In middle school, I sat and watched the popular girls pass notes across the aisles. The notes would be written on blue lined notebook paper, intricately folded as if made into origami cranes. As soon as the teacher’s back was turned, the kites flew across the desks as quick as lightning, the pre-Twitter glimpses of little girls intimate thoughts to each other about boys, friends, and future plans.
I dreamed of having these notes passed to me one day. However, my fate in middle school was sealed on day one, and the only folded notes I had were ones I practiced myself.
I went into middle school poor. That is to say, I was the girl showing up in torn second-hand clothing and a boys haircut. This put me behind from the beginning. I sat down in class the first week and a girl in front of me asked for a pencil. I didn’t have enough to give away, knowing that what I had needed to last the whole year, so I said no… very hesitantly and regretfully.
Little did I know, this girl was the most popular in the 6th grade. In addition, her last name was right before mine, so we were destined to sit next to each other for the rest of my middle school career in every class. She was ruthless and had social collateral gathered to have a posse of girls against me within the day. And so it went for three years solid.
Teachers watched as I would be bullied by a gaggle of particularly awful girls. One would kick me in the head daily in choir class and the director would see it, look at me, then look away.
Looking back, what is most interesting to me was my deep desire to be accepted by these girls. “What could I do to get these girls to like me?” Was this thought to get them to stop doing what they were doing, or because I truly wanted to be liked by them? To this day, my motives on that question are unclear as I am an unreliable witness to my own past experience. I had folded into myself.
My mother and father were lost in their failing marriage. The family in poverty while the divorce drained the resources both financially and emotionally, leaving me not in the crosshairs, but totally forgotten. I folded into myself.
I recall when the bullying had reached a boiling point at school and I finally said something to my mother. She, from her place of privilege, spoke pretty words of 1. they are just jealous (which was just untrue, due to my place of poverty) 2. they have anger problems (how is this helpful?) 3. tell a teacher (they are literally watching this happen and doing nothing) 4. let’s invite them over to our house (OMG ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?) 5. In a couple of years, it will be over (but for the next three years?) 6. Just ignore them (How does one do that when your entire realm is them?) I folded into myself with no ally in sight.
However, one thing was clear, I felt very vulnerable. At 12, I experienced my first real serious depressive episode and became suicidal. I was alone in my world, and no adult was going to help me. I folded into myself.
At this point, the food I was getting from home was not meeting my needs (at this point I was eating one pack of uncooked ramen for lunch.) I found out that a girl at school qualified for free school lunch, but never picked up her tickets… so because I was hungry, I started to pretend I was her. Daily, I told the lunch lady my “name” and picked up her ticket. I finally felt like I fit in and I got enough to eat for one meal out of the day.
I pulled this off for several months until one day I went up to the lunch lady and told her my “name” and she said, “no you aren’t!” I still, to this day, recall the flush of heat I felt across my chest when she yelled this across the lunchroom. You could hear a pin drop, and she pulled me by my arm from one side of the room to the other, with everyone watching me all the way to the office. The school’s eyes bored into me as my shame radiated around me like a nuclear glow. All this because I was hungry. I folded into myself.
I sat in the principal’s office waiting for my mother, and when she arrived the question was asked of me “well, do you have enough to eat at home?” My mother worked for the district and was known by the principal, and with this additional complication, the answer was handed to me on a silver platter with her eyes boring into me just like the entire school’s had been moments earlier. “Yes, of course, I do,” I said. And I folded into myself.
My punishment for this egregious crime of stealing lunch tickets was community service for a month. I emptied trash and cleaned blackboards of all the teachers and offices for all the after-school classes which all the richer kids could pay for. The girls that mocked me all day long got to see me on janitor duty every day as well. And I folded into myself.
At this point, my mother found me a therapist for a short time. Every week I’d go there and play board games. I found this hour a total waste of my time, mostly because at the end, he’d meet with my mother with me out of the room. This felt like a total violation of any potential conversation I’d ever have with him, so I ended up just wasting time with him.
Near the end of our time together, he asked me once what my “biggest problem was,” and I thought about it. I answered “my hole in my shoe.” Thinking back on it, I was being REALLY honest. If he had probed that answer, he would have really uncovered a LOT about poverty, my intense bullying and a plethora of home/school/life/abuse issues. But alas, he closed the hour with a sigh. Soon after he gave up on me. And I folded into myself.
Where does that leave us? Somehow, despite suicide attempts, severe depression, anxiety and an equally oppressive high school career, I made it though. No teacher ever intervened. No adult stood up strongly for me, but more importantly WITH me, despite clearly seeing what was happening. Though my experience was threaded with socio-economic and psycho-social issues, it snowballed from ONE event… a PENCIL. A pencil in sixth grade almost cost me my life, several times over. We HAVE to do better for our young people. I am ONLY ONE.
We have to unfold and to encourage others to unfold. We have to do better.