7.14.2016

Here There Be Monsters

It was my 11 year old self's favorite shirt, truly a blouse, most likely a hand-me-down from one of my older cousins. Since the year was 1975, of course the fabric was a silky polyester. In addition to the stylin' oversize pointed collar, it had billowy pirate sleeves that ended in extra wide cuffs, each fastened with a single line of multiple buttons. Fierce, if overly understated in beige.

School had always been fun up to that point and I'd felt reasonably popular, though i didn't think often about social ranking.  Every now & then some other boy would take issue with me but it didn't affect my daily experience. I preferred to hang with the girls. Disdainful of team sports and roughhousing in general, I was really good at playing jacks and jumping rope, even double dutch.

Home was a lonely, rigid, antiseptically anxious space, unless my dad was home or we had company. Lacking the natural outlet of play with other kids produced an aching estrangement. We were at church more evenings of the week than not.   I instinctively avoided my impossible-to-please mother whenever possible. Since she clearly wanted me out of sight but never beyond the range of her judgement, I learned to be quiet and to blend into the background. As desperate as I sometimes was for attention, there was seldom anything gained and always something lost by attracting hers.

Away from home I remember being outgoing, smart & talented, if occasionally bashful.  Adults referred to me as precocious, ornery, gifted and a smart mouth. I'm sure that when the first day of middle school arrived I walked with a skip in my step to the bus stop at the bottom of the hill, glad for the escape back to school and excited as well as a little nervous.

Returning to school in the Fall had always been something I eagerly anticipated. Elementary school had generally been a blast but I wanted to get going & start growing up. 

I was used to catching the bus to elementary school from the same stop though it was a bus heading away from town and toward the village of Lone Pine. As only the second or third stop of that particular bus route, for five years I had been accustomed to boarding a nearly empty bus with my pick of seats. I had always enjoyed the ride to school, eagerly waiting for certain friends to get on at various stops along the way. 

The new schoolbus turned out to be entirely different.

Unlike the bus I rode from grades 1 through 5 this one was heading in the opposite direction, toward the town of Washington. I didn't know it while waiting at the bus stop that first day but my stop was now one of the last on the new route. This bus didn't only transport little kids; it was a mix of 6th graders through high school seniors. The younger kids sat toward the front, the older ones toward the back. 

When I boarded, the bus was already full. That was the first surprise. The second was that seemingly no one wanted to make room for me on any seat. Teasing started after only a few steps down the aisle. As I moved further into the bus it got worse. My eyes sought familiar or friendly faces, but were met with either mockery or side-eyes of purposeful disinterest. I didn't like the look of the big kids who were practically grown-ups to my eyes, laughing and populating the last few seat rows. It was all very unfamiliar and confusing.

Whether someone shoved over and gave me a place to sit that first day I honestly don't recall. Occasionally kids would do that over the coming months, or there would be fewer on the bus that day and I could easily find a seat. In particular I remember one teenage girl who looked like she probably took cosmetology classes at Vo-tech. She'd take pity on me from time to time and invite me to sit beside her. I think she liked the attention she garnered when taking me under her wing. 

All too frequently I would be forced to stand in the aisle, bracing myself as best I could to keep from falling down whenever the bus lurched to a stop or around corners. Standing in the aisle usually turned out to be tacitly taunting the bullies to pounce.

It was a reasonably short ride to the middle school, maybe 4 or 5 miles with a few stops along the way. Many times I just closed my eyes and did my best to turn away from it, at least in my mind. I remember ironing on a passive expression while inside I was begging God to make me invisible or to prompt someone to make it stop.

I learned that bullying is something people found easy to ignore. Perhaps some looked away out of fear while others secretly enjoyed watching someone smaller & weaker getting abused. Maybe It triggered the secret shame a witness already carried so they felt compelled to look away. 

The abuse was a humiliating shock to me. I was ashamed to tell anyone so I did my best to deny it even while it was occurring. Toward the end of 6th grade my parents finally found out one day when I couldn't stop crying by the time I'd reached our house after deboarding the bus. Since the bulk of it happened on the bus, my dad just drove me to school & dropped me off on his way to work from then on. 

There was more bullying from older kids while in middle school but nothing as bad as it had been at the hands of the high school guys on the bus. By the time I reached high school it had tapered off and I put it out of my mind. 

For the next 40 years I would acknowledge if pressed that I'd been bullied but only in passing with no real thought. It was just "something that happened" and "in the past". I had convinced myself it didn't have any lasting effect on me. But now, all these years later, I had to start recognizing that it did. 

The bullying, and my denial of it, certainly has played a part in my 30+ years of recurring depression, compulsive behaviors, self-esteem and gender issues. Since Obamacare required health insurers to provide parity for mental health coverage I'm finally able to get the therapy I've needed but could only get covered previously when I was 'in crisis' and considered to be an active risk for suicide. 

Life, with all the usual ups & downs, is so much better now!  Throughout my adult life I have felt an irreparable loss of identity dating from the bullying. It felt as if beloved parts of myself had been mutilated or excised from my soul. Recently I've begun to see that what I believed lost is still within. That school photo in the polyester pirate shirt is now one of my favorite childhood pictures, instead of the reminder of shame it's been for most of my life.

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