[I couldn’t think of a fitting cover-image for this series, so here’s the Carbon Freeze chamber from Empire Strikes Back.]
Of All the Things in my Life I’ve Ever Done, This is the One I’m Most Deeply Ashamed Of
I eventually did have enough abuse, and lashed out at someone around the first half of seventh grade. This person wasn’t a bully, but we did get in a bit of a fight once at the bus stop and he threw a stick at my head. It doesn’t excuse what I did, but I was dealing with a lot of stress and inadequacy from the ongoing harassment at school. So, in my 13 year old brain, having to take it from this person too was where I decided to draw the line. I tackled him, and really hurt the poor guy in the process.
The gossip mill got started on it once the bus came. I confided in what I’d done to Sam who, as I mentioned before, I considered my closest friend at this point. He proceeded to tell the entire school throughout the rest of the day, so for months after I had to hear the insane rumors that I’d bashed the other boy’s head in with a stick and all kinds of other nonsense. I knew it would get out eventually one way or another (it’s school) but the fact that my supposed friend went out of his way to tell EVERYONE (and multiple people confirmed this to me) felt like a massive betrayal. He wasn’t the least bit apologetic about it, either.
Anyway, I felt absolutely disgusting for what I’d done. He was smaller than me, never hurt a fly (he didn’t mean to hurt me with the stick, it was just misguided horseplay) and I’ve come to appreciate him as the sweetest person I’ve ever known. You see, this kid I tackled at the bus stop would eventually grow up to be the only one from my hometown who cared enough to reach out to me nearly 10 years later when I was at my lowest point. This is the friend I who saved me from myself, even though he would have been well-within his rights to never speak to me again after this incident. We reconnected at around the second coming of Jupiter in my life (similar to the astrological connection with the other best friend I ever had in my life) so I will affectionately refer to him as Jove from here on out.
After we got to school, I was called into the principal’s office and given an in-school suspension and was justly chewed out by my parents at home. They, rightly, forced me to go to Jove’s house and apologize to him and his family. Jove was so sweet to me, and accepted my apology immediately that I felt like the biggest piece of shit in the world for having hurt him in the first place. My dad proceeded to lecture me about the consequences of fighting–how the other kid might have hit his head on a rock and died, how his parents could have sued us for the house…all kinds of worst case scenarios like that. The whole experience put the fear of God in me at the prospect of fighting anyone ever again. I never wanted to hurt someone in general, much less accidentally kill them or get my family in trouble…
I’m relating this story for two reasons. One is to contextualize why I did not fight my worst abuser you’ll read about in the next sub-chapter, even though I probably should have. But more importantly, I’m admitting to this horrible mistake because I think it illustrates how bullying (and other forms of inflicted trauma) are a vicious cycle. I was always a really sweet, well-mannered kid up to that point, and afterwards. I never would have fought anyone, and often tried to break up the fights that did occur in my vicinity. But all the abuse I was going through had started to change me; there was an inner darkness and anger that hadn’t been there before. I took it out on the single least deserving person I possibly could have, and made his life just a little shittier than it already had to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of my bullies could say the same, though that wouldn’t excuse what they did to me either. To give myself a little credit, at least I apologized.
It’s as I said earlier, the whole entire school system is rotten. It takes these kids, some gentle and well meaning, others abused at home, or genuinely sociopathic and throws them together in a big melting pot to torture each other. At the end of it, the vast majority of those kids who entered into it pure, curious and supportive leave with severe emotional scars or turned into bullies themselves. It’s a cycle of trauma that never ends, and the administrators and teachers don’t do anything meaningful to stop it. As far as what I’d recommend, well…several things:
- Get rid of zero tolerance.
- Smaller class sizes so teachers can focus on the kids more.
- Teach emotional intelligence and either get rid of gym class or make it more of a free activity period where gym equipment is open to everyone rather than structured games which make the less coordinated kids feel singled out.
- Start it later so kids get more sleep and are less on-edge.
- Reform the entire education philosophy from the ground up according to the principles of Progressive Education. For example, John Lockes idea of the tabula rasa and positive associations with learning. School should be a positive, encouraging environment rather than a negative, conformist, authoritarian one. Similarly, John Dewey is right that modern schools focus too hard on delivering knowledge rather than taking into account student experience. I also agree with William Heard Kilpatrick that teachers should be more like guides and we shouldn’t focus so much on memorization. Paulo Freire had similar ideas, and I like the idea students shouldn’t be treated as banks to be filled. Lets reform the system with those concepts in mind.
The Worst Person It Has Ever Been My Misfortune to Know
Ok. So now we’ve come to the worst bully I’ve ever met. If the other kids up to this point were mean and made me feel bad, this one was outright sadistic and made me hate myself, hate the world and hate life itself for a long time. I’m going to refer to him by the pseudonym BC for the duration of this essay. BC for the stone age mentality and because it’s the opposite of my own initials.
To begin with, I’ve always hated my deadname. Nearly as far back as I can remember, it’s been used against me. It’s so easy to make fun of, that just shifting a letter or two and it’s already a “hilarious” insult in itself. Given the dastardly minds of kids, you can imagine how they’d zero in on it early and never let go. But the worst thing that came out of my awful last name is that a lot of the other kids in school with surnames close to mine were genuinely horrible people. I had to be in the same room as them in homeroom and certain electives that were divided up by last names. So, that was great.
Evidently that’s how they divided us into tenth grade gym classes because there were a bunch of other kids with the same letter last name in my class. The three that are most important to this story are BC, Kayla and Cindy. I actually knew all three decently well before all this shit happened, though we were never friends. Kayla and Cindy went to elementary school with me and I had always thought they were nice at that time. It may sound made up but Kayla had actually taught me how to tie my shoes in primary school. BC had gone to Sunday School with me years prior and seemed pretty cool then. We had a class together and he never bothered me–even laughed at a good deal of my jokes. (I used to be funny and put myself out there long long ago–imagine that!) I didn’t expect that they would give me any trouble, but I was sorely mistaken.
The first thing I recall happening was we were sitting in our lines, teams, squads…whatever putrid nonsense they called the arbitrary divisions in gym class back then. BC started staring at me, menacingly and didn’t stop the entire time we were getting sorted into lines. We got put right next to each other (of course) and he continued to stare me down. I know it sounds so stupid to admit all these years later, but it really intimidated me at the time. I actually started blushing and getting visibly anxious. It speaks more to how fundamentally damaged I already was by this point, than how unsettling the stare was in itself. It was honestly just the threat of another bout of harassment and bullying in general that was so defeating to me. My internal monologue was screaming “oh god, please not again! Please, just let me have peace for this one class. Please just respect me as an equal and back off…” BC saw how uncomfortable I was in his gaze even as I tried to do my best to meet it and he was delighted. Cindy and Kayla were watching this go on and laughed which just made me more nervous. All three smelled blood in the water.
I prayed that this was just a one-time incident, or that he would only bother me infrequently as a lot of my tormentors seemed to do (like, when they were bored or whatever I guess.) But the first time we started heading outside to play some glorious wonderful sports he started in again. He made fun of my stupid horrible name that I was cursed with at birth, that I could do nothing to change as much as I desperately wanted to. I distinctly remember this other girl named Kelsey somewhat halfheartedly sticking up for me, asking BC what was up with him in an effort to shift his attention. It wasn’t successful and to my recollection she never did much to help me after that one moment, but I always appreciated that small act of kindness nonetheless. When you’re a complete outcast, even the bare minimum of decency is a blessing.
Unfortunately, all of these events happened ten years ago, and many of those intervening years were spent trying to bury the memories. So unfortunately I can’t recall too many other specific moments here. I do recall that a lot of his insults came from my shit performance at sports. Sometimes when I didn’t have my gym uniform (or deliberately left it in my backpack) he’d hit/throw the ball in my direction to force me to retrieve it, harassing me loudly until I did his will. I recall that a lot of it was conducted in front of the entire class on a regular basis (a gym class where he “only” bothered me once was a good day). The gym teacher was well aware of what was happening and never did anything to stop it. Nothing, not even pull me aside to encourage me to stand up for myself, even as it happened in front of his face. I also recall vividly how much I absolutely dreaded that goddamn gym class as a result of this harassment. I would literally be on-edge the entire day I had gym scheduled, feeling like a lamb to the slaughter. Even the days directly before I had a gym class I could never fully relax knowing what was in store for me tomorrow. It completely dominates my perception of that entire year–it corrupted everything else that happened.
One of the main things that made BC so much worse than anyone else was how he was able to zero in on the one thing I was most self-conscious about–the fact that no one up to that point had ever been romantically interested in me or reciprocated my advances. That, and the fact that I was physically unattractive and knew it. He was viscous in his attacks, and persistent as hell. He’d ask me aloud “how are the girls?”/“how was your date last night?”/“how’s your girlfriend doing?”/“aren’t you dating like four girls?” And, hey wanna guess what happened? Yes, that’s right…everyone fucking laughed like the idea of me getting with anybody was the funniest thing in the world. I’d try to just ignore him and not say anything, but he’d often repeat or mix up the question to where I’d sometimes feel like it was better to clarify that I wasn’t dating anyone just to get him to shut up. Even after all this time, in spite of the fact I’m in a relationship and I get complimented on my appearance and approached for dates a lot these days, it still makes me feel shame to recall all that he said and made me feel back then. It defined my entire sense of self, and cemented permanently how my peers saw me, as if there was any doubt left that I wasn’t worthless.
One fateful afternoon, Kayla apparently got inspired by BC’s antics and decided to have her own turn at it. She snuck up behind me one day when we were all outside playing soccer and pinched my ass in a mock-sexual way. I looked around and saw her and a bunch of other cute girls in class laughing hysterically at my expense. (Evidently it’d been a planned attack.) I honestly was just stunned by it–I couldn’t fight a girl even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t do to her as she had done to me without the massive double standard probably getting me expelled and listed on some kind of registry. I had absolutely no clue how to react in the moment, so I just exclaimed “Hey!” like an idiot, eliciting more laughter. It was the most humiliating experience of my life up to that point, and there was nothing I could do to rectify it.
Finally, a week or a month or so later, BC must have heard what happened and decided he wanted to up the ante. I was walking to the locker rooms and he was behind me with another kid. I didn’t quicken my pace because I didn’t want him to know I was scared of what he’d do to me this time. So BC ended up shoving his fingers up my ass and squeezed as I was starting to get changed and the other kid saw. This third guy didn’t laugh but he didn’t stand up for me either. I turned around and saw that horrible sick grimace of a face I’d become accustomed to by this time. I just finished dressing quickly and kicked BC in the ass (literally) on my way out. I should have done more but I was worried if I stayed he or the other douchebags who egged him on all the time (and were filtering into the locker room by this point) would do worse to me in retribution. He threatened to kill me as I left, but (typical bully) he didn’t actually do anything. As BC yelled this to me, other guys asked him what had happened but I left before I could hear what was said to them.
That was the worst thing that BC ever did to me. He never upped the abuse any worse than that, but it did continue throughout the rest of the year. I distinctly remember the sexual assault occurred on a Thursday because I had soccer practice later that night. I also specifically remember only four people showed up to that practice, so the coach cancelled it and I walked home (the field was a ten minute walk or so from my house.) It speaks to how much the fear of fighting and its consequences still gripped me since “the Jove incident,” because honest to god the most persistent thought which ran through my mind that whole night was how I could get suspended again and/or sued for kicking him. Now, of course, I wish I had gone all out and fought BC outright. I really shouldn’t have let him get away with what he’d done to me, I was just too shocked in the moment, scared of others jumping me in retribution and paranoid of getting myself or my parents in trouble. That guilt and regret for not standing up for myself in the face of so much debasement hurts as much as anything else.
The only other memory I can recall offhand is how months later we played baseball as a class. BC continued to harass me–of course. At one point he was at bat and I actually caught the ball to get him out. It was some small, stupid satisfaction though obviously nothing close to what would make us equal. I remember Kelsey from before laughed with me when I caught it, which again was a really nice if small gesture of camaraderie that meant a lot to me at the time. The jackass gym teacher tried to encourage me by saying “[deadname] you’re on fire today” and words to that effect. What would have REALLY been nice is if he had actually, y’know, stepped up, responsible for our well-being and stopped the harassment AT ALL during an entire year. Or encouraged me to do so and promised to have my back with the administration as much as he could if I should do so. But yeah…I made a nice catch…that’s great.
I actually had to sit next to BC, Kayla and Cindy at graduation. Again, gotta love that organized by last names bullshit. It felt like an absolute slap in the face, like “here’s all the pieces of shit who made your life a living hell as your final memory of this awful place.” I made a post about how much I hated having to sit there on social media which they saw or heard about. And, in a perfect display of just…sheer psychopathy (I really don’t know what else to call it) they gave me hell on graduation day for daring to suggest that I wouldn’t want to sit next to such wonderful sculptures of perfection as they. It was insult to injury, and to make it worse, other random kids within earshot (I’ll always remember Ashley joining in especially) decided I was the asshole in this situation and piled on the abuse one last time. Even when I just wanted to get away from these little bundles of misery they still gave me a hard time. I couldn’t win.