Thursday, February 28, 2013

My Epically Long Essay About the Meanest Thing

I recall a number of Mean Things from a certain period of life – coff *middle school* coff coff – that happened pretty much daily.  I was a new kid – always the new kid – and not the cutest at that age.  I remember having pennies chucked at me from the bus as it drove by while I walked home (I also got the “Woof” from that particular set of boys, so I feel Wicked’s pain).  I also recall once that I was reading while I walked between classes – something I often did as a defense mechanism to hide from interactions with my classmates – and someone got up in my face and yelled “BOO!  You so ugly white-faced, you look like a GHOST!” and then took off laughing down the hall.  Once I was put in the middle of a circle of boys and they pushed me across the circle from person to person, kind of like what would happen in an after school special if the producers wanted to have a Mean Bullying Scene.  Each time I was shoved away, the mean boy would yell something about me – “Ugly yellow eyes!” “Horse teeth!” “Pasty white face!”  Girls who were usually friendly to me, if not my friends, stood aside and watched, laughed uncertainly, too intimidated to intervene but too kind to join in.  After the boys broke the circle and shoved me out, then left in a chuckling pack, a girl named Belle Eldridge (twenty years later, and I remember her name) put her hand on my arm and said “You know what they said isn’t true.  I’m sorry that happened.”  

Boy do these things sound so childish now, so obviously child-like, but they cut deep back then.  The truth is, all of those horrid losers were insecure kids themselves.  Although they had little going for them, they did have the innate skill of finding students like me, kids who were even less secure than they were, and beating up on them.  They honed in on the Shame that hung on my body like a shroud, stuck their cruel words like crowbars into the cracks in my confidence and levered me wide open, every time.  I was a naïve, timid thing then. An easy mark.

Fourteen and fifteen were terrible years.

None of these incidents, or the Mean Things of a similar vein that I suffered daily, are the worst, though.  I still think of that worst Mean Thing with shame, a flush on my cheeks, because it involved girls who WERE my friends, and who were given an opportunity to stand up for me, and who chose instead to side with the boy who was unnecessarily cruel.

As we Wonder Women definitely recall, back in the days before social media and texting, there was note-passing.  You would actually put pen to paper, write a note, and pass the paper to your friend during class.  Weird, right?  There were many different ways to get the note passed – some would fold it up like a little football and flick it, sometimes it would be passed desk to desk, sometimes nonchalantly tossed on a desktop on the way up to a pretextual pencil sharpening.  Whenever you’d get a note, you’d breathlessly pull it into your lap and meticulously unfold it, trying to minimize crinkle so as not to attract attention from the teacher.  They were usually dumb nothings jotted down, sometimes drawings, sometimes gossip.  Sometimes they were intercepted by a particularly eagle-eyed teacher, read aloud to the class.  (And Wonder Women- are we not all SO GLAD that these things were written on paper that has since been destroyed, instead of on social media to be preserved for all time?)

So this one time a note got passed.  It was toward the end of class.  There were several of us girls, and we were being all flirty flirty with a particular boy named Sean, writing notes and passing them round robin.  He wrote a note on a fresh piece of paper and passed it to Ellen.  Ellen read it, and then looked at me uncomfortably and tucked it away.  The bell rang, we jostled into the lunch room, and all of us other girls demanded that we be allowed to read it.  Sean, as you can imagine, was in seventh heaven, his crudely penciled witticisms in such high demand among a gaggle of girls.  Ellen kept insisting that it was just for her, but finally caved and gave it to Kelly, who read it, looked at me uncomfortably, and then passed it to Karen.  Karen read it. Looked at me uncomfortably.  Passed it on.  It went ‘round the table, and everyone who read it gave me that same uncomfortable Look.  I was still giggling in a choked sort of way, my smile more of a mask at this point.  I was determined to keep it jovial, to ignore the obvious signs that something uncomfortable and possibly cruel was coming, and I was too immature and childish to just let it go even though my friends were begging me to with their eyes.  I ignored their silent pleas, and demanded the opportunity to read whatever this increasingly mysterious missive contained.  What could it possibly be?

Kelly finally said “just let her read it,” and gave it to me.  It was a long sort of letter, blah blah I like you Ellen blah blah You’re so hot blah blah – and then I came to it.  “That mustache girl is one ugly bitch.  I mean, I know she’s your friend and all, but I don’t know why, because she is HIDEOUS!!!!!” 

I actually read past it at first, but then in a sort of literary double take, my eyes circled back, and I finally twigged that it was about me.  I was the ugly “mustache” girl.  (It’s true – I have always had very dark hair, I had a much paler face than I do these days, and I was not wise to the ways of waxing at the tender age of 14.  I did have a thin, pale ghost of a mustache – and my eyebrows grew together at the middle for good measure.  Add in a pair of buck teeth, and I was a rough-looking kid.)  I held it up to Karen and said “That’s me.  The mustache girl.  He’s talking about me.”  Karen looked uncomfortable, nodded.  “Kelly, he’s talking about me, right?”  Kelly looked away.  Sean, the shitty little snot, just looked smug at the end of the table, his posture communicating “What?  Somebody had to say it.”  34-year-old me thinks “Somebody certainly did NOT, you little fucker, and especially not you – 5 feet tall IF THAT, acne all over your face, braces with rubber bands.  Who are YOU to talk about looks, you assy little prick?”  But 34-year-old me wasn’t there.  Just 14-year-old me.  And that little girl felt like the whole bottom dropped out from under her stomach.  Because all of these girls, every one of them – they read it.  And it didn’t have my name, but they KNEW IT WAS TALKING ABOUT ME.  Because that’s what they all thought of me.  Clearly, to all and sundry, I was well-known as the “ugly mustache girl.”  And I was just now finding it out. 

In that moment was a wide-open opportunity for my girls to display the bonds of Sisterhood and Girl Power - and none of my friends stepped up. Not one of them had the strength to overcome their Sean-crush and call him out for being a jerk.  It was more important that he still “like” them, than that I feel like a person.  Let’s be honest – I almost certainly would have done the same thing if it had been one of them that he humiliated at the lunch table.  Strength of character is something that is still being forged in middle school – very few people enter that jungle with it already formed.

Everyone was silent, looking at their fingernails.  I put the note down.  The moment passed.  And, amazingly, somehow I stayed at the table.  Conversation, which had ground to a halt, started up again, slow, and then ramping back up to the normal cacophony of the cafeteria.  I didn’t join in.  I didn’t walk away.  I sat there, picking at my food, staring into the middle distance and breathing deep so as not to cry.  

This moment changed me forever.  Truly.  (Knowing that makes me think about how certain children go through lengthy periods of abuse at the hands of adults, and I wonder how they make it to adulthood.   If this bullying by a kid my own age had such an impact, what on earth would that kind of pain do to a person?)  In one concrete example, a year after this happened, I played a male in a Shakespeare play at school.  The costumer drew a little mustache on me, and I know she was utterly bewildered when I saw it in the mirror, burst into tears, and rubbed it away.  I kept rubbing and rubbing long after it was gone, like Lady Macbeth and her handwashing and her “Out damn spot.”  I had a "mustache" of red raw skin when I was done, and slunk out onto the stage in such shame, certain everyone was looking and laughing at the mustache girl.  I still hate my facial hair, and spend inordinate amounts of time waxing and tweezing it into submission.  I still often cover my mouth when I talk, just in case an errant hair evaded my tweezers and someone notices it there, a mustache hair on the lip of a girl.

However, on a more positive note . . . I also have a pack of girlfriends now to whom I try my best to be loyal, and whose loyalty I prize.  There have been women in my life who would casually ditch me (or other female friends) if a guy so much as hinted that he’d like her available in case he might want to call.  Those women aren’t in my life anymore.  Shattering though that incident was, I learned a lesson about character, by observing the lack of it.  That was the first "brick" in the "wall" of learning how to have standards for the boys and girls that I liked and were my friends, and not just hanging with whoever was around, no matter how they treated me.  (It took ten more years for that particular wall to get fully built up, but this was the start.)  And I can take some pride in the fact that, wounded as I was, I did not strike back.  I could have made fun of his height, his acne, his many flaws, but I did not.  Maybe that would have been a stronger response.  But not a better one.
So that's my essay.  This ended up long, but it's a sore subject for me, what with all of the cyber bullying issues going on now.  I was humiliated at a lunch table of ten - imagine if my pain had been spread across the whole school on facebook or twitter?  It's no wonder so many young people are making rash decisions in the wake of their shame - in that small, middle school world, it must feel like there is no escape.
But kudos to all of us Wonder Women, who grew into gorgeous, loving, loyal women and sisters.  We were (obviously) in a sorority together, at a very small school - a prime grounds for catty gossipy fighting and cliques.  I'm proud to say that I witnessed none of that - we were, and are, Classy with a capital C.  Maybe it's because we all suffered humiliations early enough - we learned what it's like to be on the receiving end.

1 comment:

MSO Rin said...

I'm so glad that experience didn't turn you into a Queen Bee ... it certainly could have. It's so easy for people to decide that they should be the ones in charge and causing the hurt in order to never be hurt deeply again themselves.

You're a gorgeous, open-hearted, deeply caring woman and I think Sean is partially to thank … although that little so-and-so still deserved to be verbally castrated. This post laying bare his juvenile inhumanity will have to do.