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In fifth grade, my class studied the Salem Witch Trials as part of the social studies curriculum. This was a terrible thing to teach in middle school in the early 2000s, just as Sabrina was losing its cool and before Rookie’s articles about witchy style icons and Tumblr covens would make being a witch admirable, even aspirational. Witches weren’t empowered femmes with sweet magic powers and flowing lace dresses, they were ugly, cackling women with warts on their green face and big, hooked noses.
Fifth grade also happened to be when girls in my class started realizing who is pretty and who wasn’t, and consequently was when I realized I really didn’t like my nose. It wasn’t what I later learned was called the “ski slope” shape, a graceful and elegant curve anointing my face. It wasn’t cute. It was bumpy and large and dominating. It stuck out when I looked at myself in the mirror from the side. I had a habit of pressing the bump in the middle down thinking I could make it go away.
Even before we got to witches in social studies, girls in my class had started to ask me where my mole was, because my big nose made me look like a witch. They cackled as I walked by. It could have just been another tool in their arsenal of teasing, but I knew the Salem unit was coming and it could only get worse. I needed to prepare, so I decided the best course of action was to hide.
Instead of just my nose, I wanted my whole self to go away. I went from being the girl who raised her hand to answer every question to pretending I didn’t know the answers in class. I tried to wear trendy outfits that looked like the ones everyone else wore, even if I didn’t like them. Much like the women of 17th century Massachusetts, I was paranoid about everything I did that could lead to being labeled out of the ordinary. But there wasn’t much I could do about my face. I thought there could be nothing worse than having a nose that could bear some resemblance to your typical Halloween store broom-flying green-faced witch when your class was studying how women were being put to death for being witches.
Except there are actually two things.
The first I would find out when my teacher showed us a short documentary on the trials in class one day. In one scene, a graveyard in Salem was shot as filler over some spooky narrative about the town, and on one of the headstones the movie made sure to spend a good long time hovering over you could clearly make out my last name. Later research showed that it turns out Salem’s tourist attractions include Pickering Wharf and the Pickering House, so it makes sense that a few Pickerings had made their way to church graveyard. I’m not sure if I’m related to any of them or if my maybe-relatives had anything to do with the trials, but that doesn’t really matter because with one girl’s gasp and shriek of “That’s Amanda’s name!” my already awkward “brainiac” poorly-dressed, definitely not popular fifth-grade self was now officially a real-life witch. History said so.
The second one came that night for homework when my teacher decided an awesome assignment for middle-schoolers would be to write an essay accusing one of our classmates of being a witch. I think she wanted to show by example how silly and arbitrary the accusations were, how anyone’s peculiarities could lead to a death sentence and how that was terrifying and weren’t we glad that part of history is over? But I’m not sure how she expected anything good to come of it. It’s like, hey, you know how you guys just realized how your raging pubescent hormones make you all emotionally wonky and really, really mean to each other? For homework, do that!
The next day my teacher read the accusations aloud. There were 20 people in my class, 20 potential witches to burn. Every single one was about me.
I don’t know if my teacher knew what was coming, but I did. The night before I had decided that the best course of action would be to “confess” in my essay instead of accusing someone else, since at this point I really wanted to be an actual witch, that being anything else was better that what I was now. I said my family didn’t have a car not because we couldn’t afford one but because we had broomsticks, that I drank potions for lunch, that I was good at math because of spells I chanted over quizzes. I wrote that they better watch out, because I could curse them all the next time they made fun of my face. I could make their faces even uglier than mine. At that moment, it felt good to be evil. To be something.
What I wanted to do was take hurt and craft it into something magical and powerful by owning up to being the most ugly, the most strange. When I was put on trial after the accusations were read, it felt good to stand in front of my classmates, stare them down, and scare them for once. I wasn’t going to try to fit in anymore–I was, after all, a witch. I was sentenced unanimously to be burned at the stake.
But in this hell that was middle school, I couldn’t keep it up. While my classmates realized they couldn’t actually kill me, they still wanted to get rid of me. Some pretended to be so scared of my “powers” they told the teacher they couldn’t sit near me. I had always been alone by being unpopular, but this kind of avoidance was worse. Then people said couldn’t have me in class, it was too scary, what would I do to them. I was probably cheating on my tests too. I went to a private Christian school on a scholarship, and I began to fear that some of the more well-to-do kids who threatened to try to get me expelled would somehow succeed once they told their parents there was a real-life witch in their class. I had tried to stand up for myself and failed, I could have come out of my shell but instead I crawled deeper inside, until the hysteria died down. I learned what women had been learning for generations–keep your head down and don’t draw attention to yourself, or else.
Eventually I went to a public magnet high school full of fellow nerds where I met my best friends, and my weird hand-me-down dresses were considered original and cool. One of the first days of freshman year, a girl in my gym class complimented my super stylish dress over pants look by saying it was “unique, just like you!” and she was sincere about it and I couldn’t get over the shock that this was a good thing, that expressing myself could actually gain me friends.
When I told people about my family’s relation to Salem in my 10th grade U.S. history class, instead of thinking I was sent from Hell to destroy them and must be stopped, people thought it was awesome. It made me interesting. And I wouldn’t have to use my powers for protection and revenge, as I had wanted to in fifth grade to get back at my classmates for making fun of me. If I wanted to crawl out of the shell I was at this point so deeply hidden in, I just had to realize I had some at all.
Somehow, being a witch might be pretty cool.
Soon enough I would be right. Teen culture today loves witches and being witchy. Tumblr has tons of resources on Ouija, crystals, and the best herbs to burn when you have a crush (and I’m sure the people posting them aren’t all social outcasts). Tavi, arguably the coolest teenager on the internet/ever, brags about being called a witch in her Twitter bio. Then, right after I thought I had written this essay, my friend forwarded me an article about the coven that meets at the bar around the corner from my house in Brooklyn (“HAHAHAHA! YOU LIVE HERE!” he said) that was published in the New York Times. “Calling ourselves witches is cool because witches used to be shunned,” one of the women in the article says, and I wonder if I’m even cool enough to show up to one of their parties as I read about their fancy hairstyles and jackets and saging your apartment, which I’ve never done. Plus, I totally have a corporate job, which apparently isn’t a witch thing–and suddenly, after a childhood of worrying I was an evil heathen, I’m not witchy enough.
It’s hard to accept that you can not only be a witch to be in with the trends, but be a witch at all when memories from middle school are whispering warnings from the back of your mind to remind you that women once died for this. But I don’t want let them get to me this time. Being a witch is embracing a historically female power (and for me, family history) to have control over your life and decisions, to not take shit from other people if they think you are weird or ugly, that taking weird and turning it into power can work out in your favor. I just have to keep telling myself over and over that it’s in my blood.
And in the end, life as a witch since middle school hasn’t been that bad at all. Now that witch style is in, I wear black all the time. Since I’ve been hexing before it was a thing I can give my friends tips and tricks now that they want to be witches, too, and no group of people has tried to murder me in years.
But I still cringe when I see my face in profile. I can’t stand my nose.
Amanda Pickering grew up in Jersey City, NJ, now lives in Brooklyn, and sometimes tweets.