Most of my younger life was split between living in Georgia and California. (West Virginia don’t count, since I barely started first grade when I left). I was in Georgia all the way up to starting ninth grade before I moved. Pretty much all of my high school and young adult experiences were in Cali, and what mostly shaped who I am now. But I do have a lot of memories from my earlier school days in Georgia, and they weren’t always happy ones. Memories that I really don’t so much repress as try to distance myself from, so I don’t have to look too hard at how much I hated myself back then.
Middle school, from a social standpoint, was a very difficult time for me. Emotionally and socially I was at least three years or so behind my age, and in a middle school environment that puts a big fat bullseye on your back. Already I was having difficulty fitting in back around fourth grade, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see how the problems only get worse when you’re going to school with the same kids for years, especially through adolescence. Hindsight being twenty-twenty, I didn’t suffer rejection or bullying any worse than most kids, and many went through it far worse, but at the time it had a crushing effect on my self-image, something which I sometimes battle to this day. My social problems followed me all the way to high school, even after moving cross country and leaving all those peers I grew up with who knew what a loser I was. By my senior year in high school, even though I learned how to cope or at least put a good mask on over my issues, my overriding desire was to be done with it all. High school, that is, not my life (fortunately I decisively rejected that particular course of action during my teen angst years). I held on to the thought that once I graduated, I could put that part of my life behind me for good and move on. And, to a point, that’s pretty much what happened. My most memorable years, my best times with friends, didn’t really happen until after I left high school. And yet even then, I still carried around a lot of social awkwardness and it showed.
But probably the most unpleasant memory that surfaced from middle school was how I dealt with the bullying, the rejection, the being picked on.
Some kids would fight back against their tormentors, with varying degrees of success. I wish I could say this was the path I took, but sadly I was too much of a wuss back then to do so.
Some kids would just find their own crowd of misfit friends with similar interests, and at least have the comfort of being around others who shared the misery. This was hard for me to do, because I didn’t fit neatly into any category, so even many of the less-popular kids rejected me.
Some would just withdraw into their own shell, entertaining their own interests and limiting any attempt to connect with others. I am a rock, I am an island. To a point, this was the path I took, and mostly what allowed me to soldier on. But I didn’t always follow this one.
And some would do whatever it took to, if not get positively recognized by the more popular crowd, at least push the bullseye off their own backs onto others with a lower pecking order than themselves.
This is the choice I made more often than I care to admit. And to this day, it shames me that I did so. Not that I really actively bullied anyone else. But I did aid and abet it at times with others that were suffering too, sometimes worse than I was. All because I was thankful that, at any given time, I wasn’t the one taking the abuse.
If there is anything in my life that I feel guilty over, that is it. That I couldn’t take the high road. That sometimes I was an asshole to kids farther down the social ladder than I was, just because it felt better to be on the giving end sometimes than be on the receiving end most of the time.
I am not proud of myself at all for sometimes acting that way. That I couldn’t be stronger and stand up for others in the same boat, rather than help push them overboard just so I wouldn’t be next.
Truth be told, more often than not I was my own worst enemy in school. Like I said before, I was socially backward and a bit self-centered, and thus not very good at reading social situations. I tended to open my mouth and let my thoughts fall out before my brain could proofread and censor or reject them. I was not very good at asserting myself or my boundaries. And unlike some other misfits who had a knack for parrying or riposting verbal jabs, I could never think fast enough to do the same for myself. Early on in middle school I tended to lash out, which just encouraged other kids to try to get bigger reactions out of me. By eighth grade I pretty much clammed up and did my best to ignore it, which only offered a challenge to others to try to break me down and get some sort of reaction. Their goal seemed to be humiliation, which they achieved many times at my expense.
I don’t mean to turn this into a pity me story. My experiences were no worse than many others at that age, and likely better than some. And things weren’t always bad, I was able to have some good times here and there. I now look at it as more of a rite of passage, one that got awfully bumpy at times and I most certainly didn’t pass with honors. But pass I did, battered but not completely beaten, and with enough left of myself to make it into the more forgiving post-school social world. I could’ve harbored resentment but I never really did, just chalking it up to the realities of the teen and pre-teen social order at the time.
But for a long time, I shied away from my middle school days. I never kept contact with anyone from those days once I left Georgia for California, except for a brief visit a few years later. When I moved back to Georgia in 1997 with Yes Dear and the rest of my ready-made family I made no attempt to reconnect with anyone from my past, even though I moved back to pretty much the same general area. Once FB started getting big and I joined, I would occasionally look up some old acquaintances and more than a few old enemies, just to see how they turned out. I was awfully tempted to reach out and send friend invitations to a few of them, but would always decide it was better to leave the door to that particular period of my life shut, so I would never again have to deal with myself back in middle school again.
Until the other night.
I became a member of a FB group about the town I grew up in, and started sharing a few tidbits about myself and some of the things I did and places I’d been back then.
I got a few responses here and there, and a couple “oh, you went to that school/had that teacher/rode that bus? So did I, a few years later!”
Then I saw a picture that was posted. A very familiar one. Of a team of teachers, that I used to have. Straight out of a yearbook, that I happened to own as well. A “remember these teachers?” post.
And sure enough, someone commented, “I was in their class in seventh grade, in ’80-81!” The same year I was in the class. A familiar name. A kid that, by all appearances at the time, went through much of the same stuff as I did. A misfit, tagged with the now-taboo “homo/queer” label that was so often used to define those males that didn’t fit with the pseudo-masculinity that was expected of other 13-year-old boys back then. A kid that I could have been friends with if I wanted, but wasn’t because I didn’t want to share the misery. I was too content to witness his abuse because that usually meant that the attention was shifted away from me, however briefly. In my warped pre-adolescent mind he was as much social toxic waste to me as I probably was to most of my peers.
And despite these unsettling memories, I decided to open the door a crack. I replied to his comment that I was in the same class too, and I remembered him.
He replied with a friend request. And I accepted.
And judging by his FB wall, he’s a happily married, successful, God-fearing Christian family man with both kids and grandkids.
I’m sincerely happy that he made it through the dark days too.
And that maybe, just maybe, I can open that door a little more and visit through it sometimes without being haunted by things past.