I can’t watch movies or television shows where someone’s being bullied. If there’s bullying going on, I either hide my eyes, or steel myself, sitting very still, frozen, waiting for it to be over; not over for the character, but for myself.
It may end for the character, but it never ends for me.
Nowadays, they teach kids about how bad bullying is from a very young age. There are classes, starting with the primary grades. How not to bully, how to handle being bullied, how to handle seeing someone being bullied. The psychology of the bullies. The psychology of those bullied. The psychology of those who silently go along with the bullies, afraid, if they don’t, they’ll become one of the victims themselves. Reports I get from people in the school system are mixed as to how well these programs are working. I think it’s good the awareness is out there. But there will always be bullies, and there will always be bullying, and there will always, always be bullies. If you look closely at the cave paintings, some of those hunters are bullies. If you look at amphoras, bullies decorate some belled bodies in a painted chain of hate.
There was something very different about me from the minute I got to school, but I didn’t realize it until I was about eight. Up until then, I just thought it could be blamed on a variety of things – the fact that the other kids had grown up near one another, so they knew one another entering school; the fact that the other kids had the right clothes and hair, and I always seemed to be in clothes from last season, or one of my dress-straps was falling off, or one of my braids was unraveling. Something small like that. Something fixable.
But it wasn’t fixable, because technically, I wasn’t broken. Not really. It was just that their minds worked in a way mine didn’t. They knew how to get along, make friends, socialize. They loved lunchtime, with its chatter and gaiety and laughter, and oh, did they love recess, with swings and dodgeball, running from the boys, squealing and pretending there would be cooties, if they were to be caught.
My mind didn’t work in this way. I didn’t understand social time. I didn’t know what to say to these loud, riotous children, these brightly-colored chattering birds. I tried to fit in, but I’d say things and you could almost see the words rising from my mouth and falling flat on the table in front of me. The other children would look at me, wrinkle their perfect, pretty little noses, and continue on as if I hadn’t even spoken. Recess became more and more fraught with dodging balls thrown at my head and insults thrown at my more tender parts, so I’d beg for extra credit, anything to keep me inside while everyone else was outside. We know now about introverts and extroverts, social anxiety, how some children learn best in different environments. We didn’t know that then.
Children, like sharks, like lions, scent the weak. They scent the loner, the loser. And they target that person. Why? Because they can. Oh, dig deeper into their minds, and you might find that they felt out of control in their own lives, or that they, themselves, were being abused or bullied by another, or that they were simply so miserable about something, anything, that their sadness spilled out onto the target least-likely to fight back. I think we overlook pure meanness as the reason, sometimes, though. Sometimes there’s no psychology, and there’s no reason. There’s a child, and that child is mean, and that child enjoys making another child feel small.
When the other children were learning social skills, I had my nose buried in a book. I read and learned anything I could get my hands on. I was the first one with my hand up when questions were asked in class. I was finished with the textbooks handed out the first day of class about a week into the year. Teachers were at a loss as to what to do with me. I was a porous little sponge, equal parts because I was intelligent and because I needed an escape, and all of those facts and figures and words afforded me one.
But outside of the classroom, there was the gauntlet to run; being shoved down in the hallways, smashed into lockers, called names regularly (I remember looking up “geek” in a dictionary in the mid-80s and being confused why the other kids were calling me a circus performer who ate live poultry.) Being told a certain boy had a crush on me, then showing up at a designated place and time to find out it was a joke. Learning to rush from place to place with my head down and my things clasped tightly to me because otherwise they’d be knocked from me, accompanied by troll-like laughter. Kids still laugh like that. I hear that laughter when I’m walking from one place to another and I shudder, I’m thirteen again, I pull my bag closer to me, I walk a little faster. I know they’re still there. They’re on my heels. I cannot convince myself that, this time, the laughter is not meant for me.
This was the eighties and nineties; adults didn’t step into children’s affairs. They used to think that a child being bullied was better for it, stronger; they used to think that it would teach the child some gumption, that it would teach the child to eat, or be eaten. There weren’t studies, back then, correlating teen suicide rates with persistent bullying. There weren’t studies saying that being treated that way as a child led to body image issues, depression, a lack of self-esteem, anxiety, withdrawal, phantom pain. Buck up! the adults would say. There were no “it gets better” campaigns. Adults looked at you much like the children doing this to you did: with an almost-imperceptible moue of disgust, as if you smelled bad, as if your loser status would rub off on them. Get away from me, you could hear their minds saying. If you can’t handle it by yourself, how can you even look yourself in the mirror?
So you killed or you were killed; you kept your head down and you muddled through, or you got in the shower with a kitchen knife and thought about how best to cut, across or up-and-down, because that’s a way to take care of it, right? That’s a way to handle it. Occam’s Razor: rule out the more complex theories and you have your solution – a sharp one slicing through veins and arteries. Simple. Easy. You took care of business.
I never thought I’d fit in. I never thought I’d be anything but the girl on the outside, with my books and my clothes which were never quite right and my words that tried just a little too hard and my sarcasm that was too quick, too biting; my only defense against years of being worn down, being told I was nothing, that I didn’t matter. I reacted poorly to kindness; I always thought there was something behind it. I waited for the other shoe. I jumped at loud noises like a war-era veteran. I never left home without at least three forms of self-defense stashed somewhere on my body.
I am almost forty. I still do these things. Some things you don’t outgrow.
Age, however, taught me a lesson: the outcast, once released in the wild, who has survived the fire and somehow burst through the other side singed and smoking but mostly whole – the outcast will find others just like her.
The other children bullied and jeered and catcalled. The first boy to come out in his high school. The girl who sang between classes. The girl everyone called a whore, even though she graduated a virgin. The actors, the writers, the artists, the dancers, the singers, the musicians, the freaks, the geeks, the nerds: the outcasts that band together, look back on the ashes of their collective pasts and turn away, reaching for the hands of the only people who will understand. The people who were tried as witches themselves, who refused to break, who were ground under stones and dunked in the river but somehow, somehow? Survived.
There is a time, when you are young, when you want nothing more than to fit in. To look and act and talk and smile like everyone else around you. Not stand out, not be taller, smarter, brighter, louder.
Then there is a time, when you are a bit older, when you realize it is this otherness, in you, this bright, burning little coal that you have tried so desperately to extinguish, that has kept you alive. That the path it has brought you down twists, and turns, and sometimes doubles back upon itself, but that you are exactly where you’re meant to be.
I still can’t watch children being bullied on television, or in movies. I watch this happen and it’s happening to me, all over again. This will always happen. This is the baggage I carry around with me. These are the footsteps I listen for, in the dark.
I am, however, no longer listening alone.
Amy Durant lives in upstate New York. She is a writer who has been published in a number of print and online publications. Her book of poetry, Out of True, was published in 2012. You can follow her on her blog, Lucy’s Football.