That title is true, by the way. Look it up. I’ve got one more story about Childhood: The Teen Years to tell.
I promise you, my life hasn’t been one sad situation after another. I haven’t been victimized from start to finish. There have been beautiful times of love and happiness and camaraderie and acceptance. There are, as a matter of fact. Every, single blessing that has come my way has been set upon my altar of gratitude and acknowledged. Some, I didn’t realize until they were long past, but the point is that I did celebrate and give thanks, after moving obstructions out of the way that made it impossible to see. I am fortunate to have what I have, to know what I know, and to be loved. Luck hasn’t anything to do with it.
So, onto this last story, which has been something I’ve wanted to write about, but has proven difficult. However, with the recent, worldwide furor and concern shown a young Australian boy, Quaden Bayles, who has been relentlessly bullied because he has a form of dwarfism – you can read his story HERE if for some reason you haven’t run across it – I want to share my bullying story in more graphic detail. Do I think it will help stop bullying? Not for a single minute. Am I going to trot out the hope that “if this story moves one person, one parent, to begin teaching their kids that kindness and acceptance is the right way to be, I will have done my job”?
No. Fuck no. I don’t want one person to get the memo. I want thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Everyone.
I wrote about my suicide attempt in the 7th grade in This Blog Post and gave the vaguest of details about the situation that drove me to it. Now, I’m going to elaborate, and change some names not to protect them, but to protect me in the extremely rare instance that those who know who they are and what they did want to call me a liar. It’s doubtful, but in this age of lawsuits and people crying “fake news,” it’s necessary. Okay.
7th grade was a nightmare, from beginning to end. Not only was I in a new school, with new structure, and being instructed that “this is how you learn to be responsible,” but my home life was a shitshow of magnificent proportions. My grandmother’s dementia was progressing, and coupling that with her rapier-sharp tongue, it was really ugly when she got going.
My mother was deep inside herself at this point, being dragged down by the daily skirmishes with Gram, as well as coming to terms with the fact that she now had a severely handicapped child, in the form of The Male Sibling Unit, who she must advocate for.
The late 70s were still unchartered waters where advocacy was concerned; children with mental and physical
disabilities were relegated to group homes and institutions and sequestered in classrooms away from “normal” children. Mainstreaming was not yet a thing. Not only did she have to come to terms with the finality of this thing, but she was also mourning the breakup of her covert relationship with our father. She couldn’t blame The Male Sibling Unit for our father’s removal of his affection, so she picked me. At the age of 9, I was informed that I had ruined her life. It was a heavy burden to carry after assuming, until The Male Sibling Unit’s diagnosis, that I was loved and cherished. In any event, she needed a target for her anger, hurt, and fear, and I was the closest one available. I made it easy for her with my dogged attempts to change her mind. I remembered a mother who had once loved me. Maybe, if I tried hard enough to make her smile, she would be that mother again. It never worked. But I still had to try.
So, things were really ramping up at home, and our financial situation was, as always, perilous. We lived on Gram’s tiny pension, her Social Security, and public assistance programs: cash and food stamps. The Male Sibling Unit was not receiving SSI just yet; that would come soon. The summer before 7th grade, there was some sort of government crisis or strike, and no one in Pennsylvania was receiving their public assistance. When the checks were held up in August of that year, my mother told me there would be no new school clothes. She simply didn’t have the money for us both. The Male Sibling Unit was beginning a preschool program, so he came first. She did acquiesce one afternoon at a local retail store, and bought me a gauzy peasant blouse and a kelly green vest because they were on clearance and the total for both was only $4.50. I would at least have them for my first day. My jeans from 6th grade were still wearable, but they were unwashed Wranglers with slightly flared legs. The straight leg, designer jeans fashion movement was in full swing at this point; you wore them tight, and you rolled them up (pegged them) right at the ankles. My old jeans could not be rolled up and even if they could, I had grown taller that year. They were decidely high-waters now. There were no new shoes, either. I had a pair of clogs my Gram had bought me the year before at a discount store for $7.99 that still fit.
What a sight I was that first day, in my mauvy blouse and green vest, my high-waters, and my white socks in those cheap clogs. I don’t need to talk too much about how important it is to try and fit in when you begin at “the high school” – this was quasi-high, since we still had “junior high” and not the middle schools of today. This was the big audition for how it was going to go at the big school, when you became a sophomore. You’re with your little class from elementary school, the same 20-30 kids you’ve known since kindergarten, but now, you’re mixed in with a half-dozen other classes of kids your age who don’t know you. You’re not in one classroom, but a whole series of them, moving from room to room. You don’t get much one-on-one from teachers, who simply have too many kids to keep track of.
You’re on your own, and friendships are important. You need others to cling to in those first days and weeks, while you navigate semi-independence. A class system begins immediately, too, and you might find that you were a sort of big fish at your elementary school, but you’re plankton now. You’ll sink or swim, depending on a whole list of variables: how you look, sound, smell, act. Sight is the first thing 12 year-olds used to judge back then. Were there other kids in the same boat as me, or worse? I am certain there were. I can only relate my experience. And it was not great.
I made a few new friends in homeroom. There were some very nice kids who chose to look past my sorry state and to get to know the person I could let them know. My homeroom teacher was, at first sight, a beautiful lady who dressed elegantly, and emoted with a restrained grace. She was a cool cucumber. Her husband had been my art teacher the year before, and he was a lovely man, so funny and kind and talented. He let us listen to music on Fridays and even swore sometimes. I was eager to impart, to my homeroom teacher, that I had loved taking her husband’s art classes. She shut that down immediately with her initial appraisal of me. You know that way some people have of looking you up and down and finding you wanting? This is precisely what she did to me, and continued to do, the entire 3 years of junior high. I mean, I was no prize: dumpy, bad hair, awful skin, bad clothes, and likely reeking of my mom’s stale cigarette smoke and fried food from home. She would only speak to me when she wished to put me down. Other kids loved her, and she favored the kids of privilege. I was relieved to never actually have her for English, which is what she taught.
As an aside? When my daughter was in high school, she had this teacher for a class. She adored her. This teacher adored my daughter. They had dozens of positive interactions on Facebook and after my daughter graduated. My hope is that maybe she evolved and became a nicer person. I know she was young when I had her, and she went on to have her own kids and then go through a divorce from that cool art teacher. Maybe she learned some empathy. That didn’t stop me from wanting to post hateful, childish shit whenever she was praising my beautiful daughter, and showering her with compliments. “Remember me? You couldn’t stand me from 1979 to 1982. You treated me like garbage. You belittled and dismissed me and I almost died because of it. You were a contributing factor. As an educator, you failed me. Cunt.“
I never spoke up, and now she’s retired, and only occasionally shows up in some local social media. I still dislike her. And so, I dismiss her from having any importance, the same way she did me. When a person shows you who they are the first time, believe them.
The details of the events leading to my suicide attempt in early May of 1980 are chronicled in the blog I directed you to. The relentless bullying, over months, not days, had taken their toll.
One classmate was especially cruel. I became his target early in the school year. He was a little guy who looked like a cherub until he opened his mouth, and then it was all loud joking and sarcasm and outrageous behavior. He had a compadre who was as diminutive and blonde as he was, and who had the same first name. They usually got into trouble together and we referred to them as “the two Toms” (name has been changed) and they did everything together – including harass me.
“EWWWW, you are so fucking ugly. Why are you so ugly?” Tom would say to me on occasions, like lunchtime, when I couldn’t escape and we ended up at the same assigned table. He would then detail and amplify the ways in which I was so physically abhorrent for the whole group. His wit was sharp and his words were vicious. The other Tom would agree and snicker. Sometimes, other girls would defend me and tell him to stop, but usually, they just giggled while I sat there, red-faced and ashamed. “Why is your face like that? If you were my kid, I’d have put you out of your misery.”
Shortly before things completely imploded and I went off the deep end, he leveled me. “I don’t know why you don’t just kill yourself. Please, just do it and make the world a better place.”
After committing the capital offense of making a joke at the expense of the most popular girl in 7th grade, life became an exercise in futility. Every day that I went to school that late Winter and early Spring, I was either ignored or taunted. If I asked a question, my classmates would say things like “Don’t fucking talk to me, you ugly loser” or tell me to go away. The couple of so-called friends I did have were embarassed to be seen with me because then they’d be taunted, too, and it was just so important to fit in and be accepted. When a ship is going down, you get as far away from it as you can. The teachers didn’t intervene; were they even aware that my life was being torn limb from limb? I doubt it. I never confided in any adult, not even the one teacher who was kind to me, Mrs. D. The adults at home, who were supposed to love and protect me, did not. Why would I think that strangers would extend that kindness? I was alone. And being alone was unbearably painful. I have never felt that exact pain with quite the same intensity since, although I have struggled with suicidal thoughts all my life.
I got through it, after that one, mammoth act that robbed me of so much. I wanted the hate to cease. I felt that I could not exist in a world where there was not a single person who saw any worth in me. All of the adults in my life utterly failed me; the first adult who saw me was that ER doctor who looked at my lab results and asked me, quietly but with a kind urgency, “Sweetheart, what did you take?” and who afterward told my mother that her little girl needed help, for whatever reason.
After I had recuperated physically, I began seeing a therapist who drew out all those broken pieces inside me and fit them all together, making a scarred, but whole person out of me again. This therapist taught me how to cope, and what to do, and how to avoid letting those kids get to me. She then met with my mother, and then my grandmother, along with an evaluating psychiatrist, who spoke some very harsh, difficult truths after he evaluated us all. I was released from any responsibility for the way things were, because I was an innocent. He told my mother to pull her personal shit together and to quit taking out the choices she had made, on her own, on everyone else: especially me. And he advised her to “get that crazy woman out of your house, for the good of everyone”- my grandmother. It took her a year, but she did.
A part of me did die that day. The part that cared about what those kids thought was laid to rest. The part of me that survived was filled with hatred for them all, and so that part of me was placed into a medically-induced coma for a time. It was the part of me that could believe that people were capable of being kind and good. I worked hard, quietly and diligently, to fit in, but under my own terms. Every penny I earned babysitting and through gifts was used for my appearance; clothes, shoes, toiletries and makeup, hair. My mother never bought me another article of clothing for school even when she could have. I “looked” the part at last, but inside, I was seething. The ones who hurt me the most? I built brick walls around them and they ceased to exist. That talent I have has served me well throughout life.
A couple of years ago, I ran into “Tom” at a restaurant. He had moved away after graduation and along the way, changed his name. He lived a tumultuous life in California, was an alcoholic and an addict, and had also come out as a gay man. Through a school acquaintance, I had learned that he had lived a nomadic lifestyle, burning bridges as he went along. I had rarely thought of him and, when I did, felt nothing. I was therefore not prepared to see him when he introduced himself to the husband and I as our server. His burned bridges had brought him back home. He recognized me immediately and began effusively gushing and fawning over me. I was polite and I think, kind, but the husband could feel an undercurrent of something as he left our table. I told him, tersely and calmy, feeling a bit numb. We ate, left him our customary 20% tip, and departed. Only then did I allow myself some anger.
One day, my son mentioned him, because he rode the same bus to work as my son did to campus. They struck up a conversation, because this guy is a chatterbox and as ebullient as anything. He had mentioned to my son that we had gone to school together. I told my son how that had gone. My son went from thinking it was a cool happenstance to wanting to pummel him into the pavement the next time he saw him. I told him it didn’t matter. I could see this guy was as much a trainwreck as I had been told he was before he came back home, and I knew he’d be burning his Bradford bridges eventually. It took him a couple of years, but he managed to alienate everyone who was kind to him and now he’s somewhere down South, stacking the blocks again so he can knock them down. I wish him, well……nothing. I wish him karma, and that he has the kind of life he deserves.
Bullying is just the worst, don’t you agree? Haven’t we all been bullied by someone in our lives? That my experience included many someones doesn’t make my story any more or less poignant than someone else’s. How do we stop this kind of unacceptable behavior that causes little boys, like Quaden Bayles, to want a knife to stab himself? That causes 13 year-old girls, like I was, to ingest a massive cocktail of pills? The answer is that I don’t know. What I do know is that we can’t stop trying to find that answer. And kindness, people. For fucking fuck’s sake……kindness.
For more information about bullying and what you can do, you can visit this website .
This was my bullying story. It feels good to see it in print. Now, it can fuck off. I give it wings to fly away. Bye bitch.