Clementi and the World, Part 1

by f

 

It takes a village to bully a child.

 

My experience with bullying,
programming notes,
or a prologue

Though I’ve wanted to talk about Tyler Clementi for a long time, I’m unsure at to how. This is my attempt to piece together some kind of truth. I will start by sharing my own high school experience. This has been very difficult for me to write. I hope it helps someone.

In an age of widespread connectivity it’s taken on a different form that what I’ve experienced. I’m very grateful for this. I can’t imagine coping with the mob.

Though I consider my experiences very negative on the whole, I am also not LGBT or Q. So I acknowledge that things could be much, much worse. But this is what I have to go on when I put myself in another’s shoes. I’m always stuck imagining myself a thousand times just before the jump from a precipice. Each time I’m horrified at how close I came to jumping.

Before I start, I need to make a confession.

I made it before (subtly) but I’ll make it again now. I am a Rutgers alum. I graduated a few years ago. My experience might be dated, but I still have connections to the campus so I speak from some experience. (I’m confident that this confession does not blow my cover. More than twenty nine thousand undergraduates attended Rutgers when I did, and the number is constantly growing.)

I can’t say what Tyler Clementi’s problems were before he went to Rutgers. We only know of his roommate Dharun Ravi and the moments that led to his suicide. But I can say that bullying is an epidemic. It’s killed at least five teens in the past month: Jaheem Herrera, Carl Walker-Hoover, Eric Mohat, Billy Lucas and Tyler Clementi. There are even more names, reported and unreported — but that I can even list one is a tragedy.

As Ellen DeGeneres points out, this is an epidemic.

For the past two weeks I’ve been doing the multiplication in my head. If it was bad for me, it was a thousand times worse for Jaheem, Carl, Eric, Billy, Tyler and the unnamed LGBTQ youth.

So I am writing the following for those of us who never experienced being bullied — do those people exist outside of Hollywood movies? — or those of us who have successfully repressed it enough to deny its impact. I’m writing this because the worst three words in the world are “Get Over It.” And after I’m done, you will know why fifteen thousand words are just not enough.

I moved here when I was eight years old. Before that we were poor, so we lived in a crowded town thirty miles east. Because the schools were bad there, my parents sent me to private school. There were rules, and I had one or two casual friends. I think the uniforms helped a bit — less opportunity to make fun of the kids who couldn’t keep up with the latest fashions.

Anti-bullying rules were in place and they were well-enforced, so nobody went after anyone else at school. But I was lonely. My school was full of wealthy Catholic cliques. Their overbearing parents never invited me to birthday parties. I was a quiet pariah, digging for clay near playgrounds and pressing it into odd, penile shapes. When my parents decided they wanted to move to a better neighborhood, I jumped at the chance to make new friends in a better, larger school.

My new town was swanky. We lived in a big house, something my father could afford now that his business strategies were finally paying off. The local school district was a Blue Ribbon school district and had some pretty hefty property taxes to match. I finished out the rest of the third grade at my odd private school, relishing the opportunity to join the fourth grade at a public school in another town.

Fourth grade was an unqualified disaster. Nobody liked me. The mean girl from my block made sure that no human being my age would talk to me. The mean boy from my block gave me a kick to the rump. I was a class outcast, with the exception of a sweet Israeli girl who talked to me in class sometimes out of pure pity. Though I did well in class, that meant nothing. In fourth grade, being able to write your own name meant getting an A. I could go for days without being spoken to. One other kid in my class kept stealing my lunches. They would go missing for days until someone discovered the source of a rotten smell in some corner of the classroom.

My mother, alarmed at my reticence, enrolled me in dance classes. Five other girls, lots of stomping around. I wasn’t a natural. Three of the six girls were friendly. I was closest with one, a year younger than me, who lived in the neighborhood adjacent to mine. One of the girls, who was my age, hated my guts. She went to my tiny school. Between this girl and the mean girl on my block, not a single girl in the entire fourth grade would speak to me.

I think the worst was when I went to school in shorts. I had short downy hairs on my legs, but this was enough to brand me a sasquatch. Even the marginally friendly avoided me after that. I spent that summer avoiding everybody I had met that school year.

Fifth grade seemed better. I met a friendly girl! (She just moved from Asia.)  She wore cute clothes and jewelry. She had bubbly handwriting and wrote with a thin, tiny pen. We exchanged phone numbers within the first five minutes of meeting. My fifth grade teacher was hilarious and made me piss my pants on the first day. (“You can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.”)

Things got awful very quickly after that promising start. A girl from the former Soviet bloc moved; my teacher asked me to help her out, but I think my unpopularity incensed her and she wanted nothing to do with me. She kept refusing my help publicly until, humiliated, I told my teacher to stop partnering us together.

Then, my new bus friend was teased after school by a thin boy in my class. They were part of the same cultural community. When he found out that she and I were friends, he also harassed me during class. A guidence counselor had to intervene for the threats to stop.

After that came The Smell.

The Smell was a contagious disease. I felt the curious noses around my desk and at the backs of my shoulders, and of people recoiling, saying “eww…”. It was the fashionable thing, then, to accuse someone of smelling foul. At first it was about the “curry” — but I never brought anything curried to school, and since we don’t cook with onion and garlic at home, we didn’t make anything strong-smelling to eat there, either. At first, I was mystified, but I didn’t think anything of it.

At some point, someone must have complained about me to the school nurse — because one freezing December afternoon, I was called down to her office and was given a stinging, embarrassing lecture about body odor which was heard by everybody who waited in line behind me for a coughdrop. The news spread across the cafeteria like wildfire. From then, I could only hope that people would not notice me, though even that was too much. I felt a deep kinship for the entry “Dalit” in the World Book Encyclopedia. I carried it around with me in my head everywhere I went.

Untouchable. Unclean. Unapproachable.

The Smell followed me into the sixth grade. I knew this when, in the second week of sixth grade, I noticed the rest of the class sitting many seats behind me, their faces turned away. I don’t know how the rumors stuck — weren’t kids supposed to get amnesia about these things over summer break? — but there I was, in a slightly fashionable shirt from the Limited Too, at the edge of a classroom, somehow exuding a toxic stench.

Sixth grade was the grade of my first real bully. His name was L. He wore preppy outfits and hockey jackets and said awful, poisonous things about me when I was in full view. He was a true sociopath. He felt no compunction when he set my things on fire, stole (TWO) of my coats, punched me twice. But the worst was the nickname: Skunky. He started it but soon everybody in the class called me by that name. I don’t think anybody said my name all year after that, and that started in October.

Our class was ruled by an autocratic teacher who liked to play favorites. She rewarded those who did their homework richly and gave them incredible privileges like free candy, cake, and time out to see movies. Those who could not keep up were assigned routine detentions and massive amounts of extra work. Out of the one hundred and eighty two days of school that year, I spent a hundred and sixty five of them in detention with the kid who bullied me constantly.

He glared at me and pretended to look through me; I don’t know which one was worse.

I had no friends. I had nobody to talk to. The nice girl on my bus from last year fled from the phantom Smell, surrounding herself with other pretty Asian girls who liked many of the same things that she did.

Each day before school, I said my name a hundred times in front of the mirror otherwise I knew I’d forget who I was.

There were a thousand other injustices — like papercuts, they hurt on the surface. (The girl from my bus got into a fight with the Eastern European transfer student and asked me to write her a letter laden with curses. I complied. I got in serious trouble when I was found out. Nice girl from the bus stopped talking to me after that. I got at least four prank calls from various people a week. My best friend was a fictional character named Melissa who used to tell me how “cool” I was for a joke.)

But I refused to let it get to me beyond a point. Once I came home, I locked the world away and settled into my books. I read at least a book a day, sometimes more. I read during class. I read while walking, while brushing my teeth, while almost asleep. Even when I was punished every day for not doing my work, I thought back to what I was reading and that kept me sane. Now I know that these are the same tactics prisoners use to preserve their sanity during long periods of incarceration. For me, school was prison.

Middle school meant a wider pool of students, so I looked forward to it. I even made a new friend my first day, a transfer from Florida. She wore a pretty denim vest, and I told her so. She preened. Just like that, we became friends. I introduced her to the now not-very-nice girl from the bus who was a friend to me in the summer and an enemy during the school year. They became friends. Soon, we gathered steam and assembled a big old group of girls. That happy idyll lasted for about one and a half weeks. They threw me out because, again, I was weird.

Unused to socializing, I guess I gave up. Again, I sat in the corner of the cafeteria, hidden behind a stack of books.

The Smell stayed, too. Though nobody called me Skunky, rumors of The Smell still stuck around. Paranoid, I had my mother take me to FOUR doctors who told me that I had nothing to worry about as long as I wore deodorant — it was the same advice they gave a million teenagers stricken by puberty. I had them sniff around my armpits. They swore they found nothing.

My seventh grade class disagreed. Nobody sat next to me. The most obnoxious jock in class made it a point to talk about how I shouldn’t wear a sleeveless shirt because he could “smell the hair”. (I heard him tell his friends that he wished he could tell me to change my shirt.) Five of my six teachers gave me lectures on body odor. All of them stood at a significant distance from me, as if challenging me to get any closer. It was gaslighting. Four doctors told me that there wasn’t anything wrong with me, but –  in this bizarro universe — there was.

The worst came later. Through my father, I received a bottle of red ink from one of my cousins. It reeked; my cousin was a schoolboy prankster and used it to frustrate his teachers. I never considered using it. I thought I would throw it out. But I ended up sitting on the bottle during my ninth period and crushing it. The effect was instantaneous. The liquid showed up reddish-brown on the seat of my pants. It looked like a period gone wrong, but it was just ink. Foul, rotten ink. It stained the seat like a million uterus linings. I fainted from the shame.

I don’t think anybody knew then what a period was, so instead they came up with the next best thing. It turns out, I shit my pants.

No matter what I did or said, nothing could stop it. I was the kid who smelled and shit her pants. Even the teachers couldn’t lookout me in the face. That was it. No summertime amnesia could take care of this and I was fucked. The one jock who followed me around and teased me mercilessly also teased the girl from the bus. We became closer because of this shared burden. The teasing reduced my friend to constant tears and me to a deep introversion.

I think the worst part of all of this was that it has made it very difficult for me to make friends, even though I am an extrovert and, therefore someone who needs to be around others.

It got only marginally better as I grew older.

I never did my homework because I never saw the point of fitting in either academically or socially. Knowledge was burden. The only pleasure I found in life was reading. (Every person has that one thing that keeps them from total collapse. Some people take drugs. Others find Jesus Christ. Some work at animal shelters and give hope to cute kittens. I found mine in Herodoctus, Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jane Austen and the guy who wrote Calvin and Hobbes.)

Even when the not-very-nice girl from the bus talked to me again in the eighth grade, she gave and withdrew her friendship at every whim. The girl in the denim vest became sweeter with me in the eighth grade, but every now and then her awareness that my friendship was a liability kicked in and I found myself friendless. Sometimes I hung out with only guys who didn’t give a shit — my slacker friends. (They were so stoned on whatever that they believed that there was a secret basement beneath the middle school that could be accessed through lockers. That’s an old lie I like to pass on now and then to amuse middle schoolers. They always fall for that.)

And still, my name was poison. Nobody ever worked with me. The mean chick from my neighborhood once literally kicked my ass. The mean guy from the block made it so difficult for me to use the bus, my parents dropped me at school for the whole year.

During high school I made an amazing friend on the first day of school. I was so excited — I thought she was the first drama-free friendship I’d ever made. I felt thrilled. All of the stupidity could be erased if I just had one friend I could hold on to. Sadly, there was still drama. Her friends didn’t like me, so I couldn’t sit with her during lunch. Instead, I sat with the girl with the denim vest and the not-so-nice girl from the bus who terrorized me and played nice by turns.

Soon, I eased into my simple routine. Everybody hated me; so I had to find a way to avoid them. I was never going to do well in school, so I wouldn’t try. Desperate to avoid talk of The Smell, I ran whenever I saw anyone I knew from middle or elementary school. I heard the whispers sometimes, and when the jock from seventh grade roamed the hallways my heart quieted to nothing. The sociopath from sixth grade reared his ugly head now and then. I had nightmares about them finding me at home. Killing me in my sleep. Every day that I woke up un-stabbed and alive was an ever-loving triumph.

The fantastic friend’s friends did accept me when we became juniors. After that my stresses stayed confined to the delicate burden of handling friendships, something I was not used to after years of people avoiding me like the plague. I brought the girl from the bus and the girl with the denim vest, my other friend brought the rest. We were now a group of seven or eight or nine, depending on who was counting. Some of my weird characteristics became charming. Endearing, almost. But again, the thing that turned people off from me was just that. The Thing.

The Thing made me weird and ultimately unapproachable. The Thing existed before I “shit my pants” or carried around the burden of The Smell with me. That Thing followed me to make sure I didn’t belong, never would belong, even in the tightest of friendly circles. I always felt off. I always felt wrong. And I always, always was the wheel left to catch rust.

To this day I don’t know what that Thing is. What sets me apart; what makes me weird. When people call me “weird” even in jest it turns me off. It’s a lazy term. It’s what people use to classify me away from them. Even though no person will confess to being normal, I have never been around others who considered themselves as weirder than myself.

*

What if that thing was my sexuality?

I know that I am not LGBTQ. Yet. I have a fiance. I love him more than I can imagine ever loving anything. But supposing I was gay. Supposing I went throughout school loving the girls who screwed my life over, or the bitch in the background who wanted to cut me to shreds? (Who went on to become a policy expert, I might add?)

Suppose I gave that weirdness a label so dangerous it could get me killed in a field in the dead of night. Suppose I gave it a name with the power to make me so despondent that I could not even drown my misery in books. Suppose it had pushed me to the precipice of life and death and waited for my center of gravity to make a decision.

This is what I have to consider. The questions that make me cry when I think about them. The questions I have to ask those I know and those I don’t know. The questions whose answers I find in books and videos and interviews and people speaking to me in anguish from thousands of miles away.

Those are the things I will be writing about over the next week. I hope you are ready.

7 Responses to “Clementi and the World, Part 1”

  1. Overwhelming. Damaging. Subversive.
    These words and others come to mind after reading your post on the issue of bullying and social exclusion. I remember my own early years, though I try not to. I’ve tired of trying to identify the Thing or Things that separate(d) me from my peers, and have resolved to be true to what I do know about who I am, who I want to be, what I believe is right and important. I do have friends, some of them closer than others. I enjoy school. I am an introvert–I get exhausted by long or intense periods of social interaction–but I enjoy interacting with others and make a point of contributing, whether my contributions make me socially acceptable, praise-worthy, or undesirable. I don’t care if my peers think I’m wrong, if my peers think I am immoral, or if they think I am stuck up. I know who I am and I know who my people are, and I don’t need everyone to like me. I’d rather be hated for something I am than loved for something I am not. Sure, there’s venom in it at times, but it keeps me honest, it helps me maintain my integrity which is the most important thing. More important than trying to make friends, because for the first time in a long time, and in stark contrast to what my childhood might have taught me, I have faith that there will be a person, at least one person, who will love all of me, all that I am, as I am, and all that I still aspire to become. Faith. What a strange concept. Who would’ve thought I’d find faith?

    • Thank you for your kind words on my post.

      Faith in yourself is the most beautiful thing in the world, and I think bullying drastically undercuts that faith. What gave me hope — again — was books. If I was capable of appreciating literary beauty, I felt all right and at peace with the world around me.

      It’s good to be among human beings who care and appreciate you. It’s not so good that we have to ever experience that darkness first.

      I especially love the part where you say, “I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I’m not”. I wish I was given the choice, but I was hated for who I was before I could ever be loved for anything. Now I appreciate the difference, but I don’t think I was capable of it then.

  2. Very descriptive, very compelling, very powerful, and very raw. Good job, F! I’m so sorry you went through such a difficult time in school. I doubt you’ll ever really figure out what That Thing was that set you apart from everyone else inexplicably. I still haven’t found out what That Thing was for me and I’ve given up wondering.

    This is also very powerful, not just because it is raw, honest, and vividly descriptive, but also because you GET it.

    “Supposing I actually had a label to that weirdness, a label so dangerous it could get me killed in a field in the dead of night, made me so despondent that I could not even drown my misery in books? Pushed me to the precipice of life and death and waited for my center of gravity to make a decision?” — This is my favorite thing you’ve said in the entire piece. Because, this is the moment where it becomes COMPLETELY obvious that you GET it. This is a VERY good description for what it’s like for many, many, many teens.

    Good job, F! I’m looking forward to more installments here. This is a very good beginning, and I’m looking forward to the rest. I hope that they come forward quickly!

  3. I’m going to reiterate what I said the first time I read this: *HUG*

    This isn’t the first time I’ve wished I met you sooner, so you didn’t have to go through all of this. Then again, maybe neither of us would’ve been ready for that. I always knew I was different, and the other kids knew I was different, but whatever I did, I didn’t react the way they wanted me to, so they mostly left me alone. I got tormented by obnoxious little boys with crushes, instead. I was alone a good amount of the time, but no one bothered me. As long as I had a book, I, too, was happy.

    I won’t make excuses for my other friends at the lunch table. I think they were holding on to the pervading social stigma following you. I was wary at first, but you were too excellent to exclude. I won’t make excuses for myself, either. How many hours do you suppose we spent, hurrying off to a third table to hatch our mad schemes, away from both sets?

    Yours is the kind of story that makes my heart break. I want to go back and beat up all the little shits who did this to you. I know the scarring persists, I see its legacy.

    • *hugback*

      It would’ve been great if we were friends sooner, but at least I met you by freshman year.

      I don’t hold the others’ stigma against me. I had a long talk with one of the group about it, and she did apologize for how she treated me before we all joined forces junior year. I accepted the apology. It’s all water under the bridge now. If I was a stronger, less pliable personality I might have survived better. But things could have been worse. And, eventually, I had friends. I just had to wait longer than most people for that to happen.

      And by no means let time get in the way of your ball-kicking mission; they’re all still out there, doing their thing.

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