A friend of mine told me recently that her daughter is starting to have problems with girls picking on her in school. My empathy immediately went out to this young girl because I too was the subject of many-a-bully’s brutal aggression growing up. It started in about third grade and pretty much never let up until I was lucky enough to graduate and get the hell out of the city in which I was raised. In fact, the bullying got worse from middle through high school to the point where I was seeking shelter in the guidance office in lieu of one of my classes because the girls would shove my books off my desk and threaten me with bodily harm the entire time I was in the class. The teacher, beaten by the system into a state of dull despondence, would occasionally look up and say, “Stop it” before he continued his lecture that no one was listening to.
Fortunately, I had good grades and the guidance counselor took pity on me, allowing me refuge in his office so long as I kept up with my homework and tests. This was my junior year in high school and I really don’t know how I got through it. The guidance counselor also offered me a solution for my senior year that saved my life as well: post-secondary option which allowed me to leave school after third period to take one class at Baldwin-Wallace College per quarter. Being exposed to a college class gave me hope for a future in which I would be seen as an equal and left alone by those who didn’t like me. Plus, it gave me a head start on college!
My mom said that she thought I would popular in school. I was a talkative and outgoing child–not very shy at all. On my first day of kindergarten, I didn’t cry or complain when my mom dropped me off; I simply sat down and started talking to another little girl named Mary. My mom thought for sure the road ahead of me in school would be fine. Tuns out, I was the leader that no one followed, as my mom always says.
I majored in Elementary Ed in college with the sole mission of being the teacher to remove all bullying from the school system. My grandmother, a teacher, always implemented a golden rule in her classroom: No put-downs. She refused to let students cut each other down in her classroom. I wanted to be like her. Unfortunately, years of being picked on in school had damaged my self-esteem and, at that time in my life, it was very hard to assert myself as an authority figure. When it came time for my field experiences, I crumpled under the pressure of controlling the classroom and constantly worrying about the students liking me. To top it off, I had the world’s bitchiest control-freak lady as my monitoring teacher. I crumpled under the ridicule of her chastising words, “Your professor says you are one of the best students in your class. I don’t see that here.”
It wasn’t just this bitchy teacher from my field experience that brought me down; it was also the sudden understanding that I couldn’t–no matter how hard I tried–stop all the kids from getting picked on all the time. Some things were just beyond my control. I couldn’t be everywhere at once, witnessing everything to intercede as I wanted to. The fact that there was evidence of kids being hurt emotionally and physically by other kids just made a pin cushion of my heart. I was too close emotionally to the problem. I was not the right person to be fighting it because the very knowledge of its existence hurt me too much.
This is what I fear with my own kids. I’ve gone over it and over it in my head and I’ve tried to figure ways to help them avoid having to go through what I went through. I’ve thought of home-schooling and private schools. I have this running theory that if I instill enough confidence in my child, mere bullying won’t knock them down the way it did with me. If they could do what I couldn’t–just let these remarks roll off–then I could create a child impervious to the emotional bruising inflicted by other children.
I know I’m fooling myself with this theory. When you’re a kid, your whole world is confined to your neighborhood and your school. If you have no or few friends within this sphere, you’re lost because there’s nowhere else to go. Your status amongst your age mates is far more important than it is as an adult. As an adult, your sphere is bigger and you know that for every one person who doesn’t like you, there are five who do. Someone not liking you is less detrimental to your ego. When you’re a kid, the eighteen years until adulthood–until you can leave your limited sphere–is a long, long time to wait to find your place. I know this because I counted the days until I was out of high school and could begin my own life.
The whole personal religion of my younger years was focused on getting the hell out of my home town and starting my life anew. I put so much energy in tomorrow that I focused little on the moment. I used to tell myself that now was the moment of suffering; once I got through the suffering, I would be rewarded with a much better life as an adult. A part of me longed for vengeance, to come back to my home town one day, handsome man on my arm and an impressive career, just so that I could tell everyone how much better my life was than theirs. The universe owed me this much, I thought.
Many people who were of the nerdier ilk do not lament the things they missed in high school because they didn’t find them interesting. The thing is, I wanted to be popular the whole time I was not. I wanted to have lots of friends and get invited to dances and go to parties. I remember one horrible time in ninth grade where I was so upset that no guy had asked me to the homecoming dance that I seriously contemplated suicide. It’s embarrassing to admit that to myself now because it sounds so trivial–and it was. That moment in my life was the absolute epitome of what I’d become: a completely unpopular girl, outside of the social structure of the school, completely alone. I didn’t want to kill myself because I’d not been asked to the dance–that event alone was merely another stone cast against me in the social circles of high school. I wanted to die because at that moment I could think of no other way out of the constant despair I felt each day of my life by that point.
I sometimes feel that I have a responsibility not to have kids so that I won’t bring into the world another being who has to suffer the way I felt I suffered in those early years. There’s no promise that I’d have a popular kid and there’s no promise that I’d spawn another nerd. The only thing I can promise by not having kids is that I won’t have to know the outcome either way. The truth is, I could not stand to watch my child suffer, or anyone I love for that matter. And if my child suffered the way I suffered in school, I’d feel somehow responsible. As it was when I attempted to become a teacher, I’d be powerless to do anything about that suffering for my kid, just as my mom could do nothing to stop the taunts or my pained reaction to it. If someone else’s kid being bullied brings me discomfort, I know that my own kid’s suffering would be just as bad as when I endured it myself.
At the same time, I know that what I went through in my primary years shaped me into the empathetic adult I am today. To this day, I find myself siding with the underdog, trying to help a person out when they are down and out. I know that most things in life come with a fight, perseverance, and a lot of hard work. Maybe that is where I got my survivor mentality–that part of me that pushes hard past exhaustion until I am numb because I know it’s the only way I’ll get my due. I think people who had things handed to them easily, who never had to work for what they got, whose life was without the bumps do not know how to handle themselves when the going gets tough. Or sometimes people learn the lessons later that I learned young. Either way, the individual that came out of that social fight has a sincere soul who values friends as a precious commodity.
Even knowing how my younger years shaped me, I still have the urge to want to shelter my children from what I went through. I would like to find some way to teach them to be good people without walking through the fires I had to walk through. I suppose that’s a wish all parents have for their children and because of that wish, they needlessly shelter–consciously or unconsciously–their children. Which is the complete opposite of what I’d want to do. Whenever my mom tried to prevent me from doing things she knew to be unsafe, I wanted to do it all the more. I always thought that I needed to try it for myself to know why I shouldn’t do it.
A parent always wants to provide a child with better opportunities than he or she had. In doing this, do we automatically swing the pendulum the complete opposite direction, thus counterbalancing parenthood in a different way? It’s so confusing. I think most parents mean well; they’re just trying to get it right.
I don’t like working with problems that don’t have a right or wrong answers. Parenthood scares the crap out of me. My friend’s revelation about her daughter reminded me all too well of the emotional hardships of being a parent at just the time when I’ve been starting to look at children with a mind more open than it’s ever been. My biggest fears are confirmed. Being a unique individual, I can’t help but feel as though I’d create unique individuals. And then what? The pain of watching them walk through the fire. I think the first day of school for my child would send my anxiety soaring. It would be the first time I’d let my kid go into the world, praying he/she would make it better than I did. Sink or swim. Or simply floating.