That Kid

[Content Note: Bullying.]

I was not bullied by other children when I was a child.

Although I remember some specific instances of name-calling, and I'm certain there are additional instances that have fallen, or been cast, out of my memory, I was never subjected to a sustained campaign of bullying and/or unwanted isolation.

That, of course, is a combination of luck and privilege. To say it was merely luck would be to suggest that it didn't matter I was a fairly average-looking and able-bodied white kid whose parents could afford to clothe and clean me; to say it was merely privilege and nothing else would be to suggest that similarly privileged children targeted by intense bullying somehow have control over it, or deserve it.

I read or listen to accounts of childhood bullying with visceral, vicarious terror. It is a difficult thing to survive.

I am married to a survivor of intense and lasting childhood bullying, psychological and physical, and it is something that stays with him to this day, and comes up unexpectedly, sometimes. Often in ways that reveal how it informs his profound empathy for people who are being harmed.

The stories of being bullied by other children evoke in me a feeling of distant recognition, calling forth memories that don't belong, not among stories of being tormented by classmates.

You might have noticed I said I was not bullied by other children. And this is a true thing.

I was, however, often bullied by adults.

I used to think it was just that some adults are not nice to kids generally—and I believe that's certainly part of it. Everyone has stories of adults who were shitty to them when they were kids.

But as I got older, and I would share some of these stories, having turned them into "humorous anecdotes" in an attempt to process them, the reactions I got from older friends, the cringing and curious responses, transmitted that these weren't just examples of experiences every kid had. They weren't greeted with familiarity, but surprise. And sympathy.

I was that kid.

I was an extremely shy child, and an awkward child. I was also the sort of child whose every ounce of woundedness registered on my crumpled face, unable to mask feeling hurt behind a contrived defiance. I would apologize for whatever I'd done to anger any adult, which neatly communicated to any adult bully that they never need fear there was ever any danger of my telling what they'd done.

A perfect target for adults who wanted to look cool to other children, who needed a foil to humiliate, to garner what they perceived as admiration, but was probably more often a strategic obsequiousness offered by their young audiences to avoid being targeted themselves.

I can't say I understand why there are adults who desire and cultivate the adoration of children, although I have some ideas. Ultimately, I don't really care, because it's beside the point.

At least for those of us who were convenient marks for such adults.

Sometimes it was kids other than their own with whom adults were trying to curry favor. The minister who routinely mocked my questions in front of my Sunday School classmates and would grin proudly when they laughed, or the young choir teacher who would end class early so a gaggle of girls could crowd around her music stand at the front of the room to gossip.

I spent four years as her student—four years in which she would say, for instance, "Let's talk about fashion! I hate when girls wear flats with jeans, don't you?" as I stood with my face growing red, casting my eyes downward at the flats on my feet, the only girl in the group wearing them.

No matter what I was wearing, or what opinion I had expressed, or what thing I liked—anything that could be singled out as the source of her disdain, would be.

I kept going up to that music stand, every day. Because I wanted her to like me. It felt like the only thing that would make me stop feeling bad.

Sometimes it was their own kids whom these adults sought to impress, by going after me. In retrospect, I'm sure they bullied their own kids, out of view, and it was only by redirecting that nasty instinct on another child that they could earn their own children's momentary fondness, born of relief.

The first sexualized body policing I ever remember getting in my life came care of a father of two boys in the neighborhood (one of whom was the boy who told me "Your face is ugly"). I was running around shirtless in the summertime, like all the little kids in the neighborhood did, and he yelled at me to "put on a shirt, for god's sake—you're getting boobies!" I was 8.

His sons, and all the neighborhood boys, laughed. I remember his expression—pleased, smug—as I searched his face for some explanation.

"I'm sorry," I stammered, before running home to put on a shirt. Which I had to wear always after that, because the boys became fixated on my "boobies," which they hadn't even noticed or cared about until my neighbor called their attention to them. I don't even think I was "a girl" to them, until that moment.

Sometimes he would say something mean to me in front of his sons, and then he would high five them. He was the first person who called me a nerd. Right after I got glasses.

Before we left elementary school, I found his older son, the same age as me, sitting on his front step crying one day. I asked him what was the matter, and he told me his parents were getting divorced and his dad had moved out. Sitting beside him with my arm around his shoulders while he sobbed, I felt guilty for feeling relieved his dad wouldn't be around anymore.

Most of the adults who featured in my life this way were people with whom I had an ongoing relationship, whom I saw regularly. A friend's parent, my utterly strange orthodontist, volunteer parents ("room moms") at school. Which is, I suppose, why these memories stay. They happened inside relationships with adults I couldn't escape.

And I was certain that it was something I could control, if only I tried harder.

My home was not one in which bad feelings could be expressed and discussed. And when I made half-hearted attempts to broach the subject of an adult behaving this way toward me, I was not extended the assumption that I was being honest, or had a right to be upset. I was told that I was too sensitive, and, sometimes, that I had behaved in a way that caused the mistreatment.

One evening, I was over at a friend's house for dinner—a classmate and a neighbor, whose mother, J, was a good friend of my mother's. They had a difficult home life, for many reasons, and J was constantly comparing her children to my sister and me, and finding her children wanting. One moment, she would be using me to shame her children; the next, she would be mocking me in order to engender their affection.

J kept offering me the dishes of food she'd prepared first. There were more kids in their family, and I wasn't sure how much food to take. I was 7, so I couldn't look at a bowl of mashed potatoes and figure out how much would be too much, and I was afraid to take too little and offend J. I had offended her before, to effects I did not want to revisit.

So I said, "No, thank you," when the food was offered to me, until I got passed a plate of, I dunno, pork chops, where it was obvious I was supposed to take one and pass it.

Once everyone else had taken scoops of potatoes and peas, I asked if J could please pass the potatoes, and then I took some, and then I asked if she could please pass the peas, and then I took some, and, granted, this was a pretty silly thing to do, but it made sense to my 7-year-old brain, and I thought as long as I was polite it didn't matter.

The second time I asked for something I'd declined a few minutes earlier, J passed the bowl to me with the sweetest smile and said under her breath, "You're a real pain in the ass, aren't you?" I blinked, stunned. "You're a little shit," she said.

I felt so terrible—I could feel my face burning, all hot and red, and had to try so hard not to cry. Of course I didn't feel bad that I'd been called a little shit; I felt bad for being a little shit.

Now, as an adult, I suspect I would probably realize what a kid was doing who didn't want to take first servings at someone else's house, but, even if I didn't, I would never call a 7-year-old a pain in the ass and a little shit for asking me to pass a dish.

Of course, that's not only what it was about. J's daughter, for years, would gleefully recount how her mother had called me the names that night usually reserved for her.

J must have guessed she'd might have crossed a line, because while I was walking home that night after dinner, she phoned my mom to tell her she'd called me a little shit, because I was being one.

When I got home, my mother told me J had called. "Did J have to tell you that you were being a little shit tonight?" my mother asked. Have to tell you. She looked annoyed, embarrassed.

"Yes," I confessed.

I was told not to be a little shit anymore.

But I continued to be a little shit, if the behavior of some of the adults around me were any indication.

When I reached my teenage years, and came out of my shell a bit, I wasn't—through time and an emergent feistiness—such an easy target anymore. And it stopped. So completely it was as though it might never have happened at all.

The only evidence is the lingering feeling of not-rightnesss, that comes up when I hear stories of childhood bullying. Even though I was never bullied by other children.

I don't want to derail conversations about childhood bullying with stories of being that kid, the one who adult bullies found to be a useful target. It's not the same. This is a conversation all its own.

I don't have a tidy ending. I just wanted to say: If you were that kid, too, you aren't alone.

[Note: Iain's history of bullying shared with his permission.]

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