The Confession of the Green Pickle Martian

February 13, 2008

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.

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    { 45 comments }

    Trenches of Mommyhood February 13, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    Oddly enough, I just read this post of yours as I’m right in the thick of reading Jodi Picoult’s book Nineteen Minutes. A frightening fictional read about bullying and its effects.

    deep friend yankee February 13, 2008 at 2:41 pm

    You know, anyone who says that has never been excrutiatingly bullied.

    I remember almost every moment like it was yesterday.

    And I’d still love to kick Teha Smart’s stupid Australian ass. You know, if she happens to be reading your blog.

    :)

    Badness Jones February 13, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    I still remember all of the schoolyard taunts I received too – although I couldn’t have worded that as eloquently as you have – and I hope that my children never have to feel that way.

    Mimi February 13, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    Oh shit, C. This I know. For me, it was Daniel–I prayed they would turn back from me to him, and I would’ve thrown the first insult if it had helped. I would’ve for sure. Being bullied is awful, and any streak of bitter resentment and distrust that pops from my psyche now, I attribute to those awful awful grade school years that I just can’t quite ever recover from.

    Miss Britt February 13, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    Sherry, in high school. I remember wanting her to do something hideous to get those girls off my back for the rest of class.

    I wouldn’t wish that on any child, especially my own. As you said – there are lots of other ways to build character without ripping out someone’s heart.

    Chantal February 13, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    Wow, I have to say, I fear for those who don’t have the family/home support you did. Actually, I am married to one. And it is a constant battle to work through his feelings of worthlessness. Thanks for the visuals into that(his) world.

    Mouse February 13, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    There were various kids who took the Greg role for me, and I too look back with regret that my greatest feeling towards them was gratitude that someone might deflect attention towards me.

    Another teacher and I were once facilitating a 7th-grade small-group discussion about bullying and when teasing crosses the line. They were visibly shocked to discover that she and I both could vividly recount schoolyard taunts.

    ImpostorMom February 13, 2008 at 3:39 pm

    I hate even thinking of some little punk bullying my baby. And kids are infinitely more cruel today than when I was growing up.

    That was beautifully written and I agree. It is important for children to have disappointments and learn to cope with that but bullying is not the way to teach those lessons.

    Beck February 13, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    Reese Witherspoon is an ass.
    I’ve been known to phone up other parents and demand to know EXACTLY what the hell is wrong with the way they’re raising their kids, to make them such vicious little bastards at 5/6/7? And then I call the schoolboard. I am THAT mother.

    BOSSY February 13, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    Bossy doesn’t think there has to be Hard Knocks to build character. Little baby knocks wrapped in taffeta will do.

    Heather February 13, 2008 at 4:27 pm

    Like you I was one of the lucky ones who endured the taunts occasionally, not every day as some kids did. I wouldn’t wish that on any kid. Any of it.

    Kelly February 13, 2008 at 4:39 pm

    I think Reese Witherspoon has never experienced bullying. Maybe she’s read about it. Maybe she thinks it’s something different. I doubt she’s ever been scared to walk the 10 min walk home because *that girl* will be waiting along the way and she’ll hurt you.

    I firmly believe that adversity breeds character, but I don’t think I want my children bullied. It didn’t make me better. It made me more scared.

    Awesome Mom February 13, 2008 at 4:48 pm

    That just makes me sad for her children. I was not bullied a lot but I remember every incident. I do not wish that on my children one of whom has an obvious physical weakness that leaves him wide open for harassment.

    ewe are here February 13, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    No child should be bullied. Ever. And I say this as a child who was bullied, although not to the degree that you were, and I didn’t really have the support system at home. I had to sort it out on my own… and I will NOT allow my kids to go through this if I have any say in the matter. I will be all over a school, teachers, other kids’ parents if I see this happening.

    Nor will mine be allowed to bully.

    This just makes me so sad and so angry all at the same time.

    wright February 13, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Great post. It made think about when I was a kid and got bullied. Luckily a wonderful boy stood up for me and I will never forget it!

    GoMommy February 13, 2008 at 5:38 pm

    Oooh, you must have read the interview with Reese Witherspoon! I would never wish bullying on my child either-eff character.

    Christina February 13, 2008 at 6:56 pm

    I was second lowest on the social totem pole, too. It sucked. I was bullied a lot as a child, and even a little as a teen. It had a profound effect on me, but I wouldn’t call it a positive one.

    I agree with you. Being bullied does not build character at all. It did nothing but make me retreat into myself, become more shy, more afraid to speak up or do anything to draw attention to myself. I tried to blend into the wall most of the time, because any time I spoke up I quickly found that my thoughts and opinions didn’t matter as much as anyone else’s.

    It almost completely snuffed out any confidence I had, and taught me that the world is unfair, and people are mean and can’t be trusted. I’m lucky that I had a supportive family who loved me and kept me from completely giving up on the world.

    I would never wish bullying on my children.

    Jenifer February 13, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    Not making the volleyball team is certainly a disappointment, but it is not even remotely the same as being bullied. I think she messed up what she was trying to say, because I cannot imagine anyone wishing that upon their child.

    I sure hope so.

    Maddy February 13, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    The scars stick for a long time, but that’s part of the reason why I am so delighted at the anti-bullying policy at my children’s school which is ‘policed’ by the kids themselves, who see, observe and can interpret so much better than adults.
    Best wishes

    Chicky Chicky Baby February 13, 2008 at 8:48 pm

    Not breaking through the Red Rover line never did anything for my character, I can tell you that for sure.

    marymurtz February 13, 2008 at 9:28 pm

    I still remember the girls dancing in a circle around me in fifth grade chanting “Mary Pat is poor! Mary Pat is POOR!” the day I wore my brother’s hand-me-down pants to school. It’s been almost 30 years and I can tell you what the weather was like, the smell of the treehouse I hid in later, the color of the houses I sped past with tears in my eyes. Bullying is terrible. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will break my heart.”

    mothergoosemouse February 13, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    I once wore a pair of shoes to school that would have matched your outfit perfectly. Considering how much crap I took – and how vividly I still remember it – I can only imagine how you must have felt then and still feel now.

    I wish I’d known you then. I could have loaned you my shoes (and then you could have loaned me your jumpsuit).

    Carmen February 13, 2008 at 11:59 pm

    Catherine, I just had to have an official reprimand placed upon a teacher for humiliating and bullying my child. No child, no matter what, should ever experience any kind of bullying, and I won’t tolerate it.

    The first time I complained, it was passed over. The second time, it wasn’t really taken seriously. This last time? It WAS the last time, because I went nuts on them, just a wee bit. I won’t have it.

    Thanks for sharing your story.

    Anonymous February 14, 2008 at 12:16 am

    Oh, I agree. I think there’s a tendency for us to overlook bullying as just another rite of passage. I have horrible memories of being picked on and singled out in elementary school. Even worse, and more shameful, I remember turning that behaviour on my own best friend when we were in that awful twelve-year-old girl stage. It’s something I still feel guilty about until this day. Luckily, twenty-three years later she and I are still friends, and I’m so grateful for that.

    I wouldn’t wish it on my child, and furthermore, I would want to know if it was my child doing the bullying.

    crazymumma February 14, 2008 at 12:19 am

    The schoolyard is brutal, It can be hard watching my girls navigate it.

    Jerri February 14, 2008 at 12:40 am

    I was in the popular crowd in the 1st and 2nd grade. I don’t recall bullying anyone nor do I recall being bullied. But..then we moved…

    OH MY! I moved to a school, only 20 minutes away, but in the middle of a community of Bible pushes for sure. Previously I had gone to school with mostly family. My g-ma had 17 siblings and most didn’t move very far away…thus I was among friends those first 2 years.

    But, that 3rd year, dear me, not only was I an outsider, my parents were divorced, my father was a teacher and my mom had remarried ….her first cousin. Yea, that really does happen. Anyway, I was bullied more than I care to even recall.

    When I got to high school I managed to work myself into a decent crowd of braniacs/cheerleaders/athletes who I can honestly say never bullied. We weren’t bullied but I can for real say we didn’t do that to other people either.

    I have no clue why you wrote this post or why this whole subject is so strong to me (other than the bullying that I received) but I must say to you, WELL DONE. I’m linking to it on my blog if you don’t mind and I hope every freakin’ kid that tripped me on the school bus or put mud on my pants on the playground or even slapped me in the lunchroom while I waited on the bus reads this and feels like a total ass!

    Good job!

    Ozma February 14, 2008 at 1:43 am

    We’ve already had to teach my 3 1/2 year old how to handle the mean kids and their comments.

    DIAPERHEAD! They called her a diaperhead. She was a bit traumatized.

    Didn’t know what to do but did teach her the trick of acting unconcerned. She’s naturally feisty. I have NO DESIRE whatever to have her picked on. But maybe it is unavoidable? I don’t know…they already called her diaperhead and, as she put it, ‘a baby cry.’

    I guess the other thing is to make yourself and your love for them their focal point. I think that is truly a key thing.

    I got snide comments for many years and they affected me tremendously. And it was interesting that I grew up and realized they were sexist, racist and classist. And that I already reacted in some visceral way to sexism, racism and classism as a child. So maybe bullying did make me what I am? (Which is really fucking pissed off. And God, yes, I still hate that smarmy little doctor’s son that was the ringleader. He’s now a Lacanian psychoanalyst! So I hate Lacan even.)

    Lara February 14, 2008 at 3:22 am

    somewhat off-topic, but related to bullying, and i’d be interested in your thoughts. my roommate (jitta) and i recently got into a disagreement because she said that when (physical) bullying occurs, she thinks hitting back is sometimes the best solution. she thinks sometimes you have to respond to violence with violence to make it stop.

    i said that i don’t think violence is ever the answer, and i wouldn’t want my children to learn that hitting is okay. regardless of what is happening, i think there must be a better solution than furthering the violence.

    thoughts?

    Hannah February 14, 2008 at 8:50 am

    Um, wow. I hadn’t heard that from Reese Witherspoon but I agree, clearly she has never in her life been bullied.

    I can remember every taunt. Every one. I was bullied – a lot. And scared. And there is no freakin’ way it builds character – it just puts a hard shell of bitterness around low self-esteem and you carry it with you for years. I still think more than two women in a room with me must be laughing at me. It hurts.

    Anonymous February 14, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    the summer before i started grade 10 we moved….the first day of school a girl was crying in the bathroom because a bunch of the boys took her purse and she had meds she needed to take so i new girl went out into the hall and told them they were assholes and grabbed her purse and gave it back to her…after standing up to these bullies they made my life miserable….they would line up across the hallways so i couldn;t pass they pushed me they called me dog and freak and other not nice names they spat on me all the time i could go on but i’ll stop here…all because i stood up for someone……reese is foolish and cruel if she believes that bullying of any degree will toughen up and make her children humble…….

    FishyGirl February 14, 2008 at 2:36 pm

    I was the local equivalent of Greg-the-Egg. In second grade we moved to a new school that is to this day the most cliquish neighborhood that I have ever seen. I was the outsider, and small. I became “Itsy-bitsy-baby-fingers” which doesn’t sound like much now but then it broke my heart. I spent much of the rest of elementary and most of jr. high terrified of getting beat up. Anyone who thinks that’s good for their kid is … delusional. That’s the nicest word I can think of.

    Great, brilliant post, Catherine.

    Angela February 14, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    I would never wish my child or any other child to be bullied, it is cruel and humiliating and no child should have to endure it. I was bullied at various times but especially in high school, it still hurts to think of those taunts. I am ever vigilant with my children and try and insure they stand up for themselves as well as their friends. The bullying can be so insidious and sly, especially among girls. Sigh.I just want to go and get my kids and give them big hugs.

    Mom101 February 14, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    I can only imagine that RW says this from the point of view of a mom with kids who, pretty much, are always going to be sucked up to – by friends, dates, teachers, authority figures. I can see where she wants them to experience some level of disappointment or challenge in their lives. But I doubt she’d be happy to see her kids coming home in tears afraid to go back to the schoolyard ever again.

    Thanks for sharing a painful story so vividly and eloquently.

    Heart of Glass rocked, but Boogie Wonderland was definitely my rollerskating song of choice.

    pkzcass February 14, 2008 at 3:23 pm

    beck — I love you for being THAT mother.

    lara — my son was bullied alot in 4th and 5th grade. While violence is never a good idea, sometimes it takes an ass-whooping to get across to the bully that you’re not gonna take his shit anymore. My son freaked out and did just that after almost a whole school year of being tormented at lunch by one boy (who had his posse). It took that event for this kid’s mother to wake up and smell the coffee…but only AFTER I picked up the phone and told her that her son was a bully (cause you know, my son lashed out at her poor son for no reason at all). I didn’t have to go so far as to tell her that if her son kept it up, I’d make HER life miserable, but the kid did start up again towards the middle of fifth grade. At that point, my husband and I gave our son permission to defend himself…physically if needed. And we gave him the verbal ammunition too, even if it meant suspension from school. And I became THAT mother…the principal, the guidance counselor, the teachers knew I was pissed off. It also helped that I’m heavily involved in the PTO and my son was an honor student.

    Long story short, it’s easy for those who’ve never been bullied (or had a child that was bullied) to say what they think the right answer is. Until you find yourself in these actual situations, you can never truly know what you’ll do. Me, I’m with beck…I am THAT mother.

    caramama February 14, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    After reading this post and all these comments, I just want to cry for us all and our children! (Don’t call me a cry-baby, I just care deeply and can’t help but want to show it!)

    I also had a meanies-make-fun-of-my-clothing taunting in elementary school and a mean name that stuck for a year. To this day, I think of it and tremble inside. I’m still slighty terrified that someone else somewhere will call me that mean name. I was also lucky to have a home that built my self-confidence, but it still hurts.

    And I love beck and pkzcass and all the others who are THAT mom or THAT dad. I plan to be one myself. There is no excuse for the meanness that goes on in the school yards. There are other ways to learn to be a good person who can deal with adversity. The world is a hard world, but kids will learn that on their own in time (well, maybe not RW’s kids, as Mom-101 points out). There is no need to wish extra hardness and traumatizing experiences on our own children. That’s just wrong, and also makes me want to cry.

    kittenpie February 14, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    Misterpie was pretty seriously bullied as a child, too, and I see it in him on rare occasion as a flash of anger that erupts when he sees that kind of behaviour. It shocks me every time, because it is so at odds with the rest of his nature, but it did come, as you say, as the result of being pushed into a corner over and over, and building up that one volatile spot in him that reacts to seeing the same circumstance again.

    Anonymous February 14, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    The more I read, the more I like you and your blog. You’ve written some real gems that I come back to again and again. Keep it up. It’s greatly appreciated.

    Oh, and I could not agree more. Well said.

    Laural Dawn February 15, 2008 at 11:20 am

    I agree totally.
    I don’t want my children to live in a bubble, but at the same time, I would never wish teasing or bullying on them.
    Having been a chubby kid I dealt with some teasing/bullying.
    I will say it made me a stronger person, and definitely and empathetic person. I’ll never forget switching schools and suddenly not being the “fat kid” and I heard a girl being taunted down the hall with the phrase “save the whales harpoon C——”.
    I took it upon myself to befriend her and we’re still friends.
    So, I guess being teased taught me something, but I don’t wish that on anyone.
    I am pretty sure I would have befriended her no matter what.

    Jaelithe February 15, 2008 at 1:09 pm

    I am so terrified of my son being bullied in school that if I let myself think about it too hard I start planning to homeschool him. I was mostly okay through fourth grade, but in fifth grade I moved to a new school where I was suddenly a racial minority, and in sixth grade I moved to another where I was the poorest kid in the class.

    At least he’ll always have clean, newish clothes and school supplies. These are things I sometimes lacked. I can still remember frantically erasing old homework so I could re-use the paper for a pop quiz.

    Redneck Mommy February 15, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    I was teased and bullied, but not overly so. Just enough to scar me for life and develop fear. It is not something I would choose to repeat, nor is it something I would ever hope my children endure.

    There are far better ways to build character, as you pointed out.

    Love, Tuna-faced Tanis or Skinny-Minny Miller the Carpenter’s Dream…..

    Jeana February 15, 2008 at 4:49 pm

    This is an excellent, excellent post.

    K February 18, 2008 at 10:58 am

    Bullying is never ok. I got a little shiver as I read this because I just finished Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes. The story is about a child who is bullied and stands up for himself with several guns. It is also about a friend who stops standing up for him because she wants to fit in. It is a terrifying and heart wrenching story. Your point is well stated.

    Anonymous February 18, 2008 at 2:16 pm

    Huh. The greatest failure of my learning curve was that I was almost an adult before I learned that the only effective response to bullies is to immediately escalate beyond all reason.

    Once you have a reputation with the local predators as crazy, they don’t bother you any more.

    Appeals to reason make you look weak, and you get picked on more. Appeals to authority get you questions about what YOU did to provoke them.

    The correct response to “you have funnly clothes” is to give them bloody ones.

    Lamont

    Laura February 18, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    As a person who was horribly, horribly bullied in school I can’t for the life of me understand why any parent would wish such an experience on his or her child.

    Being picked on, teased, mocked and degraded doesn’t build character – it builds a progressively worsening sense of powerlessness and self esteem. And you can bloody their clothes as much as you like, it doesn’t change anything at all.

    One of the most frightening moments of my life to date was realizing after the Columbine shootings that, while I would never harm another human being, I could empathize with someone who would after years of torment.

    Is that the kind of human being Reese Witherspoon is hoping to raise? Because allowing your child to be bullied means that the person he or she will become will be significantly angrier, more fearful and less trusting.

    Oh, that was a lot of potentially misdirected anger there, but you get the idea.

    Shannon March 2, 2008 at 12:46 am

    I posted this on your other post.
    Bullying is not okay. And neither is allowing children to navigate situations without help that we ourselves would not. I mean, if I walked into my office (when I had one) to have someone shove me in the shoulder or back me into a corner in the ladies’ restroom and threaten physical violence or call me names or push me down the stairs, I would file charges against them and they would be taken away in cuffs. If my boss harrassed me, I would file suit and retire. But my child is supposed to fend for herself in a comparable situation? Absolutely not.

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