I was running. Fast. It was after school. The bell had rung and I’d raced out of class and out a side entrance that I normally didn’t use, but it was no use. She was ready and chasing me. Pure hatred in her blotchy red cheeks, frizzy blond hair flying behind her like a golden halo. I’d seen her and immediately started running. I ran across one street against the light and got honked at by an exasperated driver, but didn’t care – it put some distance between us. I ran on, legs pumping under me in a burst of speed. This was when I learned I was a sprinter. Two years later in 5th grade, I’d learn I wasn’t a long distance runner, but I’d be undefeated in sprinting until junior high school. Add two notches to my personal narrative – I’m fast when I need to get away or catch something, but I’m not in it for the long haul.
I saw an alley up ahead and hoped I’d be able to hide someplace. I lucked out and at the next street she’d been stuck on the other side of the light again and a big rig was blocking her view of me. I ducked into the alley and behind a dumpster. I desperately tried to suppress my gulping gasps for air. I listened. And a few moments later she barreled by without slowing. I waited. And was very glad I had, because she circled back. I held my breath and made myself as small as I could. I could see her in the gap between the garbage bin and the wall of the building I was squatting up against.
It smelled liked restaurant garbage; sour and rotting. The urge to cough and gag was unbearable. But I didn’t. In movies they always show these moments as loud. The bully yelling stupid insults and threats as the victim cries out in fear. But it was the silence and ferociously determined focus that stands out to me in this memory. Her to hear me and catch her prey, me to make no sound and avoid being caught. Thankfully it was a busy street she was standing on and there was an open restaurant kitchen door behind me with the clattering and noises one would expect to mask my panting breaths. Finally she muttered to herself and left. I waited. I don’t know how long, but long enough to feel certain that she was really gone, or to convince her that I really wasn’t there if she was waiting for me. Waiting for me to make a rookie mistake.
But I was no rookie. I’d been chased by bullies before. I’d been harassed and attacked by kids since before I could go to school. I’d warily understood that I didn’t fit in since before I understood the concept. This was, however, the first time I’d had a bully chasing me who I knew, without any doubt, was planning to hurt me. She was going to beat the crap out of me if she caught me and I knew it and she knew I knew it. It’s why she hadn’t told anyone else, it’s why there was no gaggle of kids trailing us to see what was going to happen; to witness the violence. I hadn’t told anyone, because aside from adults I didn’t have anyone to tell. Not really. And no way was I going to tell an adult, it would all just get a thousand times worse.
I actually have no idea why this girl wanted to beat me up. I’m not sure I knew at the time. I existed, nuff said. Notch in the personal narrative – my existence seemed to be enough for some people to violently dislike me; no apology would be adequate to counterbalance the existence of me.
The next year I moved back to Sacramento to live with mom again, and was back at what I thought of as my regular elementary school for 4th grade. This was where everyone had known me for a long time, where things had time to settle over years into familiar, but tense and stressful playground politics.
It had started out ok in kindergarten, but even then it was a little bit off. At five I could already read – which isn’t that unusual, but I was the only one in my class – I could write, which was unusual. I was really annoyed having to spend so much time practicing the alphabet when I was already writing words. My interpersonal skills were ok, but not great. I was mischievous, my sense of humor sometimes mean to other kids, especially if I felt wronged by them. I spoke to adults without deference or any awareness that I was supposed to speak to them differently and was frustrated when they talked to me like “a kid”. My default was to speak in the same condescending tone to any adult who did it to me. I can still see the shocked looks on adult faces leaning down to be closer to me, suddenly pulled back and at their full, dignified height again; feel my mom’s gentle hand on my shoulder and tense smile to remind me not to do that.
I did have a few friends in kindergarten. I had my first official boyfriend, until he broke up with me in favor of some other little girl. He didn’t tell me, just stopped walking me home from school and started walking with the other girl. Stopped chasing me on the playground. Slowly the few friends I’d had stopped spending time with me too. I never understood why.
In first grade at six years old, Julie was my best friend. I adored her. I couldn’t say her name…. kept calling her Jewelry – the words sounded the same to me. My mom tried to get me to hear it, but I didn’t. Instead I was confused and became hesitant to say her name at all. She got mad at me one day and stopped talking to me. I have vague memories of a confusing and tear-filled playground conversation. “But why?” Her answer amounted to “because you’re the cootie girl.” Wait, when did that happen? Wasn’t Lee the cootie girl? Her expression said, “you both are.”
And in second grade the kids started to figure out what “gay” meant and that my dad was homosexual. They’d taunt me with the fact that he cooked. “Uh, most chefs are men,” I’d lamely counter, already versed in the unfair gender divides in the food industry. I didn’t believe in Santa Claus and could discuss the birds and the bees in clinically unambiguous terms. (I actually didn’t understand what “birds and the bees” was referencing until I was in my twenties, because my parents talked to me about sex without euphemisms. “If you’re old enough to ask the question, you’ve probably already made up an answer and I’d rather you have an accurate one, and not speculation from your peers.”) My mom was a divorced single mom, which sadly in 1970s Sacramento was still treated like a thing to be ashamed of; and it didn’t help that she was a hippy, a poet, and “weird”, nor that she sent me to school with homemade bread, Swiss cheese, and sprouts on my sandwiches. I might as well have had a second head and tentacles in the white bread, bologna and cheese-product environment we were living in. So I was pretty wide open for teasing and shouldn’t have been surprised when every single kid from school turned down the invitation to my birthday party that summer.
I don’t want to imply that I was always isolated and alone. For one thing I was surrounded by very strong, loving adults who had rich relationships with me as an individual. When talking about my “friends”, I was just as likely to be talking about the 30-something woman who lived on the corner as I was about the boy my age who lived across the street. There were kids in the neighborhood and I played and hung out with them. My mom’s friends had kids and I was close with them. The summers I lived with dad in San Francisco I was friends with a little girl who lived across the street from us on Capp Street. So I didn’t notice the ostracization most of the time. Just sometimes at school, and in Reno especially without any kids my age in the neighborhood. Notch in the personal narrative – though not alone or lonely, I’m a loner; apart-from, different-from normal.
Back in Sacramento, my absence during 3rd grade and return for 4th grade had just escalated the weird status I had. I was now also the new girl, who wasn’t new. I found myself friends with three different bullies – rivals. (We had a lot of bullies – so many.) Somehow, I’d managed to create this eye of the hurricane kind of calm space with them for that first half of the year. No one really picked on me, I hung out with one of them a lot, she made me uncomfortable and I was uneasy with some of the things she did, but as long as I didn’t make a big deal of it, I was more or less safe. I have an uncomfortable feeling that I’d participated in mean-girl behavior myself. I don’t remember specifics, but there are hazy queasy moments that tickle my memories of this time. It felt like we were veering from mild defiant behavior into delinquency and edging closer to crime, I wanted out and couldn’t figure out how. When she convinced me to cut school and my mom found out, I begged mom to ground me and tell me I couldn’t be friends with that girl anymore. It was everything I could do to pretend to be upset about it when I told the girl that I couldn’t hang out with her anymore. I was terrified she’d see the relief I felt as I walked away. Notch in the personal narrative – I was a coward, maybe a hypocrite.
After that I was a little bit adrift. I still had tentative friendships with two of the other mean-girls. They were less dangerous, less violent, than that first girl was. In the middle of the year, a new new girl started at school. She was quiet, but she seemed so … centered. She knew what was right and she wasn’t afraid to say so. I’d been grateful that by being the real new girl she took some of the heat off of me. She made it clear she didn’t have any interest in playing nice with the mean girls and kept to herself. This earned the ire of the various factions though. I remember thinking how brave she was.
One day during recess I was standing in between two mean-girls and one had one of my arms and the other had the other arm and they were pulling me apart. They were arguing about who’s friend I was. Literally, “she’s my friend,” “no she isn’t, she’s my friend.” I was a living tug-of-war-rope with no say in the outcome. I kept thinking, “but I don’t like either of you.” The new new girl walked up to me, ignoring both of them, and asked if I wanted to play tetherball. They were so shocked they dropped my arms and stared at her. “Yeah, I do.” I said, feeling bemused and grateful; seizing the rescue she offered with all of my being.
We were inseparable from that moment on. It didn’t stop the bullying. It intensified it. But now, at least, when I was running home to get away from a bully, I wasn’t running alone. We’re still best friends with decades of life lived behind us. I can’t even imagine who I would have been without her.
Amendment in the personal narrative – still a sprinter; sometimes I’m in it for the long haul and sometimes people are happy I exist.
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