Growing up, I wasn’t what you’d call popular.
Until first grade, I lived in a city, but my parents decided that a new house should come with my mother’s new job. With that new house would come a new town, a new school, and new “friends”.
I was excited for the move. I liked change, even as a kid.
I started first grade in my old town, but the move happened halfway through the year, so I was starting the new school during the second semester. I still remember my teacher, Mrs. P. She had a strange hairstyle that always made me giggle. It looked like one of those fluffy stereotype Russian hats, but red and super curly.
Mrs. P pulled me to the front of the class. I had on my new clothes, new school supplies, and a big smile. I introduced myself and took my seat next to a blond boy that would actually end up stealing a large chunk of my childhood from me.
We will call this blond boy Jay.
While Jay’s actions did steal much of my childhood, I would like to take a moment to point out that I am who I am today because of it. I don’t want pity, but I do want to announce that I am one of those people that can say with confidence, “It gets better!”
For a few weeks, things were going well. I was starting to make friends. I even had my first sleepover party with three girls in my class. My graded papers were all coming back with 100% written in big red ink on the top and shiny stickers. During reading time, I surprised my teachers by flying through all the books they provided. I was given special privileges to go get a ‘big kid book’ from the school library.
One day, though, Jay turned to me and asked me a strange question. He asked me to be his girlfriend. What first grader has a boyfriend? I still thought boys were gross. Unless it was a prince from one of my books, I was not interested. So I said no, of course.
Jay, however, did not like this answer.
You see, there is one major thing that needs to be known about this strange new town we moved to. Let’s call it A-ville. When I moved there, A-ville was even smaller than it is now. There was a population of about a thousand people, and most were families of four or five. The children in these families went to daycare together, then preschool, and now elementary school. They had essentially known each other since birth.
I was just the strange new girl from another town. I wasn’t considered nearly as important as Jay, who everyone knew and loved. Jay was the class clown. Jay was the cool kid.
That moment I said no, my life took a major turn. By turn, I mean Jay turned everyone against me. First grade children can be surprisingly vicious. Jay encouraged everyone to tease me. At first, it really hurt. Even those three girls I had a sleepover with wouldn’t talk to me anymore. That was bad enough, but they eventually joined in on the teasing.
I did find an upside to it all, though. There was more time to study and do homework. By the time I was in second grade, I kept at the top end of the class grade-wise and was reading at a sixth grade level. It’s amazing how much free time you have without other people around to distract you. Especially as a kid.
My way of thinking was that if I just ignored it, maybe the teasing would stop. It didn’t, though. In fact, it just got worse.
It wasn’t just teasing anymore, though. It was straight up bullying. I dealt with crumbled pieces of paper being thrown at me on the bus. It was more annoying than anything else. I dealt with it in a mature manner, though. I simply stopped riding the bus. I had my mother write a note to the school saying that I was allowed to walk to and from school. It was far, yeah, but because I didn’t have any friends anymore, I didn’t go outside to play, so I needed the exercise anyway.
I tried to stay as optimistic as possible. The glass is half full! It was hard, but I dealt with it. Most days, I actually beat the bus home. The winter was the worst. Illinois winters can get harsh. I bundled up, though, and stuck through it. My reasoning to my mother was that “I just really hate the bus.” It wasn’t a lie. I did hate the bus. The bullying part was just a secret.
“I can get through this,” I kept repeating. “The glass is half full!”
The school eventually ended up calling my mother. Not for the bullying, but to tell her that I was too far ahead of the rest of the second graders and that I should skip a grade.
Because the bullying was still a secret, though, my mother knew nothing about it. She thought that I was getting along fine and had tons of friends. So with that in mind, she said no to the school’s offer. It’s best that I stay with my friends and kids my own age, she told them.
But the glass is half full. I’m one of the top of my class.
Third grade came and I was extremely excited to be placed in Mrs. C’s class. She was supposed to be the coolest, kindest teachers in A-ville elementary school.
When I walked into the classroom on the first day, though, I saw not Mrs. C, but a younger teacher with long, frizzy, curly, brown hair and too much make-up. As I got closer, I could smell her perfume from halfway across the room.
“I’m Miss H,” she told us. “Mrs. C had a baby, so she’s gone on something called Maternity Leave. I’ll be your teacher this year.”
Miss H was rotten. She was also inexperienced, fresh out of the university, and she had no kids of her own. She had her obvious favorites, but I was not lucky enough to be one of them. She thought I was too quiet in class and I wasn’t good at finding a partner to work with when she wanted us to. But then again, it’s hard to find a partner in a class with an uneven number of kids and no one wants to partner up with you. Third grade was a long, long year.
It was also the year my dog died. He was my best friend.
Glass half full. We got a puppy.
The puppy tripped me and broke my arm, though.
Fourth grade was when the bullying really picked up. First semester, as winter was rolling in, there was a particularly warm afternoon. The morning had started out cold, so I wore my winter coat when I left the house, but it had warmed up as the day went on.
The last part of the day was recess, so everyone filed outside. The afternoon sun cause me to instantly start sweating in my heavy winter coat, so I took it off, put it on the bench, and pulled out my jump rope. I wasn’t the only one who had taken off my coat, so I didn’t think it would be an issue.
Another fourth grade teacher, Mr. L, came up to me and demanded I put my coat on.
“But I’m hot,” I said.
“Put it on,” he said.
“I don’t need it, though,” I said.
“You need to put your coat back on,” he demanded.
“It’s too warm for a coat,” I declared. After all the crap I got from the other kids, I didn’t need it from a teacher that wasn’t even my own. He didn’t take it well. I was told to sit on the time-out bench until recess was over.
I did, but not happily. I mumbled under my breath about how much of a jerk I thought he was. One of his students (we shall hereon refer to her as ‘the minion’) heard me and, being a good little minion, relayed my rant to Mr. L as soon as recess was over.
After recess, it was time to go home. I got my bag out of my locker and headed back to my classroom. Much to my surprise, Mr. L and his class hadn’t returned to their classroom yet. They were all lined up perfectly outside my classroom, instead. Mr. L led the way, and at the front of the line was the minion.
“That’s her, Mr. L. She’s the one who said those things.”
Standing on front of both classes, Mr. L proceeded to yell at me as though he were talking to another adult.
“You think you can call me names and get away with it, do you? Where do you get the confidence from, huh? You can say it behind my back but not to my face? Answer me, you little brat! Apologize, right now!”
I didn’t apologize. I cried. In front of both classes full of kids that bully me, I cried. This wasn’t right, I thought. Teachers are supposed to stop bullying, not encourage it. Teachers are supposed to lead by example. By bullying me in front of both classes, Mr. L was basically telling them all that it was okay to bully me. After that, they didn’t hold back.
I cried. I cried all the way home. I cried until my mother came home. I was crying so hard that I couldn’t calm down enough to even tell her why I was crying. I was always mature for my age (being bullied can do that to a kid). Seeing me in that state put my mother in a panic.
My mother called my father. My father came home. I was still crying.
I listened to my father’s advice. Calm down, sweetie. Deep breaths. In, out. Hug. Breathe. Kiss in the forehead. Deep breath. Finally calm, he asked, what happened? I never cried, let alone like that. What got me so rattled?
I told him what happened. I didn’t lie. I explained it just like I wrote (leaving out “minion” and using her real name). It wasn’t even five PM yet. My father gave me one last kiss on the forehead, stood up, and said, “Don’t worry, honey. Daddy is going to take care of this.” What that, he left. I heard his truck start up outside and drive away.
Glass half full. Mum made me some homemade chicken noodle soup and we watch cartoons together. I fell asleep on the couch before Dad got home, but I woke up in my own bed at ten AM the next morning. On a Friday. My parents said I deserved the day off, so they called me in sick. Since it was a Friday, it also gave me Saturday and Sunday to calm down and get ready to face the next school week. Winter break was going to be coming around soon, too.
Years later, I heard the story of what actually happened that night. My father went straight to the school and got a meeting with the principle and Mr. L.
He sat quietly and listened to what they had to say, then finally spoke when it was his time. The principle went to interrupt at one point, but my father quickly shut them up. He isn’t too tall, standing at five foot eleven. He has a strong build, though, and being the president of a company, he has an air of authority that you can’t help but to listen to.
Putting it into nicer words than my father did, he basically told the principle that he listened to what they had to say and that it was his turn to talk, so hush. Then he asked, what kind of… ahem, “donkey”… talks to a kid like that, especially in front of so many other kids?
I’m aware that other things were said, but I’m not entirely sure what, exactly.
Mr. L avoided me in the halls after that. A few years later, however, my little sister got Mr. L as her fourth grade teacher.
Glass half full. Daddy wanted to go to parent-teacher conferences.
Fifth grade, the bullying was too much. I couldn’t face my fear and go outside during recess, so I got my parents to write a note saying that I could go the library during recess. By that time, I could read at a ninth grade level, but there’s a day every now and then where all you want is to read a sweet little fairy tale.
I wandered back over to the easy readers (much to the librarian’s surprise) and scanned the shelves. One book caught my attention. It was different than the others. The name was different. Unfamiliar. “Princess Kaguya”, it read. I pulled it off the shelf. The book itself was old, but rather untouched. I opened it up and started to read.
It was a beautiful story about an old man who was cutting bamboo in a forest when one started to glow bright. Curious, the old man carefully cut the bamboo down to find a beautiful baby girl inside, as small as Thumbelina. He took the baby home where he and his wife raised her, naming her Kaguya.
She quickly grew up to be a (normal sized) beautiful young woman, the most beautiful in the land, sought after by many.
The story was beautiful. The art was beautiful. The ending was beautiful, but sad. Kaguya was actually the moon princess, and she was taken away back to the moon, despite the old couple’s pleas for her to stay. She wanted to stay, but she had responsibilities; she had to go. The ending was sad.
But glass half full. This story with the sad ending changed my life. The next day was Saturday, so I rode my bike to the public library to do research on this “Princess Kaguya” story. I found out it was an old story from Japan. I immediately immersed myself in every book I could find on Japan. I can only imagine how silly I looked, little fifth grade me sitting at a giant table covered in books.
On weekends, I could sometimes get my mother to take me to the nearest bookstore forty minutes away. My mother is a fellow book lover, so she could get just as lost in the book store as I could. I could occasionally even get her to buy me a book here and there.
I will stop here, because it’s getting rather long… I will post the rest in a part two!