In yesterday’s story I said this:
There’s a specific topic that I’ve now rescheduled twice. A couple of weeks ago it occurred to me to add it to my content calendar. Parts of the post have been written in my head, but for reasons I’m unsure of, it feels raw. I might end up with one paragraph, or I might end up with 1500 words.
And here it is. I’ve had fragments of this story written in my head. I don’t remember if I got the request to write about it during a formal meditation or during a walk. When I walk I get ideas, or as sometimes I call them, “downloads”. That term is usually a spiritual term in this context, the idea that I’m downloading ideas and information from a source beyond myself.
Warning: Lots of swearing ahead.
Memories of being bullied and belittled
In the classroom and schoolyard
The kids in my elementary school class tortured me in the form of name-calling, neglect, teasing, picking me last, and, sometimes but very rarely, physical abuse. I won’t go into details but one of the examples is quite horrifying to me.
The least traumatic example: One female classmate used to pinch me. Honestly, I don’t remember who (in my memory it’s one of two people) but I remember the pain of the pinching.
“Kids will be kids”
The school administrators diminished it with statements such as “Kids will be kids.” This is a phrase that pissed me off for years into adulthood because it removes accountability from children. It still pisses me off, though slightly less. Of course, children don’t understand concepts such as long-term harm, but they do understand empathy. Consequences can be taught. Kids who bully in packs do so because they need a sense of belonging. We have a basic human need to belong to a community or tribe. They don’t want to be the odd kid who comes to the defence of their bullied peer. However, that bullied peer needs it. That understanding of empathy should be used for good. The sense of belonging should side with kindness and compassion (there’s that word again).
My mom used to tell me that the kids were picking on me because of their own insecurities and inferiority complexes. She was right, but it didn’t help at the time because it’s something I didn’t understand until adulthood. Again, children don’t understand the long term. How can they? Child bullies can’t grasp the idea that their actions or words can harm self-esteem for several years. They can’t grasp the concept of self-esteem. They might know the feeling, but some concepts require life experience and maturity to understand.
“Kids will be kids” is bullshit when it dismisses responsibility. Teach your child not to be a dick.
I sometimes tried to defend myself. I’d ask, “What did I ever do to you?” or “How would you feel if…[someone treated you this way]?” I wish I could remember some of the answers, but I know that it didn’t make them stop. I was one of the few class targets. I suspect that children who are natural empaths have an energy about them that makes them an asshole magnet. Kids pick on the one they perceive as the weak one. It’s an animal thing: The weak one doesn’t fight back. The weak one is easy prey. The weak one can be eaten.
(And with that metaphor, I’ve suggested that I’m at the bottom of the food chain or that in “survival of the fittest”, I don’t survive.)
Sure, I could have had a thicker skin. Sure, it’s good for kids to learn to take criticism and all that. As adults, these are the skills we need. We also need to know that words and actions have consequences.
One of the school administrators sent me to a child psychologist, where I used to play cards. I remember talking about one lovely girl in my class whose hand always shot up to answer the teacher’s question and who got good grades. The therapist misunderstood this as jealousy and repeated back his interpretation. I still remember the icky feeling of being misunderstood. I wasn’t jealous. I found it mildly annoying, but I wasn’t jealous. After a few visits, in which we played a lot of card games, I said that I didn’t want to go back and I never did. My mother wondered why the bullies weren’t in therapy when unquestionably it was their issues causing their aggression. This was the 80s. I think today the bullies are more likely to be sent to therapy.
A few years ago I went to an elementary school reunion. One guy who didn’t attend said, “You couldn’t pay me to.” I was ready to face it but didn’t mention their childhood behaviour at all. Still, some people apologized without me raising the issue or prompting. One drove me home and gave me a genuine apology along with a hug with a kiss on the cheek. We’re adults now.
I consider one of my old male classmates who refers to himself as one of my former tormentors a buddy now. I don’t remember any specific examples of his behavior. I understand that back then he had his own issues going on. I understand that he was super-smart and probably frustrated in general. I see him on occasion. We hug.
On the playground
My mom remembers this story too. She’s mentioned it during my adulthood. I could have sworn that I’d documented it somewhere electronically, but can’t find it. I must have written it several times in my head.
One girl, who I suppose was a “frenemy”, decided to take her anger issues out on me this one time. It was a year when a large number of us were in a baseball or softball league on Thursdays in the spring. I would have been somewhere between the ages of 7 and 8, but over 30 years later I accurately remember what school we played at and where this event took place.
While neither of us was up to bat — we may have been outfielders — Susan (not her real name) asked me a question: “Who do you like better? [Girl A] or [Girl B]?” Immediately, I knew that this was a trick question. I knew that there was no right answer. I knew that I’d regret saying whatever name I answered with. Now I imagine red sirens and flashing lights.
Susan pestered me. I finally gave a name, and as soon as it escaped my mouth, Susan let out a primal scream, pushed me to the ground, grabbed my head and smashed it on the field over and over. The earth. The grass. My head. The moms came running over. I don’t remember anything after that except for throbbing pain. How does this happen? All I can think now is that she had issues of frustration that she didn’t know how to express because she was a child and yet this is not an excuse. What she did to me was unacceptable.
When I heard a few years ago that Susan is now a psychiatrist, I had a “What the fuck??” moment.
To the (former) little shit who mocked me
One memory that’s still fresh on my mind is the little shit who mocked me at the beginning of grade 7 when I was having an anxiety attack. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t have the language to describe it. I knew that I was panicky. The anxiety came on because while receiving instructions in shop class — if I recall correctly, we were learning how to make a spice rack — my mind wandered. I tuned out. 10 years later I’d be diagnosed with ADD. I was afraid to admit that I hadn’t been paying attention and the panic came with a side of queasiness, so I said I was nauseated. One little prick mocked me for the rest of the year. “I’m nauseous!” he’d jeer.
Over the years, into early adulthood, I imagined myself running into him (I remember his name) and telling him this: If you are a father, I hope like hell that your child doesn’t experience what I experienced. I hope that your child isn’t bullied or ridiculed. I hope that your child doesn’t undergo anxiety attacks. I hope they don’t feel the way I felt and the way you made me feel. If they do, maybe you will understand.” This paragraph? It haunts me. When I think about sharing my experiences of bullying online, it is actually this story, along with the head-bashing story, that I write in my head. I could have written just those two and gotten it out, except that my fingers kept going.
Oh right, and there were the prank calls to me in middle school. Do kids still make prank calls? I made a few myself.
I had a full paragraph here when I initially wrote this story last night, but when I looked at it this morning, it felt forced. Here’s the concise version:
I had some good times. I recall slaying people with my wit when I allowed it to come out. It was the beginning of me realizing that I’m funny. I can be outgoing and joyfully expressive.
In retrospect, I suspect that one of the boys who used to taunt me in high school had a crush on me. Perhaps I’ll ask him one day.
Parents, camp can be an isolating experience for your child. Kids in cabins are groups of kids bonding in whatever way works for them. Gossiping is one, especially with girls. Girls and boys bully differently. With girls, it’s more about neglect, gossip and passive aggression. Boys express hostility less passively. Boys are more physical in their aggression. This isn’t specifically my experience talking, but books and articles that I’ve read as an adult.
When I needed to be alone at camp (because of introversion or feeling bad), I took long walks. A counsellor once commented that I went on a lot of walks. I told her it was because I needed to be alone and I was avoiding conflict.
Don’t get me wrong — as isolated as I sometimes felt, and while it felt like sadness dominated, there were enjoyable things about camp. I loved arts and crafts, swimming, sailing and other fun activities. The one canoe trip I took was a physical challenge, but I’m so appreciative of it. I’m sure that my parents enjoyed having a child-free month.
Group trips and mob mentality
When I was 17, I took a youth group trip. More neglect. More whispers. But here’s an example of how shitty people are. I say “people” because I think that adults do this too:
One day when we were staying in accommodations with multiple rooms on multiple floors, I walked downstairs, and as I was passing one of the rooms, I saw the door open and heard a group of kids talking about me. They were mocking the way I walk. Unbelievable. I was stunned and as usual, said nothing, and left. In the years following, I thought of several retorts that run through my mind dozens of times. The replies I give when I go back in my imaginary time machine include,
- “If you’re going to talk about me, close the door, so I can’t hear you.” (This one is said most often as the scenario repeats.)
- “And you guys are a bunch of assholes with nothing better to do than talk about people.”
- “Get a life.”
- “If the way I walk is the worst thing you can say about me, I’m okay with that.”
- [Pretending that I didn’t hear anything.] “Hi, guys! Whatcha doing? What are you talking about?” -In the real situation, I continued my stroll.
- “How about you tell me all the things you don’t like about me, and then I’ll tell you all the things I don’t like about you.” Then I’d turn to one of the 17-year-olds and say, “Let’s start with your face.”
It was 1980-something
Sometimes I am SO glad that I grew up before cell phones were ubiquitous and before social media. I imagine that prank calls are worse and I know that cyber-bullying is a widespread problem. I see it on social media, adults being horrible towards adults.
In the words of Banky Edwards (played by Jason Lee, written by Kevin Smith) in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back: “That’s what the Internet’s for, slandering others anonymously!” F***ing internet. I’m a social media manager and sometimes I get so angry over what it’s become. And internet trolling goes back decades. Sometimes I feel like a cantankerous old lady.
Adults will be… adults?
Some people grow out of this behaviour. Some don’t. The internet is full of adults trash-talking and shaming each other. Some say that they’re against bullying even though they’re bullies. Some people lack the self-awareness to know that they are acting in an awful, hurtful way.
It wasn’t until the age of 18 that I felt some semblance of self-esteem. Sometimes my childhood insecurities still affect me. Occasionally, I wonder if the reason I’m still afraid to speak up is connected to my childhood fear of speaking up in class. As I’ve said before, one of the reasons I’ve undertaken this challenge to publish to Medium at least five days a week is that it’s an ongoing voice and visibility challenge. I’ve been trying different ways to put myself out there for months. A few days ago, after watching a webinar given by Gabrielle Bernstein, I was inspired to not even think of my audience. Whether two people read this, 200 or 2,000, it’s okay. Whether I get no claps or hundreds, I’m okay with it.
More engagement with my writing is probably better because when I see claps and other engagement it scares the shit out of me, and I need to have the shit scared out of me in this way.
I’ve been blogging for 20 years and sometimes, between the moment of seeing that I have a new comment and reading it I think, “Uh oh, what didn’t they like? What did I do wrong?” Of course, I know I’m awesome. I need to declare that. I need to own my writing. Even the stuff that is bad. Even that time when I submitted a small piece to a city blog with incorrect information and readers pointed it out, that was good for me. I learned from it.
I have a voice. I’m using it. I’m not scared of you.