I’ve been reliving my nightmare middle school years lately because I've been helping my daughter swim those waters. She's realizing how twisted middle-school relationships become (is this person really my friend? Or only when I'm looking at her?) and it's so hard to watch that happen. I didn't realize that when your kids go through middle school that means you have to go through it all again too. It's not easier the second time. I know more words now - and some really good ones - but I'm still not allowed to use them on those little pishers who hurt my daughter.
Saturday, December 14, 2013
The Things We Think but Do not Say
"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Have you ever heard that one? I did. I grew up saying it; in fact, in middle school it became something of a mantra for me. And I tried so hard to believe it. “Their words won’t hurt me.” But those words did hurt me…a lot. The mean words, the shoves into lockers, the jokes about my clothes: they all hurt. I didn’t care that my clothes came from low-end stores, but for some reason my classmates did.
I came from a happy two-parent home. No, we did not have a lot of money. There were five children in my family, so there were a lot of expenses. Buying the Izod shirt with the alligator or the perfect Colors by Benetton sweater, the real Keds shoes or Guess jeans was simply out of the question. I wore a lot of hand-me-downs, clothes from K-mart, and clothes from Target, shoes from Payless. I was a Weasley in a school full of Malfoys. My clothes were imitations of those coveted items.
We didn’t discuss problems at home. We have never been a communicative family. Ignore it, that was our motto, and we were good at it. Turn a blind eye. Live in a bubble. So when I began having these problems in middle school, it never occurred to me to talk to anyone about them. Why would I?
Confessions of a Middle-School Loser
1. “Friendship pins” (safety pins + beads) were all the rage in school. While kids were exchanging them and were positively dripping in friendship pin chains and decorating their shoes, no one ever gave one to me. I had to make my own so no one would see how friendless I was.
2. The girls’ PE locker room door opened outward. As I was opening it to enter for class, I bumped a boy on his way to wherever he was going. “Watch out, ya fat cow” are words forever burned into my brain, snarled at me by this wretched boy.
3. The crazy boy in school decided he like-liked me (we probably don’t use that word now…we’d use something like “mentally ill”…but trust me, he was crazy). Word of this quickly spread and everyone somehow “knew” we were “going together”. He would call my house and say, “Hello, Karen. You know who this is.” That’s it. He wouldn’t say anything else, just sit on the line and breathe. It was creepy as shit.
4. There was a boy on the bus we rode who would touch me. When I wore shorts or a skirt/dress, he’d rub my legs “to see if they had stubble”. Occasionally, he’d grab other places, just because he could. I asked him to stop, but no one made him stop because he was a popular kid. I missed the bus on purpose a few times because I knew he was on it. I’ve never told anyone that before.
5. In 8th grade history, one of our in-class projects was to have a partner trace our silhouettes off the overhead projector (we then would complete the project at home in some sort of creative fashion. I’m sure this had a purpose…). Although “partner” implies 2, and there was an even number of people in the class, I had no partner. The soc’s clumped up together until one of them took pity on me and whipped me out an outline of my head.
6. The “soc” boys nicknamed me K-Mart in the 6th grade because of my clothes. The nickname lasted throughout middle school. It was not a term of endearment.
School was torturous. Despite the fact that I had always been a good student, I dreaded going to school. What was someone going to say today? Was he going to be on the bus? I never told anyone about any of these things. No one had ever told me that I was allowed to say the things that bothered me, that I was allowed to talk about my problems. Maybe that’s some kind of common sense that I was supposed to know, but I didn’t. When you grow up with a certain model, that is what you learn. I learned to keep quiet.
A High-School Revelation
In high school, I learned I have a voice. This was brand new information for me. My freshman English teacher, Diane Skelton, changed my life. She not only taught us English, she gave us ownership of ourselves. It was absolutely astounding. I had many things to say, and suddenly I knew that I was allowed to say them. If someone bothered me, I could (I could!) tell him to stop. And I learned that I knew how to write. My love of the written word has been unceasing. People often talk about “that” teacher, that one teacher who taught them something specific, or who saved them from doing something stupid. Mrs. Skelton was both of those things for me.
A Career Defined, A Voice Uplifted
I’m an English professor now. I get to wallow to my heart’s content in the written word for a living. The absolute best part of my job is letting my students know that they own every experience in their lives. It doesn’t matter if sometime in the past someone said, “don’t tell.” Forget that. It is their life, their experience. Good or bad, it belongs to them and they can write about it, talk about it, or act it out in interpretive dance if they want to. They have a voice and it deserves to be heard. Everyone has a story to tell.
We have to get over this idea that we shouldn’t talk about our problems, that we have to just “suck it up”. When we talk about them, we realize that there are others who have the same problems. It’s often the loneliness and the isolation that cause our problems to balloon. When we find someone to share them with, they become far more manageable. My eldest daughter is in the seventh grade this year. It’s tough. Thankfully, she knows she can come to me with her problems. Some have been doozies, while others have been small that-crap-is-still-going-on? pettiness. The point is, she knows she can talk to me. She knows she has a voice.