Over the weekend, I watched a news report called "The Bullying Effect." Bullying has really taken front-stage notice recently, and I think that's such a great thing. It made me think back to my days as a young child in school. At first, I was thinking about how awful it must feel to be a victim of bullying. Of course, I soon realized that I do, in fact, understand what that feels like. Kids are mean. So very mean.
When I was really young, no one really bothered me, maybe because I moved so much or maybe because I was so shy. But as I got a little older, I did become a victim of my circumstance. In fifth grade, I changed schools yet again. For THREE months, I talked to no one. And by no one, I mean I had no friends. At lunch, I sat alone. At recess, I played alone. On the bus, I sat alone. It wasn't because people didn't like me. It was because I was that shy. I didn't talk to anyone.
Eventually, likely through class, I started talking to people and I made a few friends. Somehow, I also made enemies. All of a sudden there was one girl in particular that wanted to pick on me constantly. She would chase me all the way to the building when the recess bell would ring, saying she was going to beat me up. I don't remember why. Likely I said something a white girl should never say to a black girl - I was white trash - but I can't for the life of me think of what it was because I didn't say "the word" even then.
A few months later, I moved back to my hometown in Arkansas. I knew people there already, so the transition wasn't a difficult one. I already had friends there. But now we were older. Sixth grade. Guys were starting to notice girls. Girls were starting to care about guys noticing them. There were crushes and cliques forming. And this is where things got a little dicey for me.
You see, I lived in a house with a well. Only the well rarely had water in it. And when it did, the rain gutter that had been pulled from our house and redirected to the well was often the source of at least some of the water. We had to conserve our water usage for no other reason than if we didn't, we wouldn't have any. And so we shared baths. My parents would go first, and my step dad at the time was a construction worker. I would follow them and then the boys would bathe. My hair reached just below the small of my back, so washing it in the filthy brown water did little to get it clean.
Laundry was taken off site and not often. I would wear clothes three, four, sometimes five times before they were washed. Don't get me wrong, I wear some clothes now two or three times. After all, I sit in an office. But I was a tomboy. If I wasn't riding my bike, I was climbing trees or traipsing through the woods with my BB gun, shooting food for my cat, which we couldn't afford to feed.
So it shouldn't have been a surprise that people at school began to notice my unkempt appearance. In a time when girls started shaving their legs and worrying about how their butts looked in a pair of tight jeans, I was just trying to find the least-stained item in my wardrobe. One day in particular, I remember swinging on the swings. I was notorious for daring theatrics, whether it be cherry drops off the monkey bars, front hand springs across the lawn, or back flips out of swings, I was always doing something crazy. As I was preparing for a swing back flip, a girl said to me, "Aren't those the same shorts you wore yesterday?" I stopped swinging and said, "No."
"They have the same spots on them," she so eloquently pointed out because we were all about paying too much attention to what others wore.
"No they don't. My dog jumped on my before school."
"Then your dog must've jumped on you in the exact same place yesterday because it's exactly the same."
I hated her. I hated her for pointing it out. I hated her for calling me on my lie. I hated her for saying it out loud in front of several other kids that were listening. I hated her because from that moment on, I was made fun of for being poor. And I continued to be made fun of for being poor. I wanted to cry. But I didn't. I just stuck to my story and refused to back down.
It wasn't that I lost all my friends that day because I didn't. But the cat was out of the bag, even though I realize that when you live in a town of 1200, the cat is NEVER in the bag. But now it was vocalized. And while I wasn't harassed on a daily basis, comments were made. Jokes about my being poor were stated. And I hated it.
What gets me is that many of the same people that teased me were poor themselves. But they had water. They could take a clean bath and wash their clothes. I couldn't. And I hated them.
Once you've been exposed to that kind of ridicule, you're more likely to recognize it. And over the years, I noticed even parents making comments. I had friends that couldn't come any where near my home. I had friends who had parents that forbid them to talk to me. I had moments when I overheard conversations that weren't intended for my ears but were about me all the same. And I hated it.
I've come a long way since then, and I would be lying if I said it'd be nice to go back to that town now and let all those people know what's become of me. Because now I have water. Now, I can take as many damn showers as I want. Now I can wash my clothes twice a day if I wanted. Now I'm stronger. I'm more confident. I'm not as shy. I'm not as scared. Now I am somebody to me and I don't feel like I have to hide all the time.
I think about bullying and what I would do if either of my children ever experience it's cruel bite. I worry about Ethan because he is different, but I also know that Ethan is so outgoing and so happy and so willing to make friends that my own worries may be for naught. But nonetheless, I watch him navigate preschool and while he has many friends, he lacks the "best" friend that other kids have. And I know that he's only in preschool and that he'll likely find his way as he matures. I do worry, though. And I do hope that I can teach Ethan that he is his own person and that it's his opinion that matters most. That being "cool" isn't everything and that middle school and high school are minor blips in life. My hope is that they are some of the best times for him, but if not, he'll be okay.