I Experienced Extreme Social StigmaI moved to a lot of different schools growing up. My parents felt guilty about this, thinking that this is why kids bullied me, but it wasn't. I remember feeling faint with relief every time I'd move to a new school. At a new school, I wouldn't have a reputation for being bullied. But it always started all over again.
It wasn't just one or two bullies at each school. I was a social outcast. A pariah. EVERYONE avoided me. There were always one or two bullies who took advantage of my outcast status to trip me, or slam me into lockers, or spit at me, or steal my stuff, or ruin my lunch. Everyone else didn't want to be associated with me, so they went along with it, pointing and laughing, or giving me the cold shoulder, or scooting their seats away from me in class.
Why was I bullied? As a kid, I had no idea. I wasn't fat, weird, nerdy -- although I probably thought so at the time. I was just your average kid. I just had no friends at all. I couldn't figure out what was wrong with me, but somehow, something HORRIBLE was, and all of the other kids could see it. Everyone could see it but me. What the heck was it?
I remember overhearing some girl talking about me in 5th grade, saying I was snobby. I felt my mouth drop open -- I couldn't believe it. I wasn't talking to people because I was stuck up, I wasn't talking to people because I everywhere I turned, people shunned and hurt me. I wasn't snobby, I was terrified.
As I got older, it turned into full-blown social anxiety. Whenever anyone in a room laughed, they were laughing at me. Whenever someone did something nice for me, it was a trick. (It didn't help that these were usually true.)
Just a few main items I remember from childhood:
1. Going to summer camp. Some girls in my bunk house peed in a cup and poured it on my bed. (To this day, I can't understand why people would do something cruel that requires planning and follow-through.) I saw everyone watching me as I got close to the bed, made the correct deduction and inspected the mattress, and climbed into the top bunk with no bedding on it instead, to their dismay. (Yes, mine was the only bunk bed setup with no partner.)
I remember shivering through the night for hours on this plastic mattress cover with no blankets -- it must have been 30-40 degrees -- until I finally gave up and climbed into the mattress with the urine so I could sleep.
2. Friendship bracelets. These were big, at one point in my childhood, and most kids were wearing about 20 of them. The most popular kids had bracelets up to their elbows. I got a kit and made two or three for myself, just so my arm wouldn't be bare.
Then I moved up a grade and was suddenly in the same middle school with one of my cousins. I was thrilled. Surely my cousin would give me a friendship bracelet if anyone would. So I sat down with her at lunch and gave her one of mine. She looked around nervously... all of her friends were sitting there. She thanked me politely, put it on, and then put both of her hands under the table. I looked down and saw it on the floor.
3. Compassion. One of my teachers was trying to talk her class into sharing their problems with her after school. Family abuse or drug problems or something, I guess. No one seemed interested, they were just quiet, waiting for her to finish her speech. Then she said -- I suppose she thought it would be kind -- "Well, if you don't feel like you can share your problems with an adult, tell them to [Bradford.] [Bradford's] a really good listener." I perked up, warmed by the thought that someone had noticed, and, then, crumpled because all of the kids were snorting and sneering, "[Bradford? Bradford!?!]"
4. Getting stung. I was in the middle of a test, and my pencil lead broke off. I reached into my bag for another one. Unbeknownst to me, a hornet had crawled its way into there, and I wrapped my and right around it. I screamed and cried and tried to shake the thing off. The teacher rushed over to see what the matter was. All of the kids, though, laughed and tried to accuse me of cheating.
5. Another test. This was really early, maybe 2nd or 3rd grade. One of my teachers wanted to prove a point about reading instructions, so, the instructions for the test were "Read every question before writing the answers." Since these were practically the same instructions for every other worksheet we'd ever taken, I read the questions and wrote down the answers, duh.
All around me, there was silence except for pencil scritching, but then, there was a growing whispering. Kids were touching each other and shaking their heads. There was a lot of erasing. Everyone had turned in their sheets by the time I got to the last question: "Sign your name and turn in the paper without answering the questions." I paused there, and everyone laughed. The teacher snatched the paper from me. Everyone else got a 100 and I got a 0 -- because I had no friends.
I can think of a dozen other stories, all equally sad. (One that stands out in my mind was the one time I actually fought back, by kicking a cheerleader in the shin after she literally backed me into a corner, and she said with amazement, "But I'm a *cheerleader!*") But that's all in the past, now.
I lost sooo many days to being "sick," my parents refused to believe it any more.
I remember praying that I could make it through "Just 7 more years til I graduate." "Just 6 more years." "Just 5 more years...."
I contemplated suicide practically every night. I mean, something was obviously wrong with me, and not a person in the whole world loved me.
So, what was wrong with me?
As an adult, I've learned about low self esteem. If you have it, people automatically shun you. Shut you out of conversations. Avoid you because you're depressing. That's what was wrong with me. Not something IN me, but how I held myself that projected it to everyone else. The other kids caused the very problem I struggled with.
I could say I hate them. I did at the time. I gleefully hoped that they'd all go to hell. I could understand school shootings, viscerally, as soon as I heard about them.
But I've grown. I find that these experiences have given me insight into human nature, and that's my job and my passion now. They made me strong enough to face negativity as an adult. (Really, most adult negativity doesn't even come close to the utter hell I had to put up with as a kid!)
And time mercifully blurs the memories. Thank goodness for time.