In the time-honored tradition of explaining to children how you had it way worse “back in the day” than they do, when my son recently expressed trepidation at starting in a new school this fall, with so many more kids, I told him that no matter how uncomfortable he felt, it probably wouldn’t top my first day of middle school, when a girl I didn’t know came up to me on the sidewalk in front of the school, with a small posse of friends behind her. She asked me my name, then she told me my first name was “bullshit” because she had a sister who had recently died who had the same first name and that me having that name MADE HER ANGRY. The whole group was looking at me like I had done something wrong. It was literally the first day of school, and I didn’t know any of these girls. She pointed at me, an inch away from my face as I stood there in shock and said, “YOU and ME after SCHOOL TONIGHT!” and told me where to meet her behind the school building, then she and the posse walked away. I was in shock and so confused. How do you make somebody mad just by having a first name?
Needless to say I did not go to meet her. I don’t even remember her ever approaching me or talking to me again, but I tried to hide whenever we were in the hallway together, and to appear invisible when she was nearby.
D was pretty surprised by my story and said yeah he agreed, his first day would probably not be like that. Then I asked him what he would do if someone was crappy to him, and he said he would probably say something to his teacher, and tell me when he got home. So that’s progress, as I didn’t do any of that. I knew nobody would do anything about it in any kind of formal manner. Times were different, and the school administration people weren’t t there to protect me, they existed to protect and foster other kids. Kids who could afford braces and who had nice clothes, who didn’t say stuff like, “SHE isn’t going to work on MY school newspaper.”
In 8th grade, my teacher made fun of my last name and intentionally mispronounced it to pick on me, repeatedly, until it made me cry and I finally told my parents about it. Then, my dad went up to school and had a little discussion with the teacher after school let out one day, in his Steve McQueen/Michael Corleone-style, and the teacher never said my name wrong again and that’s how we solved things back then. I had good teachers, too. Who saw my potential and quietly found ways to advocate for me. I’ve explained to my son that not all teachers are good, that going through school is good preparation for the working world, because not all bosses are good either. I told him about the boss I had who screamed at everyone and talked about my boobs and banged the table with his fist yelling the owner the first week I was there, and I also talked about other bosses I’ve had who were good. That school gives you skills to learn how to produce the work each teacher wants, however they want it, in the way that will make them happy and result in the best grade. It isn’t always a cut and dried as doing the “best” job. It’s about reading people and knowing how to deal with them.
I never even took calculus or trig or anything. Soon, I will be of limited use scholastically to my son. So I teach him what I know, which are life lessons. Behavior. What might be coming, how to deal with it if and when it does.
It’s funny how time colors things. While I remember the incident very clearly, 50-year old me is angry that I didn’t stand up for myself and tell this girl to fuck off, or meet her after school and at least attempt to beat the crap out of her for her bullshit. The mean girl was yet to emerge, but this is how she was created. I was nice, until then. Naive, I guess you’d say. It would take a few more years of incidences of people treating me badly for no good reason at school before I built up a thick enough skin to act like nothing bothered me and that I’d cut anyone who crossed me, which finally caused people to fear me and largely steer clear of me, save for the few people who saw the real me and liked me anyway. But, I mean, I was 10 years old. What did I expect? I can’t even give my 10-year-old self a break. It’s amazing to me how critical we can be of ourselves, even decades later.
There are resources now that didn’t exist. Bullying is much less tolerated these days than it once was. Social media has exacerbated everything. I’m trying my best to prepare him, and to let him know that I will be his ally. That I will push the system for justice for him, that there are pathways for protection. I don’t want him to be the closed-off kid, but I don’t want him beating his way through school like my dad did either, who (by his report, at least) got expelled in 10th grade for punching out his gym coach.
He returns to me tomorrow morning from his week with his dad. There’s always a bit to undo and adjustments to make as his dad’s parenting style is more indulgent, but he adjusts pretty well after a day or so. There’s still so much to teach him. Fourth grade will be over in just three months.