In the fifth grade a boy whose name I remember well trapped me in a hallway, threw cereal all over the floor and smashed it into the carpet, all the while telling me that he hoped I knew my face was so flat that it looked like it had been run over by a truck.
I knew. Not the truck thing, necessarily, but it was probably around then that I knew to know my face was different, because that was around when the split began in our school between pretty and not-so, between fat and thin, desired and reviled. The hospital get-well cards stopped and the mean games began, the hormones shifted and the ugly showed, if it was going to.
The funny thing was that when given the opportunity to consider it, I concluded that his face was flat too. I had to admit that he was unattractive to me, a fact I probably wouldn't have stored in my fifth grade brain if he hadn't abused me in that way when no one was looking. He gave me a reason to compare and contrast.
I don't know who I told, if I told anyone at all. But what I do know is that I can't relate conversations from yesterday very well, but I can remember his face, and his words. I can see my green knee socks and feel the shame on my face, still. I think it's an especially cruel trick of science that our brains retain such memories so well, but then I remember that's how we're supposed to grab ahold hard of what to know to run from. It's to protect us as much to hurt us, and I can't say it's let me down in the years since.
There was the time, swapping classrooms across the hall, when another boy stopped and for no apparent reason punched me in the stomach. I stumbled, and remember just walking, because who would believe it? Who would listen to me?
There were the two junior high years where the boys -- some of whom are my Facebook friends now, who laugh about those days with no idea of how they harmed me, no concept of the impact of their words and actions -- made fun of my name, treated me like one of them, communicated to me with rough jokes and constant criticism that I wasn't one of the cute girls, the ones they were trying to "go with." I was a friend, though, the one who could always roll with the punches. Even now, smoothed over by adulthood and professional schools and many, many road miles all around, you can see the difference in communication style, in how we remember.
There is at least one girl I refused to friend on Facebook, an intensely popular person in our very small pond, who missed no chance to ridicule me, to set me up in social or academic situations. She was abetted by at least two teachers I can remember, adults hired to guide us and to help us learn, who seem to my teacher self in retrospect like overgrown adolescents seeking their spot among their students. So creepy, but that was how it was from my perspective. She looked confused when I ran into her at a local writer's center a few years back, and, when she greeted me warmly like we'd always been close, I walked away with no interest in communicating. It wasn't any kind of triumph that walked with me to my car, just the calm sense of satisfaction that now, I could choose. I could set the rules of engagement. I could acknowledge old hurts and act accordingly.
Because it's all about power, really. Misuse of it and being on the receiving end of it, lacking it but then, eventually, reclaiming it if you're lucky. And I only could, in any measure then and almost wholly later, because I was lucky enough to have just enough of the positive percentage of will and defiance that meant I could look at what was happening to me over years, years where I was treated the way I was because of differences in appearance, mostly, and persevere.
I could because I went home every day to a family who were not only willing to listen to my occasional pain and constant sense of being less-than in the social structure of my very small school, but somehow didn't ever allow me, in spite of all the goodness I was afforded, to rest in self-pity or to form any excuse for not plowing into my life, into my future. Effort was encouraged, accomplishments were celebrated, and success was expected. And regardless of what I encountered, I always sensed better things waiting for me, through some combination of intellect and heart, my will and yes, to some extent, their expectations.
I really did find refuge at home, in an extended family that would have sooner died or at least suffered mightily in my childhood than ever made me feel inadequate, and that is why I believe that I not only survived, but came away with a belief that I could do great things if I wanted to. A bit too sheltered, probably, but I can't say it was the worst response to my particular situation. I can't say in another constellation it would have gone any better. It's really why, no matter how deep the valleys were (and we face them always, many of us. They don't go away in adulthood, not really, they just change.) I think I was always able to find my way out.
I look back now and I know that I was not always kind myself. I can think of occasions when I felt wonderfully socially accepted because I treated someone else badly because, finally, I could. I'm not proud of it looking back, but I understand the psychology of that wounded child. It helps me understand the reasons petty and profound for gossip now, for hierarchies, for why we try to build ourselves up in any way by putting others dow, for what that satisfies in us as supposedly more evolved adult people.
It's never okay, no matter the age. And it is for this reason that I want projects like the Bully movie to spark productive discussion, to go beyond banner-waving in elementary schools to a real societal shift in how we perceive and acknowledge and yes, often abuse differences. It's why the stories from The Trevor Project make me cry, why I look for the truth in the eyes behind the surface of the young people I encounter as a teacher. Because, quite simply, no one should ever have to feel like dying, or like compromising his or her life, because of who he is, because of how she is treated based on someone else's ridiculous and small-minded projections and reflections.
I'm not idealist enough anymore to think that bullying in its purest sense -- which will ever to me involve a child crying on a playground, a teenager with literal food on his face in a cafeteria, a person left to stand alone outside a sporting or social event, made fun of, excluded -- will ever truly go away. I'm even more interested now that it has gained so much ground in societal chatter in it never becoming a buzzword, which would be the worst possible thing to happen when, in many cases, young lives -- and happiness, and productivity, and concepts of self-worth -- are on the line.
I know where I came from, and it's taken me thirty years to sort a lot of it out. I'd step in for some other ten-year-old girl in a second, in a hallway strewn with cereal and hateful words, and hope that it would make the difference someone could have made for me.
This is the trailer for the movie. It starts in the DC area on Friday. I'm hoping to go see it soon. You can find it near you here: www.thebullyproject.com
Here's some more stuff about it:
This year, over 13 million American kids will be bullied, making it the most common form of violence young people in the U.S. experience. Clever Girls is proud to support Bully, a film directed by Sundance- and Emmy-award winning filmmaker, Lee Hirsch. Bully is a beautifully cinematic, character-driven documentary—at its heart are those with the most at stake and whose stories each represent a different facet of this bullying crisis.