I have a black belt in repression. I have mastered the art of turning the other cheek. I took all of those sticks and stones and built a fortress in honor of the great comeback spirit of Nyah Nyah.
Look, I hate fighting. Confrontations require a lot of effort, what with the yelling and the maintaining the anger level to sustain the argument. I’ve found that it’s easier to let the other person express their dismay, nod empathetically, and move on. Then I can watch television in peace. Despite years of teasing and unpleasant encounters, I am a relatively non-confrontational, cool-headed person—perhaps to a fault. I have a temper that I am uncomfortable with unleashing, so I prefer to remain disengaged from arguments, regardless of whether I am right or my own level of anger. Oh, and I never learned how to fight properly.
It’s become cliché now to say I had a bad childhood. Everyone had a crummy childhood. No one was happy and everyone was misunderstood. I’ll say I had an unfortunate childhood. Before I enrolled in grade school, I was a cute little kid who sat a little too close to the television and made up adorable words like “HeeHee World” for Disney World and “fayfay” for horsey. Once I entered first grade, I was suddenly the love child of Mr. Magoo and Elmer Fudd. In a perpetual state of squinting, I would have conversations with hat wacks and walk into wabbit holes. Within six months or so, we learned that I couldn’t see, hear or talk vewwy well. And from that point on, everyone would accuse me of it all being an elaborate wuse, er, ruse.
My mother went into protective mode. She lobbied to get me into the special education classes, but I was not mentally-challenged (contrary to what my maternal grandmother liked to tell her friends) nor did I have a learning disability. She attached a black elastic sports strap to my delicate pink plastic glasses, so that I wouldn’t lose them. She went to my teachers to explain all of the conditions for special treatment I would require in their classrooms. I didn’t stand a chance.
At the time, I didn’t understand that kids will look for anything to tease each other about. It’s the kid way. I had no experience with real children, just the JW-programmed kidbots and sitcom kids. So when kids started picking at me about my eyesight and the way I pronounced words and my noisy corduroy pants, I took it to heart. I wasn’t aware that I was supposed to point out their flaws in an unkind manner as well. As I saw it, they were right. These were things that were wrong with me. “But why-y-y-y?” I would whine to my mother. “Why are they picking on me-e-e-e-e-e all the time?” She advised me to ignore them. “Drive your own desk” was her favorite response to any issue I had with other children. No one taught me to be assertive and stand up to the bullies. All the adults said, “Tell a teacher. Go to a grown-up if someone’s being mean to you.”
My approach to dealing with bullies was three-fold. My first plan of defense was to cry. “That’ll show ’em,” I thought. “They’ll make fun of me and I’ll just burst into tears. Then they’ll feel so bad and leave me alone.” If that didn’t work, I’d shout “Leave me alone!” and squint at them. When that didn’t work, then I’d go to a teacher and tell her that the brats on the playground kept kicking rocks in my face. Ha. Ha. Ha.
The grown-ups fought my battles for me. The teachers were well aware of both my disabilities and took care to set me out in the hall while they lectured the whole class about picking on people with disabilities. In those moments, I wished I’d been in the special ed class. Those kids were nice to each other. The class was small, so the teacher could give equal attention to the students. They held hands whenever they left the classroom. But they probably didn’t watch Bosom Buddies, so I still wouldn’t have anyone to talk to.
My sister, armed with a scowl and good intentions, would escort me up to my school and dare other kids to mess with me. She’d hiss empty threats at the bully du jour. This usually resulted with further taunts about my being a crybaby who needed her adult sister to defend her. There were no wabbit holes big enough to hide me. One time, one of my bullies reported my sister and the authorities were called in. Then it was back to my three-fold plan.
It’s easy in hindsight to pull a Cyrano and rattle off fabulous witty comebacks to childhood teases. However, it wasn’t all verbal teasing. Some kids treated me like an interactive science exhibit. Despite my glasses’ strap, kids still wanted to take my glasses to see if they were real. “Can you really not see without your glasses?”
“Let’s take her glasses and make her try to read something far away.”
When it got around that I had a hearing impairment, it was all “Let me whisper something to you. Psstpsstpsst.” And “Can you read lips? What am I saying now?” followed by silent, flaccid mouth flapping. Some kids were desperately jealous that I was getting special attention and wanted to prove I was making it all up. I just put my head down and waited for something shiny to come along and distract them. If I’d wanted special treatment, I probably would’ve come up with something that didn’t make me look (and sound) like a total dweeb. Maybe a mysterious fainting illness that would allow me to take naps.
At the beginning of sixth grade, we managed to secure a deal through the local crippled children’s clinic for me to finally get hearing aids. After years of going back to the clinic every two months for testing, they determined my hearing wasn’t improving and I needed to try the devices. I was excited to be able to finally hears sounds I’d never heard. And then I got to school. After my first spelling test with my new ear jewelry—and being one of the only three kids in class to ace it—some little boy who’d never acknowledged my existence before announced to the entire class that the answers to the test had been transmitted to me via the hearing aids. Back in the box went the hearing aids. I took them out again when we moved later in the school year. It was a new school and a chance to start over. But it only brought more nasty children saying nasty things. I found that a rumor was circulating that I had AIDS. Back in the box went the hearing aids and back to the clinic went the box.
By the time I got to junior high, I was a pathological mess. Convinced that people were going to make fun of me no matter what, I just gave up. I stopped brushing my hair. I rarely changed clothes. People would ask me things and I would make up complicated untruths. I stopped trying at school, just exerting the minimum amount of effort to prevent outright failing. It was easier to feign disinterest in academics than to get all the teachers involved and deal with more grown-up pity in addition to the teasing. My mother and I had decided I was old enough to deal with my teachers myself and there were too many of them for her to meet with to explain that I was damaged goods. My smells and bad attitude kept everyone a safe distance away.
High school offered another chance at reinvention. I was old enough for contact lenses and could finally pretend that I was physically normal. Instead of teasing me over things I couldn’t help, people could tease me about my Daffy Duck sock collection. Ultimately, I ignored my disabilities and repressed the childhood pain instead of finding a way to embrace and fully overcome my disabilities while raising awareness. I should have found a way to be assertive and inform people about hearing loss and encourage them to be more sensitive to the issue. At the time, it was more important to me to be a (very silly) person than a cause.
Insults are like styrofoam—they might be intended for one-time use but they don’t break down easily and aren’t easily absorbed into the emotional landfill. I’m trying to shrink my emotional carbon footprint by limiting the amount of bile and unnecessary cruelty I release into the world. Sometimes that means I don’t get to win a fight. It might mean I don’t get the chance to defend myself against unfair accusations. It’s okay. I’ve got four cheeks.