My cat, Pye, has been bringing me leaves and twigs for years, but I’ve never been able to get a photo of him in the act. Until now. Pye the Mighty Hunter Gatherer. 🙂
I always sat in the seat on the school bus directly behind the driver. I liked the bus driver and he was fun to talk to, but that’s not why I sat near him. I sat in the front seat for safety reasons. A few of The Group rode the same bus I did, and they were always looking for opportunities to hurt me.
This was an unlucky day, though, and I wasn’t able to grab my usual seat. Barry had broken his leg, and needed to sit by the door so he didn’t have to hobble down the aisle with his crutches. I felt bad for Barry, but honestly, I felt worse for me as I made my way to the first empty seat about halfway down the aisle.
Two of the dreaded girls from The Group sat down behind me. The first thing they did as they took their seats was pull my long hair. Hard. It brought tears to my eyes, which just made them laugh. Then they started kicking the back of the seat just to annoy me.
After the bus left school grounds and the driver was focused on driving, one the girls leaned forward and said quietly, “Did you know you’re ugly? Well, you are ugly. And everybody hates you. You’re just a dumb Pollack.” I tried to just tune it out. After all, I was used to being called names and told I was ugly. It was the most common form of attention I got all day. I hoped today’s harassment would stay at the verbal level. I knew how things could escalate quickly.
The taller of the two girls leaned forward again and said, “Don’t forget if you tell anybody, we’ll beat you up again. Don’t tell the teachers, or the principal, or your mother, or the bus driver. Nobody.” My stomach felt tight as I wondered what new tortures The Group had planned for me that required my silence.
My shins were still healing from the last time The Group had decided to teach me a lesson in staying quiet. My mom made me wear knee-high cotton socks to school to cover up the bruises, scabs, and scars on my shins. Even though I’d repeatedly told her that I was getting purposely kicked and beaten by girls at school, she chose to believe I was just clumsy and had a knack for bruising my legs. She even used to tell me she could tell I’d had a good time that day at school if I came home with new bruises. She said it meant I’d been playing. I wonder if Mom ever wondered why the bruising stopped when the school year stopped? Did she think it was odd that I wasn’t “clumsy” during summer break? Anyway, the girls kicked me in the shins because the damage was covered up and nobody could see. They also hit me on the back and in my ribs since bruises there didn’t show either. One of the girls told me that she specifically chose shoes to wear to school that had hard toes so they would hurt me more. In the eyes of The Group, the bigger the bruises they made on my body, the better.
“You’re ugly. You’re nothing but skin and bones.”
They just never got tired of it.
I really was nothing but skin and bones, though. They weren’t wrong in their description of me. In 6th grade, I was as tall as most adult women, but I didn’t have any muscle on my long limbs. I wasn’t strong, and I was super-uncoordinated. I was horrible at sports because my hand-eye-foot coordination was all out of whack from my sudden growth spurt.
The Group loved when our class played games like “Soak ‘em” where the stronger, coordinated kids got to abuse the weaker kids, throwing balls at them so hard, they were knocked down, often bruised and bleeding, or slammed against a brick wall. Classroom games like that were another chance for abuse, but these particular bruises were considered okay by the teachers since it was all in “fun” and part of a game. The Group loved pelting me in the face with the hard rubber balls even though it was technically against the rules. They’d just say, “Oops, sorry,” if the teacher noticed. I ended up with bruises on my face, and with black eyes regularly. I could never figure out why the teachers allowed these games to degenerate into abuse of the weaker kids.
In addition to my height and uncoordination, my fast-growing body also showed other signs of impending puberty. My breasts had started to grow, which just gave The Group something else to tease me about. I didn’t want to call attention to my budding chest, so even when my mom suggested we go shopping for a bra, I refused to wear one. I knew it’d just give them one more thing to focus on.
I was frequently surprised when I found the girls often bumped into me and grabbed my breasts. Occasionally a boy would grab me, but in 6th grade, it was mainly just girls who looked for an opportunity to grab a handful of my tender, sensitive breasts. Before too long, my chest had become a new place of bruising on my body.
One day while we were on the playground, about six members of The Group surrounded me and dragged me into the tall bushes on the edge of the playground. Several of them held me roughly while two others pulled off my shirt. They all stared at my naked breasts and then, one-by-one, they took turns reaching out and touching me. I fought with all my strength to get away from them, but they were too strong for me. I ended up crying and pleading with them to stop. At the time, I didn’t know what molestation was, but I knew what they were doing was something completely different from the usual teasing and beatings. After they’d all had a turn groping me, they repeated their usual refrain of, “Don’t tell anyone what just happened or we’ll beat you up.” They all ran out of the bushes laughing and left me alone to put my shirt back on and to stop crying.
When I walked out of the bushes, the playground supervisor was there and the next thing I knew, I was in trouble for being in the bushes. She’d been on the other side of the playground and hadn’t seen the other girls enter and exit the bushes which were out-of-bounds for playing. Since tears were so close to the surface from the ordeal I’d just gone through, I started crying. The supervisor told me to stop crying because “it wasn’t going to work on her.” She wasn’t going to feel sorry for me and let me off of detention. She marched me to my classroom and told my teacher what had happened. My teacher was surprised because I was always a well-behaved student in class, but she agreed to keep me in from recess the next day as punishment. Nobody knew that being kept in from recess was a godsend. I was grateful that The Group wouldn’t be able to get to me for a day. The thought crossed my mind that if I started acting up on the playground, I might miss more recess times. It was tempting. But I was a well-behaved, dutiful child who never intentionally broke the rules. I enjoyed my one day reprieve from The Group on the playground, but I worried that they might try to make up for it on the bus or after school.
When I would occasionally try to tell my mom about what was happening at school, she’d always say, “Sticks and stone my break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I knew this was wrong. I knew that the words of my peers were tearing me down and making me feel worse every day. Probably the fact that the verbal taunts were combined with physical assaults enabled things to go deeper into my heart. You’re ugly. Kick, kick. Worthless. Too smart. Punch, smack. Cry-baby. Too skinny. Kick, kick, hit. Weak. Too tall. Pinch, pull, smack. Uncoordinated. Clumsy. Hit, kick. Dumb Pollack. Too busty. Punch, hit, grope, kick.
Sometimes they would make up lies and spread the lies throughout the school. The gossip chain was strong. Because it was numerous girls’ word against mine, they were always believed.
They regularly would steal things from me, getting me in trouble at home with my mother who thought I was being careless with my possessions. They would frequently steal my lunch money in the morning on the way to class, which would mean I went without lunch those days. They would laugh at me as I sat quietly through lunchtime without food. Sometimes my teacher would buy me lunch. I think she thought our family was too poor to afford hot lunch every day.
I was afraid to go into the rest rooms because The Group would lie in wait for me. I’d get beaten, kicked, and groped. Other kids would witness these things happening, but they didn’t want to become victims, themselves, so they’d just quietly look away and go about their business without saying anything. Eventually I stopped using the rest room entirely while I was at school, leading to regular bladder infections. My mom and the doctor had such a difficult time understanding how I could be so prone to bladder infections, and I didn’t know at the time that my lack of regular bathroom use could be causing the problem.
Their favorite nickname for me was Cry Baby. They would kick and hit me long enough that eventually tears would come, and then they’d laugh and start into their cry baby taunts. No matter how hard I tried to hold back tears, eventually my eyes would well up from the pain.
The most common thing adults would say to me about the bullying situation was, “You just need to stand up for yourself.” But I did. And then would get beaten worse. It was usually always a group of girls against me. One skinny uncoordinated girl against a group of strong, tough, mean girls. I didn’t stand a chance. Nobody stood up for me back then. Nobody listened to me about how serious the abuse was every day. My self-esteem was destroyed. My body was bruised, beaten, and molested. And the memories of it still haunt me. I still suffer flashbacks. And when I try to talk about it, I still get responses from people that sound just like the responses I received back then. You should’ve just stood up for yourself. You should’ve been tougher. You should’ve fought back. You should’ve told an adult. I did all of those things, and still it went on for three years. Fifth through seventh grade.
In seventh grade, I somehow managed to make some friends, and two of them, a couple of boys, started standing up for me when The Group came snooping around, looking to cause me trouble. The boys got in their faces and told The Group to leave me alone. Finally, someone stood up for me. And all of a sudden, it was over. The Group backed off and even though they were never nice to me, they stopped tormenting me and harassing me. I will always be thankful for those two boys, the only two people who had ever confronted The Group about their behavior. I can’t help but wonder if things would’ve stopped sooner if someone else had stood up for me earlier in the process. But everyone was afraid of The Group and nobody wanted to be their next victim so they all just kept quiet.
The latest issue of The New Yorker magazine has a Personal History article called “The Hospital: Finding a Way Back from Suicide.” It’s an insider’s view of being suicidal and consequently spending time in a psychiatric hospital. As someone who’s also lived that story, it was interesting to read someone else’s perspective.
I wrote a collection of poems based on being bipolar which included some pieces that took place in the hospital while on Suicide Watch. But now I’m thinking about maybe writing a short memoir or article of sorts about my own experiences.
Putting those types of things “out there” for others to read is scary. I have tremendous respect for the man who wrote the article in The New Yorker. Wow. So vulnerable and brave. I feel vulnerable and afraid just writing this tiny blog post.
we all cross boundaries
to the next dispensation of our lives
the season is over
it needs to fall away
we need to stop shoring it up
we catch up to ourselves through trauma
we break apart on impact
where are you in the seasons of life?
look for joys elsewhere
and in new ways
allow the old house to be burned
build on the foundation of your new house
there is no conversation
we grow where we are weak
walking on the cracks
over rough terrain
the location of self-conversation
the sphere of silences
I put together this quick little collage and decided it reflected how it feels to be writing under deadline with an editor breathing down your neck. Trying to find a muse in the midst of outside pressure. Keeping from getting too scattered. Trying not to lose the flow. It’s a challenging experience.