A few months after I moved to West Virginia from Oregon, a girl in my junior high gym class pushed me into a dark corner of an unused shower, got in my face and screamed at me for being too smart. As she pointed her finger into my chest, she told me that I had better stop acting like I was better than everyone else. She was joined by two other girls whose spittle sprayed across my face as they railed at me – screaming that every time I got a high score on a test or assignment, I ruined the curve for everyone else. They also told me that I talked funny, should accept I was in West Virginia and needed to start acting like it.
Even though the incident probably lasted only a few minutes, the repercussions have lasted my entire life. Yet I never told anyone about what happened, and, up until now, it’s been a secret between me and the three others involved.
But this week, with all of the negative comments and finger-pointing after the presidential election, the memory has come flooding back.
After the incident in the shower, I hated myself and believed I was somehow to blame for the situation. While I never purposely got a bad grade, I was still bullied into submission. I spent years locked in the prison of being a follower rather than an individual. Throughout my adolescence, most of the opinions or beliefs I espoused weren’t really my own. Instead, I was simply parroting what I had heard and what I thought would help me fit in.
Even worse, I was full of self-doubt about who I was and what I believed.
Thankfully, I grew up and I grew strong. I grew to be an independent woman who could think for herself, believe in her own intelligence and develop a conscience that extends far beyond her own wants and needs. I also grew into a woman who isn’t tolerant when people make judgments about or reject someone who acts or thinks differently than they do. I know all too well what that feels like.
That’s why some of the harsh comments and reactions to this week’s election took me right back to the shower where I was being bullied.
I understand why some people are angry and frustrated. I felt the same way after the 2000 and 2004 elections. But I didn’t to purposely make others feel bad about their beliefs and opinions. Yet that’s what I’ve been witnessing, and to me, the reactions mirror how the girls in the shower treated me.
People are angry at the election results and are trying to find someone else to blame. The girls were angry about their own grades and had to find a scapegoat, which was me.
Romney supporters are screaming that those who voted for Obama are idiots, morons, traitors and worse. The girls didn’t question my intelligence, but they did question my standards and integrity.
Some extremists are complaining that Obama rallied minorities and people on welfare to vote for him and, in those complaints, they are insinuating that these individuals don’t have the same status as “real” Americans. The girls complained that I, a newcomer to a community where they had lived their entire lives, should be conforming to their definition of normal.
The main difference between now and when I was a teenager is that I am not going to be quiet when I hear or witness such behavior. It’s wrong and people should be told it’s wrong. Neither do I feel bad about myself or my beliefs. I now recognize that anyone who points a finger is simply trying to transfer their own fear and self-doubt to someone else.
Instead of pointing fingers we should be joining hands so together we can tackle some of the tough issues we face. After, all, it’s’ hard to be angry, fearful or full of doubt when your fingers are touching someone else’s.
On a beautiful spring day several weeks ago, my kids and I were heading to lunch a few blocks from my husband’s office on the crowded streets of Washington D.C . Dressed in only shorts and t-shirts, we didn’t really fit in with the men and women in business attire who were walking with a great deal more purpose.
But we had one thing in common: we all pretended we didn’t see the homeless person still wrapped in a blanket and sleeping in a doorway on a busy sidewalk.
I saw both of my kids glance over at him, but neither said anything. I didn’t either. Soon, the homeless person was forgotten.
Because somewhere in the back of my mind, he stayed with me.
He’s still there.
It’s not that I’ve never seen homeless people before. I see them every day. I even have a semi-relationship with the guy who hangs out at the park where I walk my dog. If I don’t at least wave at him, he coughs or makes some other noise until I acknowledge him.
But the homeless guy sleeping on the steps was different, because he might as well have been invisible. Everyone, including me, blatantly ignored his existence.
I understand why the business people ignored him: they probably see him everyday. He’s as much a part of their daily landscape as the traffic lights, the street signs and the blur of faces they regularly encounter.
But I didn’t have any excuse, and I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t even talk to my kids about him. That’s just not like me at all. If anything, I usually talk way too much about such things.
The only explanation I could find is one I don’t like: I was going along with the crowd. It was just easier.
It’s not the first time I’ve had to make that admission.
When I was in elementary school, I didn’t even know the full name of the boy who rode the school bus. I just knew everyone called him Eddie Pee Pants. You don’t need to be a genius to figure out how he got the name.
I don’t remember calling him that to his face, but that’s the name I used when my peers and I were discussing how to avoid him. No one wanted to have to sit with Eddie Pee Pants on the bus. If you did, you’d not only have to smell him, but you would get “Eddie Pee Pants germs.”
I knew what we were doing was wrong, but I justified my behavior by telling myself that I was never actually mean to his face. But the guilt got worse when Eddie’s life got worse.
One Saturday morning, I joined my dad at the top of our driveway to watch the drama unfold on a hill about a mile from our house. A dilapidated mobile home was on fire. Flames were shooting out the roof, and smoke was turning the sky black.
“That’s a total loss,” my dad commented.
I didn’t know until Monday that the old, junky trailor everyone said was an eyesore was Eddie’s house.
I have no recollection of what happened to him after his house burned. I just know he never rode the bus again, and I don’t remember ever seeing him at school again. I don’t even remember if there were any injuries or fatalities in that fire.
What I do remember is wondering why I wasn’t nicer to Eddie and feeling horrible that I’d never have an opportunity to undo my misdeeds.
Eddie isn’t the only person I’ve ever discounted or belittled. But he’s the first person who taught me three essential life lessons:
1. Treating someone poorly never makes you feel better about yourself.
2. Sometimes you don’t get a second chance to do the right thing.
3. Issues such as poverty, child abuse and homelessness are actually about individuals — people who, regardless of the reason for their circumstances, still have value.
I’ve taken that third lesson to heart. Eddie, like the homeless person in the doorway, gave me something priceless. They taught me to look beyond the unkempt appearances, poor hygiene or odd behavior. They’ve taught me that sometimes the person who needs to change their attitude or perception is me. And they’ve taught me that speaking up feels a lot better than putting someone down.
They were priceless gifts in my life, and I hope I can pass their lessons on to my children. And that, if nothing else, is what makes their lives so valuable to me.
I admit I’m a bit ashamed that I’m proud and relieved my fourth-grade daughter is a Lion.
If I actually lived up to the ideals I should, I wouldn’t care.
But ideals and reality aren’t always consistent. And I care. I care a lot that she is a Lion instead of a Tiger. Thankfully, she’s the first to set me straight about how ridiculous I’m being.
To quote her, “Tigers aren’t stupid. They just learn at a different level than the Lions.” She says this with the utmost seriousness. And she is serious. Her best friend is a Tiger.
Which makes me wonder how long they will be best friends, because it seems like the whole world is divided into Lions and Tigers.
Well, maybe not Lions and Tigers, but liberals and conservatives, haves and have-nots, the pretty people and the not-so pretty people, the Christians and everyone else. And these divisions seem to be pulling us apart.
Pulling us apart to the extent that I get the feeling many of us are living life as one big competition in which we are all vying for the top spot. And, instead of trying to help others get to that spot so we can all enjoy it, we are pushing each other out-of-the-way.
No wonder bullying has become such an issue with children. They are simply modeling what they see the adults doing: cutting down, belittling and disrespecting those who don’t think, live, act, look like, enjoy or believe what we do.
I know some of this can be attributed to human nature, but that doesn’t make it right.
And what people seem to forget is how life and circumstances are constantly changing. And when circumstances change, so do those labels.
All you have to do is open up a high school year book, to see how ridiculous labels are. I imagine the majority of people carried some kind of simple descriptor back in the day – jock, nerd, bookworm, preppie, druggie, punk, skater. But unless you live in a vacuum, I can’t imagine that the label you had as a teen carries much weight now. If it does, I’d certainly be doing some serious self-evaluation.
Hopefully, by the time you reach my age, you realize labels don’t even come close to describing any of us, because we are all a mixed up combination of personality, circumstances, passions, decisions, mistakes, religion, race, relationships, careers and family.
Maybe that’s why people are so quick to label – giving someone a simple description easily removes them from being like us – complicated people. And once we’ve removed any part of ourselves from someone, then it’s easier to blame them for the ills of the world.
Which is why I so appreciate my daughter putting me straight with the whole Lions and Tigers situation when I quickly fell into the trap of identifying my daughter by her Lion label as one of the “smart kids.”
Granted, she demonstrated just how smart she is by quickly recognizing that her friend, along with the other Tigers, is much more than the score she can achieve on a reading or math test. But my daughter also demonstrated a deeper understanding of how people are way too complicated for simple labels.
Here’s hoping she, and the rest of her generation, can teach the rest of the world, too.