Note: I’m going to start posting my weekly Rants on this blog as well as on the Massey alumni Rants page. Some people do like to comment on them, and these comments tend to confuse people who just want to talk about the comics. I’ll continue to post the fortnightly comics threads, but these Ranty threads will be appearing on Mondays as well.
This week’s Rant is likely to be less goofy and sarcastic than usual. I apologise for the lack of ironic humour. However, this issue is one I’ve been thinking about a lot. It seems to be ending up in the news quite frequently lately (I think the Toronto Star may have just done a series on it, but I’ve seen it elsewhere too).
I have an unfortunate habit of reacting to social situations with impulsive and bitter references to Bad Things That Happened to Me in High School. When I do so, my acquaintances tend to respond by telling me to get over it. High school was a long time ago; why am I still complaining about stuff that happened to me when I was fourteen? I should grow up and move on with my life. Theoretically, these people are correct. I’m thirty-six, not fourteen. I was in high school decades ago. There is no logical reason I should still be harping on that time of my life, which is over and done with. My references to the “unfairness” of high school doubtless come across as self-centred and pointless.
The fact that I can analyse my own behaviour like this is actually a symptom of what I am about to tell you.
I was bullied–viciously, unrelentingly, mercilessly–between the ages of eight and sixteen. I expect that in realistic terms, the bullying began in a minor way in kindergarten and didn’t truly end until I graduated from high school, but I have a crystal-clear memory of what I think of as the beginning of the terror: the moment in grade 3 when one of my classmates discovered that my last name sounded quite a bit like “moron.” In grades 11 and 12, on the other hand, I was still ostracised somewhat, but I also managed to find some similarly ostracised friends, and we formed our own nerdy little defensive group of outcasts. It was in between these two periods that my life became a living hell, and no, I do not use that term lightly.
“Kids will be kids,” adults say indulgently. Of course there’s some bullying, but it’s harmless; it’s just children squabbling amongst themselves. Adults who talk like this were rarely ever bullied themselves. Being the class pariah is terrifying. There is no other word for it. The pariah is despised. She is ugly, fat, stinky, clumsy, nerdy, stuck-up. She spits when she talks, and that’s hilarious. She is blamed for every fart, every belch. Her clothes are wrong. Her opinions are stupid. She has no right to speak; she has no right to play. If she has a friend, that friend must be weaned away from her. She must be singled out. She must be made to see how worthless she is, how incredibly lame her achievements are. Anyone who treats her kindly must be ostracised too.
I wasn’t the only kid in my cohort who was treated like a worthless piece of garbage by the others; there were a number of us low on the totem pole. We weren’t friends. A couple of girls who were mocked for being poor stuck together, but because they were sticking together and therefore counted as a group, they saw themselves as superior to me. I was rejected even by the other nerds.
I did play with some other kids in my neighbourhood; they tolerated me but didn’t really like me. None of the members of this loose neighbourhood gang were in my class at school. I had one “best” friend between grades five and seven. Let’s call her Amelia. She wasn’t academically gifted, but she was nice; we used to play together almost every day. In grade seven, when the bullying was at its height, one of the boys made a loud, crude joke about me in front of the class, and Amelia laughed. That was the end of my single real childhood friendship. Looking back now, I realise that Amelia’s reaction was probably spontaneous and that she may not even have thought about how it might have affected me. At the time, as a lonely twelve-year-old who spent every day in an atmosphere of hostility and mockery, I saw Amelia’s laughter as the worst sort of betrayal.
The bullying took many forms, most emotional rather than physical. I couldn’t open my mouth without being mocked. Everything I said was proof that I had no right to exist. I was “Kari Moron,” the ugly, fat, smelly nerd. I wasn’t athletic, which made the boys laugh at me. I wasn’t pretty, which made the girls laugh at me. My parents told me that junior high school would be better because all the bullies would have something else to occupy them and would lose interest in me. In fact, the bullies made friends with other bullies and graduated from name-calling to physical intimidation. One boy walked past me in class and violently punched me in the arm. A group of boys followed me home from school, throwing rocks at me, aiming for my bum, since that was “funny.” A boy grabbed the front of my shirt, yanked it open–breaking my necklace in the process–and shoved a handful of holly leaves down my front. A couple of girls took me aside in class and described in detail what was wrong with me and how I could fix it. A group of girls sat in front of my locker and refused to move. I occasionally felt in physical danger from my classmates, the people I was expected to interact with on a daily basis. A lot of this stuff may seem relatively trivial, but imagine enduring it day after day for eight years.
There were periods when I cried every day. I hated going to school; I told my parents I wanted to stay home. Contemplating another day as the class punching bag made me feel nauseous. There was nothing I could do to stop it. My parents advised me to “ignore” the bullying. Any bullied child will tell you that ignoring the abuse just makes it worse. So does fighting back. If your classmates want to bully you, they will bully you. Complaining to a teacher is one of the stupidest things you can do. Snitches do not prosper in elementary or high school. I occasionally had to beg my parents not to phone the parents of the children who had been tormenting me. In retrospect, I suppose I was just enabling the bullying, but I was also afraid of what the bullies would do to me if their parents punished them.
When I was a very little girl, I was happy and outgoing, probably almost obnoxiously so; I wasn’t afraid to insert my opinion into any conversation. I even remember having a crush on a boy and actually telling him to his face that I liked him. Adults tended to describe me as “precocious.”
By the time I graduated from high school, I was seething with internal rage that I didn’t quite dare express aloud; when it escaped, I was ashamed, immediately assuming that I was in the wrong. I had no self-esteem or self-confidence. I knew I was a failure. Even when I was good at things, I knew these things were essentially worthless. I would never have dreamed of telling a boy I liked him; I would have expected to be laughed at and publicly humiliated if I had. I hated almost everything about myself. I thought of myself as grubby and ugly and insignificant. I was aware that my opinions were always wrong, that my ideas were always stupid, that I didn’t really deserve to win at anything. I did become resentful when I felt I had been treated unfairly, but the resentment was always accompanied by the thought: “But was it really unfair? Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe you’re wrong again.” I knew my natural state was to be wrong about things.
I can look back on this time of my life and see why I felt the way I felt. What I can’t do is stop it from affecting the way I feel now.
I still feel like a failure. I still feel as if my thoughts are worth less than everybody else’s. When I express my opinion aloud, I expect it to be rejected; I expect everyone to be wondering at my presumption. Even now, as I write this Rant, I am worried that its readers will roll their eyes and assume that Kari is just being Kari again. I tend to get clingy with my friends; when they draw away from me, I take it as personally as I did the day someone made a joke about me in elementary school, and my “best friend” laughed. I have never been in a relationship. I would never in a million years announce to a guy that I had a crush on him. I still feel ugly. I’m incapable of small talk or of interacting comfortably with strangers, especially strangers I see as being superior to me (which would cover almost everyone). I become angry very easily, and I react badly to the anger in public, then assume any confrontation is almost entirely my own fault; I also assume that everyone else is blaming me as well. I expect not to succeed. I approach the world so negatively that everybody sees me as a pessimist. In reality, the pessimism is my way of steeling myself against the inevitable disappointment.
I am never going to “get over it.”
It’s hard to “get over” eight years of being told by the people you see every day that you don’t matter. It makes you who you are. Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe kids really will just be kids; maybe the fact that it still bothers me genuinely means that I am weak. Maybe if I were a better person, I wouldn’t let my appalling childhood shape me like this.
Or maybe that appalling childhood is something I need to accept, not so that I can forget it but so that I can acknowledge that it is part of me. Many people seem to be willing to admit to the influence of the past only when that past is a happy one or involves positive aspects such as a personal, individual triumph over a bully. Many others will even now be thinking that my experience wasn’t that bad. I didn’t grow up in a dictatorship. I didn’t see family members tortured or killed. I had rights and privileges; I had enough to eat. I had a loving family and a place to live. I had an education and teachers who cared about me. This is all true. But you can’t take a happy little girl and spend eight years telling her she is a waste of space, then expect her to remain a happy little girl. If you dismiss her experience because she never got over it, you are implying that you could have withstood similar abuse without effect. I would invite you to try.
Kids will be kids; that doesn’t mean kids will be reasonable or kind, and it doesn’t mean their “play” is harmless. It also doesn’t mean that their victims will ever “get over it.” For better or for worse, the bullying made me me. I’m not trying to excuse my own bad behaviour or claim I shouldn’t take responsibility for being cowardly and, occasionally, anti-social; I just want you to know how hard some things are to overcome. I can’t even say that the current me is any worse a person than a non-bullied me would have been. She’s certainly a different one, and most likely a much sadder and more bitter one. She is undoubtedly less well adjusted and more difficult to get along with. But she is probably also more empathetic, more willing to see the point of view of the underdog, even if she doesn’t always show this side of herself to her acquaintances. She is a better critical thinker, since she approaches everything from at least two perspectives simultaneously. When she takes refuge in sarcasm, she does feel bad about it; in fact, she feels a bit like a bully herself. She hates this aspect of her personality more than all the others combined.
And she does very much hope that children–or adults–who find it necessary to mock the “weird kids” in order to make themselves feel better will put themselves, for just an instant, in the shoes of the girl sitting alone in the corner because she is “different” somehow.