Last week: A near-death experience thanks to a narsty case of tonsillitis and some ripped stitches.
And now …
I had some friends before school, through Sunday School and swimming lessons, but they lived farther away from me than my mom would let me walk on my own, so I never got to see them outside certain structured activities.
There were also the children of my parents’ friends, but they moved away before I could develop much of an attachment, or hold any memories of them. For a brief time, the family across the street had children my age, but they too, soon moved away. Kindergarten was a bit of a blur, but I do remember some of the children I met there: Ronnie-Moe, whose Dad was a fireman, Mytie (I think that was how she spelled it), Paul, and a few others, but these were classmates, not friends per se.
For the most part, I was a happy child. I was socially inept though. Not really good at making friends or keeping them. I compensated for this by being a little different. I lived in my head a lot. My teachers called it daydreaming and distraction.
I was also a giggle-puss. I laughed at the drop of a hat, not only when I found something funny, but also when anything embarrassed me, frightened me, or made me angry. Laughter was my catch-all reaction, because if other kids thought I was making some kind of joke, usually at my own expense and not theirs, they wouldn’t hate me outright. They all thought I was weird though, and that didn’t earn me any friends.
My worst childhood crime was being a story-teller (read liar). For show and tell, I’d make things up. There was one particularly embarrassing stretch where I was really into cats and desperately wished I could have one. I couldn’t though, so I made up stray cats that I’d take in and care of for a few days before they ran away.
Often, I wish this inclination had been harnessed earlier, that some kind teacher would have recognized in me the storyteller (not the story-teller, teller of tales, or liar) and helped me turn it in a different direction, but that didn’t happen until grade three.
I was just a creative kid with insufficient outlet within class to exercise my (even then) considerable abilities. Last year, I discovered Sir Ken Robinson’s incredible TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” It validated much of what I’d already figured out on my own.
So I was happy. But lonely.
Then a young mother with twins (fraternal-brother and sister) my age moved into the apartment up the road from me. When she saw that I walked to school, she asked my mom if we could all walk to school together. So the girl, let’s call her Diana, became my first “friend.”
Soon, another young pedestrian joined our little gaggle. She lived a few blocks further on, but we were all heading in the same direction, so I figured it was fine for her to join us. Let’s call her Mary. Diana got territorial, though. I was her friend first.
Mary was small and thin. I’m not sure why, but nobody much liked her in grade one. I was her friend though, and when Diana started acting up, it became problematic. Diana got physical and she had a temper. She’d scream and push and punch.
Her behaviour toward Mary bothered me, and at one recess, as Diana was wailing away at me, rather ineffectually, after having pushed Mary down, I had enough. I grabbed her arms and pinned her against the wall of the school so she couldn’t punch anymore.
I like to think I said something clever like “You don’t own me,” or “I don’t belong to you,” but I probably squeaked out a lame “I’m not your friend,” or just “stop it.”
Diana was in tears, frustrated that she couldn’t bully her way out of the situation. I wasn’t small, or weak. I think a teacher intervened, but the outcome was that Diana wasn’t my friend anymore. She stopped walking to school with me, but Mary was now my BFF. I’d defended her. We became inseparable.
Mary was pretty much my only friend through grades one and two. We’d walk to and from school every day. Mary came over to play and we went to each other’s birthday parties.
I defended her again one winter from the attentions of a boy. Of course, I had no clue that his shoving her around and making her cry meant that he liked her. I just saw him as another bully, so I got into my first fist fight. He clocked me good on the jaw, but I got my own licks in. He didn’t bother Mary in front of me again, though.
Mary continued to be a small, thin child, and so to exert her power, she got devious. She’d argue with me over nothing, routinely “breaking up” with me and then making up the next day as a means of keeping “drama” in our friendship. When she came over to play at marbles, she decided to make things interesting, no longer content with claiming pretty marbles, by having each of us put up toys as a wager. She liked to bend the rules in her favour too. I was content to let her win when the stakes weren’t high but that stopped once I started losing toys.
First, I stopped playing marbles with her, then eventually, I stopped having her over to play altogether. Mary’s friendship was exhausting.
In grade three, another single mother moved into the apartment up the street. She had a daughter named Margaret. No pseudonyms here. Margaret’s still my BFF though she lives several hours away and most of our conversations are held over FB chat or by email.
While Margaret lived up the street, there was another girl who was interested in putting on talent shows and the like. There were implications of bullying there too, but nothing that I witnessed. Also, the other girl was much larger than I and I wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it, but things blew over before long.
Margaret’s Mom moved into a duplex, but it was still within walking distance. Margaret was fun and funny. We went to movies together, at first with parents in tow. She had budgies and a hamster. Margaret was also a big reader, something I hadn’t latched onto yet.
Mary got a little jealous at that point, but because I was already in the process of separating myself from her, the drama wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
In grade three, my parents got me my first pet, a dog I named Friskey because of her behaviour. The dog book said to name your puppy according to what it did. I did what the book said 🙂 I was so excited about my new pet, that I wrote a one-page report about her. It wasn’t required for class, but when my teacher learned that I’d done it, she encouraged me to read it aloud.
That was the year I started reading and writing.
It was also the first year that cliques developed in the class. Margaret was popular. Me, not so much. I was a tag-along at best.
Grade four was worse. Years later, when I saw the movie “Heathers,” I could so relate.
The Heathers of our school had other names, but they were no less manipulative or cruel, even though they were in elementary school. I got into trouble a lot that year because of the drama between the cliques. I think that was the summer I was grounded from seeing Margaret.
I also wrote a play for the Christmas pageant that year. That didn’t help my popularity either.
Being alone wasn’t a problem for me. I enjoyed being alone. Envy was an issue, though. Without thinking about why, I wanted to be in a clique. I wanted to be popular. Failing that, I wanted Margaret to be my friend to the exclusion of others. When my desires were thwarted, I started to take my frustration out on Margaret, as Diana had on me. Though it was to a much lesser degree (not that it excuses anything), I’d become the bully I’d previously defended others against.
In grade five, I was the first girl to hit puberty, or at least that’s the way it felt. My growing breasts became a topic of discussion and ridicule in the change room as were my hairy legs.
The traits I exhibited in grade one had developed and changed over the years. I now cultivated an air of “weirdo.” To combat the change room taunting, I tried to claim my glorious boobage, a difficult thing to do when I felt that it was one of the things that made me a freak in the eyes of others. It only served to cement my strange reputation.
Since grade three, I’d been writing little stories and I kept them in exercise books. I had wild dreams and shared them with Margaret at recess. I was a terrible storyteller, though, all rambling and out of order. I know there were days when Margaret just wanted me to shut up or to get to the point, but I only realized the relative quality of my verbal diarrhoea after the fact. Sorry Margaret.
When grade six arrived, the friend wars had settled down to a large extent, but there were still a few hard feelings that had to be resolved.
Mary, who’d still been in my life, but to a much lesser extent, made overtures to “bury the hatchet” between us. She behaved like a real friend for the first time in years and when, after a short while, she asked to see my notebook of stories, I lent it to her.
She used most of a bottle of White-Out on it to obliterate my words.
After that, with the exception of Margaret, I was almost happy to be otherwise friendless. New cliques formed, included Margaret, and I was again a hanger-on, just so I could remain in Margaret’s circle. We were still BFFs, but we were also growing up, and apart.
The other members of the clique didn’t like me, and no wonder. My laugh had become a hyena’s, and I routinely introduced myself in the following manner: Hi, I’m Mel. I’m weird. Just to get that out of the way.
I didn’t want any more friends. Except for Margaret, I’d learned that friends just wanted to prove that they were better than you, to hurt you, and take you down in some way. It wasn’t a problem with Margaret because she was always the better person in our friendship. At least I stopped hitting her. Sorry again, my friend.
Though I stopped sharing my stories even with Margaret, my creativity continued to be an albatross. This might have been the skewed way I saw things in those days, but it felt true.
Following the friend wars, my self-confidence was shot. Even in grade three, an off-hand comment could reduce me to tears. I fled from conflict. What happened to the girl who held Diana flailing arms and told her to stop? I couldn’t stand up for anyone anymore, least of all myself.
These were the seeds sown that in later years would take root as depression.
If you haven’t yet, watch Shane Koyczan’s excellent “To this Day.”
Visit The Bully Project. Watch the movie.
And last week, I saw an awesome documentary on Global’s Currents. It’s from 2007, but it’s still relevant. Erin Thomson’s The Bully’s Mark.
Did you have friend wars in the past? Were you in a clique, or a hanger-on? Were you a victim of bullying, or a bully? Both? How did it shape the person you would become? How did it affect your creative development? What lessons did you take away from the experience? This is an important issue. Please share if you feel you can.
Next week: Tummy troubles: Appendicitis and my second brush with death.