It was sometime in the very early eighties, in that time when, if you lived in the suburbs, the seventies still hadn’t ended. I was in grade school – grade four, specifically – and I was about as awkward as they come at that age: tall and skinny and shy and cursed with a coarse mass of wavy dirty-blonde hair that my mother tried to keep tamed in pigtails that looked more like rough shipping rope than the shining plaits that I hoped for. I was always made to stand in the back row with the boys for class pictures. I was always ignored. I was always picked second-last for sports teams, even though I was a really good athlete, skinny legs and all.
Getting picked last was an honor reserved for one unfortunate Greg Appleby, nicknamed Greg-The-Egg for his large and indisputably egg-shaped head. I didn’t properly appreciate the social buffer that he provided for me at the time – I was new to the neighbourhood, and the school, and all I knew was that a) some of the kids were really mean, and b) they were meaner to Greg-The-Egg than they were to me. I was grateful, of course, for his existence, which meant that I was only ever a secondary bullying target, but I didn’t appreciate that the buffer he provided was a tenuous one, and I certainly didn’t appreciate the possibility that he might have been a useful ally in efforts to survive the social jungle of Miss Myhill’s grade four class. So I always hung back when the mean kids were teasing him, pretending to not hear the taunts, and I was always very careful to never, ever be seen anywhere in his proximity, lest the bullies turn their attention to me.
Which, of course, they inevitably did.
It was the day that I decided to come to school in my favourite outfit. This particular outfit was a real prize – a two-piece pantsuit of bright, Kermit-green satin with a shimmery orange roller skate decal across the back that I ordinarily reserved for the spontaneous roller-dancing performances that I sometimes staged for my parents and sister in our carport (favoured soundtrack: Blondie’s Heart Of Glass) – and for some reason that I cannot for the life of me recall, I decided to indulge in a little sartorial daring and wear it to school one sunny Monday morning.
The schoolyard response was immediate.
Look at the fuzzy-headed pickle! Whatcha wearin’, Fuzzy Head? What are you, Fuzzy, a martian? A green pickle martian?
GREEN PICKLE MARTIAN! GREEN PICKLE MARTIAN! GREEN PICKLE MARTIAN!
Their words were not, by today’s standards, obscenely cruel, but to say that those words rang and burned in my ears would not only be a lazy turn of descriptive phrase, it would be understating the aural and psychological experience so dramatically as to render it meaningless. Their words, and the fear and shame that they inspired, scorched my heart and burned into my psyche: I can still hear the precise intonation of their taunts, the nyah-nyah-nyah-NYAH-nyah rhythm – a sing-song rhythm that you could skip to, if you were in the mood for skipping, which I emphatically was not – as clearly as if those kids were still standing two feet away from me. I can remember wishing – and can still feel the visceral, gut-pulling force of that wish – that it would just stop just stop just stop now, that the taunts would suddenly cease and that the children would just fall away, as though drawn back like a curtain, so that I could just go inside and disappear inside my head until lunchtime, at which point I would go home and make up some story for my mother about why I had to change out of my beloved outfit and into something a little less Xanadu.
And I can remember wondering where Greg-The-Egg was. I can remember wondering if he was nearby – I knew, somehow, that he must be nearby, listening, and I knew that he would be feeling the same generalized gratitude for whatever green-satin-disco miracle had caused the bullies to direct their venom toward me that I had long felt toward him – and I can remember wishing, hard, that wherever he was, his glasses would suddenly fall off or that he would pick his nose or that he would do something, anything, to draw everyone’s attention away from me, away from me and back to him, back to where, I thought, meanly, terribly, that it belonged. I remember, clearly, feeling my heart turn in on itself, feeling it turn sad and dark and ashamed. And mean. I remember wanting the tables to be turned on everyone there, starting with Greg-The-Egg. I remember feeling small, and mean.
Because here’s the thing: despite the romanticized image that we sometimes see in TV or film of the virtuous geek nobly withstanding bullying, picking up his broken glasses and placing them defiantly on his nose, being bullied doesn’t make one a better person. It doesn’t, in the moments that it occurs, fertilize an inner core of strength and dignity and compassion that will grow into some noble sensitivity that is made manifest in generosity of spirit and consideration toward all others. It hardens the heart, makes it tougher, makes one crawl into herself and build a great stony wall around all of the emotional wiring that is tucked away back there and then hide there and peer out at the cold, scary world suspiciously, cowardly. Sure, I grew up – I think – into a good person with a caring heart and a better-than-average capacity for compassion, but those few intense experiences of being bullied didn’t contribute to that character development. Rather, the things that did contribute to the development of my character – the constant and well-demonstrated love of my family, the abundance of humor in the home that I grew up him, my parents’ unwavering example, etc, etc – enabled me to overcome the emotional injuries that I sustained through that year and a half or so of being bullied, of being frightened, of feeling, so much of the time, so powerless. It was, I think, the love and support that abounded in my home that prevented the wounds of bullying from scarring over into kind of intractable toughness, or into some permanent burden of shame or fearfulness. (I remained the scapegoat of that schoolyard, alongside Greg-The-Egg, who I never did befriend, for the rest of the year and much of the following summer – sometimes being pushed around on the playground, sometimes being followed on my walk home and taunted with childish threats, always being shunned and teased – until we moved away.)
So when someone says, I’d like for my kids to be bullied and teased; it’s good for them; it builds character, I recoil. Sure, it’s good for children to experience disappointments, and to learn that things don’t always go their way and that the world is not always a warm and welcoming place, but those kinds of lessons can come from sources less extreme than the experience of being bullied – of being targeted for humiliating attack, of being hunted and tormented in any degree. No child should ever, ever experience that – and no parent should ever tolerate it being visited upon their child or visited by their child upon others.
I expect that my child will experience all sorts of hurts and disappointments – I want her to experience some hurts and disappointments – and I expect that it will take some effort on my part to maintain my parental composure as I witness these. But I never want her to feel the hurt and the shame and the insidious, creeping meanness that comes with being bullied. Never. if that makes me over-protective, I don’t care.
This Green Pickle Martian has never forgotten that schoolyard.