Writer's Block: Everybody hurts
I don't know what I did to deserve being treated the way that I was; when I was a kid, I was convinced that it was because I was ugly, but when I look at pictures of myself now, at that age, I was not ugly. I suppose it was because, even then, I marched to the beat of my own accordion: I wanted to be an entomologist, I practiced a weird sort of nature spirituality even then, and I was utterly naive of pop culture. I knew, of course, that I had different interests than my peers, but I had no notion of the chasm that actually separated how we perceived and interacted with the world. As a kid 7, 8 years old, physical ugliness was the way I could explain the way I was treated, since I was never anything but kind to other kids and my eccentricities, even, hurt no one.
I have several sharp memories from elementary school. I remember being in second grade and sitting next to W, and she turned to me suddenly one day and said, "I hate you because you cross your legs like you're an adult or something." There were nine girls in my elementary school class, counting me. Every birthday party or sleepover came with invitations for six: My best friend J and I were always excluded. One girl, D, did invite us to her parties; I remembering having such a good time. I was always chosen next-to-last for teams; J was chosen last.
The worst was being bullied by my phys ed teacher, Mr. D. For many years, I made straight A1's in all of my classes (the letter grade was for achievement; the number was for effort), save a C2 in gym. My sister made consistent straight A1's. I was so jealous of her; it seemed terribly unfair because I didn't know what I was doing wrong in gym. I was never given any feedback. The 2, I think, stung the most because I felt like I was making as much effort as I was allowed to make. I wasn't exactly encouraged and was downright discouraged and humiliated by Mr. D on a regular basis.
The class would play softball. I was bad at softball, I admit; I was chosen next-to-last for a reason. I still hate fucking softball. Anyway, my turn would come at bat, and I'd walk up to the plate. Mr. D always pitched. He'd come down off the pitcher's mound and say, "No, Dawn, you have to bat with the tee," and set up a tee and make me hit the ball off of that rather than pitching it to me. Of course, everyone made fun of me and scorned me for this. He set up remedial gym classes and would come out on the playground after lunch and round up J and me in front of everyone. I remember feeling so enraged and humiliated. The thing was that I was actually very good at some aspects of PE; I didn't get chosen as a soloist in my skating program in just four years for no reason. Never, never, never did that man make any effort to find out what I was good at or to point out anything but the bad. And always the bad in front of everyone.
I was always proud of my strength. I had a lot of upper-body strength for a girl when I was young. (I probably still would if I took more exercise.) The school participated in the President's Physical Fitness challenge every year. I sucked at all of it ... except the chin-ups. Average chin-ups for girls at all ages was 0, so even a half meant that I was in the excellent range. I could do 2, which was more than most the boys could do. I remember hopping up to the chin-up bar, thinking I'd show him at last that I was good at something and make him eat crow a little. Gods, I hated that man. I did my two chin-ups and dropped down. I was proud of myself and waiting to see his face as he tasted crow. "One-and-a-half," he said.
Of course, being picked on by a teacher encouraged the behavior in my peers, who were now not only being validated but having emotionally abusive behavior modeled to them by an adult in authority.
How did I deal with this? I remember sitting in the garage (my parents smoked out in the garage) and telling them my various woes, mostly about W and Mr. D, who picked on me the most of anyone. Everyone always preached how, if you had a problem, you should go to a grown-up and tell them about it. I did what I was supposed to do.
My parents were sympathetic, but their advice was always to "Just ignore them." The thing is, I tried that. Actually, I did little else, because I was so painfully shy at that age (small wonder!) that I couldn't have said anything back if I'd wanted to. I certainly couldn't retaliate using my own social currency; my social currency consisted of a few desperate friendships with other misfits like me.
I think back and no one ever really and truly defended me, across all of those years. Not my parents, not a single teacher, certainly never a peer. My mom tells me she spoke often to the school about Mr. D, but I didn't know that at the time, and what a world of a difference it would have made if I had! As it was, I was told to ignore everything and it would go away; when it didn't, no one cared, and no one did a thing. I believed, honestly and truly, that I was not worth the effort it would take to do anything. I believed that I deserved the way I was treated, and my parents only had sympathy for me because they were biased because I was their kid. But, deep down, they also knew that I deserved how I was treated, which is why they never did anything beyond telling me, "Just ignore it."
When I was in third grade, I also started wetting the bed every night. I suppose that was how I dealt with it too: pissing myself on a regular basis. It was nothing medical; it was psychological because I felt rejected and loathed and unworthy for most of every day. Of course, I felt incredibly ashamed of this too, which didn't help the whole social situation either.
A psychologist called Seligman did a series of experiments that demonstrated what he called "learned helplessness." The experiments are rather gruesome: He would put dogs into a chamber with an electrified floor. A low wall separated the dogs from a second room where the floor was not electrified. When he would shock their paws, the dogs would hop the little barrier into the room where they could escape the shocks. Who wouldn't? Next, Seligman blocked off that safe room. The dogs, of course, tried to hop over and were unsuccessful and took to jumping around on the electrified floor. After a while, though, the dogs stopped all that. He'd turn on the electrified floor, and they'd just stand there and let him shock their paws. Seligman's theory was that, after so many unsuccessful attempts to avoid an "averse stimulus," one accepts the painful situation and fails to exert the effort needed to escape.
I was a case study in learned helplessness. I got so used to being hated by everyone--and those few who didn't hate me didn't do much to defend me--that I just accepted it as my lot in life. The hurt changed. It didn't stop hurting, but it was a fleeting thing; I tucked it away and moved on. In eighth grade, a girl in my class found out that I liked a particular boy. She told that boy, and the two of them constructed an elaborate ruse to pretend that he liked me back. When I found out it was a ruse, I remember feeling a sting of hurt, then mostly just disappointment ... but certainly not surprise. Why would he ever like me?
For the record, the first person who ever did defend me I ended up marrying.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. When I was in seventh grade, Baltimore County Public Schools started their magnet program. There was no doubt in my mind that I would not attend my home high school. I applied to and was accepted into the infamous Nerd Magnet Program. Although I'd always had an interest in science (less in math and computers, honestly), my main reason for wanting to go there was because it gave me a chance to start over, with peers who didn't know me. I actually made a lot of friends at my new school--and I met my future husband! An older boy was picking on me after lunch one day for being a vegetarian, and Bobby strode up and told him off for it. I remember wondering why he'd done that when I wasn't worth it.
It's hard to put into words the way that such chronic, ubiquitous loathing by most of the people in one's life at such a young age affects the person you become. Nearly every frequent behavior I can trace back in some way to those long years of bullying. My fascination with cruelty and my bleeding heart and commitment to justice. Why do you think I teach? Why do you think I've chosen to teach the kinds of kids I do? Every teacher like me means there's one less Mr. D who's allowed to poison the lives of young people.
Even now, when I have a healthy social life, I am not forthcoming. I never take a chance on asking anyone to be friends with me. (Even on LJ, I only friend people first very rarely!) I have to know someone very well before I'll start suggesting social activities to them. However, I'll snatch up any social activities that they propose to me. That's a major difference between Bobby and me. Bobby assumes that everyone is a potential friend. I assume that no one will want to spend time with me or be interested in me. Even though I love time with other people, usually the most psychological comfortable choice is being alone. I think that's why I give so much of myself to others too, because I don't assume that I'm enough on my own to warrant much in the way of regard.
I don't pour all of this out (and click POST before I regret it) to garner sorrow or sympathy. Please don't feel you must apologize to me for what you did not do. I say it because, even now, the emotional impacts of bullying are brushed off, mostly by adults (I suspect) who were always alphas socially. I want people to understand that the kinds of treatment I experienced from peers and adults impact a person's life forever. If your kid or a friend comes to you and says they're hurting, don't tell them to ignore it and it will go away. Speak up. It will mean so much, I promise.