This article is part of a series titled “In My Own Defense”
He gazed upon me with that evil Cheshire Cat grin knowing full well all eyes are on us as he said, ”What the fuck is wrong with you moron, I’m talking to you!?!?”
I tried my best to ignore him and looked straight ahead. My face was burning hot and at this point very red as I realized everyone in the classroom stopped what they were doing to watch our exchange. I honestly can’t remember at this point what our group project was that day, but our geography teacher had divided us up into groups. I had the misfortune of being paired with three “gems”.This unspoken – yet very real fact – somehow made her mere existence produced feelings of awe and deference. I will never forget our graduation day in that large ornate university auditorium. They sat all 110 students alphabetically. Consequently, I sat right in front of her during the ceremonies. During the speeches that preceded the handing out of diplomas I had to suffer through her annoying hiccupy cry. It produced feelings of anger and bitterness within me. I wondered, in that moment, what it was like to be her. Yes, I know she had her own trials and tribulations to look back on, (as did my sister: a fellow popular girl from a younger grade). However, I wondered if she knew how lucky she was to feel accepted by her peers. Did she understand how fortunate she was to feel comfortable in the halls at our school? My sister commented once that school was a haven from home. I wondered if she felt like this as I sat there, forced by my parents to attend this event. I hated the school and my classmates, and wanted nothing more than forget the whole experience.Also in our group was that guy most of the girls in school secretly, (or not so secretly) had a viscous crush on. In fact, I was one of them to my own dismay. You see, in my mind crushes were bad things. Nothing, good could ever come of then. I was, after all, an abhorrent social atrocity. No one in their right mind would dare interact with me for fear of what others might say – especially guys. My only course of action? As someone who “knew her place” these feelings were best left buried way down deep, kept to myself.
…and then finally there was TJ. In college, many years later, he would be convicted of rape after his high school girlfriend testified against him in court. He was a legend in his mind with this stupid bleached blonde hair and king shit attitude. I was always perplexed at how everyone secretly made fun of him for these qualities – but never to his face. Maybe because he was superb at dishing it out and nobody wanted to be at the receiving end of his bullshit.
At any rate, we all sat in a circle and I listened quietly as everyone began working on the project together. I felt silly sitting there and wanted nothing more than to crawl into a corner. It’s as if my leper status was burned into my brain as an indelible fact. I wanted to apologize for my presence that day, but said nothing. Instead, I prayed silently, that TJ would overlook me so I could survive the experience unscathed. However, I wasn’t so lucky.
She then makes a point of noting that I’m just sitting there like a “useless blob” while they do all the work. I wonder to myself why she feels it necessary to talk about me as if I’m not there. TJ pipes in on cue hey moron, answer her!” I refuse, (knowing full well any interaction with him cannot go well: it never has). My crush leans forward and attempts to engage in a conversation, (although not as crudely the other two).
There is no way out.
I can’t hide
I can’t run
and I certainly can’t fight back.
I have nobody to stand by me and back me up and TJ has a roomful of bystanders to perform for. So what do I do? I decide to just sit there and look straight ahead at the chalkboard and refuse to acknowledge their existence. This, infuriates TJ who hits me with an unending verbal assault.
Everyone is staring at us and time stands still. The teacher stands there like a numb-nutt and does nothing. My eyes well up with tears and my face grows hot as I start to zone out…
No amount of daydreaming or checking out can save me from the unbearable pain that comes from realizing that:
I am different.
Being different causes you to stand out.
standing out makes you a target.
as a target you’re susceptible to ridicule
people notice & a reputation develops
this reputation renders you invisible
Through the passage of time, my memory childhood events has developed into an morphological representation that is constantly reframed as a result of changing beliefs and previously overlooked details. I must admit – at times, my memory is a bit fuzzy. Around the holidays, while I’m at my parent’s house, we always find ourselves reminiscing about various childhood events. My boys sit eager to hear my parents’ retelling of various childhood escapades. As I listen to my parents’ retelling of things, I frequently encounter a perspective so divergent from mine that I’m left speechless. I’m usually thinking to myself: “how is it you can say this? Where were you?!?”
Yet, as the befuddlement wears of, (and I stop to process the details provided by someone else’s perspective), I come to realize my memory bears the indelible imprint of a child’s eye. Editing out all perspectives other than myself – I was the center of my world. And my eye was narrowly focused upon those details that were most emotively captivating in the best and worst of ways. All other details remain out of focus or edited out altogether.
When looking back at this day in Geography class, I remember it at first as a highly traumatic event. It was a key turning point in my own dwindling mental health. I quickly spiraled into parasuicidality struggling to find some relief to the profound sadness and hopelessness that overwhelmed me. I didn’t want to die, I just longed for the hurt to end, and was sick and tired of “white-knuckling it.”
Yet the adult in me resonates with the thoughts of many readers, “What’s the big deal?!?!?” After all, the event, as I’ve described it is rather mundane and certainly not worth the level of meaning I’ve placed upon it. In some respects, I do agree with you. However, it must be noted that the kid I was then, didn’t have the benefit of 20-20 hindsight and 30+ years of life experience under her belt.
It was in this class, that any last shred of hope within me died. All insecurities burned into my mind as certainties and indelible facts of my own worthlessness. I gave up the internal struggle to hold onto my knowledge of self with nobody to provide me that support I needed. I internalized these messages from my bullies, and became exactly what they said I was…
So being the mental health nerd I am, what can I dig up from the depths of earlier events in my life, to help explain such an extreme emotive reaction??? I had some time to think about this a bit, as I’ve honestly struggled to complete this post. A plethora of memories snap into my mind in rapid succession.
The pain started at St. Agnes: I was ostracized from the beginning & never experienced acceptance or belonging from my peers…
Saint Agnes a a Catholic private grade school in my hometown. The classes were pretty small and everybody knew everybody, (so there was no escaping the idiots that made your life hell). I was bullied from the outset and had the word “patsy” tattooed to her forehead. I was the ideal target: A quiet and sensitive girl who couldn’t keep her emotions bottled up to save her life. If someone hurt my feelings, I let them know it. Very quickly, I found myself the odd-man out. The girls all refused to play with me and the boys all made fun of me. I will never forget how much I hated recess since I had nobody to play with. I tried hanging by the front door, so nobody could see me by myself. However, the nuns always shooed me away and urged me to go play. I begged them to go inside by their response was, “you need the exercise, go play.” Very quickly, I was left with a message from my peers.
“We don’t like you.”
“You are different.”
You see, I’m one of those rare prolonged cases of ostracism. A good majority of people I’ve spoken with have had periods in their childhood in which things were okay for them socially, intermingled within and between periods of peer-related trauma. I on the other hand, only had the ostracism and bullying. There was never any opportunity to experience healthy peer interactions. I was always the social leper. The only people I hung out with were other social lepers. And the bullies were a constant presence in my life. Their names and faces changed every few years or so, but they were always there.
Looking back at it today, I am perplexed by my own childlike desire to protect my parents from this horrible fact. You see, my mom was not from here, and I didn’t want her to feel bad for my problems. I worried she would blame herself. Then my dad, he was always somebody who didn’t tolerate emotions very well. He preferred to pretend they weren’t there and immerse himself in his intellectual pursuits. When he arrived home, my goal was to simply let him watch t.v. so he could relax. My own problems were best left to myself. (((More about this later)))
In third grade, things got really bad at St. Agnes. I fell into a deep depression, and stopped listening in school. My grades went downhill and the teachers suggested I repeat the grade. However, in order to prevent more ostracism, they suggested I transfer to the public school system and continue there. So I left for Jolley School with a solid foundation of insecurity and low self-esteem from St. Agnes. I must admit, my mother did try hardest to help me fit in. However, the emotional impact of those years were hard to overcome.
I left the experience simply wondering “why don’t they like me”.
I wanted nothing more than to know “how the popular kids got to be popular.”
I hoped for a fresh start, but instead received more of the same.
The deepening of my wounds continued as I sat on the sidelines, observing silently, the viscious social politics of popularity in my hick town.
So after failing 3rd grade at St. Agnes, i was transferred to Jolley School. I ended up in Mrs. Herren’s class and also started going to a daycare every day after school and all summer long. I absolutely hated it! We were forced to hang downstairs in the basement with the two yappy dogs who liked to shit on the floor and a pee-stained sofa from all the toddlers who she left all day in wet diapers. A girl from my new school also happened to be in the same grade as me. I was always very jealous of her and her conventional beauty. While only 8-years-old at the time, she kinda reminded me of a minature version of Marilyn Monroe. Standing next to her, I felt like a horrible beast, with my dark hair, large nose, and generalized dorkiness.
At any rate, I had the the fortune of meeting her the summer before Jolley School. She was stuck in the same shitty daycare I was. I received a “quick-and-dirty” education on the in’s and out’s of popularity from Little-Miss-Mini-Marilyn. When school started, she made this agreement with me, to “not talk with her during school”. She explained, her group was “very exclusive”. I complied with her request and was able to observe this crowd of mean-girls rule the school. They had this mysterious power I so longed for. After several months of silent-from-the-sidelines observation, I asked her how she was able to be part of the “in crowd”. She looked at me seriously and said it comes down to one principle: “loyalty”. I looked at her dumbfounded and in disbelief. It couldn’t be a simple as that could it? How did this explain all the reasons people liked to make fun of me. From my own viewpoint I had to believe there was some magical recipe that included a series of idiotic rules: (1) Only hang out with these people; (2) show an interested in these things, (3) dress and/or act in this or that particular way. What I didn’t realize was these were a series of random insecurities instilled within me from bullies as my perceived reasons for “not being good enough”. I couldn’t conceive at the time that these things were just random things that didn’t matter one way or the other….
It’s only now, many years later, that her words had any meaning. This illustrious in-crowd was simply all powerful because they knew how to play the game of social politics. Their magical key was simply to stick together and remain loyal to the group, “no matter what”. In my mind now, I can recall middle school many years later. There was this viscious “mean girls” bullshit happening at the time. All the grade schools were consolidated into one middle school and the popular girls from each grade school engaged in some f-d up “war” to determine who got to claim the title “king shit”…..
It all started in the beginning of fifth grade. These popular girls combined into one group of about 20-some individuals. Over the next year and a half this group dwindled down with various “members” kicked out of the group for an extraneous and idiotic set of reasons. It was only around this time, that I was actually glad to be on the sidelnes. In fact it seemed to me that members of the in-crowd also had it pretty tough too. By the time sixth grade came to a close, this exclusive group now consisted of the four original girls from Jolley, (including of course “Little-Miss-Mini-Marilyn”…
…And then my own self-imposed silence and solitude began when my best friend Ruby Stricker moved back to the Indian Reservation where the rest of her family lived at the time.
I met Ruby at the beginning of 5th grade. She was a student at another grade school. I recall meeting her one day at recess. We hit it off instanteously. I can’t tell you what factors congealed to make us such a good fit for one another at the time. Although, to some extent, we were both outsiders looking in. For me, I was just the clueless dorky social leper. She, on the other hand, was Native American and lived in a trailer park. Alone, neither of us had a “leg to stand on” in a scary world defined by middle school social politics. To the mostly-white and upper-middle-class population that lived there (due to the University) I’m guessing Ruby was probably in the same boat as me. She was my only friend at the time, and without her, I would have been alone in a scary and terrifying….
I will never forget bumping into her mother at the local “Piggly Wiggly”. She mentioned matter-off-factly that they were moving. My face grew cold, my mind went blank, and I fell into an irrational panic. The next morning I asked her why “she didn’t tell me”. She admitted quietly, “I was afraid to break the news to you.”
By the end of the week, she had moved away, and I was completely alone. There was nobody in my corner. I was a pre-teen with only ostracism and bullying in my past. This left me with no positive socialization experiences with peers my own age. Why does this matter???? This move ended my only opportunity for socialization.
Point #2: “In my own defense”, I was truly alone & the chips were stacked against me. School was a terrifying place. My only defense was to retreat “within myself”. By High School I was really known as “the girl who refused to talk”.