There are only 3 stories I was ever told about my birth. The one pertinent here is that my mom noticed right away I had pointed ears and told everyone at the hospital I looked like Peter Pan, but what she meant to say was I looked like Tinker Bell. She was apologetic about that mix-up, but she loved telling that story. It is one of a very, very few sweet and sentimental things I can remember about my no-nonsense, practical, down-to-earth, no-time-for-sentimentality mom.
My little pointy ears set me apart from all the other towheads running around the suburbs of Portland. But after the initial noticing at my birth, they didn’t create any fuss.
Then in school, around 2nd grade, I was introduced to bullying one day when I wore my hair in a ponytail and a boy called out, You have pointy ears! It was such an unforeseen attack I was caught speechless. My face reddened, all the way to the tips of those pointy ears. That was a more civilized era, when kids had to bully you to your face without the anonymity of electronics, but you also had to take your insults with the other kids watching your reaction. Painful.
As convenient as a ponytail is for a blue-jean wearing tomboy busy running the neighborhood with her older brother and his friends, that teasing was the end of the ponytail. From then on I wore my hair parted down the middle, hanging straight down over my ears. Despite attempts to hide them, my ears still had a tendency to stick out, but I did my best to fly under the radar and not draw attention.
I never had a teacher who put this reminder on the classroom door.
Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. –Ian MacLaren
So true. Especially if your dad was a Marine Sergeant in his years just prior to becoming a parent. My brother and I were unruly kids and didn’t follow orders well. We were not to laugh at the dinner table, but we did, resulting in a smack to the head. We were not to use profanity, but we did, resulting in sitting side-by-side on hard chairs, longingly wishing for escape, with a bar of soap in our mouth, for what felt like hours. Like Marine recruits in boot camp, the necessity of following commands was drilled into us. We were not allowed to stand up for ourselves, explain or justify our actions, plead for mercy, learn from, or laugh about our mistakes. But we fought to be the rambunctious kids we were. We continued to throw each other off the sofa playing King of the Mountain, to get into all kinds of scrapes, and even dare to talk back on occasion. Indeed, we fought a hard battle to stay true to ourselves; it took a fair amount of yelling and punishing to keep us quiet and obedient.
At what cost were we kept silent? I often wonder how adult relationships would have been for me if my childhood hadn’t taught me to be either invisible, or accommodating and obsequious. How much better would my love life have been if I hadn’t been taught to tolerate bullying? Most painful question of all, would my brother and I have been as self-destructive, as careless with our lives, would we have felt undeserving of love and happiness?
Some adults feel bullying is OK, in fact necessary, to toughen kids up for adulthood. In the absence of rite-of-passage rituals that require a demonstration of courage and endurance to open the door to adulthood, kids in our culture use various forms of bullying and hazing. When kids tease kids, and it doesn’t carry on into full-on bullying, you might make this argument. When adult coaches, parents, teachers, and religious leaders bully kids, I think this theory is a load of crap, a justification similar to a pedophile minimizing and justifying sex abuse by saying his advances are a safe and gentle introduction to healthy sexuality. The worst are religious leaders that preach, justify and normalize verbal abuse toward children, bullying and threatening from the pulpit, and giving parents permission to abuse.
If you’re tempted to believe that bullying helps kids, here is a “poem” I created, loosely inspired by Flarf poetry; it’s mostly strung-together words, with nothing pretty or lyrical about it.
A Poem About the Potential Results of Bullying
wounded by ugly experience and left with scars
overly sensitive, easy to victimize, fundamentally dis-empowered
hard to be friends with, distant, aloof, standoffish
in a state of perpetual avoidance and paralysis
wounded, damaged, traumatized
angry and bitter
distrustful, disturbed, depressed
anxious in crowds, unsafe in the world
striving to be perfect, hoping that provides protection
always on the outside looking in
vulnerable, sad, lonely
angry and enraged
If bullying toughens you up, then I should have been a super tough kid, and to some degree I was. But that toughness didn’t provide me with armor. I felt the pierce of the arrow. It hurt time and time again.
The worst part of being bullied was the bully it put on my shoulder well past childhood, the constant voice in my ear criticizing me. I became my own worst bully until I read this Louise Hay quote that gave me permission to ease up a bit.
Remember, you have been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.
And don’t forget, there is always the possibility of redemption, always the possibility of turning dross to gold. Have faith there will be a turning point in your life. Life becomes kinder, easier, and more joyful. Vulnerabilities make us lovable. Wounds can heal. A difficult beginning to life doesn’t define the rest of our life. There comes a day when an unkind remark made long ago by a parent or a kid has lost its power.
Learning to stay quiet and not draw attention helped me in some ways – I’ve been told I’m a good listener, I have a rich interior life, I’m sensitive and compassionate. Aging gave me a new perspective. Parents who loomed large and scary in their wrath turn out to be people who were doing the best they could, parents who were less harsh and more forgiving than their own parents had been. As an adult, there’s the possibility of forging an entirely new relationship with your parents, one you enjoy and appreciate, as I have done.
And let’s bring things full-circle. I had the pleasure of discovering pointy ears were just right for me when Star Trek was released in 1966, a few months before I turned 10. The character of Spock drew my attention as the show quickly engaged my imagination. I sat – on our avocado green sofa (which coordinated with our mustard yellow chairs), munching on a bowl of popcorn, glued to the big bulky TV we were so proud to own, at this stage in my life bearing the additional burden of wearing glasses with swooping, pointy wings and coke-bottle-thick lenses that could only highlight my pointy ears – watching each episode unfold. I had no friends to watch with, I had nowhere else to be. An episode like The Trouble With Tribbles was the best part of my day. My favorite character? Spock, with his sublime pointy ears! From then on, my pointy ears became a mark of pride; my analytical, rational, logical mind emerged as my Superpower. Spock profoundly changed my life as a kid, and I wonder how many other teased and bullied kids find solace in his appearance and his wisdom.
“History is replete with turning points. You must have faith that the universe will unfold as it should.”–SPOCK
This idea kids bully as a rite of passage came forward when I worked with Kim John Payne on a program of restorative justice called Social Inclusion at a school my daughter attended. He didn’t propose that bullying is good because it toughens kids up, more that it is inevitable kids will tease and bully as a rite of passage in the absence of something more formalized. And if it is inevitable, then parents and schools need a restorative justice approach that looks to repair the wrong and bring the bully back into the fold, rather than hold a zero-tolerance policy that judges and excludes the bully. His work is geared to creating an environment where kids learn from and accept differences in each other, and adults take a learning orientation to changing behavior.
One of many articles on coaches bullying: https://web.magnushealth.com/insights/coach-bullying
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