Interviews: What qualities do you look for in a friend?

By Charlotte Toumanoff, 16, Marshall HS
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Although they didn’t like each at first, now Charlotte (right) and Darby Barton, 16, who goes to North Hollywood High School, are best friends.
Photo by Sasha Jones, 18, Crossroads School (Santa Monica)

Although we have different accounts of the first time we met at our sixth grade orientation, Darby and I both decided from the first moment we met each other that we had no interest in being friends. Darby told me that when she met me, her initial impression of me was pretty bad. She remembers standing in line with her mother to get her P.E. clothes, when a strange woman (my mother) and her daughter (me) stepped in line behind her. “This is my daughter, Charlotte,” my mother said, and started talking about me. Darby said her most vivid memory was wishing that we would go away and noticing my “freakishly long hair and fingernails,” and “leopard-print bedroom slippers peeking out from underneath my jeans.”

When Darby told me this story, I couldn’t remember our exchange at all. Over time, however, little snapshots began coming back to me. I had spent that night stumbling behind my mother in a frightened daze, mortified at how enthusiastically she was trying to help me make friends. When she introduced me to Darby and her mother, I was instantly put off. It was written all over Darby’s face how much she wanted us to leave, and when she looked at me I felt as though she saw all my flaws.

For two years Darby and I barely shared a conversation, even though we were part of a close group of friends. We would speak during conversations with mutual friends, but our one-on-one conversations were usually limited to calling each other for homework. We had all the same friends, but I didn’t like her.

She did her own thing

At parties it offended me how, when Darby was bored she would leave the conversation or activity to entertain herself in some other way. She seemed stony and unwilling to join the group if we weren’t up to her standards. It confused me that she could be incredibly rude at a party and everyone still adored her. If I were to do that they would assume I was mad or attacking them, and I couldn’t understand what it was about her that made people like her. No one else was resentful of her behavior. “That’s just Darby,” they would say if I asked. I couldn’t understand why it didn’t bother them.

Darby’s actions especially irritated me at my friend Molly’s birthday party in sixth grade. Bored after hours of dancing and jumping on pillows, Molly brought out a karaoke machine. We spent about an hour listening to people sing off-key before it began to lose pizzazz and we went outside to sit in the Jacuzzi and talk. Darby decided to stay inside and play karaoke by herself. Every so often people would go inside to see what she was doing and to try to convince her to join us, but they would always come back empty-handed. Even I popped my head inside and asked if she wanted to come out. She gave me a small shrug of her head and turned back to the karaoke screen, softly singing into the microphone. I assumed that her spending the evening with herself was a rejection of the rest of the people at Molly’s party. That made me angry, but no one else seemed to mind; they’d known Darby for years and were used to her ways.

When it got too dark to stay outside, we found Darby still sitting in front of the television. Darby sang privately to herself for another half hour, giving people a turn whenever they asked for one, but not participating in the other group activities. I wondered how my friends had so many wonderful stories about her, because I had never really seen Darby talk or participate enough to be the vibrant, fun girl I kept hearing about. I also knew that she was a good friend because I hadn’t heard anyone complain or gossip about her, but I still couldn’t understand how she was so close to people when she wasn’t involved in the party.

At school I would hear stories and offhanded remarks from my close friends about how much fun Darby was, and how she could turn any dull day into a roller coaster ride. Glancing at Darby when I heard this, she would have a small smile on her face, looking as though she had never been wild in her life.

Surprisingly, we got along right away

Darby and I were always polite to each other, but we did not become friends until the last day of seventh grade when I was caught without a social plan. I called my friends, but they were all busy, leaving me stuck in a friendless celebration, alone at the end of school. I spent my day whining to my mother about my lack of plans. She went through the school roster naming off all my friends, until she discovered Darby was the only one I hadn’t called, and threatened me with no computer time unless I asked Darby to come over. I called and Darby reluctantly agreed. She later told me she had her mother come as an emergency backup to drive her home in case I was as awful as she imagined.

As I waited for her to get to my house, the feeling of doom was in my stomach. I thought, “Oh god, here we go, three hours of awkwardness, three hours of pretending that we’re both having fun. At least I get to tell my mom, ‘I told you so.’” When Darby came over with her mom, we separated from our parents and went up to my room. We started talking, and something just fell into place.

Darby surprised me with her wit and how funny she was. She wasn’t standoffish at all, but would keep up with my crazy rambling (something which made me immediately like her) and provided excellent conversation. As a die-hard Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, I made sure to dedicate a few hours of our day to introducing Darby to the wonders of the Buffyverse and had her drooling over Spike, the devilishly bad, extremely hot vampire, before dinner. I had two episodes of the show downloaded on my computer. Later that night we were on my computer watching people lip synch to “Baby Got Back” on YouTube when Darby turned to me and said, “You want to know something weird? I haven’t been bored all day. I’m usually really bored when I’m at someone’s house, but I’ve been fine.” I was shocked to realize I was having a lot of fun too. (About a year later Darby and I had a conversation about how horrible our impressions of each other were, and how glad we were that our parents forced us to spend the day together.)

When we got back to school we quickly became closer and closer. We talked every day at lunch and in P.E. We went everywhere and did everything together. We were best friends. Qualities that I had found irritating suddenly became my favorite things about her. I admired how she refused to take nonsense from people and was not shy about giving them a piece of her mind, like when a mutual friend talked badly about someone we knew. Instead of trying to ignore the confrontation, Darby told them flat-out they had the wrong impression and stuck up for our friend in a way that had the other person apologizing in the end. I saw how well she knew herself, and that she saw no point in doing things that made her unhappy.

I realized that Darby’s policy of not doing things that made her unhappy applied to people trying to push her around. I have never seen her conform to peer pressure or change her opinion because she was the only one who thought it. Keeping that in mind, I stopped letting people play on my guilt to get things from me, like demanding that I upload pictures for them overnight at the cost of my precious few hours of sleep.

Before, I was a major pushover, like editing my friends’ essays so they would like me better. I would spend an entire class period helping people and even take a few essays home. I would lose two hours of sleep editing them. One time someone gave me an essay and I didn’t have time to edit it. I tried to call her and tell her I didn’t have time, but had to leave a message. The next day she came up to me and said, “Where’s the essay! It’s due today!” I thought, this isn’t right. Obviously my reputation as someone easily convinced to do other people’s work led her to believe that no matter what, I would finish and print out her essay for her. After that, I started telling people I didn’t have a lot of time and refused to do anything I couldn’t easily fit into my schedule. My friends stopped giving me as much work and now I hardly ever have a problem finding time to help a friend.

I’m more comfortable with who I am

Spending more time with Darby, I understood that not letting people push her around doesn’t just make her happy, it makes people like her more. She is admired by her friends for not letting peoples’ negative opinions influence her. Before we became friends, I was loud, overcompensating and almost desperate to get people to look at me, but I slowly began to change.

I’ve realized that I don’t have to do anything special to get attention—that people enjoy someone who will take the time to listen to them much more than someone who is trying to impress them with how smart and funny they are, and overpowers them with jokes or pearls of wisdom. I’m much happier being more comfortable with myself. Spending the time to try and appear to be this person that everyone else likes instead of just being myself was exhausting. This year, I was myself—I didn’t care what people thought of me. As soon as I let my guard down and stopped being something I wasn’t, something switched and people started to talk to me more, like sharing embarrassing stories and discussing each other’s interests and dreams. My life changed from a constant struggle to make friends when I started going to a new school, to getting to know new, interesting people every day. Making friends has become much easier.

I have changed a lot since I became friends with Darby. I owe so much to her, and I’m lucky to be friends with the girl I used to think was weird.