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My Life As a Dog
c is for cat
catvalente
I've been reading all these posts about bullying, from so many folk. It's fairly obvious that my friends as an adult would have been bullied as a kid--we're all weird and bookish and outside the norm. I think I would be more surprised to hear from someone who was a bully--but admitting to that is in geek culture much harder than admitting to having been a target.

But I read my friends' stories. And I think: wow, good thing I wasn't bullied.

And this little girl who still lives in the back of my heart looks up and says: what the fuck are you talking about?

Because in my head, bullying means they hit you. And I was only ever hit once, in 8th grade, by a girl who had no particular beef with me, but didn't like me and wanted to know what it was like to hit someone, so she just walked up to me at lunch and slapped me in the face. Mostly, no one ever hit me. I didn't say anything. My eyes teared up. We just looked at each other and then she walked away.

So I wasn't bullied, right?

And the little girl in the back of my heart says: remember in second grade when they filled up your sandwiches with caterpillars and you bit into it and screamed and cried in hysterics for hours and you didn't even know why and you're still terrified of caterpillars?

Remember when the whole school bus sang the song BINGO with your name in it, because they thought you were ugly and therefore a dog?

Remember how you went to a school full of white kids and your hair was different and thick and bushy and they thought it was a wig so they held you down right in front of the window to the principal's office and tried to pull off your "wig? And no one helped you?

Remember in fifth grade how you got in trouble and your teachers called in your parents all concerned because the other kids had been complaining about how mean you were, and called you "acidmouth" behind your back because when they said horrible things to you you called them fucking assholes and everyone was so concerned about your antisocial behavior, but no one seemed worried about the people who called you a dog and a bitch and compared your face to vomit every single day?

Remember how you looked in the mirror and could not understand why they hated you and thought you were so ugly, that there didn't seem to be anything wrong with you, and you cried because there clearly was something but you couldn't see it, and how could you go through your whole life not being able to see what was so obviously horrible about you?

Yeah, I remember all that. And worse shit, too. I've locked it all down pretty tightly these days, so that if I look at it right I didn't have a completely traumatic life from my earliest memories. Life at home wasn't too qualitatively different from life at school. My lack of ability to make friends or be worthy of love was affirmed at home as a problem with me personally, a defect that no one else in my happy family of popular, functional kids (and parents, when they were kids) possessed. There was nowhere I could go to hide, or to feel like I was a real person and not a dog--the habitual and most common of my personal insults, besides a certain mangling of my name I can't actually bring myself to type here. Eventually I moved away to live with my mother and I changed my name so as never to be called that again and dyed my hair and became a completely different person--but it still wasn't quite enough, because I was so loud and read books and thought I was smarter than everyone else, until I found the drama department where all that is a feature not a bug. And even then, of course, were never one of the pretty girls who got all the leads, just a weird, dorky, awkward kid writing her own monologues instead of picking one from the book like everyone else.

And the little girl in the back of my heart says: Right. But they never hit us. So we were never bullied. We just spent every day of our young lives alone and miserable and convinced that we would never ever be loved or even really tolerated from oh, about 7 years of age. That's a totally normal thing for a 7 year old to feel. Good thing we never had to go through that. Good thing kids were just stronger in those days, and we just let it slide off of us.

Good thing we're not still terrified that we don't belong whenever there's more than two people in the room. Good thing you don't spend your adult life writing books about connection and belonging and the secret spaces where freaks can go to find love. Good thing everything you are didn't start with a lunchbox full of writhing worms and boys' fists in your hair.

This isn't much of a PSA. The people who read this aren't, probably, bullies, and aren't likely in a position to really stop any of it. Kids are monsters, most of the time--and yes, geeky kids, too, don't think the chess club doesn't have its own enforced hierarchies or that the difference between geek and non-geek isn't mostly what they can get away with. Kids are monsters--and that is their joy and their sorrow. They don't know yet what kind of thing they will grow up to be. They are wild things and we love that in them; they are wild things and we fear that in them, and ourselves, too. Because they don't know what is and is not monster activity until they're taught, so they spend most of their time testing and re-testing the bounds of what is considered human until they more or less get it. The whole process of school (which is basically jungle law and always has been) is meant to slowly de-monster them, but really it just teaches them to be monsters in private, in the dark, in the corners, where no one can see them, and to do it to people who are weaker and smaller and different, who can be reasonably expected to just take it all in and let it poison them and never tell, never fight back. And then those kids grow up, out of the corners and the dark, and they vote for propositions that make it so those weird different kids can't get married, or they go to rallies and repeat horrible lies they know aren't true. Don't think there's not a connection between those kids holding down a girl in front of the principal's office, knowing they will never be reprimanded, in full confidence of their place in the pecking order, and the people who'd like to hold down all the girls, if they could, and anyone else they don't like, too, and make sure they never get to choose to be anything but pecked to death in a parking lot.

Same kids, different day.

But as long as they don't hit you, well, what are you complaining about?

I love you so much right now.

So glad to see some of these posts deal with the utter moral cowardice of "just ignore them" and "just stand up for yourself" relied on by teachers and parents. You're absolutely right, bookish and intelligent are all that's needed to stand above the playground battleground assessment of 'average', and therefore all it takes to get the full treatment.

Bullying isn't "children being children, tsk". It informs them of where social boundaries can be pushed to, and affects how they perceive others (and as you say, vote) in later life.

Thank you for this post, it has a hell of an impact.

Edited at 2010-10-14 03:34 pm (UTC)

"just stand up for yourself"

Only in hindsight did I realise that "just stand up for yourself" really means, "Hospitalise one of the #####ers before you are over the age of criminal responsibility, and strangely they won't bother you again."

wow. thank you so much for writing this out, as i'm sure it was painful to recollect and reconsider. everything you say here is intimate, vulnerable, and vital--especially the last big paragraph. thank you again.

We don't know each other, but I love you, right now.

Thank you.

from one bullied kid to another, <3.

Have you seen Kate Harding's post on the subject?
http://kateharding.info/2010/10/06/on-good-kids-and-total-fucking-assholes/

That's a beautiful post right there. +10 points for pointing out that kids are sociopaths and pretending they aren't doesn't solve anyone's problems.

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I keep meaning to write about my own experiences with bullying, but between you and Seanan, you pretty neatly described a lot of my experience too. It makes me so sad that so many of us went through it, but there's also a sort of comfort in not being alone, as well.

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I know what you speak of all too well

Being male of course bullying wasn't just emotional/social but physical as well. I remember well the day someone beat me up and we BOTH got punished for "fighting" and at that point I understood what I'd later read with Kafka.
I'm loving the it gets better videos out right now because it gets better for a LOT of people, and if it doesn't get better you likely were the bully.

Re: I know what you speak of all too well

Gender doesn't have much to do with whether bullying is or is not physical. I was the tiniest girl in my class, and I was physically bullied as well as verbally by both sexes. Pushed, shoved, tripped, spit on, forced into a fistfight, etc.

I had almost the exact same treatment in school that you did. Reading this post brought me to tears because it made me realize that yes, it does still affect me too. Yes, I still feel ugly and embarrassed of myself even though when I look in the mirror, I think I'm beautiful. (You are too BTW. Just saying... LOL) I wish I could know why it was me that they chose. What was it about ME that made me a target? It's so strange because yes, most of my friends were bullied too. Thank you so much for putting my thought into words more eloquently than I could have.

My semi-step daughter is now being bullied in exactly the same way that I was. The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming. I just want to scoop her out of school and home school her to protect her from it. I have to wonder if that is really an answer either.

No, go to the school and fight. Raise hell. Meet with the teachers, the principal and the counselor or social worker, and demand progress, and don't give up until they do better.

I was bullied by the "safety Patrol" walking to school in 2nd grade. Boys in uniform tried to intimidate, threaten me. I crossed the street to avoid them, they wrote me up for not listening to them. I was sent to "the office"
My first approach was to join the safety squad. Sorry, no girls. Hmmm, this isnt fair! (Mars in Libra)
Then, I saw kids attacked on the playground, and organized my friends into a pack of anti-bullies. Eventually I was again, sent to "the Office" and accused of bullying.

I'm glad I protected the kids that I could.After those years, I got big, and aloof, and weird enough that most people left me alone, and that was a successful strategy.

Good thing you don't spend your adult life writing books about connection and belonging and the secret spaces where freaks can go to find love.

I think its a great think that you DO write those books.

I for one stop bullying when I see it. I hate bullies. I was bullied a lot as a kid. Bullies make me ANGRY.

One time walking to the storage unit with nex0s when she was pregnant we saw three kids playing. Then the bully kid says "hold him" the the other kid. The Bully then goes to punch the kid being held. I scream at them. I confront the bully and say he should fight fare and not be a punk and have other people do his dirty work. I berate the kid as we are all walking down the street. The bully talks some crap about how I don;t know him and should not talk to him. I keep berating him and telling him what he is doing is wrong. Eventually he says he is not supposed to talk to strangers and I tell him to stop talking to me. Then I tell him more about what he did was wrong.

I see people verbally spare on the subway and come to the defense of the smaller person if there is a visable difference between the larger/tougher person or a smaller/weaker one. I don't like bullies and I will confront them as an adult every chance I get.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I try to live by this.

-S

I tend to demand parents - like, Right Now. And if one isn't produced, I call 911.

I won't have it. Seriously.

Hmm. I sense a follow-up rant post forming on this subject.

Oof. Thank you for sharing this. It makes me think of the Moon post actually, how this is human nature, that each wave of new immigrants were hazed by the last one and that somehow makes it okay.

I've long held the theory that child-monsters at school are merely re-enacting the abuse they receive at home upon each other. Dad has a bad day at work so he comes home and yells at Mom, Mom yells at the kids, the kids kick the dog, the dog bites the cat, the cat horks up a hairball in Dad's shoes, and the cycle continues. At a friend's house in the 5th grade, I once listened to her father berate her mother, calling her all sorts of nasty names. Not five minutes later, her younger brother, all of three years old, came into the room and demanded something from my friend, using the same words her father used to demean her mother.

You just suck it up and move on doesn't work, but that's what we've all been told for generations. That's what my own parents told me when I was bullied (without being hit, like you). It's probably what their parents told them. The fact that they think they turned out okay doesn't make it right.

The cycle ends with you; that's what I teach my girls. It ends here. You do what's right and you don't back down or give in to the in-crowd.

On another note, I love this bit: I was so loud and read books and thought I was smarter than everyone else, until I found the drama department where all that is a feature not a bug. You are full of awesome!

Yes.

I left a similar comment on Seanan's post; I was bullied as a kid, but only with reading her post did I really realize that what it was was bullying, because they (almost) never hit me. I never asked for help because it never occurred to me that this was anything other than just the way things were.

Part of any anti-bullying strategy, I think, has to be giving kids and adults the tools to recognize emotional/mental abuse, and banish the attitude that it doesn't count if they don't hit you.

I honestly can't imagine what goes through people's heads when they treat other people this way. But yes: I think you're right that the kids who do those things grow up to be the kids who vote in ways which keep us weird folks down. (Or try to. But we're irrepressible. Thank God for small blessings, really.)

(Oh, and hi. Been reading your journal off and on for a while; like your books an awful lot; figured I'd start reading you with more regularity. *waving*)

I think the thing that strikes me the most about all this--you reference it happening to you, it happened to me, and it seems to happen to every bullied kid in the world--is the victim-blaming. I was in middle school when Columbine happened, and one would think this would make teachers more wary of bullies. Instead, it produced this pervasive paranoia about "oddballs"--particularly anyone seen in a trenchcoat or other goth attire--that the bullies exploited to find new and creative ways to bully. I remember a girl I knew nearly got suspended for composing an entirely fictitious "hit list" that her popular tormenters invented. Nobody asked for her side of the story throughout--even when no one could produce such a list or even solid evidence that there had ever been one, and the girl--meek, mild-mannered, introverted, and only "frightening" in that she tended toward goth attire--was kept under intense faculty scrutiny while those same bullies--vicious, smart, and stealthy--brought others close to suicide.

I guess the oddballs frighten the authorities too. We refuse to fit into boxes, we're prone to strange behavior and not taking shit--or being entirely too loud about it when we are--and are generally harder to figure out than most children. But the amount I've seen "what did you do to provoke them?" given as an answer when somebody tries to come to an authority figure about a bullying problem (now I've worked in schools and have seen it from both sides) is both baffling and infuriating. We're all monsters at that age, true, but that doesn't mean it's always the fault of the most superficially strange party involved.

Read "Columbine" by Dave Cullen. It's a fabulous book, but it also establishes that Harris and Klebold weren't bullied; they weren't popular, but they weren't bullied either. Harris was a charismatic, manipulative psychopath and Klebold was a kid who suffered from depression and suicidal ideation.

I know that contradicts the popular narrative and makes it harder to understand what happened, but it really had nothing at all to do with bullying.

A lot of bullying is just monkey behaviour, with random badness tending to be dumped down the hierarchy.

Unfortunately, people like us ended up with Maxwell's Demon very much working against us.

This.

But I said it about my mother. My mother didn't beat me (except that she did), so I couldn't have been an abused child. She was emotionally abusive and everyone knows that isn't "real" abuse.

It took the sister of my heart, looking me in the face over breakfast one morning at a cafe, in our 20s and exclaiming loudly to everyone and me, "What do you mean you weren't abused?!"

And through the lens of her eyes, I finally saw myself.

I didn't want to post on my blog about my own bullying, because it was starting to feel a bit too Me Too. But I'm thinking that I need to, because my journey was the same and different. That I'm not posting because my default is to keep my Silence on certain things.

But this is one of those times where I'm starting to think that Silence = Death.

It's not about solidarity anymore. It's about speaking our truth.

As always, you inspire me. Thank you, Cat.

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Remember how you looked in the mirror and could not understand why they hated you and thought you were so ugly, that there didn't seem to be anything wrong with you, and you cried because there clearly was something but you couldn't see it, and how could you go through your whole life not being able to see what was so obviously horrible about you?

Oh this brought familiar tears to my eyes and that sinking feeling in my stomach where something is too familiar to be bearable. It still causes some cognitive dissonance when someone compliments my appearance.

I've been struggling for the past couple years with my son and the school. He was bullied long enough that he quite logically decided the only defense was to bully back. Lots of time with the school and a luckily fantastic therapist has this on the mend, but it still has its setbacks and makes my heart ache.

I feel my primary duty to my son is to teach him how to be a good person/human and while he's my (cuddly, smart, prickly) monster, I still have to remember that he's figuring this all out for the first time.

Remember how you looked in the mirror and could not understand why they hated you and thought you were so ugly, that there didn't seem to be anything wrong with you, and you cried because there clearly was something but you couldn't see it, and how could you go through your whole life not being able to see what was so obviously horrible about you?

For some reason, and even I don't know why, I was able to think "they are wrong, there is nothing wrong with me.". End of story. I've always been able to think that just because everyone else thinks or says something doesn't mean it's true. That I can be right and the rest of the world wrong. Nothing has ever managed to shake that out of me.

I had all the elements of bullying applied to me - but none of it really affected me so far as I can tell. But I have been seen as not-quite-normally-socialised by some people. The usual levers often just fail. Whether that's inherent or grew in defence I can't say. I don't feel wired to care all that greatly about other people's social opinions of me. I had it more recently where a group was trying to change my behaviour to conform and I said something like "short of physical force, and there's no way you are going to use that, there's nothing you can do to make me behave as you want. You have nothing I want and can withold nothing I need".

I did work out that telling kids exactly what they were trying to do with some of their attempted schemes (when it was so damned *obvious* - and most adults are not really all that much better) and that I was onto them and it wasn't going to work didn't actually get them to stop trying *the same damned thing*. (like "this boy likes you" - "no he doesn't, you are just trying to set me up so you can take the piss", "no, he really does..."). Still can't figure that out.

I suspect, however, that many people would still rather be as they are, even though the bullying affected them, than be like me.

And I was only ever hit once, in 8th grade, by a girl who had no particular beef with me, but didn't like me and wanted to know what it was like to hit someone, so she just walked up to me at lunch and slapped me in the face. Mostly, no one ever hit me. I didn't say anything. My eyes teared up. We just looked at each other and then she walked away.

This happened to me, except the girl hated me for some reason-- she wouldn't leave me alone, and wouldn't leave me alone, until it cumulated in this slap one day. And my reaction was the same as yours, and after that... nothing.

I wasn't really bullied though. I bullied some when I was in the 1st and 2nd grade day care, but for the most part, well, I was the one who could give the really badly off kids a chance, and actually liked them. Part of which had to do with feeling really bad, still, about the one girl we picked on mercilessly way back when. By the time we were out of that grade, any trust she had in anyone was gone-- if you tried to be friends with her, she'd assume you were setting her up for hurt, and bite back first. I know some people who got to adulthood with that attitude, and it ruins everything.

But yeah. That's all I had to say just at the moment.

To validate your experience, I've known for a long time that I was bullied in Elementary School. And I was never hit -- never touched. I was taller and heavier than they were, and I had a temper when I was a kid. I don't think they would have dared to hit me. They simply settled for verbally making me miserable as much as possible.

The thing that gets me about the "just stand up for yourself" advice is that if I had known how, I think that would have worked. Maybe I couldn't make myself not care about what they said, but if I had understood that it would be enough to say the things that went through my head, I think I could have been brave enough to open my mouth.

I know it's not true for every situation, but I think it was true for mine. I was smarter, and my tongue was sharper, and I think it would have been enough. My best friend got them off her back by telling the ringleader that Unitarians worshiped Pagan gods, which scared him so much he barely spoke to her after that.

Of course, I think my biggest problem on the elementary school social world is that I cried easily, for either pain or anger. I still do, but also for laughter, these days.

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I could talk all day (and have, before) on my own personal beatings as a child and teen, both at the hands of kids and the adults who were supposed to be supervising/teaching me, but I really only wanted to add a few memories that cropped up.

First: I vividly remember being 8 or 9 and, despite not believing in it, wishing fervently upon a star that one day I would meet someone who really, truly understood me. I wanted it to be telepathic, because I was unable to explain myself to anyone. By 9, I thought no one would ever really know me, let alone like me, let alone date me. My first dating experience shocked the hell out of me, because I'd entirely accepted the idea that I never would.

Second: In 4th grade, with a heinous teacher who picked on the smartest (STRIVE program) kids and told the other children not to play with us, I had a bully with cronies; one day I took too long to leave for recess, and they were waiting for me, alone in the room. Finally, for once, I stood up for myself - I picked up a pair of scissors (safety, I believe) and said, deadly serious, that if they ever messed with me again, I would kill them. ... As I'm sure you can imagine, I had to see a psychiatrist before they let me come back to school, and nothing ever happened to the kids who tortured me. Eventually a petition circulated and the teacher was fired, I hear, but it was a decade before I got over being convinced not to be smart. That's another story.

Third: Once or twice in my young life, I remember someone I didn't know standing up for me - making other children leave me alone, which is all I ever wanted at that point in my life. Somehow, they had this power where I had none, and it was even more confusing, because why did their words hold weight where mine had none?

Anyway, I didn't really have a point - you shared, so I'm sharing back.

Thank you for writing this. Thank you.

*Wince*

This is me, quietly witnessing from the corner here.
Did you get the 'just ignore them and they'll go away' bullshite-that-passes-for-advice too? Because my mum was one of seven, and so she had older brothers to intervene -- as well as at least two siblings who turned out to BE the bullies long into adulthood, which let a bit of that 'leave those kids alone if you know what's good for you' reputation hang over her like an umbrella.

She had no idea how very much more vulnerable and helpless her only child was in the same feeding frenzies. Or that's what I tell myself.

On good days, I can see that I learnt a lot of strength and resilience in those years. On bad days, I see that I still limp, emotionally, from all the scars.

I got: just try harder to be social. When I was a kid I had lots of friends. And then I just stopped telling anyone. The thing is, I didn't have a home life where I wasn't bullied, and I actually did get hit at home, so I knew there was no one there who would defend me.

Moving to live with my mother was a good thing all around.

What I am finding interesting is that as of today, it seems like almost every author whose blog I read has written about their own experiences being bullied as a kid. It seems like disproportionately, people that end up in creative careers have been through that - which I suppose makes sense, since being perceived as "different" is one of the reasons kids get singled out for this sort of treatment, and in our society, unfortunately, creativity seems to be considered an exception to the norm (which is kind of sad in itself).

Maybe that's something that could help kids that are going through this - knowing that while they may be going through hell right now, in the long run they're far more likely to have an interesting and adventurous life, to create and innovate, to be more than just a cog in a machine, than the kids who are picking on them are. Little that's truly worthwhile was ever accomplished by conformists.

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