A couple of days ago, after my friend Paul graciously allowed me to share his “open letter to the 1990 graduating class of Ashland Middle School”, it occurred to me that there are a lot of bullying stories out there. I reasoned, if I have friends who would be willing to share them, others might find connection or resonance or maybe even healing in reading them. I cast my net and one of the first to respond was my long time friend Vanessa. An actress and writer, she is one of the many riches that came to me in my time at Barney Greengrass. You can really bond with a co-worker over being told repeatedly by the well heeled elderly that the matzo ball soup isn’t hot enough and “these aren’t REAL potato latkes!” Work conditions like that often yield itself to a lifetime of mandatory happy hours. I appreciate Vanessa sharing her story with honesty, vulnerability, humor and strength. She is a special woman, a perceptive writer and loyal friend. Thank you Vanessa for sharing your story!
Felt Like the Missing Link
Grade school wasn’t my finest hour. I was the absolute bottom of the chain unpopular. Lower than the kid with snot constantly running out of his noise. Lower than Olivia, the heavyset girl with acne prone skin, coke bottle glasses and a lisp. Lower still than my close friend, Andrea who had such a deep voice the rest of the kids took to calling her “Sir”. Which was better then my name, “dog”. Maybe that’s why I grew up to love dogs so much. Who knows?
The mastermind who came up with this name who was also the master ringleader of the popular kids was Jimmy Scoottle. He was a jokester. He was a class clown, who was considered handsome, although I didn’t think so. He was so obnoxious and his comedy too broad for my taste. Everyone else, including the teachers, found him charming. Even if they didn’t, they pretended to because his parents were uber rich, and his dad was a local celebrity psychiatrist with his own TV call in show.
Jimmy had the kind of parents that would come in and demand better grades for him. He was untouchable. In the hallways he would bark when I passed and howl in class when I entered. Most of the time I just ignored him, but that became impossible by fifth grade.
So I was a hefty girl, and a financially challenged girl (my parents rented a small apartment in a nice neighborhood for the schools) and always wore my sisters hand me downs. All the other kids shopped at Bloomingdales in fancy Chestnut Hill (to give you an idea). Also, my parents where in the middle of a divorce. which was bad enough, but instead of the man moving out and the mother caring for the children, my mom moved out. It was a complete shock to my dad, because he was clueless at doing household things. So some days I wore pink clothing that was once white, but got mixed up in the laundry. Honestly, I might have made fun of me too on the outside looking in.
But Jimmy was a special kind of mean. He was my Iliad. Even then I could turn a blind eye to being bullied, but that just seemed to make Jimmy even more vicious.
In fifth grade I not only had all these problems, but I was beginning to develop. My breasts were bursting. With my older sisters at college, and only my dad at home, bra shopping wasn’t in the cards. I wore extra baggy clothes to hide the girls. I skipped gym class. I never ran down the hallway even if I was late for class. But whatever I did, it wasn’t enough. One day in the cafeteria. I was sitting (most likely alone) when he came up behind me and felt up my back. Loudly he yelled to everyone (every grade was eating lunch, and all the teachers were there) “No, She’s not wearing a bra, but she needs too” Seriously, it was the worst day of my grade school life. That moment seemed to last a lifetime. The girls in my grade were giggling. The kids in the lower grades were asking teachers what bras were. The boys let out cackling laughter and for the first time I think I let them see me cry. My horribly tenuous childhood was now gone and this jackass was the one to out me. Honestly I don’t remember what I did. I think I got up and skipped the rest of the day and went home and made a bazillion peanut butter and fluff sandwiches.
Later, things changed. I went to drama school and found a place to belong. Most of the other snobby kids at school had parents that were divorcing so they became a little more compassionate. Most importantly, I developed into a pretty teenager. Who was artsy and cool. I don’t know if Jimmy went to my high school. There were over 2,000 students and he was lost among the crowd. I guess.
Years later I ran into him on the subway when I was on break from college. At first he didn’t recognize me, but once he did his eyes went wide. He tried to talk to me, but stuttered and couldn’t get the words out. It was an awkward moment to say the least.
I wish I could hate him, but I don’t. All those people who treated me badly in grade school tried to be my friend in high school. I turned my back on all of them. Not to be cruel or seek revenge, but if you weren’t my friend then- you’re not my friend now. That was my thinking at least.
The few friends I made in high school were my tribe. Today, 20 years later, I’m still close with them. Being the bullies target made me realize who cared and who didn’t. That’s a lesson worth far more then anything else I’ve learned in life.