January 27. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)
When I was growing up I was different from the other children in my Grade School. I was Irish, when the majority were either Lithuanian or Slovenian. My dad died when I was 6, so I was raised by a single mother when others had both parents at home. My family had been in America for nearly 100 years, while many of my classmates were first generation of immigrant families. And the list goes on.
Those differences gave some in my school the excuse to treat me badly. Add in the fact that I had a big mouth and sarcastic wit, and the recipe was ripe for trouble. When I say I suffered at the hands of bullies it is no exaggeration. From 4th grade until 8th, it seemed that every walk home, every exchange in the school yard, every moment without the watchful eye of a teacher was an opportunity for one or another of them to do something to me. Some of the acts were obvious and overt. I was drawn into fist fights, tripped in the school yard and so on. Most were more subtle. I was mocked for my Irish heritage or for the fact that I got decent grades. Worse was the name calling where my actual name was twisted until I would sometimes hate it. The absolute worst was being teased and mocked for being in a single parent home and being called “momma’s boy”, and other words I choose not to use here.
The problems weren’t confined to the school area, or even the school year. I lived on a street with about 25 or 30 houses. One entire end of my street became essentially off limits to me (self-imposed), because I knew if I ventured past a certain hedge row, the crew that lived at the far end of the street would show me no mercy. There were about 5 of these thugs living right on my street, and I did all I could to avoid them.
In short, I spent a lot of time feeling inferior. Mostly, I spent a lot of time alone. During the summer I had essentially one friend, Tony, whom I hung out with as much as possible. I played baseball in little league and had some friends there, but they weren’t in my neighborhood. During the school year I also had Steve, but his family traveled quite a bit in the summer, and when the final bell rang in early June, we would see very little of each other for 3 months.
Looking back, one of the reasons it finally ended for me was that after 8th grade I was off to High School, where there was a completely new set of people to meet. I was able to leave behind the bullies, and find hope in a new group of friends. One of the other things that helped end the torturous time for me was an event that happened in the Fall of my 8th grade year.
One day I was taunted in the cafeteria at lunchtime, by a bully who happened to be a year younger than I. The lunch mom saw what happened and the bully got into trouble, but in the line to return to classes he looked at me and mouthed the words “you’re dead”, with an angry look the let me know he meant business. After school he and his friends surrounded me about 150 yards from school. He meant to beat the daylights out of me, and he even got in the first punch. He thought he had his act together, but what he didn’t know was that I was left handed. He never saw it coming, but my left hand came up fast and landed a direct hit on his nose. He went down hard, and there was blood. His friends were in stunned silence and Steve and I got the heck out of there. After the incident there were phone calls between teachers and parents, but no punishments due to school politics.
Looking back, the rest of my 8th grade year was uneventful. I had, once and for all, stood up to the bullies. I had asserted myself with them, and let them know that it would no longer be easy picking with me.
I am certainly no advocate for violence, and I would not recommend that anyone pick a fight. I lived in a time when people settled scores with their fists, where today other means might be used. Violence only promotes more violence. I was lucky that it became and end for me.
Bullying isn’t new. It isn’t a product of the 21st century. For as long as there have been adolescent boys and girls, some have chosen to bully others. And bullying isn’t confined to adolescence.
Yesterday a friend and I were talking about “fat shaming”, the despicable act of attacking someone because of their weight. It is just another in a long line of ways that some will use to try to make others feel hurt. In the discussion she asked “When do I stop being so affected by the negative opinions of others in regards to my weight?” It’s a question that all of us have faced who have ever been overweight. It’s one that I have had to deal with in the past year.
I told her that it stops mattering the moment that she decides it doesn’t matter. As I was having the discussion I was thinking of this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt.
The fact is that no one can make us feel inferior in any way, unless we let them. They can say what they want, they can try to sway the opinions of us and others, but unless we allow them into our head, unless we internalize their hateful statements, they hold no power over us.
I am not here on this quiet, dark, Tuesday morning saying that I never let what others think matter to me. Clearly I do. What I am here saying is that I know that if what they think is bothering me, it is because I am allowing it to do so. I am internalizing some part of their hate, and making it my own self-hatred. And I know that when I stop doing that, I win.
I struggle from time to time with what I think others think of me. I worry that past acquaintances or former co-workers hold grudges, or lower opinions of me. The fact is that they most likely never give me a second thought. The issue resides only in my own head and heart. When I kick them out, I feel worlds better.
Today my reflection is on revoking permission for other people to make me feel badly.