On day 6, I gave a brief preview of today. Here’s where I spill the beans in detail. Ugh, dredging up junior high/high school angst! Let the catharsis begin: A girl I grew up with, Leslie, decided at some point that I would be her target. Leslie sat at the popular table, but her friends feared her bad side as much as/more than they actually liked her (at least that’s what they told me). She wasn’t like Jill, the homecoming queen, who played the Regina George completely-sweet-until-she-isn’t role to perfection.
No, Leslie was all about judgment. She was, for example, the one who told me I was a blasphemer for saying words like “gosh,” “jeeze,” and “darn.” This wasn’t entirely her fault. When we were 7 or 8, our teacher held a presidential election, and Leslie told us we had to vote for Bush, because her parents said the other guy liked murdering babies.
Me: “That can’t POSSIBLY be true. If he murdered babies, it would be in the newspapers, and…”
Leslie: “But it IS true. My parents TOLD me! He thinks murdering babies shouldn’t even be against the law. It’s called abortion.” Start ‘em young, eh, Pro-Lifers? So Bush won the election in our classroom by a LANDSLIDE, as no one in the second grade had a convincing Pro-Choice rebuttal. What I’m saying is, the judgemental-fundamentalist-Christian part is not entirely her fault. She was fed that rhetoric from birth.
The part that was her fault was her cruelty. On day as she was mocking Chris, one of the most-teased kids in our school, he said, “Didn’t you just leave an FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) meeting? Christianity is about being kind! You’re being a hypocrite.” My ears perked up, as I’d always wondered how Leslie justified her behavior to herself. She replied, “We’re all hypocrites in the eyes of the Lord. None of us is without sin.”
BAM! We’re all sinners, so why bother being kind? That’s when I knew something I’d never known before: that she was dangerous and I didn’t want to be around her. You see, before that, I thought there was hope for her. In fact, when her friends ostracized her at one point, I let her sit at the lunch table with my friends and me. I thought our kindness might have an effect on her. It only made her see us as weak once she got back in the cool kids’ good graces. (See yesterday’s post on the weakness/strength of being forgiving.)
Over the years, Leslie mocked me mercilessly, pulled my hair, shoved me up against lockers, and once when a teacher was out of the room she whacked me in the face repeatedly with a rolled-up magazine chanting my nickname, Eek (formed from my initials, E.K.). Cornered, I ignored her for as long as I could. Eventually, I calmly said, “What, Leslie?” Whack, whack, whack! “Leslie, if you touch me again, I’m going to hit you…” Whack, whack, whack! “…and I’m going to KEEP hitting you until you stop.” Whack! went the magazine into my face.
SMACK! My palm connected with her smug face, but she kept touching me, so I smacked her over and over and over, I don’t know how many times, until she finally stopped. I ran out of the room crying, sure I was going to be suspended and grounded. Instead, the teacher apologized for leaving me alone with “that girl.” Hee! The sad part of the story (besides that I was not good at maintaining pacifism in a stressful situation) is that if I’d stayed and acted like nothing happened or—better yet—laughed at her, it would have changed everything, because it would have been Cool. Instead, I was a geek pushed to the breaking point. Under her leadership, the bullies were determined to make me lose it again.
And sometimes I did lose it. When they soaked my clothes in the showers during gym class, I kicked over a trash can and went on a yelling tirade. On another particularly memorable occasion, Leslie sat behind me on the bleachers, leaned forward and tried to rip a mole off my neck by pinching it between two nickels and twisting. Sometimes their attempts to goad me fell flat, though: they tried to ditch me when I was driving behind them to Boone for some event (Mom’s orders, as it was deer season, and she was afraid I’d hit one with the car or something.) I guess they forgot that I drove to Boone EVERY WEEKDAY to take college classes.
It was Leslie who started the mocking nickname Julia and my Roy Orbison theme song. In DNA Biology, my lab partner Christine was depressed because someone told her she looked like Barbra Streisand. “I hate my nose!” I told her, “Oh, I’ve been told I look like her, too! Don’t worry about it. It’s just something people say when they don’t know what to say. I mean, people are always telling me I look like Julia Roberts or Barbra Streisand or whatever other actress. And these women look nothing like me or like each other. Whatever!” Leslie, who had been eavesdropping turned around. “You think you look like Julia Roberts?” “No,” I replied. “People just keep saying I do.”
By the end of the day Leslie had the school convinced that I thought I looked like Julia Roberts. After that, every time I ran out on the field or in the gym to cheer, they would shout “JULIA” and sing “Pretty Woman.” Heck, even if I was just getting up to give a speech in English class, they’d hum it. Luckly, that one didn’t really bother me. They were trying to point out the absurdity of me thinking I looked like someone that beautiful? Oh, no, you think I think I look like someone dozens of people say I look like!
The worst part, though, was Leslie’s effect on my friend Dawn (more on that tomorrow). Dawn and I were incredibly close frenemies. When Dawn was with me, we got along well and had so much fun. When she was around Leslie, she would turn cruel. It hurt that someone with whom I shared so many good times could, at any moment, turn against me to mock me with my nemesis.
How did I make it through all that torture? Luckily, I had a ton of amazing friends. I had supportive parents who offered to put me in private school. (Just knowing you have the option of escape is an immense relief). I got out of the building as often as possible to take college classes or do a work-study program at a daycare center. Spring semester of my senior year, I was a page in the State House of Representatives, so I only came to school on Fridays. I had cheerleading, choir and drama to cheer me up. I was a strong person, and the torment only made me stronger and more empathetic. It also helped that I knew the teachers were on my side, even if they couldn’t stop the abuse.
The last week of senior year, our English teacher broke us into teams and had us build weight-bearing structures out of macaroni and gumdrops. Leslie was bragging about g how her team was going to dominate, as she’d gotten a prestigious acceptance letter: “ISU Engineering program, YEAH!” she bragged, high-fiving Brandon. Leslie’s team built some crazy stilt-structure. My team built a bridge-like box with a large surface area for weight displacement, and plenty of crisscrossing spaghetti noodle support beams reinforced with gumdrops that I mooshed up wrapped around every cross and joint. (The other teams just jammed their noodles into the gumdrops.) In the end, every other team’s structures broke, and our structure supported not only our books, but most of the other teams’ books, too. I told Leslie off for being so arrogant, imitating her earlier tone: “Logic! THAT’S how the English majors do it!” After the rest of the class left, the teacher called me to her desk, laughing: “Thank you so much! I’ve been wanting someone to tell that girl off for years!” Hee!
One of my junior high students said to me once, “You must have been a geek in school.” I asked her, “Why do you say that?” She replied, “Because you never put up with bullies in class. You yell at kids whenever they’re mean.” At the time, I thought it was sad that a kid would assume only a former geek would be kind and protect her students. I should have, instead, taken it as a major compliment: I was doing a good job at preventing bullying in my classroom. Students recognized my room as a place where they were safe, and trust me: when you’re bullied, you appreciate any oasis.
I heard Leslie got pregnant in college and dropped out of school. Maybe she went back and graduated; I don’t know. Leslie brought her husband and three kids to our 10-year reunion, and she seemed like a nice mom. She was the first one to come up and hug me when I arrived. She looked like I’d hit her in the face, though, when Dawn and I were explaining our complicated past to her fiancé, Chris. Dawn admitted that she used to pull my hair: “It was me and…” “Leslie,” I finished. “Yep, you guys used to torture me.” I wasn’t mad, but I wasn’t going to pretend it didn’t happen, either. After the reunion, Leslie requested me as a Facebook friend. I figure my life is awesome, and if she wants to read about it, that’s fine.
Maybe being a mom has changed her and made her a better person. I hope so. I hope she’s raising her kids to be kind.