August 2017

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I started to write up this as a comment by someone on a friend's LJ, but it was getting very personal very fast--and therefore a little weird to be putting someone I didn't know well in the position of having to reply to it--and I thought it'd be better here. I somehow ended up talking about kids being bullied by teachers, and this opened a floodgate for me, some thoughts I've been wanting to put down for a few weeks now and finally have a moment to do so.

I know the person I appear to be. I remarked something about feeling inadequate a couple years ago and was told by a good online friend--someone who knows me better than most of the people here, in RL as well as in fandom--that it was hard to believe. That I don't appear to be that person. And most of the time I'm not. I've worked very deliberately to lock up my demons in ironclad prisons. I know I project a lot of confidence and competence. Most of the time, I feel a lot of confidence and competence. Sometimes I even fool myself. I think, "It's over! I'm normal now!" The reminder, when it comes, that some things don't just go away is sharp and sudden and painful.

One of the questions teachers often get asked is if we had a teacher who inspired us to pursue the profession. I do, but it's more of an anti-inspiration. It's a person that I imagined, through my presence in the profession, being unable to find a job because that job went to me. I know it doesn't work that way! But I like to think that if more smart, kind people became teachers, then we might run out the bullies and leave no room for them.

Because, for five years, I was bullied by a teacher. I was a very shy kid. I was not cute. (I actually think I was ugly; even though people tell me I was not, I cannot look at pictures of myself in elementary school without seeing an ugly child.) I was not interested in the kinds of things that little girls like and that make them endearing. I wanted to be an entomologist and spent most of my time in my own imagination or rooting around outside for bugs. This made me unpopular with my peers. Fair enough. Kids don't have to like each other, and I was treated as unkindly as one might expect. Again ... whatever. They were kids and didn't know better. (And while one might have thought or hoped that their parents would have been more sensitive, this was before the b-word became a buzzword in U.S. education, and maybe they didn't know better either.)

But I had a PE teacher for five years who did everything he could to diminish me, humiliate me, and reinforce the social order among my peers. I wasn't his only target; he picked on all of the unpopular kids. We were annually singled out for "special gym," which meant remedial PE. This gave him the chance to round us up from the playground during recess while everyone watched. It was only the unpopular kids who were included. I didn't like PE because I didn't (and don't) like team sports, but I wasn't unathletic; I had above-average upper body strength for a girl and a good amount of endurance. I was good at everything that wasn't a team sport: swimming, skating, biking, gymnastics, climbing. The year I started middle school, I started freestyle rollerskating and became one of the top skaters in my program within just a few years. But in elementary PE, we unpopular kids were singled out all of the time, and while the accomplishments of the cool kids were celebrated, anything we did well was ignored or diminished. I have a very distinct memory of the annual Presidential Physical Fitness Award tests and doing two chin-ups--more than any girl in the class--and watching him write "1.5" in his gradebook.

Perhaps the worst thing I remember him doing wasn't even done to me but to a girl who--if this can be believed--was even less popular than me. She came to our school in the fourth grade and had the kind of poor hygiene and personal idiosyncrasies that made her an immediate target.

She was, of course, rounded up for "special gym." I doubt the ink had even dried on the poor girl's registration form; all he needed to see was her lank, unwashed hair and stained yellow teeth to know that she was going to be one of the ones who received his special brand of attention.

One day, we had "special gym," so we obediently assembled during our recess, but the new girl--we'll call her J--wasn't there. The teacher, of course, interrogated us like we knew anything about it, which we didn't. It was three of us besides her: two girls and a boy. We were friends with each other but no one else. No one was friends with J.

About 15 minutes into "special gym," in walks J. She is clearly carrying a plastic bag with clothing in it. She is clearly wearing pants different from those she arrived in that morning. Of course, we all notice and giggle amongst ourselves; being victims didn't keep up from being the cruel jerks that all pre-adolescent kids can be at times. But the PE teacher makes her stop and barks at her to ask why she is late. You can see J struggling to answer. Finally, she stammers out, "I had an accident."

For fuck's sake, the girl has a bag of clothes in her hands; it's clear what she means by that. Nonetheless, he makes her stand in front of us and explain what happened. Even my dislike of her--someone uglier and grosser and less lovable than me--didn't stop me from feeling mortified as she was forced to say, in front of all of us, "A bathroom accident."

That's the kind of shit he would do. When I look back, individual things he did don't seem so bad in isolation. What made it so awful was the way that his actions put a seal of legitimacy on the things that other kids were saying. His actions had the effect of taking things that kids were saying and doing--things that I might have been able to rationalize as just dumb shit kids say and do--and putting the weight of adult authority behind those judgments. When he'd call me in front of the class to demonstrate what I was doing wrong--and only the unpopular kids were ever subjected to this--it had the effect of reinforcing my peers' ideas that I was untalented and worthless. They'd laugh at me and he'd show no sensitivity to how it must have made me feel to be singled out and humiliated like that, so clearly I must deserve it, right? Because at that age, you still believe that grown-ups are the arbiters of justice. And hearing that stuff all the time from my peers about my lack of worth--and seeing it reinforced several times per week by him, for five years--had the effect of eventually embedding pretty deeply in my own mind that I was worthless and did not deserve the same level of consideration or fairness given to other people.

I remember in middle school liking a boy and rumors getting back to me that he liked me too. So I did what middle-schoolers do and made shy intimations of my interest to the girls--always popular girls--who told me these rumors, in hopes that he might speak to me. Turns out it was a joke, perpetuated by the boy and a popular girl he was dating, just to get me to embarrass myself. When I learned about this, I remember not feeling particularly upset but more of a numbness: What did you expect? This is how you're treated because you're you and not worth any better. You knew it was going to be a joke because you knew he was above you. Someone like you doesn't deserve someone like him. These feelings went so deep and persisted for so long. Rooting them out was like cutting malignancy out of myself: finding it thread-thin and subtle among the stuff of myself and peeling away all the harmless, defensive layers to dig it out.

I always think it's gone. That it's time to move on, time to pick up my work of making the world a better, a more just place, without fighting this doubt inside me that the world even needs me. But then, there it is again, alive with pain so that it feels like all of me.

A few weeks ago, Bobby gave me a snowboarding lesson. I had been doing really well up to that point, but this day, things took a turn for the worst. He put me on a course that was too fast and difficult for me. I didn't know how to stop and was terrified of bowling into one of what felt like dozens of kindergartners who were occupying (and not struggling with) the same course. I didn't see any way of being successful without humiliating myself and very publicly. I used to just endure it; now it makes me angry. Irrationally angry. I ranted and cursed at him. We ended the lesson and I went to the lodge and hid in a library book and cried.

And the things going on in my mind. It was like being physically pummeled from within. I hated myself so badly and over a bad turn in a snowboarding lesson. With my husband, the kindest person I know who is to credit more than anyone else with pulling me back from the dark place I once was. I felt so stupid and worthless, not least of all because I realized how irrational I was being. But as the emotional haze cleared enough, I could almost trace that malignancy back: the feeling of inadequacy, the public humiliation, the sense of having no way of ending it well--all of those things being so firmly leashed to my sense of worth. It's not rational, and I'm finding myself wanting to explain it so that it makes sense and feeling like deleting this post just because I can't.

I texted Bobby and apologized, and we talked on the way home. He has always defended me, even before we started dating; his willingness to defend me in the ninth grade was one of the first things that jarred my conviction that I was worthless. It made me wonder. He said he wanted to meet the PE teacher in a dark alley. Ah, Bobby. I understand the desire to put fists to something but it won't fix it.

That's why I say that this PE teacher is my anti-inspiration. About a month ago, I went to a training session for community organizers as part of the political group I am involved with. We practiced a one-on-one meeting, and I got paired with the man giving the training. He asked me about how I became involved in political advocacy and particularly work with disadvantaged kids. Was I raised this way, by parents who were similarly involved? Were my parents also teachers? I laughed and said that there couldn't be a family more apolitical than mine; my parents never even registered to vote until my sister and I were both adults, and watching the news was done only to see what the weather would be the next day. I said that my work really came from my own everyday experiences as a victim of injustice and the sense of anger and sorrow that I carry from that experience. His eyes lit up when I said that. Anger, he said, comes from an Old Norse word meaning anguish. In that word, we have preserved a sense of the pain that triggers it. He told me that he hears so many people working for justice who express the same things: anger and sorrow.

Sometimes, I sit back and try to look at my childhood from my current perspective as a teacher. It's like stepping out of myself because, when I think back to when I was younger, I immediately want to start listing the reasons I was treated the way I was: I was ugly, I liked bugs a lot, I was weird, I didn't care about clothes--in fact, I preferred to dress like a pilgrim, which I usually did while home and was relentlessly teased about, which did nothing to stop me from doing it anyway--I didn't care about pop culture. (My sister and I had a good laugh over the holidays when we remembered our mom trying to perhaps provide us with the means to fit in a little better with our peers and buying us, unasked, a New Kids on the Block tape at the Price Club. Which we then proceeded to dance to while listening to it on my sister's Teddy Ruxpin so that the New Kids' words appeared to come out of the mouth of an animated, stuffed bear. We were incapable of seeing how uncool we were by design.) For so long, these things were justifications for why other kids hated me and why an adult who was a constant presence in my life actively worked to stoke those emotions, but when I look back at that same kid like I would look at one of my own students, I see a child who was quiet and unassuming, never much trouble, smart, well-behaved, creative, and intrinsically motivated to learn and achieve. I think many of my teachers saw that, and I know some of them tried to nurture it, but their good efforts were undermined by the fact that he was a constant presence in my life for those years. I also see a kid who is having a difficult time fitting in and is susceptible to cruelty--I won't even go so far as bullying--from her peers. I see a kid that I'd want to nurture and protect, whose worth I'd want to celebrate in hopes of helping others to see it too.

I find myself wondering why in the world he chose to do the opposite, why the regard of elementary-age children dubbed worthy of popularity by other elementary-age children overwhelmed the urge to be kind toward and protective of a child like me. I wonder why he clearly couldn't see anything good about me, even if it was just that I was content to be put in a corner and forgotten while he nurtured the aspirations of future jocks and frat boys. I wonder why he had to be cruel to me. I wonder what he, a grown man, got out of that.

This is why I've committed my life to doing the opposite.

(I'm taking a risk and leaving this entry unlocked.)
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