Sunday, April 15, 2012
Ever wondered about the title of my blog?
I just sat through the documentary “Bully”. The message is important; the quality of the movie is beside the point. I wanted to see the kids they were talking about to see if anything had changed since I was growing up in myriad middles of nowhere like Burns Flat, OK; Bogata, TX and Tylertown, MS.
Anyone who knows me is aware that I am a unique individual. More quirky than out and out strange but I always felt out of place in those tiny towns because I wasn’t like anyone else in those towns. Had I lived or gone to school somewhere more urban would I have found people like me and not felt so outside the norm? I think so, but it’s a moot point at this juncture.
It wasn’t that I had any particular peculiarities. I liked Legos, Hot Wheels, reading and air conditioning. I did not like getting sweaty or dirty. I realize that a community held together by the blue corduroy of an FFA jacket is not quick to embrace someone seemingly against all manner of farm happenings. Bu I did try to do what was expected like joining the 4-H (a pre-FFA) and owning a cow, sheep and horse, not necessarily in that order. It didn’t help my cause, I’m sure, that I was a hard to miss chubby, poor, overachiever, determined to be the best. The best what I hadn’t quite figured out at that point.
Now, I don’t want anyone to think that I was bullied throughout my life. I only remember certain instances of actual physical attacks; it was mostly name calling and then only from specific people. Prior to sixth grade I truly don’t remember anyone ever saying anything negative about me other than the basics like, “My Millennium Falcon is better than your Land Speeder”. But as puberty sneaked ever near, things would begin to change.
The first instance of someone actually singling me out for torment was a guy in my 6th grade class in Oklahoma. He did not embrace the spirit of kindness of the man for whom my elementary school was named, Will Rogers. While Mr. Rogers may have never met a man he didn’t like, this guy sure did and that man, so to speak, was me. It started, like so many coming of age movies, on the dodge ball court. He decided that I had committed some unpardonable sin and told me he would “take care of” me after school. What I could possibly have done to him during this dodge ball game is beyond me. I was more known for my embracing of the wall than any sort of aggressive stance. Dodge ball is the personification of sweat, y’all, and I was having none of it.
Wouldn’t you know that day was the one time I missed the bus home and my friend Kristin and I set out for the four-block walk home swinging our trusty trumpet cases as we were full-fledged members of the band. Having completely forgotten the threats of this behemoth, I was startled when he stepped out from behind a tree about 2 blocks from my house. Taking in his size, much taller than my wishing-I-was-5-foot-tall self, and his moustache (I may be mis-remembering that), I did what any red-blooded band member would do. I screamed, swung my trumpet case at his head and ran like a gazelle that has been startled by a lion. I leapt and ran and screamed and forgot all about my sweet friend Kristin. Loyalty is one thing, self preservation is an all together different animal. Unfortunately that animal is usually more fainting goat than grizzly bear.
One thing that I think had the most effect on my self-esteem wasn’t so much that this particular guy didn’t like me it was what he called me. ‘Fat ass’ and ‘sissy’ were frequent monikers my father attached to me. Hearing those words from someone at school made me think that maybe my Daddy wasn’t wrong. Maybe that guy wasn’t just being mean, well, except for that whole wanting to beat me up thing. They called me fat and I was fat, maybe I was a sissy, too. Having no real reference for manly behavior expected of an 11 year-old, I looked to my Daddy and I was most definitely not like him. Just when I started to be aware of the need for self-esteem, it became painfully obvious that I had no place to actually get a good one.
Moving to Bogata, TX that summer was not something I looked forward to with anything other than trepidation. It may have been necessary for my family as my Daddy had lost his job and we were moving to be near relatives, but I had never experienced a feeling of not fitting in before our settling into the Red River Valley. Talk about being the odd man out. I was just going through puberty which isn’t kind to anyone. I also got glasses for the first time. Nothing says junior high success story like a chubby weirdo unless it’s a chubby weirdo with glasses who doesn’t like boots. And it didn’t help that I was the only boy on the honor roll in my grade; scholastic achievement in the classroom won’t get you a free pass with cowboys, believe you me.
Was everyone mean to me? Absolutely not. But it only takes one person finding a specific interest in making you feel less than spectacular about yourself to ruin any otherwise decent days.
I hated every blasted minute of it but I went out for every sport they offered, hoping against hope that something I did would make my Daddy like me just a little bit. But it never seemed to be good enough. All As? Done. 4-H Officer (for the District no less)? Done. Football team? Yes. Track team? Yes. Basketball team? No, but only because I was so laughably bad at it the coach just told me to have a seat. When you get lapped by the kid with a club foot while running, you may not have any athletic skills.
The next time we moved (to Tylertown), I didn’t have a problem fitting in. I seemed to have found my place. I had plenty of friends and had as much fun as you can in a town with one red light and no Wal-Mart. But there was always one guy. No matter what. Even in junior college. And it only takes one person to make your life miserable. It’s easy to say, “Don’t let them get you down” or “They are just unhappy” or “They are projecting”. I would like to believe that but it’s not necessarily true. Do I really think the guy calling me a faggot is himself gay and projecting? No, I do not. We’d graduated to that term by then as our vocabularies in high school and college are much more sophisticated. He is being mean because that’s what he has been taught. Hatred is learned.
Was this verbal abuse constant? No, but that didn’t soften the blows when it happened. Did my Dad still call me names? No, but it’s hard for a kid to forget the bad stuff. You can get used to a certain level of self-hatred that’s almost impossible to recognize much less address. Don’t get me wrong, I knew my Mother loved me and I had to believe deep down my Daddy did; it’s a rule when you are a parent. You have to love your kids. Of course, I figure, you don’t necessarily have to like them.
By my sophomore year in college, I had pushed myself to be anything and everything I could. At the time I was Student Body President and had been elected Campus Favorite. I should have felt on top of the world, but I didn’t because there were several guys on the football team that called me faggot and queer for reasons known only to them. It was not lost on me that there was a pattern developing.
Expecting a teenager to perform psychotherapy on themselves is ridiculous at best and dangerous at worst. However, as an adult I realized (about two years ago) that my Daddy just doesn’t know how to show affection other than through buying people things. And he is incapable of apologizing for anything. He just doesn’t know how.
The summer after my freshman year in college, he and my Mother saved up and bought me a brand new car. I had wrecked my first car driving to Vacation Bible School commencement at my church. (I feel the need to establish Jesus-adjacent context). My previous car was a ’73 Mustang II; you know the one that looks like a Pinto? But this new car was awesome. It was a Nissan Sentra and I thought it was the most awesome gift in the history of gift giving. Growing up in various stages of lower and middle class, my Dad had gotten a job off shore and we were doing pretty well. I had always exaggerated our wealth as I was embarrassed to be poor. I know people saw right through me, but I was naïve enough to believe they believed me. And I was so proud of that car. I felt just like everybody else. The lies were becoming true, at least some of them.
One of the things that my family does not discuss is my stent as a Basketball Cheerleader in college. I understand it was not something they considered manly, but they were more than the opposite of proud that I chose to do this. By this time I realized that I was not the son they had necessarily wanted and felt lucky that my brother had showed up four years after me with superb athletic skills and I could just go be my allegedly weird self. But being that person had its costs.
After a basketball tournament, I was about to leave campus when I stopped by the dorms to get an assignment from one of my friends. I had moved home and commuted my last semester due to the harassment from the aforementioned footballers. By the time I got back to my car, someone had carved the word FAG in the hood with a broken beer bottle. First of all, who would do something like that? Second of all, how could I let my parents see that? CSI and all those shows were not on the air in 1990. If this happened now, I’d save the bottle they carelessly left behind to test for fingerprints. Murder, She Wrote didn’t really address vandalism.
I had to take the rest of that bottle and assist this bully in destroying the nicest thing I had ever owned. That remains one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do. Since we could barely afford the car, I had no insurance or money for a paint job. I had to drive that car for another two years with the constant reminder that there was apparently something wrong with me. Something so bad it drove others to vandalism.
Why am I telling you all this? I really don’t know other than to remind you that since the world is such a scary, mean place, your home should be a safe haven. Even if your kid is the weirdest person in recorded history, they are still your kid and they deserve to feel loved at all times. And even if you think you show them how much you love them, say it out loud, just to be sure. And if they want to wear penny loafers to a rodeo, let them.
Hatred is learned. Be very aware of what you say and how you say it.
I am 41 years old and despite a life that has known its share of successes and its share of failures, it took me until my 40th birthday, a strong faith in Christ, supportive friends and a stent in anger management counseling to actually like myself and let go of the past. I had carried anger around with me like a favorite messenger bag for many years. Anyone who has ever ridden in a car I was driving can attest to the rage that resided just under the surface.
Those of you who know me from various stages of my life may be surprised I had self-esteem issues. Especially those who always thought I was an arrogant so-and-so; and there are many I feel quite sure. Those of you who really know me are well aware of my self-esteem and self-loathing issues. I should get an Oscar for my life; I am that good at faking happy. Because I felt I had to be. And the fact that it took me this long to be truly happy should be proof that just because everything looks okay on the outside doesn’t mean your son or daughter isn’t slowly dying on the inside. Take the time to talk to them. And really listen, especially to the things they aren’t saying.
The only thing that kept me from committing suicide is a low tolerance for pain and the need to live long enough to be skinny, rich and cute; or at least my version of skinny, rich and cute. You have to understand, when I was growing up, if your house was brick and had a bay window I thought you were rich. And anyone that weighed less than I was considered skinny.
My current house is stucco (close enough) and I have a visible jaw-line (for the first time ever) so, in my world, I am rich and skinny. And the fact that I can walk straight into the Brooks Brothers Outlet and purchase pastel chinos in my size makes me smile.
And if no one else thinks I look cute, I (and Jesus) do and for the first time that’s enough.