Suddenly, on the heels of some high-profile teen suicides during the past year, we’ve realized that bullying is something we should be paying attention to. How it’s managed to escape our consciousness seems to be about “boys being boys,” or making kids tougher in the long run, or punishing and shaming gay kids into being “normal.” Lately, there have been press conferences, celebrity ads, studies, and initiatives, even from the White House, to bring to public awareness what a whole lot of people have learned the hard way.
I was not a fortified kid. I had no backbone for dealing with being teased, with having my chair kicked, with being stage-whispered about, so I quit Hebrew school in fifth grade — much to the lamentation of my mother, who swore I would regret it. I didn’t. Maybe sucking it up and staying would have laid the foundation for me to become a Talmudic scholar, but I doubt it. I couldn’t take it; I had to get away from those kids, even if it just meant postponing my encounters with them until I started high school in the same town. (By that time, we all seemed to have developed a certain amnesia about our previous lives together.)
If only I had known, sitting in those Hebrew school classrooms, how much worse it would get, how bland that teasing seemed compared to what happened every day in eighth-grade English class (of all places, my dependable refuge). The boy who sat behind me constantly whispered to me things that I didn’t understand: When am I going to get a piece of you? (What piece? And how would he get it?) My friend in class told me I should be flattered, that it meant he liked me, that he thought I was pretty. It went on like that for half a year, the whispering, which then devolved into groping, and once, trapping me in an empty classroom during passing period, while he and his friend swatted at the place between my legs. I escaped, thankfully, and soon after that, they lost interest in me.
I could quit Hebrew school, but I could not quit eighth grade. And I felt that I could not tell an adult what was happening. I don’t know if my teachers ever noticed my fear or my silence, let alone the actual things that were happening during class time. In the moments I’d spend talking to this teacher after class and after school, I could not bring myself to form the words. I felt too exposed, too ashamed, and too certain that it was my fault.
I wonder what would have happened if I had said something, or if someone had noticed (or admitted to noticing) and I had known that that person was my advocate, my safe place. There’s no amount of fortification that can prepare a kid for this sort of thing — even if you do the difficult and essential work of teaching a girl to trust her own instincts. The feeling of invisibility and the desperation to be seen overwhelmed me, as does the feeling now of how lucky I am to be able to name the experience and talk about it without shame.