Today, I finished reading Tim O’Brien’s novel, The Things They Carried. The students have yet to start it, but I read it because it was staring at me from its place on the teacher’s desk, being all “Hey, there. You know you want to read a good book.”
The students have been working on a Things You Carry letter assignment where they have to choose an object, intangible or abstract, that has meaning to them and write a letter to a person connected to that meaning. The project has me thinking about what it is that I carry. Truth is, I carry a lot of things. One of the heaviest of which is the memory of the memories of being bullied growing up.
I was bullied until I entered high school. One of the earliest memories I have of being bullied was standing in line on the playground, lined up to enter the building. I was in first grade, and I was standing in my classroom’s line. From up above where the fourth graders were lined up, I heard a boy calling, “Hey, hey.” I looked up. He stared right at me, I mean right smack at me, with a look of pure cruelty and said “Hey, fatty. Fatty.” Years later I would remember his face as I saw him in high school and think what an ugly kid he was in fourth grade and that his face had grown uglier since.
Or there was the girl who said I smelled. She would choose lunch as her prime time to target me, looking around before settling her gaze on me. “Eh, what’s that smell?” she would laugh. I didn’t smell. My mom made sure both my sister and I were beyond presentable in school, adhering to the doctrine that how we dressed reflected on her. So, yeah, I didn’t smell. The only thing that smelled was the girl’s meanness. It became so bad that my mom had to talk to the school about it.
Then there were the group, or partner, projects. I especially dreaded those, knowing that unless the project was English related (because then everyone wanted to work with me, understanding even then that English was one of my strengths), I would have to walk up to the teacher and say the worst words: “I don’t have a partner.” The teacher would look around and ask the entire class if anyone would like to work with me. Well, of course no one wanted to work with me or else they would have asked me, so if no one volunteered with hesitation then the teacher would have to stick me with someone.
The groups were the worst because it was almost a form of silent bullying, a blatant acknowledgment that people did not like me enough to pick me. I remember sitting in the car one day after school, crying and screaming to my mom about it. I was in fifth grade and had endured many years of this embarrassment. “It’s not FAIR!” I shouted. “Why doesn’t anyone want to work with me?” I knew the answer, and my mom gently explained it to me anyway. “A lot of times people don’t want to work with people who are larger than they are.” All I kept repeating over and over was, “It’s not FAIR!” I spat that word “fair” as I cried it, a verbal finger pointed the ones who excluded me.
Middle school, seventh grade Science class. The teacher grouped students into groups of four for attendance, each group sitting at two tables pushed together. Two students on one side, two on the other. My group consisted of one quiet, popular boy and two girls, one cynical girl who directed much of her comments at me and one who viewed me as an easy target to torture. The one who liked to torture me would inflict said torture as she sat across from me at the tables. I would not say anything to this girl or look at her. I would concentrate on my work. She liked to make it a habit of jostling the tables abruptly at certain intervals, startling me and making me be thankful I had a good eraser. She would laugh, seeing how I had jumped, how she had scared me. The other girl had a habit of asking inappropriate, irrelevant questions that were personal. One day she asked the popular boy in our group what he would rank me on a scale of 0-10, with 10 being the highest. I kept my head down, focusing on the assignment in front of me, but looked up to see him squirm. “I don’t know. A 7 maybe?” His expression and tone conveyed that he would have ranked me lower than a 7 had I not been there. I knew this, and I’m pretty sure the girl knew this too because she said “A 7? Wow, how generous.”
Eighth grade History class. Between the end of seventh grade and the beginning of eighth grade I lost a lot of weight. I was still painfully shy. I would often get to History class early, taking my seat along the windows. The most popular boy in school was in that class. He would come up behind me, blocking me into my desk (which had the seat attached) so that I could not easily get up. He would leer at me, rubbing my back. Some of his friends, other popular boys in school, were also in the class and would watch this spectacle. The boy knew how I hated this. I would tell him to please stop. But he would keep doing it anyway. One time a nearby girl asked me why I didn’t just defend myself. All these years later I would have told my eighth grade self to ask the girl why no one else is defending me, standing up for me.
In high school, the bullying stopped. By then, I had endured years of bullying. In high school, I was always holding back, wanting to crawl out of my shell more. But I had seen how people can treat me, and so I played it safe and kept quiet. I chose not to be noticed, trying to avoid anything that might draw attention to me. Attention was bad. It wasn’t until I finally entered college and started studying Art History that I began to want to be noticed, to speak up. Art History taught me about Beauty, or rather how because there is no one universal standard, then it does not make any sense to try to conform to one strict, rigid one when there are so many ideas of Beauty out there.
I share this thing I carry, not because I am thankful for it (because, seriously, who would say they are thankful for being bullied?), but because in sharing it I hope to alleviate some of its weight. I wish I could put it down, to not carry it anymore. But I carry it because I remember, and will probably not ever be able to stop remembering. Mixed in these memories is something that makes my blood feel all cold in my chest: fear. Fear that if I ever told someone I love what I have just shared with you, readers, that a part of them might see me as that fourth grader saw me when I was in first grade: fatty. Not an individual. Just fatty.
I know that is a ridiculous fear to have. I would generally describe myself as a confident woman, one who can firmly say is beautiful. I’m also sensitive. And these memories, well, they ache.
I guess I could say I am thankful for the letter assignment for inspiring me to share my memories. And thank you for reading.