Posted by: Hannah | 09/14/2012

the braid

Things are taking a big 180-degree turn on the blog today. There will be some very harsh language, and some of what you’re about to read may be triggering if you were ever bullied or harassed. Fair warning. Laughs and warm feelings will be thin on the ground today.

***

Today on Twitter the talk turned to bullying. You hear a lot about bullying these days – much more than you ever did when I was a kid. There are anti-bullying days at school; websites; call-in shows; the “It Gets Better” videos. There’s all kinds of words getting spread around, and yet it doesn’t seem to be doing any good. Kids are still getting bullied. The bullies are still getting their behaviour excused by their parents and the school system. There are still children who don’t feel safe in their own school, in their own neighbourhood.

I don’t have the answers. Bullies are a huge trigger for me, because I was bullied, and badly, for most of my public school career. My immediate reaction on hearing about bullies is a strong desire to bring back corporal punishment. This is not productive.

I could go on and on about the many times as a young kid that I was bullied, picked on, made fun of – and how none of those kids were ever punished for it. But I won’t. Those times made me feel bad, and just made my inborn desire to please everyone even worse, but they never made me feel unsafe. (Well, once.  A neighbour girl five years older than me used to chase me home from the bus every day, and that scared the bejesus out of me. One day my younger sister – stronger and more fearless than me – suddenly rose up righteous and started chucking rocks at her. It worked.)

The one time I really and truly was afraid that I would be badly hurt was in high school. And what made it so terrifying was how ever-present my bully was; the only safe place was inside my own house, and just talking about the word ‘bully’ today brought it all flooding back.

Blogging as therapy! Maybe if I put it down here, it will finally be behind me.

***

When I was in grade twelve a girl two years younger suddenly developed a deep & abiding hatred for me. I found out because someone at my bus stop told me one morning in Very Hushed and Dramatic Tones:

“Melissa doesn’t like you. She says she’s going to kick the shit out of you if she ever gets the chance.”

I remember being really surprised, and also not terribly frightened, because she didn’t look all that tough to me. I did ask why exactly my very existence made her want to pound me, and all I got in response was “she just hates you. She says you should know why.”

To this day I’m not sure what exactly it was; I think it was about a guy I dated very briefly – we’re talking a month here – and it ended badly. And she thought he was just the bee’s knees, so maybe she thought by publicly dissing me it would attract him? That’s my best theory, and yet it is so thoroughly idiotic that I have a hard time believing it.

In any event, there was a continual low-level of harassment for weeks – hearing her mutter “bitch” and “skank” when I passed her in the hallways, continued threats of an ass-kicking passed along at second-hand, braying donkey-laughter following me off the bus. Finally one day she said something and I turned around, frustrated beyond belief, and said “fine, Melissa. FINE. You want to beat me up? Come on and just do it. I’m sick of your shit. You can even have the first punch, you fucking bitch.” (Which, admittedly, not nice or kind or constructive.)

Anyway, she backed off. I was taller, heavier, certainly stronger, definitely older, and like many bullies she was a paper tiger. I figured that was the end of it.

And it would have been, except for her on-again off-again boyfriend, a giant moose of a dimwit named Ted.

Ted wasn’t even supposed to be at our school; Bridgewater had two high schools, one for the country kids and one for the town kids. He was in the town school district, but his parents were convinced he was a Genius and also a Special Snowflake, and our school had a stellar reputation for academics so they applied to transfer him.

Ted was an asshole. In my experience, really big guys go one of two ways; they are either well aware of their strength and try not to hurt anyone, or they use it to intimidate whenever possible. He was in the latter group. He had a big mouth, talked shit about everyone, and yet when called on his prickishness would always get this innocent-as-a-lamb look on his face and say “aww, I was just jokin'”. Delightful human being.

He really had the hots for Melissa. Worshipped the ground she walked on. She knew it, and she used it. When she was too afraid to follow through on her threats, and saw that I wasn’t scared of her, she wound Ted up like a jack-in-the-box and aimed him squarely at me.

And thus began the scariest couple of months of my life. The same whispered name-calling and threats in the halls sound completely different when coming out of a six-foot, 200+lb man. They were always sexual in nature, of course – “cunt”, “tuna-pussy”, “whore”, “dyke”. And it was constant. I think he learned my class schedule, because he was always always ALWAYS waiting just outside the door.

Then it started happening outside of school, too. One night I was at a gig downtown when a rock hit me in the back of the head; I jerked in surprise and when I looked behind me, there were Ted & Melissa, laughing hysterically. I went home and cried.

It all came to a head one afternoon when I opened my locker – and taped inside, dangling from the shelf, was a braid of human hair. It was the same colour as mine. I have no idea where they got it from, nor do I know how they figured out my locker combination. I stood there, my skin crawling with revulsion, my bladder heavy. I felt violated. And terrified. I took the braid and went straight to the principal’s office.

***

Discipline issues at my high school were handled by the two vice-principals, with the 900+ student body divvied up between them by alphabetical order. Mr. Jackson was responsible for me, and it was to his office that the secretary took me that afternoon. I told him the whole story, right from the beginning, as the braid of hair lay on his spotless desk blotter between us. When I got to the rock-throwing incident, he opened a jar on his desk and wordlessly offered me some candy.

When I was all talked out, he asked if I could be in the room while he talked to Ted. “You don’t have to,” he said, “and you don’t have to say anything. But sometimes it’s harder for them to lie when you’re looking right at them.”

I didn’t really want to be there – but I knew if I left, I’d never be free of him. I agreed to stay.

He got the secretary to call Ted down. When he sauntered in and saw me there, he paused for a half-second, then finished the walk across the room with his trademarked “who, me?” expression. He sat down and reached for the open candy jar on the desk – Mr. Jackson pointedly moved it out of his reach, and commenced the most beautiful dressing-down I’ve ever seen in my life.

At one point, Ted tried to deny all of it. The reply? “Ted, you are only in this school because your parents think you’re smart. I haven’t seen any evidence of it yet, whereas I know Hannah, and I know that she is an important part of our school community. If I hear of you bothering her again – anything at all – I’ll revoke your transfer.”

And that was that. All the fight went out of him. He slouched in his chair and just like that, he was a paper tiger, too. As a last twist of the knife, Mr. Jackson offered me the candy jar again before shooing me back to class so he could “deal with Ted”.

The harassment did stop, after that. And life went on and high school ended, and I never saw Ted again. Melissa lives in Halifax now, and I see her around sometimes. She was briefly part of a small Maritime blogger group on Facebook I was a part of, four years ago. I’ve never spoken to her. I still can’t forgive her for what she set in motion. Sometimes I wish I was brave enough to confront her, but then I think what if she doesn’t even remember what I’m talking about or what if she denies everything or what if she starts bullying me again, via the internet?

And I remind myself to breathe. And I teach my children to be kind, to stand up, to never try to make themselves feel big by making someone else feel small. And I defend myself when I’m attacked. And I try not to let the mean mommies grind me down.

Maybe we all need to share our stories. Instead of just telling our kids “oh, bullying is wrong” we tell them how we know that. We tell them what we did to make it better, to make ourselves safe. Or we tell them what we wish someone had told us.

And when they have their own stories, we listen.

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Responses

  1. I have tears in my eyes that upset me so much, and you still remember it so vividly. I hate that you were bullied by these people. I’m glad that that you are raising your kids knowing what you do about the importance of both empathy and caring for oneself. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks, Neil. It was hard to write and even harder to hit ‘publish’ – but I feel better for having done it. I wasn’t so much remembering it as I was re-living it, but I’m glad I have you guys to listen.

  2. I’m so sorry you went through this. How terrifying. I’m glad you had Mr Jackson on your side, he sounds kind of awesome.

    When I was in Grade Five I was bullied – by a girl named Melissa! – in that very special girl way. Exclusion, whispers, rumours, general meanness. She lived across the street from me, our mothers were friends, we were bff’s, until one day we weren’t – and it was because of something “I should have known about”, which I didn’t.

    I realize now she had an explosive, possibly abusive, father, and that she had low self esteem and wasn’t all that bright, but at the time, it was awful. I still feel sick thinking about it and that was many, many years ago.

    • @Nicole – would you believe the first time I wrote this I used their real names? Then I chickened out. I just live in too small a place. But yeah, Mr. Jackson *was* kind of awesome. He had one of those hard, round stomachs and a dated 70s-style moustache. But he was good people.

      @Michael – yeah, the idea that a VP could deal with that kind of issue on his own recognizance, in his own office, without it needing to go to committee, mediation, and a prayer circle first, *is* kind of strange these days. Guess I never thought of it that way.

  3. Your post reminds me Hannah, that the days of Vice Principals having the discretion and responsibility for discipline and safety of students is gone. I remember my High School Vice Principal fondly. At a Halloween dance in Grade 12, myself and a couple of friends were assaulted on the floor. As I sat with ice on my head (where I was punched) and on my hand (where I hit back), a friend of mine walked in with his rented Bear costume on. When assaulted by 4 (probably drunk) dimwits, he fought back, breaking one twit’s nose and knocking another one unconscious. He reported this to our Vice Principal, as he sat down for some ice on his bruised hand (his Tae Kwon Do hobby at work). The VP turned and said, “OK, where are they so I can throw them out.”
    We received no punishment, no reprimand, only concern for our injured hands. Why? Because we were ‘good kids’ active in student council, varsity sports and on the honor roll, having never caused the man a minute’s trouble in the 3 years we attended his school and he knew us. Schools and their administrators don’t have that power to discriminate any more. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes it is sorely missed.

  4. Thank you for writing this. It was such a great post, and obviously very hard to remember.

    I too was bullied at school—even at one of my workplaces as an adult. I don’t know why some of us seem to attract them.

    What I always hated about bullying was that any time you tried to fight back, it made things worse. Because the victim almost ALWAYS gets into trouble.

    I love the story with Mr. J and the candy—ha! He subbed in my class one day when I was student teaching… still has the moustache and tummy! No candy though, if I recall.

    I’m not sure how society can deal with bullying effectively. It’s very complicated. I’m just glad it’s slowly being taken SERIOUSLY. Finally.

    P.S.: The ponytail in the locker was effin SICK.

  5. Thanks for this post. I read it on the edge of my seat waiting to see if the VP was going to do the right thing. I’m so glad he did.
    I wonder if bullies realize that the bullied never really forget it and that it sticks with them for decades after. I also wonder, does it stick with the bullies as well? Do the girls who made a list of names they could call me on the chalkboard in 8th grade Band class fell bad about it now that they are adults and have their own children? Do they even remember? Because I sure do.

    • @Julie – I should try to track Mr. J down and thank him. He probably wouldn’t remember that day any more – it was, urp, 17 years ago – but I’d still like him to know that he did a good thing that day.

      @Shannon – I wonder that about bullies sometimes, too. I’ve heard from other people that they met up with their bullies again years later, and that they *didn’t* realize the pain they’d caused, and were very contrite – especially if they now have their own children. I know that there was a guy who tormented me daily through most of grade eight (that’s a bad year, obviously) and tried to friend me on Facebook once. I replied explaining exactly why I would *not* be accepting his friend request. He never replied. Made me feel better, though.

  6. I don’t think some of us attract it. I think everyone gets hit…some worse than others, hopefully most not horrifying like this. I put up with shit for years and years, the consequence of a small town where nothing ever changes, but eventually did just lash out. It stopped most of the crap but gifted me a nickname, until I finally grew into myself and just plain old stopped putting up with it. Or became scary in my own right. Hard to know which it was.

    And boy is this timely because I was JUST writing about Vivian’s experiences with being the new kid and how I’m seriously tired of her coming home crying already.

    • Oh, poor Viv. I’ve never had to be the new kid but I remember whenever a new kid arrived at our school – there weren’t many. And how by some magical arcane rites they were either ‘popular’ or ‘unpopular’ in the time between recess and dismissal. I hope she is able to weather the storms.

      • Yeah. I think she’s still straddling. And I just remembered that the slimy bitch who bullied me in high school ALSO A MELISSA.

  7. Fabulous post, Hannah – I feel for you, even today. You were pretty brave back then and it’s really heartening to hear you got the support you needed. Thanks for sharing!

  8. A virtual hug is on its way! At first I couldn’t figure out who Melissa was but then you described Ted and…yeah, it all came flooding back. What an awful year. I have to say, even though I already knew most of this story, your writing is so good and your recollection so vivid that I got emotional reading this. Thank you for sharing your story.

    It’s so true how that when you have been bullied it sticks with you for years afterward; every once in a while, I find myself fantasizing that I could go back to grade 9 and punch the Ted that bullied me fast and hard in the nose, suspension be damned, instead of putting up with his shit for months on end.

    It’s true that a lot more attention is given to the problem of bullying nowadays but it’s still happening, at home and abroad. As I type this, my sister-in-law is going through the arduous process of getting my sweet, shy, tall and mature-for-her-age 11-year old niece transferred to a different elementary school, because the bullying she experiences everyday has escalated to the point where she no longer wants to go to school (and the concept of suspension or expulsion- even for violent, lewd and extremely inappropriate behavior- just doesn’t exist in Japan).

    Once again, thanks for sharing. I don’t know if sharing these stories will help but it can’t hurt.

    • I remember your Ted, too. We went through a lot, didn’t we? And yet I like to think we’ve done better at life than they did. We did, right? … I’m sorry about your niece. That sounds horrible. I hope she can get into another school soon.

  9. I don’t know. Bullying gets talked about more these days, but effective strategies for dealing with it still seem completely elusive. Considering the news stories about girls who get their boyfriends to kill other girls they conceive an irrational hatred for, your story is horrifying. The impotent, violent hatred I feel when I think about the moronic assholes who bullied me is disturbing, but when my daughter was bullied starting in grade one, that anger was nothing compared to what I felt when my vibrant, joyful, open six-year-old was so hurt and baffled about why the sociopathic little bitch was doing this to her. Hugs, Hannah.

  10. […] have read this story on other blogs, most recently from Hannah at Hodgepodge and Strawberries and from Brittney, Herself. The details are different every time I read a story like mine, but […]

  11. I’m glad that you got the support of your school. When my grade 8 bullier swiped at me with scissors, my parents had to complain, and then he just got a mild talking to which… of course… just made him bully me more.

  12. By the way, it’s really weird hearing about a bully named Ted, because that’s a family name on my mothers side, and the Teds are all tall, dreamy introverts with shy, awkward smiles.

    • His name wasn’t really Ted. It was just the first name I could think of that I know no one in my high school had.

  13. […] light of my recent post about bullying this may sound strange, but I don’t think the last two incidents were bullying. I think they […]


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