I remember the first time I was left to eat lunch in the cafeteria at school. It wasn’t like going home to mom and a big steaming bowl of potato soup with bacon, that quiet walk, the unhurried pace, the familiar kitchen. I was lost. The food was horrid. The noise was deafening. And no one would talk to me.
Then we were kicked outside for a long recess.
I sat on the low concrete ledge outside the sixth grade classroom and cried while the older kids teased me mercilessly. I tried to run back inside after one of them hit me with a handball over and over. But there was no refuge for me with an angry lunch lady who couldn’t be bothered to explain the rules of enjoying the sunshine and fresh air again.
I was eight years old.
Little did I know the perpetual state of confusion and panic I felt that day would follow me for the next forty years or that I would still be faced with being bullied and teased when I was half a century old. I guess, somehow, I thought everyone else felt the same way.
But I knew they didn’t. I knew something was wrong with me. Everyone else was playing and having fun. Everyone else seemed to know ALL the rules. Someone had explained them to them. I never had anyone to explain them to me. I was smart. I was supposed to figure them out for myself. I knew that, even when I was eight years old. I wasn’t supposed to be a child and ask questions. I was supposed to know the answers already.
But I didn’t. So I just pretended I did.
I’ve pretended a lot in my life.
Some people say that’s the sign of being a great artist or a great writer or a great actor, being able to pretend something is real when it isn’t, being able to feel inside a second skin, being able to personify a costume. But if that were true, the world would be full of great artists.
We all pull a bubble around ourselves. We show a face to the crowd we wouldn’t recognize if we saw in a mirror. A face that is cheerful or intelligent or witty or shy or egotistical or calm or mean or … Some of us have whole big wardrobe closets that follow us around and allow us to do a costume change for the next scene.
Hopefully, we pick the right outfit. Picking the wrong one has consequences.
Sitting on the concrete ledge that day had consequences. I made everyone uncomfortable, crying, showing what I really felt. They called me names. They threw things at me. They couldn’t just leave me alone in my grief and worry about their own game. They bullied me.
So often we think of bullies as people who hone in on weaknesses. But I don’t think it’s our weaknesses so much as our differences that leave us open to ridicule and hate.
In our media we spend a lot of time talking about bullying in schools, on playgrounds, among children … as if that’s the only place it exists. We’ve built programs to educate against it even. Schools spend inordinate amounts of time presenting programs to prevent it.
But the old saying holds true. Everything trickles down from the top.
As long as the adults in this world can’t accept one another, neither will the kids.
As bad as I remember the events of that day when I was eight years old were, I’ve had worse as an adult. I’ve been bullied in nearly everything I have ever done, in college by professors and other students, in my job by other “professionals”, as a parent by schools and doctors and other parents, in church by pastors and other congregants, … the list just goes on and on.
Why? I don’t know. I’m clueless. I still don’t get it. So I just keep pushing on, doing what I’m doing, loving what I love and leaving the rest alone.