It was a very subtle sort of hazing, and it had nothing to do with my orientation, my gender, or anything unique to me, really. I lived in a very small town, and truth be told, we were all in the same boat in a lot of depressing ways. Even the people with "money" would have been laughed out of even a moderately prosperous suburb. It was the early eighties, and the world was full of prosperity (or at least looked like it), but we were watching our farming economy slide slowly down the tubes. In the middle of my elementary school experience I’d see us lose our farm as well, move across the county, and eventually move away from that area entirely.
But while I lived in that town, I was bullied. I was teased for the friends I chose. For the clothes I wore. For developing breasts too early. For being too tall. For being too naive to realize that I developed a set of friends who included me only because I was entertainment and, with too giving of a heart, liked to buy treats for my friends at basketball games. I was never called names (beyond "Heidi Didy Diapers" or "Heidi Hershey Bar"), was never pushed. We weren’t that kind of town. That would have been cruel. No, their abuse came in the means of careful exclusion. Of sniggers and looks. Of speaking to me with derision, implying that my very existence was so pathetic its only use was as entertainment for them.
I remember trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I thought if I could identify it, I could fix it and be okay. I tried to take the advice of my babysitter who told me that if I didn’t let them bother me, or at least let them see how much they bothered me, that they would get bored and go away. I couldn’t do that though, and I couldn’t fix myself so that they didn’t make fun of me. In the end, I had to conclude I was indeed flawed. I was too tall. Too awkward. Too stupid, too clumsy, too ugly. Too fat. Too poor. I had no real value to anyone, and it made me feel so alone.
The truth, of course, was that I was none of those things except handy. My worst sin was that both then and now I assumed a basic dignity in my peers, that they would never be mean to someone for no reason. I couldn’t imagine doing that, so why would anyone else? I think for them it was more complicated; everyone in that school was in some kind of pain, and they weren’t really thinking of me. They were just thinking how to keep from looking at their own pain. I think that might be the hardest part of being bullied–even this horrible thing isn’t about you. It’s your saving grace, your way out, but when you’re so young and so alone, and honestly, so very not done developing mentally, it’s no easy trick to understand these mean words, this laughter, this cruelty aimed at you has nothing to do with you.
When I was twelve, we moved from that town to an even smaller town. I went from a class of twenty to a class of twelve. For whatever reason, in this town I was accepted. I was new. I was different. And for the same arbitrary reasons I was unwelcome in my hometown, here I was celebrated. Oh, I was still awkward and a little off-key. I still didn’t get any dates. (Falling mostly for boys who would eventually turn out to be gay didn’t help me at all.) I also didn’t stay in this town long—by the end of the next year I moved not just out of town but out of state. I went from my class of twelve to a class of two hundred. I went from farming culture to city culture, where rich kids (we called them preppies) really were wealthy. I went from a small and sometimes slightly incestuous class to a sea of adolescents who had formed so many subsets I needed a map to navigate them. There were preppies and punks and druggies. There were nerds and "normals." For the first time I had to choose between sports and arts, because they practiced at the same time—with so many students, they didn’t have to make sure everyone could be in everything. (I gave up the sports my father had insisted on with so, so much pleasure.) Once again, I was new and different. I tried out a few groups (punks were so fun), but in the end I didn’t formally join any of them, not even the normals.
Because in all that moving around, with all the ups and downs and changes, with all the careful tries to be "right," I began to realize that not only was there no such thing, but that the kids who bullied me were right, in a way. I was different. It wasn’t possible anymore to tell if they’d made me that way or if they’d just known before I did, but at this point it didn’t matter. By the time I was sixteen, I was a professional person-reader. I studied people carefully no longer out of self-defense but habit, but I still watched them, and to do that I had to back up. I didn’t buy into the cliques, because I knew them for what they were: carefully constructed fortresses of self-consciousness and fear, fear of being outside. Meanwhile, I had become a professional outsider.
I got a lot of respect for that. When we moved again my junior year, I had become so professional Other that I was exotic. I could do anything, be anything. No clique door was closed to me. No peer pressure could touch me. I was cool in a way that no one knew quite how to process. I was still strange, don’t get me wrong. Professional Oustiders are a little socially odd. But I claimed it and made it my own. I dressed in my own style. I did what I liked. I beat my own drum. Oh, I still had problems, and yes, I was plenty lonely (and never did get a damn date), but the social stuff just rolled off me.
I started writing novels at twelve. When the pain got too much, when being alone was too much, I made myself friends in fiction. When dark clouds rolled in, making who liked me at school the very least of my worries, I gave myself happy endings and taught myself inner strength in my stories. As I had done socially, so I did internally. The world had made me Outside. So I made Outside mine.
I am still naive. I’m still socially strange more than I’m graceful. I’m still tall. And now I truly do have more weight than I should. I still don’t fit in boxes well, and neither does my writing. The difference between me now and me at twelve is that now I know that what makes me different is what has allowed me to be me. That what hurt me then made me strong, tempering me like steel. That being able to hold to my convictions of compassion, honesty, and love for others whether or not they deserve it, for dreaming of worlds where hurt doesn’t win—this, all this was always part of me. What damned me in my youth was what my tormentors lacked.
Most of my bullies ended up in bad places. Not all, no. But many ended up unwed and pregnant in high school, on drugs, or in very bad marriages. The few who got out of that town didn’t get far. Very, very few ever managed to escape the prisons of their fortresses, and when they did, most of them did so with great uncertainty, pining for the good old days when they could hide.
It doesn’t matter why you’re bullied. It doesn’t matter how you’re bullied. It’s wrong, always. The sad truth is that even with the greatest education, it will still happen, because not everyone can be strong enough to carry their own pain and will try hard to give it to others. But if you are bullied, remember you’re the one outside, and that outside is good. Being Other isn’t your death. Being Other is your key out of the cesspool of fear the bullies are living in. Bullies attack the strong, fearing their strength may overtake them.
Use your strength. Use it first to push the cruelty away. Use it next to speak: to peers, to parents, to persons of authority. Use it to keep speaking even when you’re ignored by those who should help you but don’t or can’t or don’t have the kind of strength you do.
Use it to help others, when you see them being hurt too.
Wrap yourself in your strength. Use it to look forward and inward. It gets better, yes. But it can be better now too, at least inside of you. You can learn how to free yourself of the same shit that will ultimately drag down your bullies. You can use it to propel yourself. You can use it to love yourself. Because different and Other isn’t a prison sentence. It’s your freedom.
This is true, by the way, no matter how old you are. Twelve, twenty, or twenty-nine. Whether you were bullied, or whether you were a bully and are now the Other alone in your prison.
In prepping for my NaNoWriMo novel, I stumbled on this song which is actually about cancer awareness, but it serves Spirit Day pretty damn well too. Because it’s true. Your heart is stronger than you think. And every human, no matter how Other, is nothing but beautiful.