The Road to Hell (Leads through the Eighth Grade Lunchroom)

“The seventh and eighth grades were for me, and for every good and interesting person I’ve ever known, what the writers of the Bible meant when they used the words hell and the pit.” –Anne Lamott

For a long time, whenever I thought back on middle and high school, I would fixate on the wrongs that other people did to me.  Specifically, there was that first month or so of eighth grade, when my parents decided to move me to a private school about thirty miles away.  All the students there looked like they had just walked off the pages of Seventeen Magazine.  I very quickly discovered, much to my surprise, that I was weird and geeky and awkward.  Most people just avoided me altogether, which made for some lonely lunches, but one kid, let’s call him Howie, decided that I needed more explicit instruction in just how weird and uncool I was.  So I hit him.  Specifically, I think I grabbed him by the shoulder and told him to “Die!”

Oddly, I don’t really regret doing that.  It was definitely what my friend Mai would call a “not-so-shining-moment.”  But he left me alone after that.  And after a while people even started asking me to join them at lunch (years later, I found out, to my considerable horror, that my mom had talked to the P.E. coach about how miserable I was, and he had basically ordered the class to be nice to me).  In any case, I learned to try to blend in with the scenery, and in time I made some really good friends, especially Mert and Mai.

As adolescent horror stories go, mine was relatively mild, but that first month or so of eighth grade did change me.  I learned to keep my head down, and not to raise my hand in class, quite a change from the cocky know-it-all I was before.  I like to think that it also made me into a kinder person, because, while my bitterness over my treatment by a couple of bullies has faded over the years, I still cringe when I think about awful things I did to other people.  Like the time in seventh grade, when I cruelly rejected a boy who asked me to the seventh grade dance, just because I wasn’t into boys yet (Judging from my high school notebooks full of lonely, loveless, self-pitying poetry, karma really came back to haunt me for that one).

Much as I hate thinking about my “not-so-shining-moments,” I did learn from them.  And really, when I was growing up, in the days before Columbine, cyberbullying and the It Gets Better Project, there wasn’t much emphasis on bullying, the dangers of being outcast, or social skills in general. I can’t help but wonder if my son’s generation will be any different.   They have been warned and lectured about bullying and kindness since preschool.  Even the kind of psychological warfare that was part of every girl’s arsenal growing up (“I won’t be your friend unless you give me your new eraser”) has been correctly identified as bullying.  Kids my son’s age are more shocked by the word “stupid” than by any of the so-called “bad words” that I knew, but didn’t dare say, as a kid.  They’re even shocked to hear that word in reference to inanimate objects, as if calling the laptop or the toaster “stupid” might leave it with permanent self-esteem issues.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if I could meet all the kids from my middle school years for the first time, without any of the emotional baggage of the things we did to each other, intentionally or carelessly, before we knew any better.  Would I be friends with some of the people I hated?  Would I find out that we all (even Howie!) had our demons and fears that we were trying to keep in check?

What would it have been like if we could have gone through those years knowing how to treat each other more compassionately? Would someone have kindly showed me how to do something (anything really) with my impossible hair, or suggested that I might not want to wear the green suede boots with the long purple cape?


When I was young I had to walk two miles to school, uphill, both ways,in the snow, and potatoes in my pockets to keep my hands warm , which I had to eat for my lunch

 

I have been very lucky in my job to work with students. There is nothing I enjoy more than having Music Therapy interns and practica students work with us. I enjoy the mentoring process and we learn a lot from them! Plus, I always say that for a forgetful person like me, they’re good to have around because they never forget to carry paper, pens and guitar picks! In addition to that, I have employees, classmates, friends and babysitters in my life who are all of this younger generation as well. Lately I’ve been taking personnel management courses and learning about the “generation Y” employee and how we as supervisors need to modify our managerial style to compensate for this new brand of employee. I’ve also heard a lot from veteran managers about why do we have to be the ones to change, shouldn’t the employee be expected to perform in the same way as every other employee? I asked this question in a personnel course and the answer was no. In theory, every employee is an individual, it just so happens that this new generation of employee seems to require more attention!

If you’ve made it this far, you could be wondering what this has to do with the price of tea in China…well it’s like this, when I was growing up, it was kind of a joke in our house that my stepdad would tell us how hard things were when he was growing up and how he had to walk two miles to school every day. To that we’d add “in the snow” and “uphill both ways!” it’s a typical parent thing to remind your children how hard you had it. Well, I have recently realized that I am becoming my parents…yes, I’m now at an age that I have found myself making similar statements! Yes, I have found myself making statements lately and realize that I sound like my parents. “When I was in school we didn’t even have cell phones! We had to use a pay phone!” “When I was in college, we didn’t have air conditioning in our dorms and we had to use fans to circulate the air and we sweated!” “when I was in school, we didn’t have the Internet, we had to go to the library!” get the picture?

This is what I’ve become. The living embodiment of my parents….and it scares the hell out of me. It wasn’t long ago that I just didn’t think they could possibly understand what I was going through, and how could they think my choice of music was crap? It was genius! Certainly better than that Justin Beiber, or those rap guys (do they call it rap anymore, I think it’s hip hop now). But that’s another topic for another day. Ah yes…the evolution of music, or what was it they’re always screaming about?

Growth

Since my last post, I started thinking about what next. I think it’s only logical looking back to where I was, to look at how I’ve gotten here. Growth is the word that comes to mind. Now it’s easy to look at me and tell physical growth. Middle age spread has creeped in, two kids have moved parts of my body to new places, and amazingly enough I’ve shrunk a half inch! Although now I wear heels most days so it’s not so much noticable. But I want to examine emotional growth. As I think about recovering from high school and the things I went through, I can’t help but realize how it’s helped me become who I am today.

I was never popular. We covered that previously. I enjoyed drama and band in a school that glorified sports. The girls looked like models dressed in the latest fashions. The boys were handsome and athletic. I was short, dressed weirdly and read a lot. I also had the worst self-esteem. I felt awkward, overweight and just didn’t fit in with most of the kids in my school. Another thing that made me different is that I wasn’t interested in the parties, drinking and other things that the kids my age were experimenting with. I chose to hang out in the museum parking lot (where I also volunteered) and smoke cigarettes. We were so subversive! But all these things really contributed to the verbal bullying I was a victim of. We see bullying all over the news these days, and I know that what I went through was nowhere near the level that it has reached with the prevalence of social media and texting. When I left school, the bullying ended. I didn’t have to worry about abusive text messages or Facebook pages, but it was tough. I really felt like there were two forms of bullying at our school. One was verbal. There were a couple of kids who enjoyed verbal jabs at my expense. Looking back I often laugh about the fact that my most avid tormentor’s favorite cut down was that I shopped at the blue light special at K-Mart! There were other things that were said and some time I’ll share the only fight I ever got into in high school, but that’s not where I’m going today.

Recently homeschooling has seen a huge rise. I even read some homeschooling blogs myself, although I know that I would never have the discipline to do that! Sure, let’s stay in our pajamas all day and study the effect of ice cream and toast on our diet. We can always study tomorrow, or the day after that. I’m guilty of having grand plans for a day at home and find myself at 3:30 still on the couch watching an NCIS marathon. Clothes unlaundered, sink full, beds unmade. So I am not a candidate for homeschooling. And there are a lot of people out there who make it look so fun and easy and they all have their reasons why it works for them. The one that doesn’t always make sense to me is the homeschoolers who do it because they are afraid of peer pressure of bullying in their schools. As I said before, I can’t compare the bullying I endured to what kids these days go through, but I really feel that it is the parents’ job to monitor and limit the use of technology with their children. So to take your kids out of school to limit the social ups and downs of school just boggles my mind. You see, it’s the bullying I went through that made me the totally awesome person I am today. Sure it hurt when the other kids made fun of my clothes, or the things I did or the fact that I was hopelessly crushing on Toby in fourth grade, but I had a wonderful mother who instilled in me that the problem was not with me, it was them. Sure it took a while to get that, but somewhere in high school it finally clicked that I was OK. I had found a group of peers who accepted me, I became comfortable with my body and in general learned that I was a pretty cool person despite anything “K-Mart Cutdown” had to say!

So growth to me is a product of everything we go through. The good things and bad all contribute to the adult that we become. I developed a theory some time after college that every person I meet has something to teach me. I look at every itneraction that way. Some people I learn new things from and some teach me the things that I don’t want to do or personality traits that I should avoid! So while at the time I couldn’t see how the bullying I went through could ever be a positive experience, looking back, it’s made me even more confident and not afraid to be myself. Last weekend my husband recounted a comment made by our four year old. You see, he’s a thumb sucker. We’re not proud, but we figure he’ll grow out of it eventually. At a family function, my brother made a comment to him about his thumb sucking and Jay looked at him and told him that he’s not like everyone else and sometimes he just does things differently than other people. He has figured out at four what it took me nearly eighteen years to figure out.

It Gets Better…Or Does It?

One night, towards the middle of August in the summer after high school, four friends and I got together for the last time.  Two of my friends were leaving for college out of state the next day.  I knew I would be leaving in a couple of weeks for a college even farther away.

That night I felt completely unmoored.  A friend of mine was fond of quoting the line, “Beyond this place there be dragons,” and that was how I felt.  I had lived all my life in the same house, and had known many of my friends since elementary school.  And here I was at the edge of the map.  I was sad and scared and sure things would never be the same.

All of us were feeling the same way that night, or at least I thought we were, until one of my friends said, “Don’t worry.  It will all be better.  You’ll see.”

It was exactly the wrong thing to say.  I don’t think I said anything to him at the time, but I was angry and hurt.  How could he think things could be better than this?

I’ve thought about that night a lot over the years, and wondered if he was right.  Of course he was.  I went off to college, met the love of my life, found a career I enjoyed, and for the first time started to feel like I was free to be mostly who I wanted to be.   I never again had to spend an entire day being forced to move from one tiny desk to another whenever a bell rang (funny how you never appreciate how horrible that really is until you get out of high school).  I got my hair cut, so I no longer looked like an electrocuted French poodle, at least not all the time.  And I gradually learned to just admit that I was weird and insecure and imperfect, instead of living in fear of being found out.

Ironically, last month a cousin of mine asked me to write some words of advice for her daughter, who was turning thirteen.  And my first response was, “It gets better.”  I didn’t even think about that night before college.  For some reason, I was hung up on the things that made me miserable back then: the social minefields at school, the hormones, my lack of a love life, my ridiculous hair, the horrible self-pitying poetry I used to write.  When I went back to look at the notebook of inspirational quotes and poems I kept back then, I found it full of A.E. Housman (“To an Athlete Dying Young,”) and Sara Teasdale, who killed herself in her bathtub.  Cheery stuff.

But lately I’ve been thinking back to that night before college.  I don’t think I’ve ever had friends who made me laugh as hard or as much as I did in high school.   And, for better or worse, I don’t feel things as intensely as I did then.  The most trivial things (a boy smiling at me in chemistry class, or a particular song coming on the radio) could make me insanely happy or just as insanely depressed.  It was like being on the Scream Machine at Six Flags.  I don’t think I could have survived my whole life with those emotional extremes (at least without medication), but it was a wild ride, and I miss it sometimes.