Bullying (1/3) The Darkest Shade of Gray

[I couldn’t think of a fitting cover-image for this series, so here’s the Carbon Freeze chamber from Empire Strikes Back.]

I’ve alluded to this series since the beginning but there was always doubt in my mind whether I’d really post it or not. The reason is twofold; I don’t want to come across as though I’m fishing for sympathy and I don’t want to be defined by these events anymore. Eventually I decided these memoirs were worth sharing because anyone else out there who’s going through something similar needs to know they’re not alone. Furthermore, anyone who denies the severity or prevalence of schoolyard bullying needs to appreciate firsthand how profoundly it can impact its victims for years if not decades into the future. As far as I’m concerned, bullying is the worst thing a person can do to someone else. It’s a deep and lasting emotional scar that destroys a person’s potential to succeed and fully enjoy their life. I hope my dissertation on the subject can add to the general awareness of this pervasive issue.

Providing Context

I will just get a few points out of the way upfront before going into my own experiences.

The reason I didn’t fight back in the vast majority of instances here is because I’m naturally a pretty laid back, docile person. My mom always gave us the absolute worst advice you can get when it comes to bullying: “just ignore it and they’ll leave you alone” and for awhile I took it to heart. And then…after awhile…you just honestly internalize a lot of the abuse and come to think you deserve it. That maybe you could lash out, but you’d lose, the bullies’ friends would just gang up on you later, the school would suspend or expel you and not the abusive instigator who pushed you over the limit. With the benefit of hindsight I wish I had stopped it, early and decisively. If I were to ever raise children someday that’s what I would tell them to do, because in my experience it never stops until you fight back for yourself. Zero tolerance policies, overworked teachers and authoritarian administrators aren’t going to help our kids, they need to be able to fight back for themselves. It’s a shame it has to be that way, but we don’t live in a perfect world.

I’m sure it must sound old by now, relating everything to being trans. But while I was far from out at this time, my mannerisms and attitude were still pretty feminine, which set me up for a lot of the abuse. It’s really hard not to imagine, wistfully, how different things could have been if I’d been a girl in school where my persona would have had a better chance of being accepted. But the real reason I mention the trans stuff is because it’s another reason I didn’t do much to try to stop the torment as it was happening. I thought if I were to complain to my parents, they’d blame me for “letting it happen,” being “too soft” and not “manly” enough to stop it. I was already pushed into a bunch of guy sports against my will, so who’s to say I wouldn’t get thrown into more sessions of wrestling, or rugby to “toughen me up?” This was my greatest fear, that coming forward would just lead to what was essentially more punishment and humiliation at home. I was also scared that, in the event I ever actually came out as trans, my parents would use the bullying as a convenient scapegoat of “oh you’re just saying that because you were bullied, you don’t really mean it.” Better to just keep my head down and roll with the punches, or so I thought at the time.

Two years after high school ended, when the nightmares, panic attacks and depression still weren’t going away, I told my mom I thought I should get into therapy. She actually shouted at me that I had nothing to be depressed about and called me and my generation spoiled for even asking about it. This is after she signed my sister up for therapy not a week prior. I love my mom and she’s been a great caregiver in every other way, but sometimes she just doesn’t appreciate the subtext of a situation. IE, if you’re child comes to you and says they need a therapist, there’s probably something going on they can’t talk to you about. My parents are great people but they weren’t perfect (as no one is) and this was one of their few failings. To be fair, I guess I hid my discomfort well so they had no reason to suspect how bad things really were for me back then.

What I did do to cope was read other people’s stories of bullying–Phoebe Prince was always the one that hit the hardest. I also got really invested in the life of Princess Diana, because it was a look at how even someone beautiful and beloved by the masses (both of which I was not) could still suffer from emotional mistreatment, unfulfilling interpersonal relationships and feelings of inadequacy. It helped me realize that I was not alone. One of my favorite movies for awhile was Lawrence of Arabia because this awesome adventurer whom I admired also struggled with a similar traumatic event (more on that in the next volume). Again, it’s not that I was taking some kind of pleasure in the suffering of others, it was just getting reassurance that I wasn’t the only one dealing with this kind of pain. Besides that, I mostly listened to music (with Pet Sounds being the soundtrack to a lot of my angst), buried myself in media to escape and developed a food addiction to cope. I ballooned up to 300 pounds around my freshman year of college before finally taking control and getting the weight off.

A Systemic Problem

As far as the bullies themselves go, I’m tired of the narrative that they’re lonely poor kids who just lash out for attention or out of jealousy. The truth is a lot more complicated than that. I think perhaps abuse at home is a factor in some cases. But I know for a fact that many of my worst transgressors were well-off financially, had lots of friends and were pampered by their parents. So, I think a big part of it is just kids naturally testing the limits of authority (and nowadays, school authorities have no interest or ability in holding them back.) We take these kids en mass and throw them together in a room before they’re 5, before they’ve learned empathy or proper social skills. What the hell did we think was going to happen?

Kids, some of them, resort to those ingrained instincts of dominating the competition physically and through intimidation. That’s just what happens when people don’t know better. What’s worse is, unless the victim snaps and fights back, the bully never learns better so they keep at it in life. And now you have a bunch of broken people who’ve got a lifetime of depression or anxiety from all the abuse they’ve suffered. They know authority is worthless when most needed, and they know violence and harassment are effective. That’s how you create more bullies, more apathetic adults who shrug and say “that’s just the way it is” because they lack the vision to imagine anything different.

A Personal Hell

I apologize in advance for this sub-chapter reading like a laundry list. This is only about half of what I could relay about my experiences, but after a certain point, you get the idea.

I never had an issue with other kids in preschool, kindergarten or first grade. It was only in grade 2 that I first encountered someone nasty in school (a girl named Casey) who would occassionally make mean comments about me or presume that she could order me around. (And to any naive adults reading, no, she didn’t have a crush on me.) Still, she was just one of thirty or so kids in class and most others were great. Third grade things got a little worse; I noticed at the time that’s when everyone seemed to get meaner and more cliquey in school for whatever reason. Still no particular incident stands out as especially egregious and I suffered no continuous harassment. Fourth grade was a glorious reprieve, where I was blessed to have all my friends in class and had a wonderful time.

I started getting bullied around 5th grade, mostly from a student named Andrew but there were others as well. Before then, a few “bad kids” (for lack of a better term) aside, everybody in school was pretty cool and got along with each other. It was quite a shock to go from fourth grade with a class full of friends to suddenly being told “shut up; nobody likes you” almost anytime I spoke. Or having something dropped in my soda at a class holiday party. Or having someone try to knock my model castle off my desk (we had to make them for a project.) Still, at the end of the day I could power through it; I had friends in and out of my class and so it was easy to dismiss it as just a few jerks.

In Middle School things got a lot worse. Suddenly a bunch of people I didn’t even know were just deciding they hated me on sight (possibly due to word of mouth, or I just looked like an easy target.) I got made fun of for various things: I didn’t wear brand name clothing including (perish the thought!) sketchers shoes. I remember Ben and Kyle stealing cookies off my plate when I got up during a class party. Calling me “tubs” and trying to trip or push me in class. Once I was walking behind some girls in the hallway and there was a glass set of doors coming up. As I walked over to cross, one of the girls (Amy) in the group turned around and closed the doors in my face while the others laughed hysterically in my face. Someone once shined a laser in my face to laugh at my reaction. Another kid once pulled my hood down over my head in front of everyone for a laugh. In general, I couldn’t say anything in some classes without getting cut up and/or told to shut up while the teachers just sat there letting it happen (a few even enjoying it themselves–one even threw a marker at me once.)

This wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the fact that Sam, the person I considered my best friend in school at this time abandoned me and our fledgling friend group. Around the end of sixth grade he clearly saw the writing on the wall and decided to distance himself, including sitting elsewhere at lunch. In seventh grade I felt him slipping away even more, and the killing blow came in the last four way sleepover me, him and two others all had together. (We’d all been friends since second grade.) Sam spent half the night bragging about all the “cool kids” he talked to on Instant Messenger now, and was sure to tell me how everyone in school made fun of the clothes I wore for good measure. Because everyone likes getting reminded of their ongoing public humiliation during that brief Saturday sanctuary with their “friends.” After that, he’d often join in a bit if someone was giving me a hard time in class, making me feel more isolated than ever before. I had classes with Sam again in twelfth grade and he was friendly enough, I suspect at least a bit regretful, but all the same we were never close again after that fateful sleepover. I just couldn’t think of him the same way again.

On the bus, people would say the nastiest things to me almost every day. I recall on one occasion some kid told me I was going to get raped, not just once but the entire 20 minute ride, going into detail about how I deserved to be raped and mutilated. On a school trip, someone I actually considered a close friend once swiped the baseball cap off my head and stamped on it in front of me because (gasp!) it was the wrong team. (Keep in mind I just wore a hat my mom packed for me, I never gave a shit about sports.) More than once there was a Forrest Gump moment where nobody let me sit down, at least not without a lot of heckling and hassle. The one time a girl friend of mine who was in band actually rode the bus and I got to talk with her, some jackass made a point of yelling back “[deadname] has friends!?” to humiliate me and ruin the moment. Again, of course, everyone laughed like it was the funniest thing that ever happened. Sometimes I didn’t feel like dealing with it so I sat up front…and this catty girl named Meghan a year younger presumed to order me to move away from her towards the back.

That same girl’s older brother, Joe, once told me I was “a disgrace to the school” because I wore a hand-me-down shirt from my cousin which happened have been given out to football players or some nonsense. Joe also threw things at a few other people, he got one of his targets to admit they were afraid and actually seemed to relish it. My parents knew I hated Joe and he was bullying me…and they pressured me to be friends with him anyway because “he’s from the neighborhood/when I was a kid, we were friends with everyone from the neighborhood!” Years later, they (being my parents) bugged me all afternoon to go to Meghan’s graduation party for the same reason, and wouldn’t take my “no” for an answer. Again I’m not trying to throw them under the bus here, but I think it’s worth pointing out that if a kid adamantly doesn’t want to socialize with someone else, it’s just possible there might be a good reason, not just them being lazy or antisocial.

Besides all that, I remember kids constantly making fun of the books I read (really, the fact I read at all I guess.) Everything from the classic keep-away with my copy of The Godfather to me coming back from my locker and seeing The Andromeda Strain thrown on the ground, or someone making fun of the title in front of everyone to get a cheap laugh (It was The Killer Angels by Michael Shara, a classic about the Battle of Gettysburg.) I recall getting laughed at a lot in middle school for reading Harry Potter…until High School when the movies started crossing over into mainstream “cool” territory and suddenly those same people were pretending they’d been fans all along, showing up on premiere night, etc.

At a school football game, I was with a girl friend and another guy talking and she left momentarily to go to the bathroom. At that point, some jackass I didn’t even know came over to me and said he was going to rape her and then showed me a pocket knife to threaten me with. He had a little toady with him who, you guessed it, was laughing his ass off the entire time. I tried to vent about this particular incident to a few of my friends at school but none of them ever believed me. (The other guy I was with didn’t see the knife and didn’t back me up about it.) A less serious incident I recall was at a different game when one of my friends who always tried to be macho and play-fight everyone started on me. He had food in his hand and got my nice shirt I’d picked out specially to wear that night smeared in a huge ketchup stain. I didn’t want to fight him in the first place, and looked like an idiot all night with a big red stain on my chest just so he could show off to everyone how tough he was for five seconds. He barely apologized, and continued to do stuff like that into the future.

I was very fortunate that I didn’t grow up with social media from the start–that didn’t come into play until I was in high school. And man, did that make things worse. At least in middle school I could come home, listen to some Jamiroquai (I had unusual tastes in those days :P) and just unwind. Starting in ninth grade I couldn’t even have that little bit of peace anymore. I remember kids who, when I knew them in middle school, seemed nice enough and I always thought I was at least acquaintances with, suddenly messaging me on Facebook. The two that stand out the most are Gabriel and Stafford, both of whom told me I was hideously ugly, I’d never find someone who’d love me, asking sarcastically if I wanted to “suck [their] cock.” In many ways, those two incidents (and several others like them) stung the hardest. It’s one thing to think a few shitty people in school are just cruel, it’s another to realize word of mouth is so widespread that even people you’d felt were pretty cool years ago now felt like they deserved to have a turn stepping on the bottom rung of the ladder. They could do it safely and at all hours of the day and night behind their screens.

The advent of cellphones later on in high school had a similar effect. I got a few prank calls from a bunch of girls at slumber parties. Again, the usual bullshit, because I hadn’t heard it enough yet how ugly, horrible, unworthy of love and disgusting I was. It was even worse the first time because I thought it was one of my girl friends (with all this abuse I bet you’re surprised I even had any of those) so when I first answered the phone and heard what sounded like a familiar voice I was really excited and it showed in my vocal inflections. Apparently all these people together couldn’t think of ANYTHING better to do than make a miserable person’s life just a tiny little bit shittier than it already was by piling on after school. They used a blocked number so I couldn’t even have the satisfaction of knowing who it was that instigated it. I recognized one of the voices as (a different) Meghan, one of the girls in my class. The others I have no idea. The fact that I was subjected to this vicious onslaught of heckling and debasement in my own home felt so violating. At least when it occurred in school I could come home, lie in bed and feel safe. Now it felt like even my own room was a prison.

The Eye of the Storm

By eighth grade and throughout high school, my remaining two core, close friends and I eventually melded into a pretty cool group we met through a school field trip. I had some great times with them, and without their camaraderie, I might not have made it. I recall one of my best friends, Lily, taking me to the mall to help me pick out a tux for prom; that afternoon with her is one of my favorite memories from those days. Hell, I remember having a great time at three different proms themselves. I remember pool parties, Halloween parties and drinking parties. It’s not that I never had friends back in my secondary school days, it’s that these good times were buried under a storm of terrible ones. Plus, for every party I was invited to, there was at least two more I only saw the pictures from on Facebook after the fact. I know nobody is obligated to invite me to anything, but I still couldn’t help but feel hurt by that. It made me feel like I wasn’t really their friend, just tolerated at school out of pity. When you’re already teetering on the edge, every (perceived) rejection is a new reason to doubt your self-worth.

Unfortunately, even this group wasn’t without its sources of harassment. More than a few friends-of-friends in it were toxic, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t fight back against them, or walk away, because I was just so grateful to have any kind of group at all. The alternative was to make waves and risk being cast out again as a lone sheep for the wolves. I’m not gonna delve into nearly as much detail with this as I could, but the worst offender was a girl named Jessie, who told me at various times I was: “a negative one on the hotness scale”/“a loser”/“not worth saying goodbye to.” On more than one occasion, I actually went home and cried because of what that horrible person said to me. I really wish I had told her off at the time, but I hung back because she was dating one of my best friends and I liked him more than I hated her. Plus, a few times I did call people out for their bullshit, but they’d just get a bunch of other kids in the group to gang up on me and say I was the problem. Invariably, I’d wind up having to swallow my pride and apologize or be isolated from the only group I had.

At least twice, someone in that group started nasty rumors about me. When I was in eighth grade, one of the more popular girls there started telling a bunch of our friends that I was gay. Just for the record, at this point I’m openly into whoever tickles my fancy and I make no apologies for that. But at the time, I lived in a very traditional, conservative family and hadn’t found the courage to explore my sexuality yet–that wouldn’t come until college. What’s more, it was a less tolerant time on gay issues, in a pretty right-wing area, and I was already being bullied. To be seen as gay on top of everything else I was getting harassed over would’ve gotten me killed. Besides all that, it’s the principle of the thing–friends don’t make shit up like that. Some people told me of the rumors, I confronted her, she refused to stop or even apologize because “I didn’t say you were, I said I thought you were.” This was, unfortunately, one of those times where I never got a satisfactory apology or explanation from the other person. I just let it go because she was more entrenched in the group than I was and didn’t want to be isolated.

The other instance of hurtful rumors came when a different girl took it upon herself to proclaim that my eyes weren’t really blue–I just bought blue contact lenses. This sounds like a petty thing to get upset about, and maybe it is. But you have to keep in mind, I was ugly and I knew it. Literally the one and only thing I actually liked about myself at this point in time were my blue eyes. They made me proud that at least I had one attribute that most people considered attractive. For this girl to try to take even that last little sliver of confidence away from me was very defeating. What made it worse is, she refused to believe me when I corrected her, and the other people around didn’t believe me either.

Conclusion

There’s plenty of other examples of bullshit I had to put up with in those days which I could list here, but I think that paints a pretty complete picture. To this day, I have never heard a single apology from any of my tormentors, and I don’t expect I ever will. I’m sure in their own minds, they see no reason why they should apologize. “Oh I just told him he was ugly”/“oh I just stole some of his food”/“I just prank called his house”/“I just told him no one likes him”/“I just threatened to rape him…no big deal.” [Obviously I’m using male pronouns here because that’s how they knew me by the way.] That’s really the worst part, for me. There’s a diffusion of responsibility for what amounts to an avalanche of horrifying psychological torture on a person in their delicate formative years. Everyone gets to have their sick twisted fun at someone else’s expense and then excuse it afterwards because “oh but I wasn’t a big part of it.”

And there’s no real way for me to get closure on any of it–I could try to track down everyone who ever did something shitty, but that only gives them the satisfaction it still bothers me. If they even apologize at that point, it’d be forced and insincere. They may not even remember (or pretend not to) and then that’s just added insult to injury. Reaching out also means getting to see how awesome their lives probably are now since nobody nuked their confidence from orbit. Meanwhile, I was still struggling with the wounds they left all through my college years, hampering my academic progress, making me apathetic about life in general during those crucial years and leaving me worse off for a lifetime. Not to mention I’d have to reveal to them I’m trans in the process of confronting them, which I’m sure a few of these sick creeps would take a perverse pleasure in. “Haha, [deadname] became a tranny! Always knew he was a loser!!”

3 Comments

  1. It doesn’t really feel right “liking” what I’ve just read. Maybe it’s saying I’m pleased you can “let it all out” now in a way that wasn’t available to you before. Well I know there’s worse to come but this was a pretty harrowing read in itself.

    Please don’t say you were ugly, C — you were made to feel ugly, which is quite a different matter. Thank goodness you have loving people in your life now who can help you come to terms with this nightmare.

    1. Thanks for the support. Most of it doesn’t bother me so much anymore in terms of the bullying itself, it’s more thinking about how much it affected me in the recent past and the lack of confidence I had in college as a result which gets me upset. Like, I realize how I held people at arms length when I might’ve had a closer relationship if I had just let them in. But I was scared they’d realize how worthless I was if I made a move, and I hated myself so much I honestly couldn’t understand why they even wanted to hang out with me. Or I realize how, paradoxically, I was too desperate and clingy with someone else who made me feel good about myself for the first time because I believed they were the only person who’d ever like me and if I let them go I’d be alone forever. Then I just feel regretful and ashamed I let these people from secondary school mess with my head so much that I self sabotaged for awhile even outside of their direct influence. That’s what hurts me the most nowadays, the people I blew it with for one reason or another because I was coping with my past in an imperfect way. For better or worse, I wasn’t allowed to see a therapist then and I can’t afford it now, but writing it down and getting this off my chest helped a lot.

      Anyway, I wasn’t trying to share this information because I want people to feel sorry for me. I just want people to understand how pervasive the problem of bullying is if they weren’t already aware, and how corrosive it can be to a person’s sense of self when it happens. I admit there’s probably people even just in my school and grade who had it worse than I did but the point is even a “mild case” like mine was still very traumatic. And I know my nose isn’t completely clean either; if I’m being honest I would sometimes make a rude remark to others I perceived as lower on the totem pole than me to signal that at least I was still “better” than them. It’s disgusting and I’m ashamed I ever did those things. I’m still responsible for my own actions, but American secondary schools are a corrosive environment that brings out the worst in everyone.

      I would like to see a comprehensive dialogue about this problem where people openly admit their experiences on either/both sides of the issue and we come to some kind of solution as a society. As is, it feels like we all know this goes on but try to downplay how often as well as how hurtful it is. Coupled with my blog posts about the other issues in schools today, and I feel it’s past time we restructure the entire schooling system from top to bottom. The current model clearly isn’t setting up kids to be confident, open minded, critically thinking adults the way it should be. I’d argue the plethora of depression and anxiety disorders in modern America, as well as the negative coping mechanisms (opioid epidemic, suicide, school shootings, incel community, etc) are a direct result of the collective trauma from our broken schools.

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