Tag Archives: bullying

You Can’t Sit With Us (Rough Draft)

When I was in seventh grade, the big project of the final quarter was to create a magazine. We’re not talking crayon doodles on construction paper bound with yarn here; we’re talking an actual magazine. The project stretched across all subjects. In English/Language Arts, we learned about writing articles and essays. In math, we were given Monopoly money to use for purchasing articles from authors, designing the layout, printing, advertising, etc. In social studies, we practiced analyzing current events that we could write about, and in art, we practiced drawing, both on paper and on the computer, as well as worked with layout. They wanted us to be well rounded, educated, individuals. The idea was that we would help each other; we would use the fake currency to buy articles, art, and other things for our magazine.

I don’t remember a lot of specifics about the project. I think the magazine layout board I turned in on the last day, when we all presented our projects, was neon pink? It may have been green. But at any rate, it was done. The articles on it? They were all mine. The art? That was mine too. When it had come time to buy things for my magazine, no one would sell to me. No one would buy from me.

I can’t say I was surprised.

*

A few weeks ago, I read about a dog named Hank. Hank was happily living with his family in Ireland, enjoying snuggles, squeaky toys, and long joyful walks, when the government seized him because he “looked like a pitbull.” They cited their local “dangerous animals law,” coining Hank as dangerous simply because of his looks. A simple Google search makes it obvious that Hank is anything but dangerous (unless you’re a stuffed toy!). Hank was a victim of his breed, his label. He’s not even listed as a pitbull—on paper, he is a lab mix.

Hank’s story has a happy ending. His owners went to bat with him, and after several weeks apart while Hank was quarantined in a shelter, he was reunited with his owners and they’re a family again.

Unfortunately, that’s not the story for many dogs.

*

Middle school was pretty much the worst. Things went along fine, and I did pretty well socially, all things considered, until about fourth grade or so. Fourth grade was the year that practically the entire school got head lice, myself included. Rumors circulated that I had started the head lice epidemic (I had not), and I tried to discourage those rumors by saying that I hadn’t had lice at all (I had), and that my itchy head had been from an allergic reaction to shampoo. After that, not only was I the head lice queen, I was also a liar—the entire school was at lunch the day the school nurse marched me out of the building to meet mother to get my lice treatment. Everybody knew.

The cafeteria each day was a nightmare. I would take my tray on the days I got hot lunch, or my little brown bag on the days I carried something from home, and stand on the outskirts of everything, staring. Wondering where to sit. Dreading going to my so called friends’ table and finally hearing “You can’t sit with us.” I was constantly waiting for the day when they would see me the same way that everybody else did, for the day when there would be no more chair for me at the table. I elected to lunch in my English teacher’s room each day so that I could read rather than negotiate middle school politics and try to be something I wasn’t.

*

BSL, or breed specific legislation, is a set of laws that restrict and/or ban certain dogs because of their appearance, or because they’re commonly thought to be a “dangerous” breed. Breed restrictions can require owners to muzzle their dog in public, spay or neuter, contain them in a kennel, keep a leash of specific length or material, maintain liability insurance, and post vicious dog tags and signs on both their property and the dog itself. Breed bans are even worse. A breed ban will mandate that all dogs of the specified breed have to be removed from the area. After the “by-when” date on the ban, any dog not removed can be killed by animal control.

These laws simply look at the dog as they are on the outside, without consideration for things like the way they were raised, trained, and handled by their owner. These laws do not look at the actual behavior of the dog in question, rather, they look at what they imagine that dog to be, the worst case scenario.

BSL has a lot of issues. For one, it’s prejudice. There is no such thing as a bad dog. Bad owners? Yes. A dog is the result of how it is raised. Dogs want nothing more than they want to please their people. BSL does nothing to improve safety; it punishes people who are responsible dog owners and does nothing to hold irresponsible owners responsible. It requires that each and every dog have a label, a breed, something is pretty much impossible to do accurately. Dogs that are targeted become more desirable to irresponsible people simply because of the bullseye on their back. Dogs of any breed can be great dogs. Dogs of any breed can be dangerous dogs. BSL is the worst. I don’t understand it.

And yet, I do.

*

High school was better for me. There were still people who dropped the usual insults—“Her cats pee on stuff,” “She smells like fish,” “Her clothes come from Walmart,” but I was old enough to better know how to deal with it. My haircuts when I got them weren’t cutting edge. My sneakers actually came from Kmart. I didn’t do brand names. I didn’t mind. I liked who I was, but the world told me not to.

I was in an acapella group with (I think) seven other people. They never wanted me to be part of the circle, and I struggled to stick up for myself even though I was just as good a singer as the rest of them. It was such a little thing, but so telling. I let them circle by the piano; I let them whisper about me. I always stayed slightly behind.

*

We have to talk about Lennox. Hearing his story was the first time I really became aware of BSL. It was 2010, I believe. Lennox, a lab/bulldog mix was five years old and happily living with a family in Belfast. (The same area where Hank is from…hmmm….). Lennox did nothing wrong; he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time with a head that made him look like a “pitbull type.” The government went so far as to measure the size of his snout in order to declare him a pitbull, and then they seized him and sentenced him to die. His family fought for two years to get him back, to save him, or even to send him to America where dogs who look like pitbulls are allowed. But when all of their appeals expired, Lennox was put to sleep.

Lennox, the bulldog/lab mix, was put to sleep because he LOOKED like something else. Lennox, the family dog, a child’s pet. A good boy. Dead.

*

I walk a dog now named Tubs. I see almost every day. She’s grown a lot since I first started walking her. In the beginning, we couldn’t even walk in the direction of the dog park without Tubs displaying crazy aggressive antics. Tubs was never socialized with other dogs, so they were a terrifying prospect. Now though, after over a year of training and love and many, many walks, Tubs can walk by a dog on the path in the park and not care. That dog will never come over to her. She will never be friends with it. But the dog can exist and not be scary.

Tubs is a pocket pitbull. She is the sweetest pitbull with humans and wants nothing more than to sit in your lap and cover your face in slobbery kisses. But when we’re walking on the street, people move out of the way as we come close. They cross the street. They avoid her, just because of her breed. Because of what she looks like. And if she barks at another dog, it’s all over. “Look at the pitbull,” they say. “She’s so mean.” No. She’s not.

I’m convinced that, like Tubs, the world set me up to be in the place I ended up. Christianity told me that I had to be married. My social education told me that I would never be married because no one would love me because of how I looked and who I wanted to love. I learned to shut up, be quiet, do what I was told.

I ended up in a adult relationship that clearly didn’t fit me. I came away more demolished than I came in. But I don’t think I would change it. Trying to fit the mold made me realize that the mold isn’t real, that it’s a cat eternally chasing a tail it will never catch. I had to be in the mold to break the mold, and I wonder if that’s not my job here as a writer—to break the mold. To show there is no normal. To dismantle our own human forms of BSL.

I was bullied as a kid, and I let that define a lot of who I was for a long time. I’m a lot of things, but I’m more than what you see when you look. I still don’t wear brand names, but that doesn’t make me bad. I like it this way. I don’t always brush my hair, but I walk dogs all day and there’s really no point. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have enough to live and have a little fun. I don’t talk a lot, but I want to make what I say matter. I’ve been hurt, but it doesn’t last forever. I’ve been raped, but I’m not a victim. I’m a survivor. The world says I should look a certain way, that I should be broken. I say differently.

As I try to find more ways to write about my life, I’m realizing that I am more than my surface appearance. And so is Tubs. And so is Hank. And so was Lennox.

So let’s end all BSL, okay? Both the human and the dog forms.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Fall Guy

Totally Hair Barbie came out in 1992; I was in first grade. I brought the barbie to school with me because I was proud of her. I mean, she was the latest and greatest in Barbie. Her ridiculously long hair reached all the way down to her toes. All of my Barbies had names, but I can’t remember this one’s.

My best friend at the time, the same one who stole and then ate my strawberry crayon (and blamed me when it did not taste like strawberries), was incredibly jealous of my Barbie. “Give it to me,” she demanded, her hand thrust out in the expectant way that only a first grader who had everything could manage.

“No.” I hid the doll behind my back. When we went out to recess, I hid the doll in my desk. I didn’t want it to get dirty. But when we came back in, it was gone.

“I’m gonna cut her ha-air,” my friend said, holding the doll up by her deep brown strands and swinging her in front of me. My friend was, of course, several inches taller than me, and my attempts to jump up and down and try to snatch the barbie as she jumped up and down to keep it away from me drew the attention of our teacher.

“S*,” she ordered, “go sit in the hall on the red crate.”

God, the red crate. I hated that red crate. I was always on it for something. Reading in class. Chewing my fingers in class. Talking in class (no, really, SHE STOLE MY CRAYON). Honestly, most of the instances that landed me on the red crate were the result of my friend, not me. When she wrote on the bathroom wall, I took the fall. When she stole the teacher’s copy of Charlotte’s Web and hid it, I took the fall for that too. I was always her fall guy.

The crate needed a shiny golden plaque with my name on it. But alas.

When my teacher finally let me back in the classroom, I found out she had put the barbie away in her desk. I wouldn’t receive it back until the weekend. That was fine. I was patient. I was used to losing.

When I got her back, I braided her long hair into a bajillion teeny tiny braids. I had always wanted to learn how to braid, and a complacent subject was great for practicing. I used the braids to string her up from a branch of the tree in my grandma’s backyard, and I swung her back and forth. Eventually, I cut off her hair. Because she had been bad.

Tagged , , ,

Seventh Grade, Continued

Jason was a five foot walking terror with black hair and Gap clothing. Quiet, unassuming, non-brand name clothing wearing, stringy hair me made the perfect victim.

We were in the seventh grade hallway—I had just come from getting my food in the cafeteria and was on my way to lunch in my Language Arts teacher’s classroom; we were reading Hatchet in class that month and I wanted to get ahead. Jason was coming from our math classroom, having been forced to stay after class to pay penance for an inappropriate comment to the teacher.

“Hey, lice-head,” he called as he came towards me.

I had tried to pass off my fourth grade lice incident as an allergic reaction to a new shampoo, but my classmates couldn’t let it go. The nickname followed me out of elementary school and right on up to junior high.

Jason moved so that he was right in front of me. “Why don’t you ever wash your hair?”

I did wash my hair. But it didn’t matter what I said. I clutched my lunch tray closer to my chest. The hallway was completely empty. No one was coming to save me.

“Why don’t you answer me?”

I shook my head. “I wash it every other day.”

“Maybe if you washed it more, you wouldn’t have lice head,” he retorted.

“That was in fourth grade.”

Jason looked me up and down. I had nightmarish visions of him hitting the bottom of my lunch tray and sending my food flying everywhere, a la some TGIF show. I took a step backwards as he fluffed his hair.

“You know how you could have nice hair? Like mine?”

I didn’t answer.

The bottle came out of nowhere—a tiny white Paul Mitchell salon sample bottle. Jason opened the cap and squeezed the shampoo all over my head. I froze as the liquid oozed down my head, onto my shoulders, my backpack, my lunch tray. My lip trembled, but I refused to let him see me cry. Jason dropped the bottle onto my lunch tray and sauntered past me towards the cafeteria. I threw my food away and spent the next ten minutes scrubbing shampoo from my hair and clothes. The shampoo burned my eyes as I tried to shove my head under the short sink. I cried, unsure if it was from the burning or the anger.

When I arrived in the Language Arts classroom, fifteen minutes later to my lunch spot than normal, the teacher asked me why I was soaking wet. I buried my face in my book instead of answering, because an answer would only bring bullying worse than a shampoo bath. Ironically, one of the first lines of Hatchet I read that day was: “He did not know how long it took, but later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn’t work.”

I smiled, tied my wet hair back with a pencil, and leaned back to finish my book.

Tagged , , , ,

The Ramifications

I have weird thumbs. They’re at a funny angle to the rest of my hand, but that’s very me. There’s a lot about me that’s unique; that’s a funny angle to the rest of life.

In our elementary school, students picked instruments in third grade that they would play in fourth. I wanted to play one of the big brass band instruments. The older kids all sat in a line in the cafeteria—a flute, a tuba, a saxophone, an oboe, a bassoon and some sort of horn. I stopped in front of the girl who was playing the trumpet. She was a fifth grader, so much older than my third grade self. She was tall and pretty, with long blonde hair and preppy clothes; in other words, the complete opposite of me. I was short and a little pudgy, with brown hair and hand-me-down clothing. 

“Here.” She extended the trumpet my way.

“I don’t know what to do with it.” I wanted to know though.

She brought the trumpet back up to her own mouth. “Like this.” She puckered her lips up against the mouthpiece and somehow made a pretty sound. (Or, as pretty as trumpets can be).

I took the trumpet gently. I too wanted to make a pretty sound. But when I held it up to my mouth the way I had seen the older girl do, but nothing happened. 

“You’re doing it wrong,” she told me, taking the trumpet back. “Like this.” She demonstrated again.

I took the trumpet back with a dubious glance at her. 

“You have to get your lips better on the mouth piece. Sort of like a fish-face, but sort of not.”

I tried again, but I still couldn’t make the instrument make any sound.

“I think your lips are too big,” she informed me, in the voice of a much older and wiser student. “They’re a little…weird.”

I heard that all the time. I was weird because my clothes weren’t brand label. I was weird because of the food I brought for lunch. I was weird because I always had my face shoved in a book. But this was different. She wasn’t talking about something I was doing, something I had a choice in. She was talking about…me. 

I realized then that I wasn’t right for brass or wind instruments. I didn’t fit. My lips were, as she had so eloquently put it, weird.

With that, a string player was born. I liked the violin. It was small and compact and made lots of high notes; I was a soprano back then, and had a firm appreciation for the higher register. But the violin cost money to rent, money that we didn’t have. In the back of the tiny orchestra room where not many students gathered were two racks; one rack had a line of cellos, and the other a line of basses. The school loaned them out to students, using the appeal to finances to draw them away from the shiny appeal of the violin. And I went for it. I chose the cello because it was not quite as heavy as the bass.

Playing the cello ended up working out for me. I played on the school’s cello until I got to high school, at which point I started teaching private cello lessons for a downtown music store to help pay off my own cello. Eventually I played at weddings and in symphonies. So while I started out with the cello because I didn’t have any other option that fit me, it became a part of me. 

Not all teasing works out that well. That girl teased me, and it ended up leading me to something positive I still do to this day. But teasing and bullying don’t always end positively. There are many ramifications that never get considered. And things stay with you. The good, and the bad.

My thumbs never really bothered me until I started playing the cello. They kept me from holding my bow properly. To this day, they still do. The other kids would make fun of me; my hand gets tired easily from trying to hold the bow, so I have to switch periodically to an almost club-like grip while playing to give myself a break. My teacher used to offer me prizes to hold the bow properly, but I never really could. And in my head, I thought that if she was offering me something for the desired end result, there must be something wrong with me if I couldn’t change myself. 

My thumbs have always been the way they are. But I never knew they weren’t normal until I realized there were things they kept me from doing. Until my teacher told me they were wrong, my grip was wrong. That’s the funny thing, about being weird. Weird isn’t weird until someone points it out to you.

Once you know, it’s like none of you fits. So sometimes, it is one hundred percent better to say nothing. To not know.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,