WoB Talk

February 25, 2013

And That’s How It All Began

Filed under: Rants — Kari Maaren @ 5:35 am

So as some of you know, I’m trying desperately and in vain to get a publisher, any publisher, to take a look at my novel.  This is a soul-destroying process through which many people have gone, so I won’t whine about it here.  I do, however, want to say a little something about the expectations of agents and publishers when it comes to openings:  particularly, the openings of Young Adult novels.

I do recognise that my book’s opening needs work, and I’ll get on that.  However, I’m also wondering if current expectations aren’t a teeny bit restrictive.  I understand why these expectations exist.  An opening, saith the Experts, needs to provide an instant “hook.”  The reader must be drawn immediately into the story.  In the first 250 words or so, the writer must introduce the protagonist and the protagonist’s situation.  The characters should be “in the moment”; there shouldn’t be much, if any, exposition.  Starting with pure dialogue is kind of cheating but is better than starting with a description of the setting, which is boring.  It must be instantly clear to the reader what every element in the opening means; if anything is vague or incomplete, the reader will undoubtedly lose interest and wander away to play video games.

Okay, yes, we live in a culture in which everything must happen NOW.  Our attention spans are fragmented; we consider a five-minute YouTube video too long to watch and complain vociferously when our profs assign us more than one short story to read per week.  I’m wondering, however, if we’re not getting a bit too dictatorial about the whole “If you don’t capture the reader in the first three words, ALL IS LOST” thing.  It wasn’t that long ago that openings were allowed to be gentler, more mysterious, with fewer explosions and less of an expectation that the protagonist’s personality would be laid bare in the first paragraph.

I am thus going to take a look at three openings of well-known children’s novels (from back before YA was a thing, mostly) to see if they pass the 250-word test:  that is, the expectation that after the first 250 words (more or less) of the novel, the reader will be invested in the protagonist and know exactly who all the people, places, and concepts mentioned in those 250 words are.  I’m not saying that the 250-word test is wrong or not at all useful.  Expectations do change over time.  I’m just saying…well, let’s see what happens.

Example 1:  J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937):  First 244 Words

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle.  The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—the hobbit was fond of visitors.  The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill—The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it—and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another.  No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage.  The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.

This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins.

Mythical editor’s comment:  This is all exposition.  Moreover, it’s vague exposition.  What on earth is a hobbit?  I get no sense of what kind of creature this is.  Or is “hobbit” a job description?  You spend two whole paragraphs describing his “hole” (why is he living in a hole?), but you give me very little sense of the hobbit itself; all you really say is that he likes clothes and has a nice house.  You completely lose me with this description, which is without context.  I don’t even know what kind of story this is supposed to be.  It’s only in the very last line that you mention the hobbit’s name.  You’ve given me no reason to read on.

Yes, of course, but:  This may be one of the best-known openings in children’s literature.  It tells us little about Bilbo; it doesn’t even tell us that his name is Bilbo.  It does not plunge us into the story.  Frankly, Tolkien doesn’t begin to set up the initial conflict until three pages in.  However, there’s something to be said for a gentle approach.  The opening contains hints about Bilbo’s personality, and those hints will eventually come to define his approach to his adventure.  We don’t know his name, but we know that he’s a comfort-loving clothing fanatic with multiple pantries.  We know that his house matters to him.  The description of the setting is, in fact, a description of Bilbo; the author just doesn’t come out and say so.

Today, Tolkien would be expected to spice all this up.  An editor would probably suggest that he cut the first three pages altogether and begin with the encounter between Bilbo and Gandalf.  This would undoubtedly be more exciting.  It would also deprive us of that initial hidden description of Bilbo as indistinguishable from his comfortable surroundings.

Example 2:  E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952):  First 266 Words

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”

“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight. “Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”

“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”

Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. “Don’t yell, Fern!” she said. “Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway.”

Fern pushed a chair out of the way and ran outdoors. The grass was wet and the earth smelled of springtime. Fern’s sneakers were sopping by the time she caught up with her father.

“Please don’t kill it!” she sobbed. “It’s unfair.”

Mr. Arable stopped walking.

“Fern,” he said gently, “you will have to learn to control yourself.”

“Control myself?” yelled Fern. “This is a matter of life and death, and you talk about controlling myself.” Tears ran down her cheeks and she took hold of the ax and tried to pull it out of her father’s hand.

“Fern,” said Mr. Arable, “I know more about raising a litter of pigs than you do. A weakling makes trouble. Now run along!”

“But it’s unfair,” cried Fern. “The pig couldn’t help being born small, could it? If I had been very small at birth, would you have killed me?”

Mythical editor’s comment:  At first glance, I liked this opening.  You did a good job of putting the reader in the moment; the conflict between Fern and her father was nicely laid out, even if the setting could have been clearer.  However, I was impressed enough that I flipped ahead a few pages, and I was very surprised to see that Fern was not, in fact, the protagonist of this story!  Suddenly, without warning, you switched to the perspective of the pig I had initially thought was just a plot device.  The opening is highly misleading.  A reader expecting a realistic story about a girl growing up on a farm is, as of the second chapter, expected to accept a whole other reality in which animals can talk and a pig is befriended by a spider.  When I moved on past the opening, I felt cheated, and I lost all desire to read on.

Yes, of course, but:  Charlotte’s Web is another children’s classic, and it certainly does contain this abrupt shift in point of view.  Fern returns and is even an important character later on, but the bulk of the story concentrates on Wilbur, her pig, and his life on the farm.  Under present-day rules, this opening would be seen as a “prologue” (i.e., not a proper part of the story) and thus discouraged.  However, beginning with a realistic story about an eight-year-old girl and her compassion for a runty pig allows White to do some pretty essential things.  He sets up the novel as a coming-of-age tale; Fern learns here that life isn’t fair, though sometimes exceptions can be made.  Wilbur will learn both lessons himself later on.  Fern’s changing priorities as she grows are also a major thread of the story; as Wilbur comes of age through his relationship with Charlotte and his hard lesson about letting go of someone who cares for him, Fern is undergoing a parallel coming of age as she spends less time at the farm and more getting interested in boys (yes, okay, the novel was published in 1952).  Fern and Wilbur learn in different ways that things change, not always for the better.

Today, White would be encouraged to drop the first chapter entirely or perhaps to ditch the talking-animals angle and stick with Fern throughout.  Both approaches would take something from the story.  It is quite possible that despite the testimony of generations of readers who first experienced the mourning process vicariously through this book, Charlotte’s Web would be considered unpublishable by current standards.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997):  First 261 Words

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.  They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.

Mr Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills.  He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large moustache.  Mrs Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbours.  The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.

The Dursleys had everything they wanted, but they also had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it.  They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters.  Mrs Potter was Mrs Dursley’s sister, but they hadn’t met for several years; in fact, Mrs Dursley pretended she didn’t have a sister, because her sister and her good-for-nothing husband were as unDursleyish as it was possible to be.  The Dursleys shuddered to think what the neighbours would say if the Potters arrived in the street.  The Dursleys knew that the Potters had a small son, too, but they had never even seen him.  This boy was another good reason for keeping the Potters away; they didn’t want Dudley mixing with a child like that.

Mythical editor’s comment:  This opening is all exposition.  Show, don’t tell; if you want us to get to know the Dursleys, let us see them interacting with each other.  I’m bewildered by the point of view here.  Are the Dursleys your protagonists?  They don’t seem very likeable.  Is Dudley the main character?  Is the Potter boy?  If you hadn’t sent me the title of your novel, I wouldn’t be able to tell.  A glance through the rest of the chapter demonstrates that you jump from point of view to point of view, throwing a bewildering number of characters at a reader who has no idea who they are.  Then you skip ten years.  You should begin with your protagonist, not tease the reader with the introduction of characters who will soon be relegated to secondary roles.  I’m just too confused to want to read on.

Yes, of course, but:  If you thought I was just bringing up novels written before I was born, think again.  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the book that arguably began the rise of YA fiction as we know it today, starts with a whackload of exposition and is–in its first chapter, at least–written in the slightly condescending tones of J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, who produced children’s literature back when it had different conventions associated with it.  You might argue that Rowling was just starting out and needed to find her rhythm, and that would be true.  However, though the condescending tone didn’t stick around, the exposition did.  She often started her novels by explaining that Harry Potter was a wizard and outlining, point by point, what that meant.  She continued to like beginning with the point of view of a secondary character as well.  She didn’t call these initial chapters prologues, but that was what they were.

Do I have a problem with any of this?  Hell, no.  The Harry Potter novels work beautifully.  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is essentially writen for eleven-year-olds, and it borrows its tone not just from Tolkien and Lewis but from Roald Dahl and Eva Ibbitson, both of whom have produced wonderful literature for that age group.  Starting with the Dursleys allows Rowling to introduce the Muggle world as the apparent norm, then subvert this norm with her colourful, eccentric wizards.  Harry is not the only one who starts surrounded by the mundane and must make his way into the world of magic; the reader joins him.  Chapter 1 allows us to gain knowledge Harry doesn’t have–knowledge of the existence of wizards–and then wait in delicious anticipation for him to figure out what is going on.

Today, ironically, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone might easily be asked to lose its first chapter, due largely to the increasingly rigid rules that have developed since its publication.  In fact, the film of the book leaves out the bit with the Dursleys and skips to Dumbledore’s first appearance late in Chapter 1.  Chapter 2 is more “in the moment,” it’s true, but the introduction of the Dursleys gives us the essential conflict between the Muggles and the wizards; it’s also quite funny.  A swifter beginning would lead to a less entertaining story.

***

So yes, these examples are more or less arbitrary.  They do, however, demonstrate that there’s more than one way to begin a novel without causing young readers to give up immediately.  All three of these books are still in print, after all.  Sure, the in-the-moment technique is probably the one it’s easiest to get right; that doesn’t mean other techniques are automatically not even worth trying.  For crying out loud, Watership Down begins with a two-page description of rabbits in a field.  And if you haven’t read Watership Down, you need to go do that now.

Publishers exist to sell books.  It’s probably easier, theoretically speaking, to sell books that are exciting from the first sentence onward.  However, by discounting stories that begin more quietly or subtly, we may be losing out.

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January 2, 2012

To Boldly Go Where Everyone Has Gone Before

Filed under: Rants — Kari Maaren @ 7:36 am

Well, it’s early 2012.  It is a time of resolutions, apparently.  Let me make one.  But first, a story:

John Troutman, the creator of the webcomic Lit Brick, which I follow and admire, has made a resolution himself. Basically, he has declared that since his comic has existed for over a year and has gained what he has declared via Twitter to be “1000ish readers,” which he doesn’t regard as anywhere near enough to count as success, Lit Brick will be “entering a hiatus” that Mr. Troutman’s tweets are pretty much implying will last forever.  This makes me rather sad, as Lit Brick–which I discovered a few months ago, and which, due to a combination of laziness and a complete lack of spare time, I have not added to my links page–is devoted to reproducing the contents of the Norton Anthology of English Literature four panels at a time.  Mr. Troutman regularly describes his readership as “niche,” but I prefer to think of it as consisting of people capable of finding this funny.  Okay, maybe it is niche.  If you remember the end of Beowulf even a little bit, you will likely understand why that strip gives me the giggles.

I completely understand the need not to continue with a project in which one has lost faith; several of Mr. Troutman’s comments have hinted at a general discontent with the episodic nature of Lit Brick and the frustration of not having a proper continuing storyline to work with.  However, the “my readership isn’t growing” argument is one with which I must respectfully beg to differ.  I suppose this makes me a masochist or maybe just delusional, but I’ve got to say it:  West of Bathurst has been running for five and a half years, and it has a few hundred readers at most.  Does this mean I am going to abandon it?  Hell, no.  I shall continue with my aggressively niche comic until the story is finished, whenever the heck that might be, or until my computer bursts into flame, which may very well happen first.

Which of us has the right of it?  I honestly don’t know.  Do low numbers mean a project is no good?  Do they mean that the person gaining them should give up and try something more likely to be popular?  It’s true that “success” in the webcomic world equals “ability to gain enough readers that one can make a living via merchandising and advertising,” and it’s also true that only a very few webcomic creators possess such an ability.  There are some fantastic comics with huge readerships.  There are also some terrible comics with huge readerships.  Conversely, there are some fantastic comics and some terrible comics with small readerships.  Meh comics can be found in both categories, as well as in between.  Does popularity equal success, and does success equal worth?  Am I an idiot to spend all this time creating a comic that, in the larger scheme of things, hardly anybody reads?

I don’t care if I am.  As far as I’m concerned, West of Bathurst doesn’t have to be Penny Arcade.  (You know, now that I think of it, I’ve never even portrayed characters playing video games.  I think Baldwin is probably a gamer, though.)  It has only a few hundred readers?  Well, they enjoy it, and so do I.  It’s kind of fun to be a little fish in a big pond.  If you do something outrageous, there will be a mere few hundred people who want to kill you.

I don’t mean this as a criticism of Mr. Troutman, though I am disappointed that there will be no more She-Jesus (don’t ask).  He’s got to do what he’s got to do.  His declaration just got me thinking, and it has prompted me to declare:

I hereby resolve that West of Bathurst will stubbornly continue, even if its website keeps going down and its readers forget about it for months at a time.  Have a happy New Year.

December 19, 2011

The Joy of Marking

Filed under: Rants — Kari Maaren @ 6:27 am

I’m afraid I don’t have time for a Rant this week.  I have marked 146 exams in the past two days, and I still have about twenty essays and several hundred discussion responses to go before the mark-submission deadline on Tuesday afternoon.  Why didn’t I finish my marking earlier, you ask?  That would be the fault of the 200 essays I had to get through before I started the exams.  “I just want to cry” is probably the most coherent thing I’m capable of saying right now.  I do hope everyone else is having a great break.  Imagine me simultaneously glaring and weeping as I type that.

December 12, 2011

Bullying Mark Two

Filed under: Rants — Kari Maaren @ 9:39 am

First of all, I would like to thank everybody who has commented, both publicly and privately, on last week’s Rant.  The subject is one that is important to me.  A lot of you have had similar experiences, some much worse than mine.  Some have been witnesses of bullying rather than victims themselves.  I have heard from nobody who claims to have been a bully, but one of the interesting–and terrifying–things about this issue is that the categories are not mutually exclusive.  In a recent Globe and Mail article, a number of kids were asked to speak of their experience; the majority of them identified themselves as belonging to at least two of the three categories of “bully,” “witness,” and “victim.”  Some claimed to be all three.

When you’re ten years old and people are hurting you, you want to hurt them back.  Sometimes, you want them to die.  But the truth of the matter is that they’re not monsters.  They’re kids.  They’re louder or physically stronger or more charismatic than you are.  Often, they’re just as scared, and of the same things:  of being singled out.  Of being laughed at.  Of being bullied themselves.

If we want to solve the problem, we need to stop treating the categories as entirely separate, and we need to stop focusing solely on the victims.  Yes, the victims certainly need our help.  They need support; they need to know that the teachers are not just “letting kids be kids.”  They need some assurance that they are not alone.  But bullying is not a natural disaster.  If we simply teach the victims to cope, we are accepting bullying as a fact of life, something that will happen no matter what.  We have to start talking to the bullies too.  Punishment isn’t enough.  Punishment doesn’t teach empathy.  It also tends to drive bullies to revenge.

Perhaps there will eventually be some way for us to change our definition of “strength.”  Our society tends to view the loudest, pushiest people as the strongest; we do not highlight the strength necessary to choose not to kick and shove one’s way into the alpha position.  In actual fact, it’s braver to refuse to taunt a classmate–thus risking scorn oneself–than it is to join in on the ridicule.

In the last couple of weeks, I have noticed two sitcom episodes that have dealt with bullying, one on The Big Bang Theory and one on Community.  They are worth looking at briefly because they offer, respectively, very conventional and rather unconventional portrayals of bullies and their victims.  There will be some spoilers below.

The Big Bang Theory, a traditional multi-camera sitcom, offers a familiar portrait of childhood bullying.  The now adult victim, Leonard, is about as typical a Hollywood nerd as it is possible to find:  small, weak,  smart, glasses-wearing, suffering from various digestive ailments.  In the episode, he is contacted by a former bully who wants to have drinks with him.  The majority of the episode consists of Leonard describing all the things the bully and various other bullies did to him, to uproarious laughter from the studio audience.  The bullying incidents, some of which are genuinely horrifying, are played for laughs.  When the bully turns up, he is a large, crude alcoholic who is clearly not very bright.  His drinking features heavily, implying karmic retribution for the bullying.  When Leonard finally confronts him, he seems remorseful, though it later turns out that the remorse stemmed from the drinking; he has forgotten it by the morning, at which time the bullying–again played for laughs–resumes.  The B plot involves Leonard’s next-door neighbour Penny being forced by her much nerdier friends to realise that she was herself a bully in school.  She phones her former victims to try to pacify her conscience, but they all reject her overtures.  She continues to mock them (for laughs, of course) even as she apologises.

Community is a less conventional comedy, and it takes a less conventional approach.  One of the protagonists, Jeff, is bothered by some loud, obnoxious foosball players at his community college, and when he tries to get them to stop, they humiliate him in a game of foosball.  He tries to persuade his friend Shirley, who is a foosball genius but never plays, to teach him how to beat them.  Neither Jeff nor Shirley has played since childhood; both were once devoted to the game but eventually driven away from it.  In the course of their training session, they discover they have a linked past:  at twelve, Shirley was the bully who tore into ten-year-old Jeff during a game of foosball, abusing him so violently that she made him wet his pants.  He quit foosball because of the bullying; she quit because the incident made her recognise herself as a bully.  The coincidence is, of course, contrived, but it leads to a foosball-themed shouting match in which the two of them both scream out their anguish, Jeff pointing out what the bullying did to him and Shirley countering that she was trying to divert attention from her own difference.  The interesting bit is that the adult Shirley is a devoutly Christian mother of three, while Jeff is an outwardly arrogant, manipulative lawyer; in most stories, their positions as bully and victim would be reversed.  They reconcile at the end of the episode.

Community trumps The Big Bang Theory here by focusing on both bully and bullied without stereotyping either.  Both are portrayed as human beings, neither overly kind and good nor ridiculously mean and rotten.  Shirley has not been overtaken by karmic retribution, and she is not identical to her twelve-year-old self.  Jeff, despite his seeming confidence, has been haunted by the incident well into his thirties; by the end of the episode, the viewer realises that Jeff’s motivation for attacking the foosball players in the first place must have been linked, perhaps subconsciously, to his memories of Shirley’s bullying.  In The Big Bang Theory, on the other hand, everything is black and white.  The bully is a cardboard cut-out; I watched the episode only a couple of days ago, but I’ve already forgotten his name.  The bullying itself is clearly meant to be hilarious.  In Penny’s plot, Penny’s obliviousness is mocked, but the audience laughs just as loudly when she is making fun of someone’s stutter as it does when she is demonstrating her own selfishness.  Leonard’s lists of the bully’s physically violent treatment of him elicits more laughter, and the episode ends with the bully once more asserting his physical superiority by chasing both Leonard and his roommate down several flights of stairs in their own apartment building.  The episode gives us the bully as natural disaster and simultaneously provides us with the false but doubtless comforting fiction that bullies will end up as alcoholic losers (unless they are female and pretty).  Community offers no karma and, in the actual bullying scene, no laughter.  It’s still a very funny episode, but it doesn’t take the easy way out.

I’m sure I could write on this subject for another year or so, but I’d better stop now.  Please do keep thinking about this issue.  If nobody thinks about it, nothing will ever be done.

December 5, 2011

“Kids Will Be Kids”: A Refutation

Filed under: Rants — Tags: — Kari Maaren @ 2:09 am

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.

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