Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Mean Kids

I'm listening to "The Story" on NPR and choking up because they are interviewing artist Caroline Keem talking about being the one kid who was picked on on the school bus. Her story sounds so much like my own time in grade school and junior high, except that for me it went on all day, not just on the way to school. I know a lot of people were teased in school, but I am talking about being the one child who is a pariah. The kid who other kids fear to sit near because her outcast status could be contagious. I was the Cootie Girl, and in my grade, no one else had cooties, unless they were temporarily infected by me.

Like me, Keem was constantly told she had lice, and that she was ugly.

For a long time, whenever someone looked at me, I assumed disapproval, she said. (I'm paraphrasing.)

She began to break out of that mindset when she was 34.

I'm 33.

Like me, she believed the things the bullies told her. What happened when she was 34 was that she was looking through family photos for a funeral. She turned the pages looking for the ugly little girl, but all she saw was an adorable child.

I can't say that I still believe everything the bullies said. As an adult I can look in the mirror and accept that I'm an average-looking person, and can even look cute when I clean up a bit. Like Keem, I gained some self-confidence and status in school through talent. For her, it was her illustration skills; for me, it was writing and acting.

But I haven't reached that stage where I completely reject the hypothesis, forwarded so convincingly more than 20 years ago, that I am unacceptable.

Social anxiety runs in my family anyway, so I can't completely blame that feeling on my childhood experience. And it's not like I spend my days soaking in a self-pity bath.

In Keem's interview, even though she insisted that she looks at the whole experience as a gift in disguise, you can hear the hurt still in her voice, especially when she tries to put a finger on why she was the targeted child. And she still has trouble dealing with Girl Scouts, who were among her meanest teasers.

As I look toward my own kid's school years, I understand the strange double vision that happens when you see both an innocent little Girl Scout and see a killer with cookies in the same green smock. It's strange to tour a grade school and see it full of adorable, innocent-looking kids, when the grade school in my memory was full of malicious little predators. It's also frustrating to know that you can never go back to confront your tormenters, because when I meet the grown-ups that came out of those vicious kids, they seem like ordinary, well-meaning adults.

I pray that nothing like this ever happens to my children. Before I became a parent, it was easy for me to think, hey, my parents should have done something to stop this. Now that I'm a parent, I know that I will try to stop it if it happens, but I also see that this would not be easy to do. For one thing, people without means can't easily switch from one school to another every time a problem crops up. Furthermore, there's a good chance that the same kind of teasing will happen to you at any school, if you happen to be the kind of kid who gets teased.

When I look at Nutmeg, I see that kind of kid.

I hope I'm wrong. Their father is lucky enough to be the kind of personality that gets along with everyone. If not Nutmeg, maybe Filbertine will inherit some of that.

I know one thing: Like sex-changing frogs, even the victim kids have the ability to morph into mean kids in the right climate. If I ever catch one of my children being one of the mean kids, they are going to be in what my dad called big-time trouble.

7 comments:

New Mama said...

I'm sorry your school experience was so miserable. Mine was, too, though it was more of an off-shoot of terrible parenting than it was bullying. I was quiet and insecure and teased a bit, but mostly wanted to be invisible.

I'm planning on homeschooling my son party to avoid the whole peer-influence dynamics of regular school. Not that I can or want to shield him from other kids -- just that I want to be the one he's around and looks to for guidance the majority of the day until he's old enough to be confident in himself.

Bert said...

Looking at you now, it's hard to imagine you being teased for being ugly or having cooties. From the outside, you look like a lovely, strong, confident woman, a great mother, and a... well, definitely pretty good housekeeper. :)

It's amazing what we become. You go, girl.

Bert said...

P.S. I inadvertently left out fantastic writer! And spectacular career woman (even when you're not in a specific job). Basically, you just rock out loud. And, I will attest to never having spotted a cootie on you. Ever.

tessence said...

aw, pschaw. thanks Bert. I've never seen any cooties on you either, and if i did see one, i would totally pick it off for you. :-)

Moxie Mom said...

I agree with Bert. After meeting you, for real, I would never have known what you delt with in school.

But isn't that what you want? We all go through these trouble times and somehow get through it, a little stronger. I see that strength in you.

Jeevita said...

Wow, this must be like a universal thing...I remember going through similar stuff, growing up in India. Never quite fit in with the other girls and had a bad time being teased if I tried to. My solution then was to withdraw into myself and stop trying to interact with the others and basically ignore their existence. Even now, almost 30, I am not quite the outgoing person..

Kori said...

Wow, this entry is a hearttugger. Since I knew you in elementary school strickly from gifted class, I didn't see your day-to-day experience. I'd like to think that I wouldn't have listened to what the others said, or jumped on the bandwagon of how you were treated, but to be honest, I can't say that I'm sure I could be that bold. I, too, was very mocked as a kid, and never really "belonged" (whatever that means) with my peers. Given an opportunity to be a part of the clique, would I have gone against my better judgement and teased you? I'd like to think that I would have stood firm, especially since I remember thinking you were very cool when I saw you once a week.

What worries me as much as having a child that may be in the position that Caroline Keem describes---the outcast spot---is having a child that is part of the crowd that does the taunting or terrorizing. Because, as you stated so eloquently, you'd like to think that as a parent you can stop it, but how do you know you'll be effective? All kids are so vulnerable, so invested in fitting in, so tied to being a part of the accepted crowd, it would be hard to fight the pull of popularity.

I know that for you, things improved in high school. Thank goodness for that. For what its worth, I always thought you were a hip chic. I was such a rule follower, I admired anyone who seemed edgy or willing to break the rules, but who was still a good student. You fit that bill in my eyes.

While being an outcast can be a struggle for girls and boys, I have to say, having a daughter is just so scary when it comes self-concept and peer relations. To understand, deeply, the particular brand of cruelty girls seem to muster, is to fear for your daughter in an almost primal way. Hopefully, we can muddle through the maze together.