Typically, when I write my memories, I try to write them in a novelistic fashion. It’s more a question of style than content. However, I want to write because I’m feeling a little emotional turmoil tonight and I think writing might do me some good, so I’m not going to pay as much mind to craft.
Middle school was rough, which might be the most common thought in the world. Back in the seventies, there wasn’t any concept such as “bullying.” Some kids were picked on in school. There was an awareness that picking on kids could be physical, yet somehow it always seemed to be something that happened in another town, in another state, with other kids. After all, many kids’ parents had consciously moved away from big bad cities to our tidy little suburban enclave in order to protect their children from the chaos there.
I had a little clique of friends in eighth grade. They were the not quite fast girls. In our school, for reasons I never understood, the girls were generally tougher than the boys, so we had more than our fair share of tough girls. My friends weren’t tough, but they were a little bit fast.
We had a falling out, which I began to document in another post and I’ll have to finish at another time. Just let it be said that I found myself socially isolated. I’ve heard people debate the circumstances that might contribute to bullying. From my own experience, social isolation is a very large contributing factor. I still had some friendly acquaintances, but suddenly finding myself without any close friends meant that there was no one that would take my side. I was the weak gazelle separated from the herd and it was only a matter of time before the girls who were beyond tough, the ones who were vicious, would take note.
If I understood then what I understand now about group dynamics, I would have tried harder to embed myself into another clique, or at least appear to. As I said, I still had friendly acquaintances, so it wouldn’t have been hard to put up a believable charade, especially since I was still on good terms with the late bloomers who didn’t associate with any of the tough girls. But I’m naturally independent and don’t mind eating alone sometimes or sitting in a corner reading.
Eventually, eighth grade turned into ninth.
The first time it happened, it was after science class. Everyday, I would exit the room and turn left. I don’t recall what my next class was, but since the science class was towards one end of the hall, almost all the rooms were to the left. A girl I didn’t know, and whose name I still don’t know until this day, bumped into me. It was a surprisingly forceful bump and I went flying into the lockers which lined both sides of the corridor. She didn’t say excuse me. In fact she didn’t even pause.
The next day, the exact same thing occurred. At this point it occurred to me that it might be intentional.
I’m not sure how many times in a row this happened, but I started leaving the classroom as early as possible and turning to the right, where there was a stairwell. I went up the stairs, taking a slightly longer route to my next class.
The tough girl had three friends, each one tougher than the next. The toughest was the shortest, and the meanest. She’s the only one whose name I remember. All the others joined in, but it was the short one who was always rougher than the others. Soon, whenever one of them would see me in the hallway, she would shove me up against the locker. As the shoving got harder, it went from jarring to painful. Then the short one started kicking me. In the hallway, as I passed by, she would kick at my shins as hard as she could. This was all done surreptitiously, when no one was looking. Since I was alone a lot of the time, this wasn’t that hard. I started feeling very afraid and leaving the school property as quickly as possible when the day ended.
I can’t remember if I told any adults, but I imagine I must have. I was the sort of kid who would. All I can imagine is that they gave me the sort of useless advice adults usually tell kids. Looking up some self-help psychology stuff online, I just read some tonight: “Ignore. Like dealing with a bully, if you ignore the harshness, it gives them no satisfaction and they will find someone else to pick on.”
(I followed the link in that and found this: “Bullies couldn’t exist without victims, and they don’t pick on just anyone; those singled out lack assertiveness and radiate fear long before they ever encounter a bully. No one likes a bully, but no one likes a victim either.” That’s from Psychology Today, believe it or not.)
Well, let’s just say that’s bullshit. I wasn’t “radiating fear” until I met up with the little sadist and her three side kicks. I tried ignoring them and the physical abuse only got worse. Bullying, I believe, comes out of complicated social dynamics. If I had to point to a proximate cause, although it is immodest to say, I was prettier than any of those four and boys liked me and ignored them.
I should probably add that they didn’t make fun of me, just physically abuse me. They themselves were not well liked in school and had no friends besides each other, so their behavior didn’t result in any kind of ostracism. I did, however, start to feel very powerless. I had no idea how to physically defend myself against four girls all of whom wanted to cause me physical pain.
Then the short one started threatening to “beat me up.” That’s what they said would happen one day soon.
It came to a head just before lunch one day. Lunches were arranged according to grade, so everyone in the same grade had lunch at the same time.
I don’t remember why, but I was late getting to lunch. I probably stayed after a class to ask a question. In any case, the hallway was entirely empty. It was straight and you could see from one end to the next and there was not a single person in sight. The hallway ended in a T shape with a shorter corridor. Straight ahead was the assembly room, which was almost never used. To the left was the office. To the right was the cafeteria. At the far and of the hall, from the right, the four girls emerged. They fanned out across the hallway and began walking towards me. My heart was pounding and I was panicking. This was it, I thought. They’re going to kill me. No one was around, no teachers, no students. There was only one thing between me and the gang, an exit. An exit to the outdoors. The biggest infraction any student could do was to leave the building. Nothing was worse than leaving the building. I panicked and ran through that door.
One of the teachers ran out of the door after me. She tackled me. My arms flailed. She would later say that I hit her and make a big deal out of the fact that she was pregnant, but she shouldn’t have tackled me like that.
Other teachers joined her and I was physically subdued and dragged to the office. Asked to explain myself, I told them about the physical abuse. They told me that it was not possible because shorty had never had a disciplinary problem, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t true. I do know that I had never had one. They were going to suspend me from school.
My mother told me that the school nurse told her that when I got “hysterical” she should slap me. That’s when the slapping started. It didn’t happen that often, only when I got very upset. Often, I felt as if I was being punished for things that weren’t my fault. For failing to have a Spock-like detachment no matter what bad things happen. Sometimes, I think it’s led to my Jekyll and Hyde reactions. I’m calm and cerebral until the moment I absolutely can’t take it anymore, then I scream like a maniac. To an observer, there appears to be no transition, although I can feel the transition inside. Moreover, I know people who have known me for years who never saw Mr. Hyde emerge because they had the good fortune to not be around when I was pushed over the brink.
Well, it’s getting late and I could go on about that for a while, but I can’t.
My mother, I should add, would not slap me in a calm and clinical way, although her claim is that she was trying to calm me down following the advice of a nurse. She would slap me multiple times, screaming, “What’s wrong with you. You’re crazy. I’m going to call the cops and they’re going to lock you up.” Rather than calming down, I would get even more hysterical which would result in more slapping and threats.
Frequently, it would end when my father would intervene.
Worst of all, it would always happen when I was most in trouble, when I most needed support and consolation. That was one thing I remember about my adolescence. My mother always says how much she’s done for me, how much she’s helped me, scrimped, saved, sacrificed. It’s all true. But she always gave me the most when I needed it least.
And I feel really guilty even saying this out loud. I’ve talked about it with my sister and she can mostly confirm my perceptions. Sometimes, I say, “Am I crazy?” My sister says she doesn’t think so.