Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Part 1 of 4: The Problem with Peaking in Middle School and other stories of bullying

Disclaimer: This is a several-part piece that talks about my most painful experiences in my childhood and teens years with bullying. In order to (emotionally) feel safe sharing these stories, some names have been changed as well as minor details. As a woman in my late forties, who has battled (for decades)—as many women do— with myself over whether or not I have the right or deserve to speak my personal truth and perspective on events that happened to me, I’ve decided to not allow that inner battle or my fears to stop me. Who knows if anyone will read this. Who knows if anyone who reads this will be someone from my past who participated, witnessed or knew about these events. And, who knows if anyone will care. I do know that someone out there will relate. That my story will connect with someone. So here are my true stories of bullying and the effects they had on me.

Part 1: Picked-On

The first time I was bullied was in second grade by my (supposed) best friend’s older sister, I’ll call her “Andy”. Andy caught us playing “doctor” in my friend's room, and then threatened to “tell on” us if we didn’t do certain things. One time Andy wanted me to wear a certain skirt “or else”, and another time when I declined a sleepover invite, she said I better come over (my friend was sad) “or else”. Although these things were benign, it was scary to have someone hold something over me, something which I wasn’t even sure would land me in trouble. (Our definition of doctor was a consensual flashing of private parts to each other!). In my recollection of this, I do remember that my older sister found out about the blackmail behavior Andy was doing, and basically told this bully-bitch she better watch out or else! My sister was a year older than Andy and had a team of junior high friends willing to have her (and my) back. I’d like to think this is what stopped Andy, but really it was that my family wound up moving away at the end of that school year. But this was the first of what would be many significant moments where I learned about bullying.

This is what bullied looks like. Me, age 7. 1982.
The second time I was bullied was in 4th grade. Ironically, as the new kid (yet again) in 3rd grade, no one bothered me for the entire year, so much so that I just about forgot that ever important-lesson of the year before—that some people can be really shitty. Then 4th grade rolled up, and the Pizza Hut outfit happened, and my life went right to shit again.


Here’s how it went down: Sheryl, my mother, insisted on dressing me, and we all know that as kids get closer to puberty and the tween years, that shit doesn’t fly. Kids will resist, but if you have a persistent mother who really thought of you as a living doll at times, you will lose and I did. 

Thus, as 4th grade began, Sheryl schlepped me to Filene's one weekend for some back-to-school shopping and bought me what would quickly be dubbed as The Pizza Hut dress due to its— you guessed it— white and red checkered pattern. Not cute. Oh, but Sheryl thought it was, and insisted—despite my wrinkled nose at the outfit— that I looked adorable. Though I wanted an Esprit tee-shirt and pair of acid washed jeans, those were vetoed quickly. My mother ascribed to the “you have to buy outfits or ‘“ensems” (as in ensembles) as she referred to them.


The next day when I picked out my clothes (she also bought me another outfit that, although I resembled a bee due to its black and yellow colors, was far more stylish and frankly less weird). I did not select Pizza Hut but instead chose Bee and she said, nope. “I didn’t spend 500 dollars on clothes for you to not wear that adorable matching shirt and skirt.” Guilt was a prevalent motivator with Sheryl. So I begrudgingly put on the ensemble and—the piece de resistance—she had also purchased matching red shoes that I had to wear as well.

The next day would be the first and last time that I would ever wear the monstrosity. I walked into the classroom to immediate shouts of “Pizza Hut!” led by the scrappiest, smallest girl in the class who also happened to be the scariest. She had a ratty mullet and beady eyes. We’ll call her Andy Andrews (yes, she shared the same first name as my first bully!). She followed her chant with “I’m going to kick your ass you stupid bitch.”  Yep, this school was a lot tougher than my previous one. She continued to taunt me all day and at recess. The only reason why she didn’t follow through with her threat was because it rained, and we had to stay inside where I sat, alone, doodling on a piece of paper, my friends all terrified of the Pizza Hut cooties I now possessed. Andy Andrews whispered how she was going to punch me in the tits and other uncomfortable places (I mean is there a comfortable place to get punched?). 


“Tomorrow, Goodman. I’m gonna kick your ass. I’m not kidding, either.”

And indeed she was not.

The  next day, I’m standing in the center of the chalked-in-lines for hopscotch when Andy decides to run up to me and pummel my chest, dead center between my barely-budding boobs. She does it over and over as I stand, like a weeble wobble who wobbles and wobbles and just won’t fall down. I can’t find my voice at first, the breath punched out of my lungs.


Then I do.

“Someone get a teacher,” I lamely squawk.

No one did.

But the recess bell wrang, the crowd dispersed, and Andy walked away like we had just finished a game of kickball.

Maybe it was my lack of falling down? Maybe it was because I didn’t snitch on her? Whatever it was, Andy Andrews never bothered me again.

Me with my beloved cabbage patch kid, 4th grade. 1984

Unfortunately, others did. 4th grade was just getting started and so was the bullying.

Not long after Andy Andrews punched me in the tits, another girl Traci S, befriended me. One time, we had an-almost sleepover at her house, where her mother confessed that they had a snake infestation in their basement but hadn’t seen one in a few days “so they’re probably gone”. I suddenly became too sick to spend the night (I had and have a crazy snake phobia). That Monday, at recess of course, she spread a rumor that reached me faster than Andy Andrew’s punches to my tits:

“Hannah humped a pillow at our sleepover.”

The most ironic part of this rumor included this confession from Tracy:

“Well, no, I didn’t see her do it, but she told me she did.”

I barely understood what “humping” meant!

Then others came forward: Jess D claimed I “humped” a shampoo bottle during a sleepover at her house. (There was never a sleepover, and also how does one “hump” a shampoo bottle?). 

It rose to a fevered pitch at recess one day where I clutched my cabbage patch kid named Diane Alise while standing in the middle of the crowd, numb and silent this time, as they pummeled me not in the tits but worse, right into my self-worth.

However, by the grace of I-have-no-idea-what, a popular and powerful girl named Denise P stepped right into the center of that mess and yelled at all of the kids that they had to stop. “Enough is enough,” she said. “Leave Hannah alone!”

And poof! With that, they stopped, and it was never mentioned again.

But damage done. So. Much. Damage. Done. 

The next moment of bullying was by one of my supposed best childhood friends who I’ll call “Heather”. Looking back, I see all the microaggressions she hurled. anti-Semitic is the word we would use today. She told me I had a “big Jewish nose” and she and one of her friends would come to my softball games and sing, “Hey, Jew” to me. Not all the time. Not loudly. But enough so I heard it. The culmination of her bullying me is a fuzzy memory. I’m not sure how it started, but we were at my house in my room, and she was brushing my hair. The next thing I knew she was taking handfuls of Vaseline and putting it in my hair. I don’t know why. I vaguely remember her saying, stay still. This is going to look good.

It did not.

By the time my mom came home from work, I looked like a greaser from the 1950s. I was in tears, screaming that I never wanted to go back to school.

I was home for a week. My mom tried everything to get it out. Vinegar. Dish soap. The only thing we could do was wait, and then I had to cut a lot of it off. For the first time in my life, I had short hair, and it horrified me to think I might look like a boy.

Then I went back to school.

You would think that I would be met with a flurry of more bullying. But no. The reign of terror was over, and it would remain so for another two years.

PART 2: From Picked-on to Popular to Picked-on (Again) to Invisible to... High School Reunions

PART 2: From Picked-on to Popular to Picked-on (Again) to Invisible to... High School Reunions

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