It was recently brought to my attention that members of my acquaintance, who had formerly antagonized me, hold staunch – and frankly self aggrandizing – “supportive” views against bullying. Very few people recall their adolescence with overwhelming fondness, and I am no exception in this. If you will permit me, I have a words to say.
To preface, I feel I should clarify that the instances of menace I faced were mild; there was no single group or ringleader, I wasn’t the only target, and I never feared school or became all that upset over a single incident. But I was conscious daily that I could expect hostile peer relations, and that something about me – me fundamentally – induced it.
Allow me to set the stage: in elementary school some of my “quirks” were noticed, but for the most part no one cared. Even if I chose most days to stay spend recess inside using the kinetic science and arts stations when they were finally quiet, on other days I could step into the lines for four square and tether ball without harassment – or any notice, so far as I am aware. At this time I didn’t think of myself as weird; I could always vocalize at least enough of my concerns that the adults had let me do my thing (“It’s too loud to read in there” was always a favorite getaway line at family functions), and no peers had ever asked an explanation or made a derisive comment.
But in middle school, as so many contemporary writers high above my caliber have observed, hierarchy and perception becomes everything. For awhile I remained blind to this, since I was still content with my activities and interests, and most of those were solitary, it didn’t seem all that relevant that the schoolyard mob was breaking into smaller segments. Besides, I had three friends to sit with at the lunch times I didn’t spend in the library or the art room, so the only meal in which I remember experiencing significant stress occurred when we joined a table of strangers to try to figure out if one of their group returned the interest from a member of ours (I didn’t know the goal at the time, I confess, and I never learned if the outcome was successful).
I couldn’t say when the teasing started, but remember the day I noticed. In seventh grade I often got singled out in class often for over participating (there’s a reason I idolized Hermione Granger, yet I had not internalized the cautions of her character), and on this occasion I was asked not to raise my hand for the duration of the period. It was a regular request (middle school teachers deal with so much, and deserve infinite respect), so I started working on something else on my own – reading or other homework, I don’t remember, but I was was bent over my desk. It’s relevant, because I began to notice tiny, infrequent taps against my head. I turned around to quickly hidden smirks, and touched my hair to find torn specks of eraser stuck in it, along with about a dozen tiny wads of paper I hadn’t noticed hit me.
What else to say? At the break I brushed them out, cried for a minute, and went to my next class. After that I began to notice mocking comments, ingenue questions, and consistent exclusion. I became better at dodging (there was one instance where I was hit with a carton of chocolate milk at lunch, but everyone agreed that that had been too far on the thrower’s part), and I tried not to be a “weird know it all.”
It was all so mild, but it was consistent. There wasn’t one perpetrator, there wasn’t a group of ringleaders – in fact I only remember the architects of a few occasions, and I doubt they remember at all. After all, it was only a bit of fun. To this day they can believe nothing they did was wrong.
There is a distinct type of bullying that is spotlighted in television and anti-bullying media: an individual or small group antagonist launching a targeted campaign against an individual with conscious malicious focus the quality that makes them “other” (for instance: wealth, sexuality, or race disparity). This is natural; it is easy and obvious to villianize and critique this behavior, and PSA’s are not known for the subtly or nuance. But as a result, smaller or infrequent infractions come to seem less significant. Our TV bullies are the popular athletes who (almost ritually) throw a student into a dumpster each morning while using known and pointed slurs, and are never victimized themselves. They aren’t uncertainly placed middle men who occasionally target a weaker child for a moment’s step up the mudhill of their higherarchy. In fact, they’ve probably had moments of experiencing it too.
The difference is the frequency and duration. When you are “other” in a distinct way, you are the most popular target, and that wears you down. It makes you believe that you are defective, worthless, or inhuman – as testamonies from marginalized groups have increasingly shown as the internet provides platforms.
And I am angry that those who hurt me can claim moral superiority in adulthood. Naturally, people change and grow beyond their adolescent selves (I have to believe that’s true), but just because the wrongs committed did not match the TV villain shouting “retard” at a half bus does not mean no wrong was done, or that no bias existed.
They never made fun of someone for being autistic – but they called me “weirdo” and “freak” for my interests, shamed me when I was stemming, and mocked me when I failed to blend in.
Middle, high school, and even part of college was miserable for me because I didn’t fit with my peers. I think it’s worth considering that expanding “normal” would help a lot of people, particularly those who are young and vulnerable. I hope that counts as a positive takeaway, because I’m afraid this post is comprised of more emotions than thoughts. I want this blog to be constructive, but I’m afraid that’s difficult when writing from a place of frustration.