had shown up drunk for parent-teacher conferencing and then passed out in front of her classmates, their parents, and her teacher.
So Olivia kept to herself. After all those episodes, she'd learned caution. She realized that other mothers weren't like hers and she would only be teased if others found out about her mother's drinking.
So she kept the secret.
She hid bruises inflicted by her mother during a drunken rage under layers of clothing, made excuses for every single parent-teacher meeting, pushed herself as hard as she could, threw herself into her schoolwork. It gave her a needed escape.
When Olivia's class had put on a Christmas skit in grade one, her mother was the only one not there. Olivia was the only kid who couldn't go on the fourth grade ski trip because her mother had been too drunk to sign the permission form.
At her eighth grade graduation, when the teachers were handing out diplomas, Olivia's name was met with polite applause. Her mother was nowhere to be seen. Her dress had been black, unstylish and patched, a gift from the Salvation Army. It was too short and too tight. The other girls had been wearing spaghetti strapped dresses in pink, purple and blue. Their dresses were elegant and sophisticated, sparkly and elegant, showing off their perfect figures. Olivia was short and underdeveloped for her age and her dress did not flatter her as much as the other girls' dresses flattered them. Her classmates had mocked Olivia all night and she had sat at a table by herself, running her hands through her messy brown hair and trying not to show how hurt she was when she saw the other kids dancing, laughing, chatting together. Once again, she was alone.
Her teacher had found her crying after the party. Ms. Ellis had taken pity on the child and given her a ride home, rather than letting her walk in the dark late at night. Olivia had arrived to find her mother in a drunken rage and had been beaten on her special night.
But Olivia tried not to mind. Even when her mother got drunk and hit her, she was still her mother and Olivia still loved her.
A group of girls walked by Olivia, pointing at her and tittering. They were carbon copies of each other, tall and slender, blonde and tan. With their Gucci handbags and Valentino blouses, they seemed to delight in picking on Olivia.
They jostled her as they passed, muttering, "Loser."
Olivia put her head down and tried to ignore the hot tears that pricked her eyes. Instead she shifted her books in her arms and hurried to her first class.
At Olivia sat down in her seat in the front row, she tried not to listen to the whispering that started when she entered the room.
". . . She looks like a boy . . ."
". . . She wore those clothes yesterday . . ."
". . . She looks like she just got out of bed . . ."
" . . . Does she want to look like a homeless person or is she just too lazy to actually make an effort? . . ."
The comments stung, even though Olivia should have been used to them by now.
Olivia ran a hand through her rumpled brown hair as her science teacher walked into the room. "Good morning, class," he droned. The kids ignored him, as usual.
A pretty, popular girl sitting behind Olivia, named Grace, raised her hand primly. "Excuse me, Mr. Jackson," she said. "Can I please switch seats?"
The teacher adjusted his spectacles. "Why?"
"Because something really smells." She melodramatically pinched her nose as if she smelled something disgusting. "Oh, wait a second. I think it's Olivia. Olivia, when was the last time you had a bath?"
"Probably more recently than you," replied Olivia sweetly. "Or do you just naturally smell like a dead pig?"
"Mr. Jackson!" exclaimed Grace. "Did you hear what she just said?"
The teacher was not amused. He pointed to the door. "Office, Olivia. Now."
Olivia got up and pushed in her chair. She stalked off toward the office, fuming. Why did she always get into trouble when she was only trying to defend herself? It wasn't fair.