Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Misfit's Thoughts on Bullying

When I was a little girl, I woke up almost every morning with a cold knot of dread in my stomach. I would then scan my body for any potential signs of illness. There was always a small hope that I would be sick enough to stay home and not have to face the other children and my teachers at school. I could look forward to a yearly bout of bronchitis and there were usually a couple "mental health" days that my parents gave me when I had been so hysterical with sadness the night before that they felt it best to keep me home and quiet for a day. Most of the time, however, if I felt just a little ill, my folks would say, "You can stay home if you think you are sick enough." They always left the decision to me knowing that my unyielding honesty would end the internal debate and I would go off to school. My heart raced and there would be a lump in my throat but I was not truly "sick." There was no way to get out of it.

I hated to leave home because whenever I did, I stopped being my parents' well-loved daughter. I stopped being the "bright" girl my uncles and grandparents loved and started being a monster. In school I was a "brain" and a "nerd". I was that obnoxious know-it-all girl who raised her hand to answer the questions and who used all the long words (probably just to show off). I was the "snob" that no one invited to their parties or allowed to sit at their lunch tables. I was the girl you spoke to only when you needed help with your homework.

My teachers didn't make it any easier. Seeing that I did well in school, they gave me separate lessons above my grade level and asked the other kids to try to catch up to me. If I scored any lower than a 95, I could expect my teacher to say in surprised disapproval, "What happened?" To please them, I studied from the time I got off the bus to the time I went to bed. On one standardized test given to our entire grade, my teacher offered a candy bar to anyone who could beat me. The guidance counselors gave my grades out without my permission to my peers who then found me and laughed at me. If someone misbehaved, they were forced to sit next to me so I could "be a good example." There were boy brains too but they had friends and received compliments and acknowledgment from the other kids and the teachers when they did well. Being a female brain disqualified me from girl status. I was terrified of the boys who, when they weren't ignoring me, were staring or making sexually suggestive statements to shock me. One boy asked if he could kiss me so he could collect lunch money from another boy who dared him to do something disgusting. On a couple of occasions, they threw things at me as I passed. The girls mostly kept their distance and though usually not cruel, felt it best to let me keep to myself.

And I did. I still do. The only time I leave my family is to teach classes or give public presentations. I am very hesitant about social gatherings. As an adult, I have attempted to locate places where it is safe to be myself, where the topics I love, and the stuff I know does not cause people to roll their eyes. It takes a great deal of emotional energy for me to go out amongst others. I was never, ever any good at pretending to be something I am not. I am an intellectual. I can't help it and I do not apologize. Even so, I'm been shamed for it so often that I prefer to keep it hidden at home.

There are some places one would expect someone like me to be safe. On the board of an interfaith group, I was told that my intellectual approach was "too masculine" and therefore considered aggressive to the other women (Other women who maligned my religious beliefs, sent emails that my scholarship which they had never read, was of poor quality, and that I was also a bad mother). My last bad school days memory comes from a doctoral seminar I attended when I was pregnant for my third child. Sitting at a conference table with other Ph.D students, I felt safe to fully engage as a person of intelligence until another doctoral student interrupted me and told me that when I spoke, she lost interest because I used words that were too big. In that moment, I shrank in shame and sat silently until the next break when I left the table and found a quiet room where I cried until it was time for the conference to break up for the day. No one came to find me. No one apologized. At another doctoral seminar, I gave a presentation about my plans to engage in Pagan scholarship. Later, a group of students provided a demonstration of "therapeutic" drama in which they pretended to stomp my scholarship to death and throw it out a pretend window. I sat there silently and watched as the group of student actors mimed beating my ideas to death and other students laughed. No one said a word in my defense.

And that brings me to the point. If I had witnessed something like that happening to someone else, I would have done something. Being the misfit, the monster in the midst of all the cool kids for so many years has made me aware of other people's pain. I can feel it like a live thing in the room with me. It is intolerable. I can't stand to see strong people exercise their strength and popularity against the weak or the marginalized. I won't stand for it and so I get myself into an awful lot of trouble. But it hurts me so much less to stand with someone than to witness their pain in silence that it is worth the effort.

In online discussion groups, I find that it is very common for people to attack and malign those who are different. Maybe it is because they can't see the pain in the other person's face. Quaker discussion forums aren't much better than other forums. The discourse is more outwardly polite. There isn't as much obvious name-calling (unless you know what to look for), but I'm often shocked by the anti-intellectualism, religious bigotry, classism, cruelties and snide nastiness of various little in-crowds of Friends.

I don't know what I am called to do about it. I could withdraw from the Quaker blogosphere but then they win (again) don't they? I know I must continue to challenge myself to be among people despite my distaste for their cruelties, and sadly, no group of people, no matter how noble their philosophical pedigree is immune from the bullies. Just as when I was a child, interactions with "Friends" sometimes leave me with a gut twisted in anxiety and tears in my eyes. Such is life.

The only thing worse than the bullying I've received for being different all my life is hearing someone later say that they witnessed the attack and felt it was wrong. And then I'd wonder, "Then why the hell didn't you say something at the time? Why did you let that person browbeat me, and misrepresent me to score points with their buddies? How could you stay silent as you watched me dissolve into tears of hurt and frustration?"

When I see someone being attacked, I say something. I don't care if you are on "my team" or not. If the game is unfair, I'm going call foul. I know how much it hurts to be singled out as today's sacrificial misfit. I can't address this to the bullies. The bullies don't know who they are so they aren't listening or perhaps their confidence in their personal beliefs makes them feel justified in their attacks. I don't know. I'm talking to the rest of you. You don't have to agree with someone's perspective to protect their dignity. Don't be a coward. We are called to serve the demands of justice, equality, and compassion. Take care of each other. Take care of the misfits. They are God's people too.


Lone Star Ma said...

Oh, I agree and this post speaks to my condition in a lot of ways. I haven't had to deal with too much bullying myself (to my face, I mean) because I think I mainly make a pretty unsatisfying target - there is something a little scary about my energy and people have usually decided to leave me alone after any initial attempts at bullying, except, interestingly, for family members, who truly understand that my intensity does not really include any meanness and that they can get away with rudeness to me. Mostly people don't mess with me, but I still find myself recoiling in some horror from the bloodsport that even adults still so often seem to make of basic day to day interactions. What is that about? People dislike it when I take up for whoever they are gossiping about but usually are quiet about it out of a desire not to cross me too much. I did have very nice families in our Quaker Meeting who weren't like that, though - but the ones who had kids and were in the same season of their lives more or less both moved last summer so I need a new tribe. I think these past 3 years of my eldest being in middle school have stirred up a lot of these feelings for me because there has been a group of boys who suddenly became very scary bullies after being very sweet little boys and we had to deal with them (they backed off my daughter once their parents got a whiff of my intensity) but then they just destroyed another little girl and the school and their parents let them. It was heartbreaking. I can see them growing into the frat-boy date rapists and corporate pirates of tomorrow but can't stop it. I can't stop seeing their sweet little-boy Lights either.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

I am disheartened to hear that you received negative cruelties on a Quaker site.
Shocked that you had to endure such atrocious behavior in graduate school! While I remember there was bullying in grade school, I don't remember any in college or in my graduate courses.

Here's a humorous aside;-) It could be worse--you could be like me. I am more on the average side intellectually, but have always been an intellectual. It's hard being an intellectual when you don't have the brains to go with it;-). I was the "B" student who had even more questions than the brilliant ones. My wife is the brilliant one. The other day, I joked and said I am glad she let me into her family;-)

Seriously, I've been a person with constant mental curiosity, why's that never cease, nose always in books, often the student that raised his hand first, who wrote the creative paper, etc. The Nerd. But I received no bullying except when I was a freshman in high school and an older classmen for some reason picked on me.

I feel deeply sad that you encountered so much bullying. Maybe it was because you are a girl/woman.

And I wonder if there is more bullying in certain parts of the country than others?

Also, your teachers sound like they had no sense and in letting such bullying go on.

Here's a virtual intellectual hug:-)

I am thankful for you intellectuality and passionate dedication to justice and compassion.

In the Light,

Hystery said...

Lone Star Ma,

I can just imagine you standing up for me. :-) I love to read your comments because they are invariable as "cool" as they are compassionate.

Daniel, thanks for your words of kindness too. I'm almost certain most of the bullying I received as a girl and as a younger woman were directly related to my gender. Apart from the obvious "femi-nazi" insults, I've found that many people really resent intellectualism in women, especially when the woman refuses to pretend she knows less than she does. Funnily,despite my emphasis on women's studies, I'm told that I'm masculine as a thinker. Men use it as a compliment and women mean it as an insult. Since both positions are bullshit, I'm neither flattered nor offended.

By the way, I don't consider you a mediocre thinker. Not by a long shot.

Lone Star Ma said...

I think it's true what you say about it being gender-related, too.

Anonymous said...

The naive side of me can't believe you've had to put up with such horrible behaviour from people. However. I know that in reality there are some really rather horrid people out there.

I've never been bullied myself (besides a few names when I had an horrific haircut!)but I've been that person too - that person who sticks up for the guy getting picked on. Which has always been hard because I'm essentially a coward and hate conflict of any sort. But I was always that girl that's there defending the person that's getting picked on and feeling appaulled (sorry spelling has always been my weakness...) that nobody else was standing with me... It takes a bit of gumption to stand and face the onslaught with somebody even if the fight is not your own, I know this from experience. I've been reading your blog for a little while and you sound like a beautiful person. I wish I knew more people like you in the 'real' world.
Nellie x

Hystery said...

Thanks, Nellie. :-)

It is true that I've encountered some really blatant nastiness in the world- both against myself and against others. However, I find that most of it is far more subtle and often goes unrecognized. My experience with Quakers is that they are expert at the very subtle varieties of nastiness- To be fair, I don't think they always mean to be mean...if you know what I mean! But they are at times.

Sensei J. Richard Kirkham B.Sc. said...

You're showing guts sticking up for others considering the years you spend being bullied. Now it's time to stop being shy and stick up for yourself.

When someone says your too male or wrong. You hold your head up, look them right in the eye and tell them why you're right

Norea from NTF said...

Hi Hystery, you're still welcome to participate in Quakers in the Wild. (Note the new address; instead of begging for money to stay on the Ning, I switched to another free service.)

I have been bullied too, through much of my life, but unfortunately it has had the opposite effect on me. In the end, it literally did kill something inside of me, and I don't feel nearly as much (empathy or otherwise) as I used to; not that I am completely emotionally closed-off, but it's like the memories of the pain I endured throughout my childhood spent in and out of hospital; you know the pain was bad, and you know it was world-shattering when it was going on, but you can't remember the pain itself...there's just an empty hole.

There's a psychological term for that, which escapes me at the moment....Anyway, point of it being, bullying had a much more detrimental effect on me than you, IMO, because it increased your empathy and compassion; as uncomfortable as that can be sometimes, it's still better to be like you, than like one of the ones (like me) who just sits passively by and thinks, "Ah, they're [expletive]-heads, don't even bother with it."

Which includes not coming to the defence of those the [expletive]-heads have gone after, sometimes...very much a closing-off process, and yes, I pretty much hate people as a result. (I've even told people this, but they don't believe me, LOL.)

Moral of the story, you've gained from your experiences, while those of us who have "gotten over it" absolutely have not. No matter how much it seems to hurt, sometimes, to still have that empathy and compassion feel so fresh.

Hope that helps!

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