Thursday, April 12, 2012
Warts And All
There was a time, back when I was in junior high school, when I didn't always feel as confident as I do now. I know, it's hard to believe judging by the size of my ego as an adult, but back then I was bullied. My experiences during those years definitely served to shape me into who I am today and despite the pain, I find myself grateful for having endured it. Yes, I am somewhat grateful for having been bullied.
It was 7th grade and in our school district all of the elementary schools in the town converged together for 7th and 8th grade in one building. It was an exciting time to be a middle schooler, as lots of new fresh faced Tweens, awkward and bright eyed, met for the first time in the halls of our "junior high". It was a definitely a time of "firsts". It was the first time we had used lockers, the first time we didn't have to march single file in a line in the hallway between classes and the first time the new boys and girls got to check each other out.
In junior high, we had homeroom, which was assigned alphabetically and somehow lies at the crux of this story. I don't remember exactly what happened, but a boy in my home room, one I did not know, decided I would be his victim. Looking back, I might have responded to his first interaction with me flippantly, and he decided that my punishment would be to hand pick me for his special brand of torture.
I remember in those first few days hearing the name echoing in the hallways. I wasn't quite sure what it meant, or who it was meant for but it was undoubtedly a nasty, ugly name and it's sole purpose was to demean and punish its recipient. I soon figured out that I was the beneficiary of this horrible name because it started to follow me wherever I went. At first, the boys were having a field day using my new moniker against me, and I was quickly ostracized by the "coolies" in my peer group. But I was ok because I was the last of five in an entire family of "coolies", which made me a coolie by default. Or so I thought.
I had the "coolie" girls for friends, as we were just beginning to form the social groups that would withstand our high school careers. Soon the coolie girls began to make excuses and go to great lengths to lie to me about parties and play dates. I remember being invited to a friend's house with about 5 other coolies after school. We were jumping on her trampoline and having fun when the head coolie came out and made an announcement, "I have to go to gymnastics class, so everybody has to leave now."
We all looked at each other, and since I was the only one to ride my bike, I rose to leave. Feeling suspicious, I asked, "How is everybody else getting home?" I was told that her big sister would be driving everybody else home, pronto. They even took the ruse as far as to march out to the driveway, where my bike was parked, and pile all five coolies into the car. Waving goodbye, I drove away, but the feeling that I was being duped nagged at my psyche. I traveled a bit further down the road and I turned to look back, thereby confirming my suspicions. I caught all of them getting out of the car and going back into the house.
I continued on my bike ride home, tears stinging my eyes against the cool afternoon breeze, and as I turned to corner I spied two coolie boys from my grade, riding their bikes up the same street approaching me. The pending doom I felt at that moment was instantly lifted when they both waved enthusiastically and called me by my proper name. Instantly I had been vindicated and I felt a sense of triumph,albeit only briefly. Once we passed each other the smiles faded and I was reminded that I was not entitled to feel social grace of any kind. They screamed out my horrible name and laughed as they continued on.
I have thousands of stories like that one, most of which comprise my middle school years. My own brother was ashamed of me and if he really wanted to hurt me, he would pull out the name to sink the knife deeper into the wound. By the grace of God I survived and somewhere along the way, during the summer of my entrance into high school, the swan blossomed. I got my braces off, I had a great summer camp experience that helped to bolster my self esteem and I got noticed once I entered high school.
I left the name behind back in middle school and I never heard it again. I say I am grateful because I'm not sure I would be who I am today without that experience. It made me a better person. It taught me compassion and it made me see people through different eyes. In high school I was lucky because my bullying experience allowed me to navigate my way through every social group effectively. I was accepted for who I am because I had at one time been where no man had wanted to go and I survived.
Those coolie girls, the ones who were indifferent to my pain in middle school? I still call them my friends today and the one who pulled the ruse to get rid of me is today part of my inner circle. Crazy? Maybe, but what I learned through it all was that people make mistakes. I can't control other people's decisions, good or bad. We all survived high school and they have since made restitution for their sins, because they might have won the battle, but I won the war. I am the lucky one because they gave me a gift.
I am so grateful that it didn't turn me to a dark place that I may have never came back from and grateful that I was strong enough to withstand what I was handed. But I am most grateful for the effect it had on me as a human being. If I could say one thing to anyone who is experiencing bullying today it would be...hold on...the message will be revealed and you too will have your redeeming swan moment. And somewhere, some how, there is a reason you have been chosen to receive this message. I pray for you to be be a lucky one, too and accept yourself for who you are. Warts and all.