I should crawl up to bed and sleep because tomorrow I have stuff to do.
But I can’t. My mind is busy thinking about things I haven’t wasted time on in years.
Tonight there was a screening of the documentary BULLY, and I finally took the plunge. I knew it would stir some powerful emotions inside me. I went in prepared for this… as much as I could have, anyway.
If you don’t know about BULLY, the movie profiles several teenagers and preteens and their experiences being bullied. The reason this film first caught my notice was because one of the featured kids is a student at East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa.
While it’s in a new building now, that’s still the middle school I endured for three years. They took the wooden sign from the old building, the one I would stand in front of with my handful of friends every morning in sixth grade, and stuck it in front of the new one. The sight of that sign was enough to send my heart racing. It may as well have said “WELCOME TO HELL!” for all the joy that place brought to me.
This is why I had to see this movie. I had to know if it was as bad as I remembered it, if it had actually improved, or if, unfortunately for those kids, it had gotten worse. Unsurprisingly, it was just as I remembered it; from the endless torture and taunts of peers to the dismissive administrators. Driving home from the screening I was angry, horrified, sad, and not a little sick to my stomach.
It didn’t start with middle school, mind you, and it didn’t stop there, either. The abuse I endured ranged from simple ostracism (usually the days I counted myself lucky as this meant I went blissfully ignored) to physical removal by my peers from playground games to having to avoid certain hallways because I was tired of being barked at or shoved for having the audacity to exist within eyeshot of other people. From the day I started Kindergarten in Sioux City (I was a mid-year transfer thanks to being a military kid) until the day I graduated high school I had to find ways to avoid or endure.
The first time I gave serious thought to suicide, I was in second grade. Eight. Years. Old.
I was one of the more fortunate ones, however. I knew I was smart. I knew I had talents. I knew the world was bigger than the pit of despair in which I was living. I consoled myself with being grateful that while I might have been poor, had bad skin, braces, a ridiculously awful perm, glasses, and a flair for the weird, at least I wasn’t fat. I had friends that were. It was worse for them. It was even worse for the kids that were poorer than my family was.
That “it could be worse” mentality got me through a lot. My lowest point came in 7th grade when my grades had slipped to mostly B’s, a single A, and * gasp choke * a C. I refer to this year as my Hell Year, and my grades reflected it. I was told if I didn’t pull them up I would be pulled from band and choir, the only things keeping me going at that point. I can say with certainty that had that threat been carried out… well, some things can’t be undone. Choir was the one place they couldn’t touch me, couldn’t say a damn word, because for once I was better than them. That was my element.
One of the few great memories I have of my biological father was him coming up to my room that night, giving me a big hug, and promising me I would keep my music classes. I wonder if he suspected what might’ve happened without them…
The middle school was only two blocks from the house I grew up in. I walked to and from school every day. Mornings were never too bad. It was the afternoon walk I dreaded. I holed up in the bathroom for at least 30 minutes every day. That was usually enough time for the worst of them to clear out. I lived up the street from one guy who occasionally brought a group of friends home from school. These were the days I hated most.
I slipped up one day and only waited 15 minutes before walking home. As I turned the corner, I knew I had made a horrible miscalculation. Half a block ahead of me was this group of boys. I did my best to go slow, hang back, but just as they cleared the top of the hill, one of them ran back, shoved something into my hand and called “Mark wants to know if you’ll go out with him” as he trotted back to the group. I wasn’t stupid enough to think this was anything more than a joke, but I held on to the silver and turquoise ring they thrust upon me. I stupidly recounted the incident to my stupid neighbor to which she said “well duh, it’s a joke. But you know, if you don’t have a boyfriend by now you probably never will”. It seemed I had underestimated her level of stupidity, and I quickly told her how wrong and dumb that statement was. I put the ring in a jewelry box and tried to put it out of my mind.
You would think this would have taught me to better watch my time hiding in the bathroom, but, no. A few months later I made the same damn mistake, with much the same result. This time I didn’t even warrant someone running back. A simple “hey Mark wants to know if he can have his ring back” was shouted from almost a block away. I tried to pretend like I hadn’t heard.
It’s an insipid thing, really. It isn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me, for sure, but it really stuck. And of all the things that have come and gone in my life, that ring still remains.
At first I kept it because I was angry. I had grand ideas of showing up at a class reunion, rich, beautiful, successful, and throwing it back at the lot of them… right before I punched them in their stupid noses.
It’s taken up residence in my new jewelry box, but not for that reason anymore. Now, I keep it to remind myself, from time to time, what one can live through and come out better for it. I keep it because sometimes you have to remember where you’ve been to remember where you’re going.
Not many people know these things about me. Even fewer know that last story. It’s almost as humiliating to tell as it was to live through, mostly because it seems so inconsequential now. When you’re 12, though, it’s those little things, day after day after day, that compound themselves and weigh you down.
I don’t have any solutions to this problem. I don’t know how to keep kids from being so despicable to one another. I can only offer the victims one sliver of hope:
It gets better.
No, really. It WILL get better. Yes, there will always be asshats and people that want to drag you down for no other reason than to see if they can, but you have it within yourself to do better, to BE better. Love yourself. Respect yourself. Offer the same to everyone and it’s amazing what comes to you. You’ll be stronger, wiser. Those scars become badges of honor. I won’t tell you to forgive and forget, not when I can’t do that myself yet, but don’t let it eat you from the inside out. Basically, screw ‘em. It’s a big, big world and there are more amazing people in it than you can meet in fifty lifetimes. The sucky ones aren’t worth wasting your time on, unless you’re the Count of Monte Cristo. Even then it’s a crapshoot.
And for the curious, this is what they were barking at by the time I was 18. All they could remember was the girl I was in 7th grade.
It. Gets. Better.