The Forgetful

One of the things that’s always annoyed me about adults (and by “always” I mean from the time I was eight years old until now) is how many of them manage to forget what it was like to be a kid. Like the MIB do the flashy thing as soon as they turn 25, or have kids of their own, or become whatever it is that officially makes them “adults.” I don’t understand it. Never have.  I want no part of it. Why would I want to forget about my life?

I thought about this when I paused my music this morning at the gym to listen to some morons on the Today Show talk about bullying. I say morons because they started out with statistics (50% of kids in school today admit to being bullied. Almost 50% admit to having bullied someone else. SURPRISE.) and then went on to talk to “specialists” and “other morons” about the presence of bullying in schools and what a “sad commentary” it is on our society.

I’m sorry. Stop. Just stop.What is the matter with you people? I kept waiting for someone who actually knew what they were talking about to get on and tell them they were all morons. People can stop bullying about as easily as they can stop a hurricane. Or a tsunami. Or the sun from coming up tomorrow.

I don’t know a heck of a lot about anthropology and even less about psychology, but I can tell you that somewhere in my lineage, I had ancestors who would leave your scrawny ass on the side of a mountain if you didn’t measure up. Darwin called it “survival of the fittest.” It’s going to happen. Deal with it.

You have to deal with it, because it never stops. For the rest of your life, you are going to have to put up with bullies. Coworkers, lovers, critics, admissions boards, committees, judges, parents, editors, meter maids. If you don’t grow a thick skin now and figure out how you’re going to deal with it, you’ll be a punching bag or a doormat for the rest of your life. Those parents and teachers and commentators who think this situation is so incredibly freaking sad and want to protect all their children from it are just enabling an entire generation of pushovers and doormats.

I say to those parents and school board administrators who are right now contemplating bullying zero-tolerance policies: CUT IT OUT. Take reality TV shows off the air, stop glorifying stupidity, and re-fund the space program. Those are far more worthwhile causes. There isn’t even a good definition of what bullying is.

That’s right — the real bullies in the classroom aren’t the ones who dress like Nelson and steal your lunch money. Those are easy things to spot, like bruises on battered housewives. The worse bullies are the mental manipulators. The ones who make you truly believe that you are not important or loved enough to survive. The minute you believe these people are better than you, the minute you believe you have been defeated, then you have been.

We’re not born with confidence, and they don’t vaccinate us for self-esteem issues. As we grow up we push the envelope with our friends and family, trying to find out where we fit and thereby defining who we are. We discover how far we can push — and how far we’re willing to be pushed — by trial and error. No matter how well-intentioned our parents and teachers are, the only one who decides what kind of person you grow up to be is you.

I was a lucky little girl — I started school with an overabundance of brains and more than my fair share of charisma. I was ridiculously popular in elementary school. My best friend (we’ll call her Amber) and I ruled the roost. We had a fabulous drama teacher who recognized our talents. Amber got all the leads and the solos. It was annoying being second-banana to Amber but I didn’t mind too much — after all, I was the one who landed a role on television.

I got to do other fun things too — there was a really shy girl in our class that the guidance counselor was helping to matriculate. Shy Girl was nice; she just didn’t talk much. Once a week or so in the fourth grade I got pulled out of class to play Uno with Shy Girl. It was awesome. I’m not quite sure how much this actually helped Shy Girl — I wonder if she even remembers. I should ask her. We’re friends on Facebook.

I was ten. Everything was going great. And then, right before we all moved on to Middle School, Amber broke up with me. She told me she couldn’t be friends with me any more. She was going off to be friends with a pack of other girls. That was the only reason she gave. It was the last conversation we ever had.

It devastated me. It crushed my soul. I started out Middle School with zero friends. Oh, Amber was still there, with her new playmates, but I didn’t exist to her. I became convinced that I was not good enough, not pretty enough, and that no one loved me. Why else would I have been so summarily dumped?

There was no drama program for me to join, so I became a bump on a log. I stopped going to ballet and gymnastics. I didn’t try out for cheerleading because I knew I was too fat (which I wasn’t) and not popular enough (which probably wouldn’t have mattered). I wanted things, desperately wanted, but I didn’t even bother trying to obtain them because I knew I would fail. I came home from school and cried almost every day.

Most of the deep-seeded emotional issues I’ve had to get over in my life stem from that one event, that last horrible conversation when I was ten. Do I wish Amber had been punished for being such a selfish jerk? Absolutely. What she did was horrible and unforgivable and probably didn’t bother her in the slightest.

But it left no visible mark on me. All the scars were deep inside. Even worse was the way I treated myself after what happened. I hated myself. I was my own worst enemy. There’s no way to stop that kind of bullying.

Eventually, all us outcasts with too many brains and too much charisma found each other. It started sometime around seventh grade and blossomed into high school. We became our own crew. I was lucky yet again when it came to high school — there was enough of a “smart kid” population that we had our own classes, our own teachers, and eventually our own area of the school to live in. The T&G room was like a fortress. It wasn’t enough to stop us from being bullied, though.

Wanna know who bullied me in high school? A teacher.

That’s right, people. Nobody’s perfect. This woman (we’ll call her Mrs. Weatherbee, after the Riverdale principal) was young, fresh out of college probably. I’m pretty sure this was her first teaching job. For whatever reason, she just had it out for me. And what was she the teacher of? Why, drama, of course. The one thing I loved above all else (except fiction writing, but there was no club for that). She gave me horrible grades and worse parts, but I–and Murphy–made the most of it. I was always on crew, even when I wasn’t cast. When she gave me the smallest part in the play, I stole the only scene I was in. When she cast me as understudy for the big production, the girl I was filling in for ended up in a wheelchair (not my fault!!) and I got to play the part anyway.

To add insult to injury (and because my life IS like a novel), Mrs. Weatherbee and Amber became best friends. Our senior year, Mrs. Weatherbee held an Independent Study class that I tried to get into but was denied. Amber was the only student. She and Mrs. Weatherbee used that hour to leave and go to lunch early.

But when Mrs. Weatherbee tried to deny me a Varsity letter for my exemplary work as a thespian, my mother stepped in.

There are lines, and there are lines. Parents who listen to their children know the difference between typical complaints and when their child is being taken advantage of. Mom knew exactly how invested I was in the drama program, since she was the one who had to cart me to practices and auditions and suffer through my endless memorization and quoting of lines. She was the one who helped me type up the play that I wrote. And now some woman was going to tell her that her child wasn’t good enough?

I still admire Mom for fighting the good fight. While I never received my Letterman’s Letter in the flesh, I still have the note from Mrs. Weatherbee telling me that I had obtained enough points to warrant earning one. That was fine with me. I believe Mrs. Weatherbee is still teaching — at some point in the past fifteen years, she even won a Teacher of the Year award. She also went on to be a director at Amber’s community theatre. Good for her. I have it on good authority that the memory of my mother still haunts her to this very day. That’s fine with me too.

Bullies are never going to go away, no matter what idiotic rules are put into place to try and stop them. There will be bullies like Amber who leave scars on our insides that we have to figure out a way to heal ourselves. There will be bullies like Mrs. Weatherbee, when we have to bring in our parents–or the authorities– to help us out. And there will always be the bully in the mirror, telling us that we’re fat and dumb and worthless and no one will ever love us.

Why don’t we all start right there? Cut it out.

You are each awesome and amazing. There is no one else on the planet just like you. You can do absolutely anything you set your mind to. Nothing is impossible.

Never forget that.