On Memory Triggers and Growing Beyond…

Last week was kind of amazing in a few ways.

If you don’t know, Jill Hennessy has a new album out – it’s called “I Do” and you should definitely get yourself a copy because it is AMAZING!! Living in NYC, it’s easy to get spoiled to some of our opportunities – like in my case being able to go to three of her gigs last week. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Each of them was different and amazing in their own way.

But Friday was extra special for me. Because that’s where Jill concert-debuted “Precious One”, which is probably my favorite song off the new album.

That’s not saying it’s an easy listen for me – or it wasn’t at first. The first time I heard it, I heard these lyrics…

“I saw ya dancin’ on a dark gym floor
in angelic solitude, and I could not love you more
but words cast like stones can break more than bones
and I saw your bright light fade
and I prayed you wouldn’t give yourself away
because all them thieves they just keep taking anyway”

…and I burst into tears because as a child/young person who was bullied, I completely felt those words. In fact, I’m glad I snuck a peek at the set list during intermission Friday night so that I could prepare myself as I was sitting front row and was the only #TeamHennessy member there, so I had no friend to distract me or even just let me know they were there, and I did NOT want to break down in that setting. I almost bit a hole in my thumb, but I managed to only tear up and not full-out cry. It was still super special to hear it – and I told Jill just the bare bones afterwards, but have decided just to blog it.

So my story with bullying…

It first started towards the end of kindergarten and beginning of first grade. One girl in my class decided that the girl who had been my best friend shouldn’t be friends with me any more and took out her jealousy on me. It was seemingly pretty harmless stuff then – playground taunting, telling the teacher on me for such “infractions” as my coloring going a tiny bit outside the lines. (And yes, I do still remember that my teacher took her side in it – one reason I will never tell my students they have to stay inside the lines. Unless it’s an OT activity where their assignment is to color within a shape.) I was pretty lucky though in that I did have another group of friends that I could hang with, so things never really seemed all that bleak. Her name was Candace.

In third grade, we moved over Spring Break, so I had the whole “new kid” thing to deal with. It was compounded by my teacher forcing me to put a math problem I told her I didn’t know how to do (we hadn’t gotten there yet at my old school) up on the board in front of the entire class on my first day. Most of the kids were cordial or at the very least simply ignored me. But Dana took it against me and I constantly went home with pinch marks. Pinch marks I got very good at hiding, even from my parents.

Things settled down through elementary and even most of middle school. At least I wasn’t aware of anyone doing anything TO me the way Candace or Dana had done. Of course, I was trying my best to fit in – looking at whose pictures other girls were putting up in their lockers and doing that. Ricky Schroder figured large in my locker – though in reality I was much more interested in Erin Grey who was also on Silver Spoons. I had no clue about sexuality at that time – but I knew that putting up pictures of girls wasn’t a good idea because I already had enough strikes against me. I was fat. My family didn’t have a ton of money. I didn’t do parties. And my dad worked in the church, so while he wasn’t ordained, I was labeled a “preacher’s kid – the good kind” (as opposed to “preacher’s kid – the hellion”). But the wheels were in motion.

I remember in 8th grade being invited to Cassandra’s roller skating birthday party. I’d gone to the bathroom, and just as I was about to leave the stall and wash my hands, I heard Cassandra and another girl talking as they came in. This was their conversation:

Other Girl: Why’s <em>Beth</em> here?
Cassandra: My mother made me invite her.
OG: WHAT? WHY?
Cassandra: Her dad is on some committee with my mother, and she said I had to invite Beth. I wish I could have figured out how not to though.
OG: Ugh. I’m sorry. It’s your party. You shouldn’t have to have someone like her here.
Cassandra: Totally.

It sounds like a movie scene, and it felt like a movie scene. I was frozen in the stall. Part of me wished I could just roll casually out of the stall, but I was already silently crying and didn’t want to give them the satisfaction. So I waited until they had left the bathroom to leave the stall and wash up.

Things only got worse from there. In 9th grade English, we were each keeping journals as an assignment. Our teacher would collect them and look over them, and he would occasionally offer bits of insight on things we had written. Well, one day my journal was missing (I carried most of my books and notebooks with me as there really wasn’t locker time with the spacing of my classes). I looked all over my room at home, all through my locker, everywhere I could think. Nowhere to be found. Until it reappeared in a pile of my notebooks as mysteriously as it had disappeared. Only there were now comments written throughout in red ink. Which can’t just be covered over with white-out – it just glows through pink. This happened more than once. And then my folder with a science activity packet was stolen and mysteriously returned to my locker the day after it was due. Pretty sure Jeff and Steven were responsible for that one. The journal…it could have been any number of people, but my money was on Heather and Betsy as the primary instigators. Maybe Cassandra as well. But my coping mechanism (which I will discuss later) began to kick in at this point and only grew from here.

Once I got into high school (it was 10th-12th grade), two more grades of people got involved. The worst day ever was in my psychology class. I’d been put in a current events class the first semester because of some scheduling snafu. The class was supposed to be only juniors and seniors, but I was put in as a sophomore. That class was ok. But then second semester when I was allowed to take psychology (my successful argument was that they had put me in a junior-senior only class first semester, what was the difference second semester). Some of the same people, but also some others. Also we sat in rows, making what happened easier to happen. I was up towards the front of the class and it was definitely one of my favorites. Well, one Friday when I was supposed to have my final prep session with my band director for an audition, my friend Tricia met me at the door to walk to the bandroom with me and said “What is that in your hair?!?!?” I’d felt something hitting my head during class, but didn’t want to give anyone (namely Louisa, who I know was the instigator of everything that day at least) the satisfaction of seeing me discover whatever it was so I hadn’t touched it. I assumed it was just spit balls. Turns out it was gum. Little balls of gum all through my hair. My band director spent our practice time gently picking the balls out of my hair, cutting it out only when necessary. My parents never knew because I never told them. They only found out a few years ago when I sent them a link to my running club’s It Gets Better video where I included that in my story.

And the sad thing is my band director didn’t do anything either. In fact, in April that year when the band went to NYC, our rooming list was mixed up. I was supposed to room with Barbara and Elaine…and probably one other person, but instead the hotel had me rooming with Cindy and Amy and someone else. Three of the girls who had all participated in one form or another of bullying me. (same grade) And someone else had been put in the room I was to be in, making it a huge headache to change things around. I was in tears when we stopped for a meal, and thankfully some senior girls (I’m sorry to say I’ve blanked on their names) who only had 3 in their room said I could stay with them. Mr. Rob wasn’t thrilled with making any changes, but they insisted. Again, he did nothing to the girls who were actively being dramatic about the “horror” of having to share a room with me.

My other teachers it’s harder to blame for anything. Mr. Mitchell, my 9th grade English teacher did steer some of our reading and some lessons towards themes of bullying and hurting people and those effects. But it didn’t do much good. But he tried. Though in all fairness, I made it hard for most of my teachers to see that anything was wrong. I didn’t complain about it. I didn’t make a show about it. I simply disappeared myself into my music and my academics. And I can say from my experience that that is definitely a way to NOT get attention.

Not one teacher said anything (at least to the point that anyone including the guidance counselors talked to me) about how I climbed my way from just outside the top 20 at the end of 8th grade to top 5 (and possibly 3 though I never saw an official ranking) by graduation. None of them saw that as any kind of sign that anything might be going on. Ignoring the fact that while it’s very easy to take a GPA down, it’s hard as hell to bring it up I suppose. I was quiet. I did my work and then some. In music I practiced. I made almost every audition I went to. At church I sang in youth choir and pretty regularly had solos. I played in the adult handbell group because I was too advanced for the youth handbell group. I never did anything outright to draw attention to myself.

But I wasn’t happy. I was being emotionally bullied constantly – never anything physical to the point of being hit, trapped in a bathroom, etc. I simply gave up and stopped trying to fight for myself. It was easier to just focus on my books and my music. After all, if the teacher I trusted most (my band director) had seen things first hand and was doing nothing, why should I bother trying to tell anyone else.

The one time I was happy during those years was Governor’s School, the summer after my sophomore year. It was a summer program for gifted students – and for those of us in arts-related fields like I was in music, we had to first be in academically gifted classes and then pass an audition. Finally I was among people more like me. Oh, that’s not to say there weren’t cliques that left people out. But there wasn’t the bullying that went on in our regular school lives. If you’ve seen the movie “Camp”, what that was to musical theatre students, Governor’s School was to all of us who went. I’m eternally thankful for my best friends that summer – David, Kim, Wallyce, Andy, Sandi and Allison. For those six weeks I felt completely comfortable in my skin and in my identity.

And then I went back to regular high school. The emotional bullying continued throughout my junior and senior years, and I remained silent. The one time I did mention anything to my parents it wasn’t about my peers, it was about my French teacher who was expecting perfection simply because we had a French exchange student who lived with us for a month (long story…but she left, and since she’d instantly been “in” with the popular crowd, who were of course my most ardent tormentors, things got instantly worse for me when she transfered to a different home and different school). They went to the principal about that, and the teacher did apologize to me. But I can only imagine how much worse things would have been with my peers had my parents known about that and brought that up. They never knew the nights I cried myself to sleep.

My senior year, a friend (I did have a few) had been signing my yearbook, and on its way back to me it disappeared. You can imagine what went through my head given the whole journal history. But thankfully no one wrote anything nasty. In fact, Heather, one of the chief bullies, actually wrote that she admired my determination. Still, I have very few if any good memories of high school and have absolutely no desire to go to any reunions or anything.

My experiences have shaped who I am and how I operate. When I was in youth ministry, my youth groups were bully-free zones. Nothing that could remotely be seen as being bullying was allowed to take place. And that’s part of what cost me a job – refusing to let the kids use “gay” as an insult (even towards the color of shirts) and instead turning the evening’s lesson into one of accepting everyone regardless. Didn’t sit well with the conservative kids – and hence their parents – and that was the beginning of the end. Now that I’m teaching, my classrooms are bully-free zones. And I’m not afraid to call a student on it even if he is in third grade. I put it in terms he can understand, but I call him on it.

My choice was to disappear into academics and music. I’ve got another friend who also did the disappear into academics thing. At least one other. And as I said, no one ever hears about kids like us. We hear about the others. The ones who turn violent – either towards their bullies or more often towards themselves. If we’re lucky we can catch it before it’s too late. But trust me…as someone who grew up being bullied, we get very good at hiding the bruises and scars, both physical and mental.

But there’s hope in the song as well…

“don’t you ever feel ashamed to show them what it is to –
sing too loud
make your own name
run so fast to feel the wind on your face
let the diamond tears just fall, fall, fall –
cuz we’ll still be here when all the cryin’s done
to believe in the invisible
to hold the hand of my precious one

So basically, I love it. For me, it is at least every bit as powerful as Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”.

I’ve moved beyond who I was then. I’ve grown up. I’ve learned things about myself and become comfortable in my skin. I’ve challenged myself – first with running which some friends got me to try, and now probably even more powerfully with Taekwondo which Jill’s sister Jacq got me to try.

I’m doing things I never thought I could – and having a blast doing it.

Wednesday night was special in a lot of ways. I was hanging out with friends. I saw some people I haven’t really seen since I started TKD and saw their jaws drop when they saw me because of how I’ve changed. AND I got to meet Jacq, who is one of my heroes in so many ways. We were both pretty excited to meet each other I think. 🙂

Then Saturday, I went to a Yang Yin class at my yoga studio for the first time in forever, and shocked myself and my instructor with how much stronger I’ve gotten since starting TKD.

And I can truly say that it’s not just physically stronger. I’m more willing to try things, even if I’m not sure I can do them. I feel more confident at school and just in the world. I may not get things right, but I’m not as afraid to try.

It’s kind of funny now thinking about the two “It Gets Better” videos I was in – I didn’t really know how much better it could get. I’m still not sure I totally do, but I’m getting there.

The little child who was bullied will always be a part of me, but step by step – or kick by kick more likely – I’m moving further away from who I was and becoming whoever I will be.

And I’m liking who she is.

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4 thoughts on “On Memory Triggers and Growing Beyond…

  1. Beth I love what you wrote here about Jill Hennessy’s incomparable lyrics to Precious One <:) All of Jills lyrics touch my heart like lyrics never have!!! As a kid I was strong tough but used that to protect others from bullies, not to brag but I would tell the bully if you want to hurt someone hurt me but let her/him go, and sometimes I would have to hurt the bully but always tried to teach them/show them they were wrong. Thanks for writing this it is a fine compliment of Jills music/lyrics/beautiful heart!!!
    From the heart,
    David Williama (@HimiJ69)

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