Monday, October 11, 2010

My Bullies

Lately, I've been remembering my experiences of being bullied when I was growing up in Santa Fe. It's a blight on my memory, but these days the dark smudge is receding , revealing feelings that are surprisingly raw due to the recent swarm of hi-profile teen suicides in the news. I'm disgusted when I open the paper, an abhorrent laundry list of cruelty that should be unimaginable outside the realm of a horrific C.S.I. episode.

I wish I could go back in time and talk to myself at 9 years old. I'd pick up that pigeon-toed girl out of the Wood Gormley Elementary school yard and tell her it would get better. I was a latch key kid who wore tube socks with dresses to school once in a blue moon, and walked funny with my toes pointed in and my butt sticking out. Day after day, plenty of mean girls in their tight Jordache Jeans would imitate me during recess. The same girls also targeted Lisa S. and Allison G. We weren't allowed to forget that we were ugly, or poor, or fat. The worst it got was one day when the ringleader (she knows who she is) wouldn't let me go to the bathroom. I had to pee, and she (were there others?) held the metal stall door closed until I had to leave. I don't know what I did; I can't remember; I can't remember a lot of those times. This was in the 3rd grade; I shudder to think what my life would have been like if I hadn't switched schools, getting a blessed fresh start. For awhile, anyway.

The poverty issue got me a few years later when I was accused of stealing $20 from another (wealthy) member of my J.V. volleyball team. I hadn't. An apology was eventually coaxed out of my accuser in our school principal's office, but when you move through those channels it only makes it worse behind the scenes.

My younger brother is a whole different story. For years and years he caught even more crap than I did. Being one of the only blond kids in his class garnered him the nickname Hillbilly; Hillbilly was chased and hit, and once, to my horror, even had his shoes lit on fire with gasoline after school one day. Maybe my proudest moment is breaking a glass bottle and holding it to the throat of "Eddie Spaghetti" after he chased my brother down for the millionth time, threatening to slice his neck open if he didn't leave him the hell alone. When C. tells this story he likes to punctuate the ending: I'm his knight in shining armor, standing in front of our bathroom mirror pulling a shard of glass out of my eye. And I'd do it again.

Now I watch my own son, not much younger than my little brother was during some of the worst of it, grow up in a world that's far more heinous, cruel and dangerous than the one we struggled to navigate. I hope he doesn't have to experience the loneliness and fear of being singled out, and I hope that if he sees cruelty being pointed toward someone else, he'll have the courage to do something about it.

As an aside, I was at an exhibit today that transformed a parochial school into a three story gallery stuffed with paintings and installations about education, with the aim to revamp the entire national school system. It was there that I learned it's still legal in 20 states to beat children in school as a punishment. You know, with a belt. Apparently this happens every 4 seconds; and every 4 minutes a student is hurt so badly by their "educator" that they seek medical help. Doesn't violence beget violence?


  1. Wow, Rachel. This is powerful. I also remember being bullied when I went from my nice cozy friendly Montessori school to the public school in my grandmother's neighborhood in Queens. I was mocked for being new, smart, not fashionably dressed, wearing glasses, carrying a lunchbox, having a mole on my face, having "white" hair, speaking "white", and they would do things like trip me or put food on my head...relatively mild stuff by today's standards but when you're 6 and 7, it still hurts. To this day, I still cringe when I think of those days and still find myself welling up with both anger and pain. Those things STAY with you and no matter how much your life improves you don't just remember them, you FEEL them all over again. There is one girl in particular, I don't care HOW much she has changed and grown, I will NEVER want to speak to her, she was an evil spiteful little bitch. She had her little followers, most of whom eventually also got a taste of her bullying and realized she was a troll, but she rode me for a while and even now on Facebook the others who banded with her in the beginning are people I have a hard time relating to. "Friends." UGH.

  2. Leiann-I think we would have been friends and protectors. Thank you so much for telling me your story. xoxo

  3. Rachel, Thanks for sharing YOURS. I SHOULD blog about this precisely because it IS such a raw topic for me even now, but I haven't yet. (sigh) Maybe after I get my new anxiety medication from the doctor tomorrow! LOL. I absolutely LOVE what you did for your brother, by the way. LOVE it. How awesome you must have been to him then - and even now. You SHOULD be proud of that moment. Funny how we will not defend ourselves as readily but let one of our own, someone we perceive as even MORE helpless, be threatened, and we can jump into hyperdrive.

    Big hugs to you AND that 9-year old girl.

  4. Aunt Rachel!

    Children can be so cruel. According to psychology we're all technical sociopaths until we're about 7 or 9... depending how long it takes your brain to develop.

    I just shared this blog with my friend and we discussed our childhood bullying as well. Mine was at its worst in second grade, when the same girl used to steal my snack everyday and strangle me on the playground, and another used to refuse to let me join in any games on the playground. My friend's was at its worst in middle school when she got teased for being asian.

    I don't think you'll have to worry too much about Jamie... I can already tell he's going to be a champion for the mistreated. I still laugh when I think about the time he met my boyfriend and demanded to know his intentions hahahaha.


  5. My heart breaks for that little girl & her brother. I wish I could go back in time & give them both a huge hug & let them know what wonderful grown-ups they will become with lives full of people who love them. I don't know what it is about kids that makes some of them be so cruel. I remember shooting a neighborhood boy with the bb gun because he was throwing fire crackers at my little brother & terrifying him. One question though, how come everyone seems to remember being bullied but no one remembers being the bully? I have some middle school girl moments I'm not terrible proud of where I didn't stand up and stop things when I should have but I'm talking about the kids who really make life miserable for others. Do they ever gain the self awareness to know what they were doing?

  6. That's an interesting point (about the bullies). Like you, Mailefitzgerald, I had my moments where I should have spoken out, but because I was so busy trying to save my own skin I didn't want to stand out. It was only in high school that I actually started NOT TO GIVE A SHIT and to have the guts to be different, and speak out against that sort of thing. Of course, in high school, when I finally got away from the neighborhood I grew up in, there really WASN'T much of that sort of thing, maybe just a general snickering about odd people, but no bullying - at Stuyvesant in NYC we were all a bunch of smart misfits in one way or another. But yes - do the bullies REMEMBER being assholes? How does that work? This girl I remember, Melinda Roberts, does she KNOW she was a pig?

    PEOPLE's recent issue on bullying included an interview with a kid who acknowledged his bullying and although I'm glad that ANYONE can stand up and recognize and change behavior, he merely sounded clueless, as opposed to downright malicious. What about THOSE kids? Is there any hope for them?

    You know, Rach, I homeschool my daughter for a variety of reasons and I can't deny that my own horrible experiences at school informed that decision. And it's not that I'm against school altogether - not by a LONG shot. If there were somewhere around here similar to the early school I went to, or the last public school (Stuyvesant), she'd be in it in a heartbeat. But the public schools around here, not so fab, and the private schools, not so affordable, not to mention that private schools can often have some of the WORST bullies. I can't wait to send her back to school - but the right one. So...we try to get this house in order to make some moves, and in the meantime, I teach her at home. I'm not going to subject her to that; plus, I really don't want to go to jail for busting some kid's ass. LOL.

  7. Great post! I was thinking about this recently after I saw "Let Me In," a movie wherein only the undead can combat the horrors of the resident mean kids. Somehow the helplessness of the protagonist's pre-vampire situation was all too real.

    One thing that I think bears repeating -- something that the movie also implied -- is that bullying, like most kinds of abuse, is a viscious cycle. Kids are victimized by parents/siblings or other students and turn on anyone more vulnerable than them with this behavior they've learned. Not to say this excuses heinous behavior in any way, just that possibly the kids who fight back may be the ones who break the cycle.