Teased to death

“Growing up in my neighborhood, kids got teased, not bullied.” Pieter Bos, Wikimedia

I never put this in words until recently: I’m afraid of children. Crazy, right? Unnatural. Just plain dumb.

About a month ago, while still digesting that news flash from my brain, I had a related revelation which was brought on by all the recent talk about bullying. Here goes: I’m afraid of children because of the incessant bullying I got as a kid. So obvious. I kinda understood it, but kinda didn’t want to look at it.

Growing up in my neighborhood, kids got teased, not bullied. Bullying happened, it was just called teasing. Often, it was called harmless teasing. I don’t know if the adults were being polite or they believed themselves and thought I was over sensitive. They sure didn’t stop it. My mother basically told me to stand up for myself, something I never figured out how to do. Instead, I cried.

I cried in classrooms, I cried in the backyard of my apartment building, I cried on the street. Children, from toddlers to teens, mocked me for looking like a boy, for being smart, for building roads in the mud, for wanting to be the father when we played house, for wearing hand-me-down boys’ clothes and homemade girls’ clothes, for my name, for not having a religion, for my skinny body. For being different.

Walking with my mother, well into adulthood, I cringed when children came toward us, terrified they’d call me names or ask if I was a boy or a girl. I even feared my niece and nephew, especially during their teen years when I knew I’d be the weird aunt. They weren’t mean kids, though, and now that they’re grown, I couldn’t ask for stronger supporters.

But kids are unpredictable and bullying takes its toll. Especially when it’s not called by its right name. That’s a negation of a child’s experience: “Oh, they’re just teasing you.” I don’t know what the right way would be for a parent to help a child who is bullied. I do know that ignoring the issue isn’t. My sweetheart tells me she stood up for her little sister. I’m in awe of her for that. Protecting another child is a heroic act for any little peewee.

I’m not alone in this experience. A lot has been written about the cycle of bullying and how adults who have been bullied perpetuate the behavior. I haven’t read anything about adults who’ve learned compassion from the experience, or about adults who go into the helping professions or otherwise devote their lives to lessening the pain of others, human or four-legged. That’s what I took from my little ordeal.

I know I got off easy: no one disowned me, beat me up, or tried to kill me. I didn’t have to live on the streets, go hungry, or be violated. The damage was more subtle. Before age five or six I was an outgoing friendly kid, never a bit of trouble, according to my mother. She claimed that I would talk to every stranger on the street. Then I changed. I became shy, withdrawn, silent. I was reluctant to eat. The crying started. My affect​ ​became flat. Kids and adults and my mother teased me for never smiling. And that’s how I stayed most of the time for many years.

No therapist picked up on this. I would have been embarrassed to bring up teasing. After all, I was taught to ignore it, a mere childhood discomfort. I never dealt with the bullying issue, never thought it was an issue, even as it went on right into college.

By high school, though, I’d come out. All of a sudden I knew who I was, understood my difference. Shaming me was not as effective as it had been, partly because I had a group identity. I didn’t know many gays, but those I knew accepted me as I was. Being bullied was an unspoken bond. We played at being tough dykes on the city streets and seldom were hassled.

Yet the damage had been done. ​I wasn’t going to let anyone see the little girl I’d been ever again.

I live in an adult community now. Little by little I’ve found myself relaxing, becoming more outgoing, talking to strangers in the ‘hood. It’s a small miracle for me, though I don’t know that I’ll ever trust the neighbors not to turn against me. Holidays, demon grandchildren visit, and I find myself getting all gimlet-eyed with suspicion, hyper-vigilant like in the old days.

I never learned how to protect myself from them. Now that I know the truth, that I was badly bullied, my fears don’t seem so crazy or unnatural and certainly not dumb. Raising awareness about bullying is a real smart move.

Somehow my natural resilience prevailed and formed who I am today. Unlike others who were teased to death.

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