Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Imagine this eleven-year-old girl with a crazy, black mushroom cloud for hair - it was a poorly executed Dorothy Hamill “wedge,” earning about a 1.2 score by the judges simply for the effort – during the preppy era, surrounded by straight-haired blondes who all seemed to be at least a foot taller than her. In sixth grade, that was me. Oh, I also had boobs. This was the year that my elementary school joined three or four others, all tributaries feeding into one violently fast-flowing, bubbling river of hormones and anxieties that was our collective junior high. My inner-life, never exactly placid, was especially tumultuous at this time. Whenever my father was home, he was either on a rampage or, blessedly, passed out cold; my mother wandered our tidy suburban house with perpetually red-rimmed eyes from crying, lines deepening on her forehead and I was petrified that she’d die of grief and leave us with Him. My sixth grade homeroom teacher was a notorious bully and a certifiable jackass. My next-door neighbor and best friend’s father – a truly gracious, heroic man who I often imagined was my own father – died of leukemia the winter I was in sixth grade. Many of my old friends, girls I’d played with since I was in kindergarten, suddenly became nervous with the influx of new kids with better hair and froze me out. It was an awful time.
Add just one more external stress to everything else that was dreadful: an incredibly mean-spirited school bully who had me, the girl with the mushroom cloud for hair, in her sights. It is easy to see why I was singled out and it was pretty much a numbers game anyway: each of us except for the upper echelon of popular kids had a tormentor of some variety and she just happened to be my personal bully. There were others in line behind her to pick up the slack when necessary, for sure, mean boys and their female counterparts who would snicker and shove and say cruel things just to inflict harm pretty much daily. If there was a day that was without much taunting – the mean kids had to refuel occasionally and restock their munitions – where I could get from Point A to Point B with a minimum of viciousness directed at me, I was floating on the clouds, that was such a joyous day. It was a rare occurrence and usually just a matter of sheer luck when this girl, let’s call her The Wench for clarity’s sake, didn’t seize on me like a heat-seeking missile.
The Wench had gone to one of the other elementary schools: she was tall and skinny with a large, crooked nose and a witch-y, long face (or perhaps my judgment is clouding my memory). She was athletic and was befriended by The Right People, Nordic-looking girls and sporty boys, probably way back in kindergarten or first grade. Thankfully we never had homeroom together, but when we passed in the hall, or in gym class or lunch, I was fair game. “Nice hair,” The Wench would say, screwing up her mouth into a sneer. “You are so pretty!” Or, “Hey, can you teach me how to be just like you? You’re so awesome.” Day in and day out, The Wench was on my trail. She would pretend that popular boys liked me, that I was invited to parties I knew I wasn’t, that I was every bit as awesome as she knew herself and her feathered-hair friends to be. Right before she’d say something new, The Wench would squint her already beady black eyes at me, smirk and reach into her inner bag of tricks for some more ammunition, or she would look me down from head-to-toe and just riff off whatever she felt inspired by - my clothes, my hair, my being - like some highly talented jazz artist of misanthropy. My stomach hurt pretty much every day of school in sixth and seventh grade; whenever I’d walk in those front doors, a deep sense of dread would sink inside me like an anchor. Kerplunk. By eighth grade, The Wench had other fixations (boys) and largely left me alone as I recall. I was in the throes of anorexia by then, shrinking ultimately to 75 pounds and growing hair on my concave belly, so I was quite literally in the process of disappearing. By the next year, high school, I had beat anorexia and was able to get lost in the sea of others. The Wench became insignificant at our complexly tiered high school, no longer ruling the hallways and the cafeteria with her cackling understudies, and she, too, got lost in the sea of people. After junior high, our paths rarely crossed.
Last week, though, lo and behold, I got a “friend request” from The Wench via my Facebook account. My first thought, after my eyeballs pretty much jumped out of my head and I breathed into a paper bag for a few minutes, was, “Oh, she’s making fun of me again? She still thinks that I am going to fall for that one?” My next thought was, “How dare you?”
I know that growing up we all face untold indignities and attacks against our pride. I know that I was not alone, nor was I necessarily singled out much more than the average dorky kid at my school. But I also know how very painful that time in my life was, how I wished that I could just fade away and disappear when she (or one of the others) had me in her sights. They were so darn effective at what they did, in fact, that they made me want disappear altogether, not just when they were near. We tend to minimize childhood cruelties when we grow up: oh, it wasn’t that bad. I survived. Or we ponder that perhaps our bullies had bad home lives. To that I say, yes, I survived (is mere survival what we’re striving for in life?) and, yes, it was that bad. When we’re children, especially those of us in an unsupportive home environment, that is our reality and as our life experiences are so limited, it is very difficult for such bullying to be anything but hugely painful. And maybe she did have a bad home life. You know what? So did I, a really awful one. She made a horrible time in my life just that much worse.
I went on from that wretched junior high to high school and then to college, finally meeting the sort of people who made me feel good about who I was, who supported me as I discovered who I was after so many years of being defined by others. By the time I graduated college, I was confident, happy and assertive: my friends from around this time couldn’t believe that there’d ever been a time when I was cowering by my locker, hoping beyond hope that someone like The Wench wouldn’t spot me as she did her daily sweep of the hall. I emerged from the cocoon I’d built for myself apprehensively but with determination: I would never be vulnerable to a hateful bully again.
I briefly – like for less than a second – contemplated accepting her friend request if just so she could see that I survived her beautifully, that I have a great life and fantastic friends. But then I realized I didn’t want The Wench to have access to my life on any level. She already took too big a bite out of it. Even by the loose definition of “friend” that seems to be Facebook’s operating description – that a “friend” is someone you know, or someone your friends know – The Wench doesn’t count as a friend of mine. Friendship is too sacred to me. Friends are those who want the best for you in their hearts. Friends are those who make your heart lighten up just a little to think about. Friends are there for you when you are at your most vulnerable and they never, ever exploit that or get a cheap thrill out of making you hurt worse.
My finger hit the “ignore” button (oh, how I wish that said something else, more like, “Denied!” or “Screw you!”) and it felt astonishingly good.
Oh. And fuck off, Wench.