For two years. For the dual crimes of being small and daring to do well at a school where stoners and dumbass jocks ruled.
Do you remember “Dazed and Confused?” That should set the scene a bit for you. It’s the late 70s in the suburbs. Picture the clothes, hear the music. The older kids, high schoolers, were all hanging out at the forest preserve, smoking dope and playing Frisbee while “Double Live Gonzo,” on 8-track, boomed out of the backs of their GTOs.
In the movie, there was some subplot about the fun-loving younger siblings of some of the main characters. That’s where the scene setting breaks down, though, because these younger siblings were anything but fun-loving. They absolutely tormented me. “Hey, faggot! Give me your fucking homework!” was a typical start to the day. I’m not gay, but then, as now, “faggot” was a heinous slur amongst mouth-breathing 13-year-olds.
The first time it happened, I tried to be tough. “My homework? Fuck you—” I don’t think I’d closed off the vowel at the end of “you” before I was lifted off the ground by my collar and slammed back into the lockers. I remember the feeling of my head hitting the metal doors, and the empty sound as the crash reverberated down the row of lockers in both directions. I was a year younger than them, which at the peak of puberty implies a huge difference in height, weight, and strength. For these guys, the fact that they could exercise so much physical power over me was reason enough to do it.
I’d hear (and feel) that slamming sound a lot for those two years, two miserable fucking years at a big, public junior high that had no idea what to do about the problem. I went to teachers for help. My parents came in for meetings with the principal, even the superintendent of the district. And you know how it went, right? It got worse, of course. Now it was war. It was no longer only random, stupid violence and insults. They escalated to surprisingly well executed, humiliating pranks.
Example: one time they managed to pull my gym uniform through the wire mesh locker wall, cut it to ribbons with scissors, and stuff the pieces back in. When I got to gym that day, I showed my shredded uniform to the gym teacher, another stupid fucking meatball just like them, whose response was to give me a detention. They laughed until they fell over at their good fortune, and I realized he was basically one of them.
But besides the head-slam sound and the laughter after their stunts, I’d hear those words a lot, and all their synonyms, too. “Faggot! Homo!” and all the rest. I swear to God, I didn’t even know what gay was at the time. I sure did get the message from these neanderthals that it must be really, really bad. And I’ll confess to you that I was quite a bit older, in college, before I understood that it was neither good nor bad; it is simply an inherent attribute of a person, like skin color or height. Something to accept unquestioningly. Always.
Anyway, obviously, I survived it. Somehow I came into that place with enough self-esteem so that their efforts to destroy it were only partly successful. I had enough in reserve to get through to the end. I thank my mom and dad for that. They did everything they could, and in my case, luckily, it was enough. I never thought of hurting myself.
When I graduated, I got to go to the private high school farthest away from that shithole which was still feasible to commute to. Not one of them went there; in retrospect, I doubt many of them would have gotten in. From there, I thrived, and my story has a happy ending. I’m OK. I’m still here.
I still carry the anger though, and the Clementi case this week has really brought it back to the fore. It’s not healthy, I know. And I’d better find a way to control it before some little miscreant ever bullies one of my own babies. That’s not going to end well if I can’t find a way to manage these emotions. Heaven help those parents when I come a-calling.
I don’t know. I suppose I should have some sort of closing point to make in this little rant, but I’m just angry and sad and venting. I sympathize deeply with all the victims of bullying out there, regardless of the reasons. This hurts me every time it happens.
The hurt is tempered, though, by the good work so many like Abby are doing to reach out. Lives will be saved by these efforts. It’s easy to focus on the jerks; we should focus on the healers and the helpers. Maybe that’s the key to letting it go.
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