It’s taken me a long time to put this down coherently, but reading in the paper how the other kids picked on the Virginia killer finally gave me the push I needed.
You see, for several years in grade school, I was that kid. The one excluded and sniped at by the popular cliques. The one who found little notes “accidentally” left lying around, with lists of people in various categories, and my name somehow always turned up among the worst.
But let’s be honest about it: I wasn’t blameless. Some of it was my fault, for being smarter and more articulate and absolutely fearless when it came to saying what I thought (OK, tactless in the extreme, sometimes). By the time I hit the sixth grade I was being kept after school every week for something or other, put out in the hall now and again and sometimes sent to the principal’s office for a talking-to, so it wasn’t just the other kids I was way too mouthy to. I would not conform. I wasn’t interested in the kinds of things the popular kids were interested in, so we had little common ground. I’m the only person I know who got kept after school on the last day of school, when everyone else was dismissed after picking up their final report cards and cleaning out their desks.
Some of it, though, was not my fault. My parents were both off in their own little worlds. My life at school was outside their frame of experience, since both of them had gone to upper-crust boarding schools where everything was regimented for them. They had no idea what public school was like and they really weren’t interested in knowing. They didn’t pay attention to the fact that I hit puberty way earlier than my classmates and my clothes didn’t fit right. They didn’t notice that I needed to wear a bra. My mother pooh-poohed the idea that I needed to wear deodorant. So I dressed funny and I smelled. Remarks were made about my personal hygiene. There wasn’t much I could have done about that.
Fortunately, in the summer before I went to junior high, we moved to a different state and I got to start over with a whole new group of kids who hadn’t gotten into the habit of hating me. I told my mom that if she didn’t buy me my own deodorant I’d just use hers every day. She started buying me better clothes. From then on I was adequately popular and a lot of the kids who were “in with the in crowd” were my friends. I’m one of the few people my age who looks back on junior high and high school as being a pretty good time, instead of remembering it all with the tragic angst of having been too hip for the room.
But I never forgot those early years. People who were outcasts in school generally don’t forget it. You wouldn’t think that a sixth-grade kid could inflict lasting damage on another person with the power of a few words, but yes, they can. You wouldn’t think that an ostensibly grown-up person could look back forty years and find un-healed wounds, but yes, they can.
Once when my daughter was in grade school I caught her starting to say to another girl “I’m having a party and you’re not invited.” I smacked her before I realized what I was doing. I think it startled both of us equally. Later on I explained to her that I was that kid who was pointedly not invited and how much it hurt to have people tell me so.
I wish every parent would make a point of telling their kids that contrary to the “sticks and stones” statement, words can always hurt. I wish every parent would make a point of telling their kids that they’re free to think whatever they want to about other kids but they darn well better keep those thoughts to themselves and have the guts to tell other kids to knock it off when they hear it. As the song goes, “Don’t laugh at me, don’t call me names, don’t take your pleasure from my pain.”
Every teacher should be telling every class, “You may think it’s funny or smart to make fun of other kids. We don’t. It won’t be tolerated here.” Whether they follow it up with “Some kids who get picked on grow up to kill other kids, and if that happens in the future to someone you think it’s funny to treat badly now, you’re going to have to take the blame” is up for grabs.
That Virginia killer was mentally ill. He might have gone round the bend and started shooting no matter how he was treated when he was younger, because if his mental illness was long-standing he might well have seen things from a completely warped perspective from an early age and imagined enemies where there were none. But the news reports say that he was mocked and ostracized. Add real persecution to mental illness and you get a bomb waiting to go off.
I grew up in central Virginia. Some of my classmates went to Virginia Tech. I have no doubt some of their kids went there too. I hope none of the victims was related to anyone I know–even if they were the kids who shut me out.Hope you'll recommend my posts via your favorite social media. Just don't copy the material as your own.