Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Making It Better

I read this book review today, and it set me off.

“It Gets Better.” That’s what the current campaign says to encourage young people who are discovering their leanings toward people of the same sex. It’s a message that could apply to any persecuted, picked-on kid in junior high or high school. But it’s very damned difficult to convince a 13-year-old who’s getting followed home from school at least once a week by bullies who want to see the kid cry. It’s hard for a girl with a flat chest and too many freckles or too much flesh around her bottom to believe that life will get better. You, the adults looking back over scars 20, 30, or 40 years in the past, have the benefit of hindsight and survival over time. The teenager has just the now.

They hurt Now.

They’re being punched in the arm Now.

They’re being left by themselves in the cafeteria at lunch hour Now.

They’re getting laughed at in class Now.

They’re crying themselves to sleep and having nightmares every night Now.

Telling them “It gets better” 10 or 20 years from now is a copout.  They need help Now.

Yes, some of your adult perspective is simply “Kids will be kids” or recalling that “They grow out of it.” But again, that’s the easy stuff, like learning how to drive or understanding when to use the right piece of silverware at a formal dinner. What isn’t happening, it seems to me, is that we’re not preparing these kids—arming them, to be blunt—mentally for the social combat that makes up the teenage years, all the way up through our early 20s.

What this essay is going to try to convey is some of the process I went through, from being a bullied kid until now. I will say some unpleasant things in this essay. I will use profanity. I will probably say something unpleasant about nearly every social caste that exists because during the ages that one is facing bullies, there are damn few people that you don’t learn to hate. [Actually, this turned out pretty tame, but still...] It’s unfortunate, but it helps to get into that mindset before you start saying something tepid and trite like “It Gets Better.”

It’s not that easy. You have to work for it.


Portrait of a Young Bart, 1984

The boy starts his day at home. His hair is a mess, unstylish and greasy-looking. His complexion is a mass of acne and blackheads. His wardrobe consists of Swiss army shirts, camouflage pants, and army boots. He wears an expression of hopeful desperation, as he is psyching himself up for what he hopes won’t be too bad of a day. At 5’7”, he is nearly eye to eye with his mother, at least in height. His attitude is somewhere between punchy smartass and surly. He ignores his sister or tolerates her or listens to her, depending on his mood. He waits for the bus stop with a bunch of the neighbors, kids he’s known for a month or several years. The best he usually can hope for is that he won’t say something that causes a negative comment or a laugh at his expense. He has learned to suppress even things that make him happy because inevitably, he thinks, someone is going to either cut him down or use that knowledge against him.

On the bus itself, he takes what is usually the least-desirable seat, the one directly behind the bus driver. But he knows why he takes it: he’s less likely to get punched or abused if an adult is within earshot. If he sits in the back of the bus, he’s in for a very long and painful ride. Once at school, he barrels for his locker, quickly looks both ways before working the combination lock (he had stuff stolen from his locker and burned a couple years ago, and he hasn’t forgotten it), getting what he needs, and slamming it shut. The interior of the locker is decorated with images of art, of science fiction movies, of pictures from Disney World. He does not share these things, they are simply talismans to remind him of happier days. He carries as many books as he can because he doesn’t want to have to go back to his locker more than a couple times a day.

In class, he keeps to himself or talks to the one or two people he thinks won’t abuse him somehow. He used to raise his hand in class, and sometimes he still does, when he thinks the question is easy enough. If he makes the mistake of answering something difficult correctly, he’ll hear about it later in gym or the cafeteria. “You think you’re so smart,” they’ll say, or words to that effect. His grades are lower than they could be. He’s in a slightly advanced algebra class—not the dummy version, anyway—and usually ends up with some of the brighter history or science kids, but he is performing well below his abilities, and he knows it. Even in the advanced classes in junior high, he discovered, the smart kids could be just as mean as the others, and who needs that sort of aggravation?

He gulps his food at lunch, eager to get out of the cafeteria before the bully of the day (singular or plural) finds him and decides to make his day difficult. He’s probably underweight simply because he’s under-eating and walking or running wherever he goes. He trembles occasionally, the result of recurrent fear.

Gym class is a painful joke, as he must suffer the multiple pains of being uncoordinated, un-muscular, and socially sensitive. He does not like exercise because it exposes his weakness for all the world to see and criticize and laugh at. He fails at individual sports and is picked last for team sports. He often skips the showers because the added vulnerability of being naked around his violent peers is often more than he can take. He occasionally shows up to class more fragrant than is strictly necessary, which adds to the greasiness of his hair and face.

By the time the bell rings, he has had enough. He hides in the Theater Department, where he is the teacher’s aide one period to get him out of some other, less comfortable place like study hall. The theater kids aren’t too bad, often outcasts like himself in some cases, but they aren’t quite sure what to make of him: too uncoordinated (again) for scene shop, too shy or self-conscious for acting, he works where he’s least visible or least likely to call overt attention to himself: sound, lighting, box office.

When class is done, he goes home and hangs out with one of his two or three best friends. He doesn’t have or trust many others. If they are not free, he composes fiction on paper or in his head on the way home. Sometimes he skips the bus and risks walking home. He wishes he could go to work, which he will in a year, so he can have something to do.

And yet this kid is not completely lost. He writes a great deal—journal entries, poetry, plays, Star Wars stories. He draws maps of airline route systems he imagines operating or aircraft he imagines designing. He is counting the months until he graduates—he has already selected his classes for the next three years, and has set things up so that he graduates a semester early. He was going to shoot for graduating at the end of junior year, but his mother tells him that he’d probably not be mature enough for college at that age.

Some girls like or admire him, but he is too shy or too terrified to speak to any of them. Like his stories and his hopes, he figures any girl he likes would be just another source of teasing. And then, too: the girl might be lying to make a fool out of him. It has happened before, numerous times, and he has a high mistrust of the female species, from cheerleaders to the girls at church to the unpopular girls. It’s a comfort of a sort that his sister hasn’t completely disowned him. He talks too smart or too self-defeating to deal with his cousins.

The boy gets along just fine with adults, particularly teachers and people in authority, which earns him zero credit with his peers. He wants to learn what’s in the homework or the news or the sly comments that adults make to each other. More than anything, he wants to get out of here, not sure if he means high school, Lombard, or Illinois, but he has his sights set on Orlando. He has a mixed relationship with his father, who has been remarried, but he likes his stepmother and loves the free, unstressed feeling he gets when he visits them, away from other people who know him.

He reads and writes a great deal: science fiction, history, science. His grandmother directs self-help books his way, and he reads those as well, even though some of them are written for people older than him. He doesn’t know what he wants to be, exactly, but he has thoughts about Disney, about the military, about space—but above all, about writing. Writing is his great escape. He writes poems that bleed out his hurt. He writes journal entries dissecting the behavior and characters of some of his worst tormentors. He writes stories in which characters like him have power, authority, and right on their side. If his fantasy life does not include women (a field of study utterly beyond him), it does at least include alternate worlds where he has the respect of all the people around him, men and women—adults.

He has visions of what could be. He just needs to survive.


The sad part is, 1984 actually wasn’t that bad. The worst year of my life was 1981-82, the year I was in 7th grade. That was when I was having the psychosomatic illnesses, fevers (104.3°, at one point), and serious prayers asking Jesus to let me die. If someone had told me that year that “It gets better,” I probably would’ve thrown up on them, either out of disbelief or stress or spite.

Another scary thought: my high school was considered pretty decent for the time, certainly a lot safer than a lot of the schools in rougher neighborhoods or in downtown Chicago. At just over 2,000 students (now over 2,500), Glenbard East was as decent a suburban public school as you were likely to find. No metal detectors, as yet. No knives or guns on campus (off-campus was another matter). The usual experiments with alcohol or marijuana (and even cocaine, if I’m to believe some of my friends at the time) going on.  And I fa-king hated it because I was scared and miserable most of the time. Or at least those are most of the memories that survived.

Lombard Junior High, the place of my darkest despair, was where I hit rock-bottom, socially and emotionally. My clothes were cheaper then, my body smaller and thinner, my social skills even less developed. If I was going to make something better of myself, it had to be there. I can only tell you how I survived. My combination of traits, talents, and circumstances might not apply to anyone else. But the effort deserves telling, because I did survive. While I was unlikely to get knifed or shot, there was every likelihood that I might’ve gotten beaten up more, or that I might’ve taken that to-hell-with-this-I’m-going-to kill-myself voice at the back of my head. Obviously, I didn’t, but why? The question bears asking because certainly there’s still enough teenage angst bullshit going around that needs overcoming.

So below is my recipe for helping a kid suffering at the hands of his/her peers. I can’t guarantee success; I can only say it worked for me, at different times, and in various combinations, but believe me, all of it was tried.

I understood that my problem was temporary, not permanent.

I honestly don’t know how I came to this conclusion, but I could count at a reasonable age, and I knew that any event or situation had a beginning and an end. Some of this might’ve been taught by my mother getting us to plan for a vacation X months in the future, or sitting through enough other boring or painful events. I just understood that boredom or pain or whatever situation I was going through would eventually change, and that this, too, shall pass.

I took the time to examine my own behavior and figure out when/where my peers were reacting badly to my behavior—and then change it.

I probably took this one to an extreme, being a responsibility-and-duty-focused kid (such are the joys of growing up the only boy in a home run by a single mom). But I did at least take the time to figure out how people operated. What were they saying? What were their expressions? How did they change when I did X versus Y? Which behaviors of mine create the worst reactions with adults or my peers? On the latter score, that was easy: talking down to people. It’s not just a matter of correcting someone if they misspell something, but how did I do it? What tone was I using? What words? “It’s not what you say, but how you say it?” I never quite got over my habit of using big words, but I at least learned to temper the lecturing, condescending tone and not use the absolutely longest words I knew (unless no other word sufficiently says what I mean). But this habit of watching others and minding what I was doing forced me in on myself, caused me to listen more, and be more self-aware.

I was focused on becoming an adult, not blending in with my peers.

“Grow up!” was a common refrain in my family. The expectation was always that I was learning how to become a grown-up so I could take my place in society and be a productive citizen. Again, starting from a responsibility-focused childhood, this behavior and belief followed naturally. In addition, given that many of my peers engaged in some form of teasing (serious or not—I took it all personally), I was not likely to idolize any of them.

I understood that I had specific talents, and I spent my free time developing them.

It really took until I was in college and was surrounded by people who not only couldn’t write but were willing to pay me to edit their papers that I understood that I might have something to offer others and that not everyone could do what I did. Even so, from a very young age, I was writing stories or poems and getting my thoughts down in written form. I figured out what I was good at and what I enjoyed doing. It took many, many years after that to find a job that would pay me to do the things I loved, but at least I had that start. My mother told me (and I recall the conversation) that I wanted to write for NASA. My grandmother told me I was five when I told her I wanted to write a novel. In any case, my future was going to involve writing.

I understood that I had a soul, and that it was worth preserving.

There’s no way around this: I had religion in my life. I had an understanding (in addition to self- and family-taught responsibility and duty) of sin as well as sacredness. There are things that are fundamentally and should remain good; to violate this goodness is, in fact, a sin. Frank Herbert wrote that the single, common message of all religions was, “Thou shalt not disfigure the soul.” True or not, that’s a lesson I absorbed at a young age.

I had an active internal life and a means of escape in the midst of an unfriendly crowd.

This is related to an earlier point, but it boils down to this: if you’re an outcast, you’re forced to develop your own inner resources simply because there’s no one else around to talk to. So I read a lot of books. Difficult ones, as my mother would tell me. She stopped understanding what I was reading when I was ten. As long as I dove into these other worlds and didn’t come out some sort of demon worshipper or terror to myself or others, she left me alone with my odd literary tastes. The act of reading did several things: when I was actually reading, I could tune out the verbal (and sometimes even the physical) obnoxious behavior going on around me. I could image a newer, more advanced, better world than the one I was living in at the time. And these other worlds helped expand my vocabulary—necessary for a writer—as well as my mental horizons and my future plans for myself.

I could take action on my own behalf.

One of the most horrible side effects of bullying is the utter powerlessness it inflicts on the victim: first, there are the physical circumstances of having someone bigger than you inflict pain on you. Then, if they keep after you long enough, you eventually feel powerlessness to take any action on your own behalf. You grovel or beg or humiliate yourself to get someone to stop hurting you or, if you’re particularly desperate, just be nice to you—and aren’t needy and desperate great personality traits? Anyhow, the books I was reading (SF, self-help, history, philosophy, what have you) all seemed to have similar messages: heroes have the ability to take action to fix their circumstances. For lack of a better idea, I decided to see myself as a hero, fictional or otherwise, and that freed me up to take actions that might make things, if only one day, one little bit at a time. So: wash the face to fix the acne; take karate to learn at least the rudiments of how to fight back; get a job and learn to take pride in my work; start and complete stories in which Bart-like characters triumphed.

I had a few friends and a family who believed in me.

This can’t be overestimated in its importance. If I’d been chased home from school by the bullies and then come home to an abusive family, I wouldn’t have come out nearly so well. Yes, I resented the stuff Mom or Dad or the grandmothers, aunts/uncles, cousins, etc., did on occasion, but I didn’t doubt that they could be counted on—they were family.

I had a desire for meaningful work.

I started working when I was just barely 16. My parents, aunts, and uncles always talked about their jobs, so I understood that to mean that they drew a great deal of their identities and self-importance from the work they did. With work came responsibility (which, again, I was all about) as well as accomplishment, independence, mobility, and money. The longest period I’ve spent unemployed since then was two months, and I was miserable. I kept looking for work because sitting around doing nothing can make me go stir crazy. If I’m working, I’m busy, and I’m not dwelling on some of the other things in my life that might be bothering me. And, at the end of it, if I’ve been doing things right, I’ll have something to show for it at the end of the day.

I learned to think for myself.

Another advantage of being an outcast is that you’re unlikely to join a gang, cult, or any sort of movement that will cause you to lose your identity. I learned quickly—as did my peers—that “peer pressure” was a great way to get me to push back even harder. What starts out as circumstance—your peers ostracizing you because you’re “different”—eventually becomes a badge of honor. You learn to hold onto your individuality because it’s all you’ve got. There’s a Peanuts cartoon I remember fondly: Lucy hands Linus a list of his faults. Linus reads the list, then shouts back, “These aren’t faults, these are character traits!” So sometimes behavior gets you labeled a kook (“He’s always off on his own somewhere”) eventually becomes one of your favorite activities and something that you come to see as integral to your self-image.


Final Thoughts: Your Mileage Might Vary

The lessons I learned above are partly the result of circumstances—where I grew up, who my parents were, what my family situation was, what sorts of traits I inherited, what church I went to, who my peers were—but a lot of it was simple reading or learning things the hard way. The person reading this might not be much of a reader or be terribly sensitive to others’ feelings—they just want to be left alone. Fine. Find alternatives. Build up your own inner life with music, art, woodworking, athleticism, mathematics, science, mechanical tinkering, horticulture, animal care. If you don’t know what you like or what you’re good at, keep trying things until you discover them. The point of all these little lessons, I guess, is just that social survival can be achieved, but a lot of it requires a will to make things better for yourself. I’m speaking from a vary first-world point of view here—I’m not sure if any of this advice would matter in a situation where you’re facing down guns or worse every day. But if you’ve got some of the basics covered (food, shelter, clothing, safety), you can work out the rest. The goal is to make yourself a better person, not to punish the ones who are trying to make you feel or be bad. You can’t do much about them, and becoming a bully to others just passes the problem off to the next poor bastard—and what sort of life is that?

So I hope this does someone some good. I feel better for having written it, but your mileage could vary. Let’s be careful out there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said. It will be a good read for my girls.
- indiana