His Name Was Joseph
I have a good memory. Better than most. I’ve often wondered if I was a savant of some type. Because I find that my memories have never really felt like memories. Almost as if they happened just yesterday. I read once, that there is a small percentage of the population that experience this. When or where I read this, and that this is also a form of PTSD if the memory is bad enough. Makes sense. But part of my event memory problem is the childhood memories I have.
I remember this one particular day, the outfit I was wearing and the bully. Yes, I said bully.
You see, I was one of those kids. I was the shy, chubby girl, who was the object of one or another bully obsessions. I’ll start with Joseph.
I moved to a small town in Wilmington Massachusetts when I was 8 years old, and entering the 3rd grade at Boutwell Elementary. I was described by my Mother as the kind of little girl who would walk to school with a smile on her face, and the kicker here is, I was walking alone. So I guess I just found joy in being me. I do remember being mesmerized by the blades of grass that would peak out under the side walks, and the way the pavement took on different shades of grey and dark grey when I walked. The speckles in the pavement, and the dirt on the edges of the roadway. The lilac tree in the spring that I would pass by every morning before school and after school. On the really special days I would be lucky enough to see the said owner of that beautiful tree, outside on my way home. She would be picking her lilacs and she always asked me if I wanted some. And of course I could not have been more joyful at the prospect of bringing a small bushel home to my Mother, who would expediently get me a glass of water to put them in. My Mom loved lilacs almost as much I did.
This particular morning, that stands out in my memory was the morning that I was especially excited about. I was about to wear one of my brand new dresses of the three new dresses that I got for school each year. All of us kids, got 3 new outfits. My Mother did not believe in the late 60’s that little girls should wear pants, so dresses it was. Which I had no problem with. I loved my dresses, the colors, the patterns, the smell of new fabric, the feel of putting on a new dress for school was to my 8 year old mind ,one of the most exciting moments in my life. Today was no different. I was going to be wearing my favorite of the 3, which was to be known as the “bumblebee” dress. It’s odd because I don’t remember who named it that. Maybe it was me, maybe it was my Mom. But none the less, that was what we both called it. It had very small black and white stripes on the bottom skirt portion of it, with a tweed like material. The top of it was bright yellow, and I do mean bright. It had a gold chain that went from one side of the waist to the other, and it was absolutely beautiful to me. I had on white knee socks and black shoes, which still, even on the 3rd day of school in the 3rd grade was a battle with blisters. But blisters or not, I’d get there one way or another. Black patent letter shoes were not the most comfortable thing to wear on a long walk to elementary school, but they were fashionable. And we may have not had a lot of money, but Mom always told me, if you gotta be poor, at least don’t look like it! So I never looked like it. Oh the stories I could tell about that. Hence, best to leave that for another story. The morning was sunny, it was going to be hot. I remember the hazy, somewhat humid morning feel. As I cross the street on Burlington ave, to get to the sidewalk, I’m feeling joyful, content, happy with my new dress all of the things that most little girls feel when donning a new outfit. It was a good day to be 8 years old! I walk past the lady’s house that has the lilac tree in the spring, I feel light, I feel pretty, I feel happy. And then I see him, crossing the intersection with his friend. JOSEPH!
Joseph was the type of boy, that you would think would have been picked on, but he was the bully not the one being bullied. I guess he got that pecking order down rather early in childhood. He had a howdy doody like appearance, and I remember a huge gaping space between his front teeth. He was loud and he was mean. And he didn’t like me. Every day I would get to that intersection and there he would be either crossing over or starting to cross over. And before you knew it, he was walking right behind, or too close for my comfort all the way to school. We were in the same class, so this torment, once it began didn’t really subside. Joseph crossed over to where I was walking, my 8 year old heart was beating out of my chest. Childhood to me was a series of fast heartbeats, nervous reactions and fear. This day was no different. Today should have been different though, I was wearing my new dress. In my innocent mind, I was thinking that Joseph may like it too. Even maybe enough not to be mean to me today, or bully me all the way to school. But that didn’t happen. From behind me, I hear his voice with his friend laughing. “Doesn’t FAT-SO look pretty today??.” and then it began, all the way to school, one remark after another, shoving by me, getting in my face. And to this day I still can’t figure out if what he said was a compliment or a hurtful remark. Suffice it to say, I took it as both. Some things in childhood you just learn how to justify.
Joseph followed me to school each and every day, taunting me for one reason or another. I told my Mother, she said he just liked me. Thanks Mom, that was not was I was hoping you’d say. That kind of justification of bad behavior lasted my entire life. When someone teased me, or acted bad toward me I would justify it as they were jealous of me, or they liked me. Not that they were just mean spirited humans that found joy in hurting others. Not that I should stand up for myself. Her best advice was, ‘ignore him’ and it will go away. Only it never went away.
In my life from first grade until 8th grade I was bullied. Every year there was a new flavor, a new brand of bully that would for some reason find yours truly and make my life a living hell. I never told. I didn’t tell anyone. If I told my Mother, she would only say the same thing she has always said. ‘ignore it’. I’ve ignored so much in my life. I still do. There was one time in the first grade when I got punched in the stomach by a girl just because I was standing in line, and she told me I was fat and she didn’t like me. I remember it like it was just yesterday. Again.. that memory thing. She walks up to me, pulls me out of line as I am waiting with the other 1st graders to go into the building since recess was officially over and the bell had rung. So she pulls me out of line, punches me hard square in the stomach, pushes me back in line and tells me NOT to tell anyone. Not tell anyone? Everyone saw her!! But she was in 6th grade and one of the school’s biggest bullies, and I guess that day, I was the object of her bully agenda. This one and only time I did tell my sister, and the school was notified by I am assuming my Mother. They had me go to all of the sixth grade classrooms to locate and point out the little girl that had punched me in the stomach. If that didn’t spell retaliation, nothing did. But to my surprise that was the end of that. She never bothered me again.
You would have thought that after this episode which was really one of the first ones in my school career of being bullied that I would have spoken up more as the years went by. But I never did. I just handled it. I partitioned myself off. I’d go home, listen to my records, play with my baton, sing like I didn’t have a care in the world, while Mom and Dad argued, While Dad drank, while my brother sexually abused me, because tomorrow was another day, and I was going to pick out another dress to wear to school or another outfit, and maybe, just maybe one day what I wear and how I look will be good enough. And all of this will stop.
Why I wrote this, and why I felt compelled to tell this story is that some where along the line, our culture learned how very detrimental bullying is. But still not enough, there are still kids out there committing suicide because they are bullied. And for every child that has ever endured life long bullying, there are parents that say ‘just ignore’ them and they will go away. Or kids will be kids, or a whole host of absurd and neglectful parenting strategies,that they pass on to their kids, who in turn pass it on to theirs. There has got to be a better way. There has got to be a way, to raise all of our children to not see someone for their size, or their color or the way they dress or the way they talk. To teach respect right off the bat for every human life, not just the ones that we pick and choose to be respectful to. Degrading another human being, whether you are a child or an adult is abhorrent on every level possible. There is no justification for this. The damage is lasting, and I will be the first one to attest to this. When a child is bullied, you have no idea what else they may be going through. You don’t know their home life, you don’t know anything about that child. Sometimes one more thing, is one more thing too much. And we wonder about the childhood and teen suicide rate these days.
In my perfect world, no one ever feels unloved, everyone is accepted, we speak kindly to one another, we think before we talk and we don’t judge, ever! But then again in my perfect world, that beautiful lilac tree I used to walk by each and every day and that woman who if she is still alive would be in her 90’s right now, still showers children with lilacs on their way to school, while they are wearing their favorite little dress.. a bumblebee dress.