“And what was your high school experience like?”
I’m sitting round a dinner table with three women I’ve only met once before. Two are my fellow volunteers for a poetry outreach society (how cool is that?!). The questioner is the society’s kindly executive director who pays us monthly with a savoury home-cooked meal, red wine and cheesecake.
Hardly an aggressive situation. But it’s a question that still makes my breath catch.
One volunteer, my age, has already said she remembered feeling “less-than” at her Edmonton, Alberta school growing up, because the kids in French Immersion were clearly favoured.
The other woman, in her twenties, described being bullied systematically by senior students at her Indonesian high school. For three years, older girls would not allow her to wear make up or wear her hair down. They called her names, demanded she buy them lunch, and read letters of apology to groups of jeering girls. She tried not to tell her parents too much about it, she says, because it was shameful. It was one of the reasons she decided to attend university in Canada. Now, she says, name-calling and bullying don’t affect her anymore. She was desensitized by her high school experience, and doesn’t find it that big of a deal if she someone is mean to her.
We are all wowed by this story. How could teachers and parents allow this? How could this sweet, smart girl have survived so much abuse from her peers? She should have told her parents – but I understand why she didn’t. She’s glad she ended up in Canada, proving that getting away from your hometown is often good for you and the upside of a bad background. We are all sympathetic.
But still. And yet. When our host asks me about high school, clearly in an effort to get to know me, and not to catch me out as a former geek …I freeze up. Unlike this other woman, I can’t claim to be stronger for my bullying experiences. The effects are still there. And the shame is still there. Instead of stuffing my exclusion into the character-building compartment and moving on like this young woman, I’ve jabbed it into my spine, giving my character a permanent bitter twist.Even though, logically, I don’t believe this other woman should feel ashamed, I am embarrassed to admit being unpopular in high school.
Because….why? Because these women won’t want to work with me? Will titter about me when I go to the bathroom? Will think all my suggestions are foolish? Yes, that’s basically it. But really, if you can’t find acceptance for being a former introverted geek within a poetry outreach society where can you find it?
Admittedly, I am exaggerating when I use the term bullying. I was never stuffed in a locker, assaulted or overtly name-called. “Bullied” seems like a more socially acceptable, short-hand term for just feeling confused about why I was such a loser and desperate to crack the code of coolness. I wasn’t invited to parties. I had friends but no long-term besties. Odd one out when we needed partners. Last one picked for teams. Mostly, I avoid anyone I went to high school with. They remind me of how I felt back then, which was scared, self-conscious, ugly, boring, nerdy and like there was something very wrong with me.
How feeling left out affects my adult self
It doesn’t seem to matter how many people admit to having similar experiences. I still feel ashamed. I still feel like I need to hide it by taking extra care to wear “cool” clothes even now (Hipster-ism is a big challenge). By not wearing glasses (laser eye surgery), by colouring my hair bright red, by drinking, smoking, trying drugs, by not being organized and anal, the way a nerd would be. I’m a free spirit. Oh yeah. I’m brave. I’m bold.
Apparently, this bullying hangover into adulthood is pretty common. Check out this article on Bustle on how bullied kids are more likely to suffer mental illness as an adult.
I used to try to imagine myself going back in time. Wearing different clothes. All labels perhaps. Or being part of an outsider group, like the goths. Making more of an effort to watch Much Music, read Teen Beat or something that would give me relevant conversation material or style.
But as my naturopathic therapist insists, “Wendy, you would never have fit in. Nothing you could have done would make you fit in.”
It seemed like such a heart-stabbing assessment when she first said that. But soon I found it comforting. If it wasn’t my fault, then there’s no story to re-write. I can just let it go. And looking years back, I see that if there’s anything to re-write it’s my anxiety. Maybe if I could have nipped that in the bud way back when, then I wouldn’t have perpetuated this fear of social situations.
The anxiety is, unfortunately, self-fulfilling. No one wants to meet or spend time at work or a party with someone who is awkwardly self-conscious. It’s uncomfortable. So if I’m being very objective, I can see that had I been a less sensitive kid, I might not have noticed being the one without a partner now and then. Maybe I wouldn’t have cared about not going to hockey player parties because I could see I really don’t have anything in common with those kids. Not that they were mean. But just that I wasn’t a match.
Mothering an included-child
At his swimming lesson, my be-goggled son delights in the teacher’s attention, but when she’s with someone else, he doesn’t join in the splashing with the other kids. He smiles at me, or creates tidal waves with his arms, or jumps up and down. Maybe the only danger here is me. My worries transferring to him. Maybe not fitting in doesn’t have to cause mental anguish. Maybe it’s just the extreme self-consciousness about being left out that’s the problem.
Outing my unpopular self
At my volunteer dinner I said finally, “I didn’t really like high school. I wasn’t very popular. I was too geeky for parties.”
And then felt it necessary to add, “There are high school reunions – all the other grades (years) have them – but ours is always cancelled for lack of interest.” (Not my fault, you see. It’s a fault with the whole group’s cohesion.)
And then we carried on brainstorming about how to get more money to offer more poetry workshops to more kids in high school, in foster care homes, with mothers in prison and to more adults trying to get their shit together in recovery. Poetry to the rescue.