Tarnished Autumn Splendor
It is autumn which makes my heart sing, my mouth water, and my imagination wander as I plan for Halloween and Thanksgiving, take long walks with my husband on crisp Sunday mornings, and move my culinary focus from summer squash to pumpkin.
I love the autumn, and I always have. It always seemed so full of promise. For example, on New Year’s, people, other than me, make resolutions; however, upon receipt of new school supplies, I would always resolve to be a better student. Also, when the leaves changed, holidays were just around the bend, which brought the possibility of a sentimental holiday season and a possible kiss under the mistletoe. My husband and I started dating in the fall, and each fall, as hokey as it sounds, we fall in love again.
So needless to say, I usually do a lot of humming in the kitchen this time of year. Usually. However, on days like today, as I prepared roasted carrots and garlic, as well as sauteed cod with asparagus velouté, I was preoccupied by general anxiety about bullying. Bullying has been gaining press again, as it did many moons ago, following the shootings at Columbine High School. This winter, I learned about the bullying and suicide of South Hadley, MA high school student, Phoebe Prince. In March, nine students were charged in connection with her death. More recently the nation is talking about the bullying and suicide of Rutgers student, Tyler Clementi. Then yesterday, as I watched football, and skimmed the New York Times, I stumbled upon an article, in the Style Section, that brought me to tears: “The Playground Gets Even Tougher,” by Pamela Paul. Paul’s article addresses the fact that “mean-girl behavior” or girls bullying each other, starts as early as kindergarten. Paul examines the factors that have contributed to this alarming trend. What I took away from this article was, that if I raise my daughter with proper values and set limits that are age appropriate, she will be a victim of mean-girlism. I fully intend to raise my daughter with proper values and set age appropriate limits; I hope I also raise her to be strong in the face of mean-girlism, to stand-up to bullying, and to speak out against it.
I know not all kids get bullied. Most kids are not bullies. I know most kids get teased and tease. But I was bullied. I was picked on since second grade. I was a little dorky. I had a learning disability. I was chubby. I did not have “the right” clothes, erasers, hairdos, whatever; and when I did have “the right” whatever, I was trying too hard. I was picked on. I wasn’t bullied, until I was in eighth grade.
In eighth grade it started with a phone call, that I later found out was preceded by a public personal attack on me, filled with lies, made in front of a teacher, in a classroom I was not in. A friend and known mean girl, L, called me up after school and began accusing me of saying terrible things about her, and my call waiting beeped, I asked her to hold on. It was friend and known mean girl, C, being my friend and taking my side. When I clicked back to L, she was nice. Beep. A hang up. I clicked over. L, was being mean. A beep, followed by C, being mean. I return to L. I could L talking to C about how next time C called she should say x, y, and z. L kept planning. They were both at L’s, using her two phone lines, scripting out how they were going to bat my feelings around like a cat with a mouse. I never let L in on what I heard. I just said, “Hello,” and proceeded to stand up for myself.
The rest of the afternoon was filled with prank phone calls. I knew school was going to be bad the next day. For days, into weeks, into months I was chased into classrooms, called names comparing me to farm animals, names that implied I was easy, and the occasional anti-Semitic names. People broke into my locker and threw in bags of dog shit. I told teachers. They did not seem to care, believe me, or do anything. Occasionally I was physically threatened. Threats of violence from one girl. Threats of lewd gropes from mean boys.
Other non-bullies would stop speaking to me because they heard I said rotten things about them. Of course they heard this from the mean girls. I was in no position to say a negative thing about anyone who would exchange a few words with me without hostility. I would swear I did no such thing but usually I lost their friendship.
At home the phone would ring non-stop. Prank phone calls. Mean boys calling to ask me out while mean girls in the background laughed. I knew better than to fall for that prank. When I would stop answering the phone, they would hang out by my house, hoping I would come outside. From the morning bus ride, until curfew, I was tormented. I learned to fly under the radar. I avoided the lunch room by bringing lunch into the art room and helping out with the fifth grade art class.
My mother took me out of school as much as possible. She lived in New York City, about 20 miles away from the town I was being tortured in. Fortunately, I had been accepted into a New York City private school for the next year. I was in therapy. I hated myself and my life. I dreaded everyday that was spent in my town. I believe what kept me from becoming suicidal was the promise that it would get better when I switched schools and the fact that I had a few friends. All you need is one good friend. In more recent years, I have learned that my parents tried to get the school involved, but to no avail. To this day I am a tad socially twitchy. I call it my “middle school complex.” I think a lot of people can identify to some degree or another.
But now, as my daughter approaches school-age, I think, what if there had been more technology than call waiting? What if there had been cell phones, and Skype, and Facebook, and Twitter. What technology will be used as weapons of social warfare by the current pre-k set as they reach middle school age? I am hoping that the recent dialogue about bullying, public programs such as Stop Bullying Now, and various anti-bullying bills will curb bullying in the next few years. In the meantime, I am searching for ways to help, starting by sharing my story and saying it does get better. I have a full and happy life. When my mind wanders back to worse times, I come back to the present by hoping that L and C, have grown into good people who are not raising mean-girls and mean-boys, but are raising good and honest kids. The leader of my mean-girls went on to be a police officer. I don’t know what to make of that, but I try to keep my thoughts positive.
Yes, all of these memories and worries pass through my mind as I spend time in the kitchen. But when I bring out a pretty and tasty dinner, and sit down with my loving husband and daughter, all of that ugliness dissipates and I see how magnificent my life is.