Archive for June, 2010

Invisible Me

June 19, 2010 7 comments

Let’s flashback to me, a scrawny second grader, slipping and sliding on icy sidewalks, running home from school on a winter afternoon.   The group of neighborhood kids I was supposed to walk home with had ditched me, so I was alone.  Two older boys started on my tail outside my school and then chased me down Mack Avenue until I got to my street.  I’ve always figured they targeted me because I looked freakish.  Sometimes  called “frizz head,”  I had coarse, short hair that in defiance of brushing, V-O5 hot oil treatments, and Dippety-Do stuck stubbornly straight up in the air.   I also remember the time some different boys ambushed me as I walked out the school’s front door.  I had lost the kick ball game for them that day at gym.  So they hid in the bushes until they saw me coming, then jumped out, grabbed my poncho, and pushed and pulled me until some adult put a stop to it.

Anyone who remembers being a kid or having a kid in school knows bullying happens.  Sometimes it results in tragedy, as in the recent case where a Florida middle school girl took her own life after being relentlessly taunted by bullies.  Having felt by turns excluded by peers and victimized by bullies throughout much of my childhood, I can’t help but feel a pang of empathy whenever I see a child on the fringes.

From third through eighth grade I attended the nearby Catholic school.  Here I was introduced to a more subtle–but in many ways more sinister–version of bullying.   The girls in my class had a game I will call   “Suzette’s Germs.”  In this game, a girl would wipe her hand on your arm, back, or shoulder as she passed you in the hallway, and casually say, “Suzette’s germs.  I’m immune.”  Then you would have to pass the germs of poor Suzette, the class outcast, to someone else as soon as possible, or suffer the dread consequence of keeping them.  I don’t remember  for certain if I participated in this mean game (though, sadly, I’m afraid I might have); I do know that I was always grateful Suzette was there, below even me in status, and I am not proud of that.  Because of this atmosphere, school all too soon became a place where I was mostly glad to go unnoticed.

After four years of keeping a low profile and developing a severe case of shyness, I entered seventh grade with:   1. new braces, 2. new glasses, and 3. a brand new perm that quickly got labeled a “fro.”  Unfortunately and perhaps inevitably, I became a favorite target for the class bullies.  My weird appearance and lack of any kind of comeback must have really entertained this group of boys because they mocked me almost daily for five months.  I remember many incidents from this time, in painful detail.  No child wants to be singled out at this age for any reason.  I felt helpless to do anything about it, with no one to talk to, and not a single friend to come to my defense.  Then one spring day I realized with relief that the teasing was over–maybe because my braces were off and my perm had grown out.  Or maybe they had simply grown tired of it.

For the next five years, with a couple best friends I stuck close by for survival, I was content to be invisible, though in my diary I cried over my inability to be myself.  While I was an honor student rather than a rebel, I can’t say I ever had anything resembling school spirit; I endured pep rallies.  While I went out many weekends with groups of friends, I usually felt like I wasn’t really a part of any of it, like nobody really knew me.  There was a persistent and frustrating dichotomy between who I felt I was on the inside and the flat person I was compelled to portray on the outside.

Let’s skip ahead to age 18 when I was a relatively confident but still reserved college student walking alone through my neighborhood park.  I noticed a small group of adolescent boys standing with bikes on the sidewalk, directly in my path.  I had to fight off a full blown panic attack while I forced myself to walk past them.  This panic moment made me realize I still had the ghosts of junior high bullies lurking in my subconscious.  The absurdity of being afraid of a handful of kids struck home and I ever afterwards viewed this seemingly minor episode as a personal milestone.

In adulthood, I have found that the lingering bit of shyness I have is not much of an issue.  When I was working as a university librarian and archivist, I conducted classes with ease.  I spoke at a state-wide conference introducing speakers and facilitating discussion for a workshop.  I successfully wrote and pitched a grant proposal to a state commission in Lansing.   And now in my role as a mom I have a clear identity and commonality with others.  Most everyone either has had a mom or is one.  Especially after 15 years of this, I feel pretty much like I know who I am in the role, and how I’m supposed to behave.  I have had the occasional difficulty with subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) bullying among moms.  As in the time I confided to someone I thought was a friend about a difficulty I was having connecting with a mom from my daughter’s preschool.  The friend responded, “Maybe she’s not sure about you; you know, that you’re ok.”  This comment, I guess, was innocent enough.  She didn’t know my painful history.  However, the words hurt.  I said nothing and filed the conversation away for later perusal.

As my kids are getting older and needing me less, I find myself thinking for the first time in years about who I am, and wondering what I’m going to do next.  I’m lucky that I haven’t had to go back to work yet, so I’ve had time (perhaps too much time) to think about it.  Writing a blog about me has been a difficult struggle.  I no sooner step out of the comfort zone of my working and mom roles, and I find critical voices and mocking faces waiting there to taunt me.   I catch myself worrying that someone will think I’m not “ok,” whatever that means.

I do not mean to imply that I’ve suffered any more than the average person.  Pain, whether emotional or physical, is relative, and everyone has his or her own unique struggles throughout their lives.   I also believe everything happens for a reason, and I really like who I’ve become.  So I have no regrets about anything.  In my anxiety over the risk of being misunderstood, I’ve considered not publishing this entry in my blog, and instead just sending it to a couple of people with whom I’m most comfortable sharing.  It feels comfortably familiar to not really be known.  But I’ve decided instead to be a little more open and real.  Perhaps someone who’s had feelings and experiences similar to mine will find encouragement in my words.   And if I get this story out of the way, I may in the future be able to connect with others on a more meaningful level.  Just maybe, my next blog entries will be easier to write.   I sincerely hope this post is a step in the right direction.

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