On Bullying — A Spirit Day Post

October 20, 2010 at 3:53 pm (real life) (, )

I don’t remember enough details of my childhood bullying.

I remember a few events, of course. I remember, for instance, the day of pre-school when I was told by a classmate that I was “too big” to sit at her table.

I remember kindergarten, when bully S decided to start a “cool kids” club, only letting in the elite few. She then decided to extend her invitations to the uncool — and proceeded to use them as personal servants, humiliating them as a cost of membership. When I was invited into the club as part of the second group and used my uncool servant-role of messenger to pass secret messages between my friend L (assigned by S to sit alone on the blacktop all through recess) and his friend C across the playground, I earned an enemy for life. We were 5.

I remember third and fourth grade, when my group of “friends” regularly mocked and excluded me from activities, manipulating me however they could. I remember fifth grade, when Mean Girls Group #2 did the same. I remember frenemy N deciding my best friend and I weren’t interesting enough to participate in the rest of her sleepover birthday party, banishing us to another room for the night.

I remember being in 7th grade and accidentally sneezing on a popular girl, then faking sick and going home so I wouldn’t have to experience the torment that was sure to come. I remember high school, when I rearranged my routes to and from classes to avoid bully H, who was sure to push me in the hallway while muttering humiliating insults. I remember being afraid to change in the locker room. I remember being afraid of random group assignments for class projects. I remember feeling like who I was — too heavy, too smart, too shy — was going to consign me to a life of lonely self-hatred.

And this isn’t even including the cyber-bullying I experienced as the internet gained prominence toward the end of my time in high school. Or the teacher-bullying I experienced at the hands of my elementary school gym teacher.

But with every abortive attempt I’ve made to write this article, I’ve realized that I don’t remember half of what I know I went through. I remember my elementary, middle, and high school years as a time of constant terror. I remember the feeling of not fitting in. I remember being sure that everyone hated me. I remember feeling constantly suspicious of my friends’ motives in hanging out with me, even as I formed a solid social circle in 6th grade that lasted all through high school and remains mostly intact today. I remember long nights playing Hanson’s “Weird” on repeat as it spoke to my tortured soul — “Isn’t it strange, how we all feel a little bit weird sometimes?”. But I’ve repressed most of the specific events, despite my generally amazing powers of recall. And I think that says a lot about how those experiences affected me — and continue to affect me today.

I’m 24 years old. I haven’t been seriously bullied since I left high school. But in the 6 and a half years since, the scars those first 15 years left have not faded. I can’t walk past a group of laughing or whispering people without assuming they’re laughing at me. I automatically assume every person I meet is on the precipice of mocking me, that they already hate me the second they see me. It takes me a very, very long time to believe that a new acquaintance genuinely likes me. When I’m invited to parties by anyone other than a close friend, I spend the days leading up to the event in a state of paranoia, wondering if it’s some trick the party-throwers are playing, like I’m going to be greeted at the door by a bucket of blood. And when I run into some of those childhood bullies, I freeze up and begin to hyperventilate, fending off a full-fledged panic attack. I have never joined my hometown friends at a certain local bar because I know bully S is a regular, and even though I have not spoken to her in 6 years, her specter haunts me.

Today is Spirit Day. It’s a day for recognizing the effects of bullying, specifically on LGBT youth, in the wake of prominent LGBT teen suicides. In honor of that day, I’m wearing purple, as well as a rainbow “ALLY” pin. I’m not LGBT (though more than half of my high school friends were), but I know from experience what bullying can do to a person, whatever the impetus for that torture. And I do believe the message of “It Gets Better.” The fact that I’ve lived my life without torment for the past 6 years is testament to that. Those are words that need to be said to kids on the brink.

But more importantly, we NEED to recognize the effect bullying has — and stamp it out before it happens. Because while many children thankfully do NOT attempt suicide and survive the bullying to live to adulthood, those experiences and memories don’t go away, even if they’re repressed. And I don’t want any other child to have to go through what I did. Nor do I want children to experience the bullying my brother endured — bullying that led his school’s administration to suggest that HE, not the bullies, should seek therapy so he might better “fit in.” Or the bullying my mother endured, bullying severe enough that she had to change schools in elementary school — in the early 1960s. Bullying at all ages is not new, no matter what certain articles might imply. But the more aware we become of its horrors and its effects on children, the less excuse we have not to DO something about bullying. Wearing purple is a start, but it’s not enough. We cannot afford to ignore this problem. And telling my story here, today, is my first small contribution to that effort.

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An Open Letter to Meg Whitman

September 22, 2010 at 2:27 pm (real life) (, , )

There doesn’t seem to be any direct way to contact Meg Whitman, Republican candidate for Governor of California. Given that inaccessibility, I’m going to post publicly what would have been a private e-mail or letter. Ms. Whitman, if you see this, feel free to contact me at throughthebrush@gmail.com

Dear Ms. Whitman,

My name is Jennifer Smith. I graduated from Princeton University after the 2007-2008 year, which also happened to be the year of the grand opening of the Whitman residential college, whose construction was largely funded by your generous contributions. It’s a beautiful complex of buildings, and at the time I was proud to be the very first Princeton student to choose a room in Whitman College. When you spoke in the courtyard to dedicate the college, I happily attended the gathering. I still have my Whitman stationery, my Whitman sweatshirt, and my fond memories of the cozy bedroom, dining hall, and study rooms where I spent so much time that year.

I preface my letter with all of this information to cast in sharp relief my disappointment in your stated platforms as a candidate for governor of California — in particular your support for Proposition 8, which denies the right of marriage to same-sex couples.

As a Princeton student, I was heavily involved in the Pride Alliance, the LGBT organization on campus. LGBT rights have always been very dear to my heart, for I see no reason that my closest friends shouldn’t have the same rights and privileges I myself possess. I fondly remember late nights in college spent hanging up posters and encouraging activism, including pro-same-sex marriage activism, before I returned to the haven of my dorm in Whitman College. Now, I find that you are using the power of your wealth – the very wealth I myself benefited from – to drive a campaign that counts among its aims the barring of American citizens from the benefits of full equality under the law. This is wealth that could be better used to support any number of causes or platforms — particularly to bolster California’s schools, which are in crisis. As a Whitman resident, I believed you to be a self-evident supporter of education, but I see now that bigotry and the power it endows is more important to you.

There was a time I was proud to be a resident of Whitman College. But your recent actions have made me ashamed – ashamed that I took advantage of your donation, ashamed that the money that is funding your prejudiced political campaign also paid for my bed. I don’t want to feel this shame. I want to appreciate your generous gifts . But until you reject bigotry and hate, my shame will endure.

Sincerely,
Jennifer Smith
Graduate Student in Communications, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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The Name Game

May 19, 2009 at 9:30 am (real life) (, )

I have a problem. A uniquely nerdy problem.

I can’t seem to stop naming pets and inanimate objects after my favorite characters.

When I was a kid, my naming conventions for pets were normal enough. I had two parakeets named Banana and Icicle — Banana was yellow and green, and Icicle blue and white. When they died, we got another parakeet, which I named Zelda, after my invisible friend (invisible twin sister, to be precise) from childhood. To this day I don’t know where that name came from, and I’m not sure the bird appreciated it — soon enough, as the flesh over “her” beak turned from purple to a clear blue, we realized that Zelda was not as feminine as we’d been led to believe. But the fact remained that the names were nice, normal pet names.

The last normally-named pet I had was a betta fish I got in 9th grade; its name was Aquarius. When he died, sometime during my sophomore year of high school, it was like a switch got thrown: suddenly, all of my future pets would have names related to my geeky obsession of the moment. Jumping right into the deep end of nerdiness, I named my next betta fish Mark Roger Caplan-Pascal, after my two favorite characters from the musical RENT and my two favorite actors (Matt Caplan and Adam Pascal) who’d played those roles. And believe me, I never abbreviated the name. Every day I’d come home, sprinkle some food into the bowl, and cheerfully greet him with, “Hello, Mark Roger Caplan-Pascal!”

My next betta fish was Captain Jack Kelly, a combination of the names of my two favorite “Jack” characters: Pirates of the Caribbean‘s Captain Jack Sparrow, and Jack Kelly from Newsies. After that, I had Javid, an amalgamation of Newsies‘ Jack and David. By the time he died, I was in college and making my way into comic book fandom, so my next fish were, predictably, a blue male and a red female that I named Scott and Jean — and later a runty yellow male named Logan. (Nowadays, I’m up to my seventh geeky betta fish: the hardy red-white-and-blue Captain Amerifish.)

It was around the time of the Scott and Jean fish that I began to notice my pets unconsciously taking on the characteristics of their namesakes. Be it cosmic coincidence or willful interpretation, I couldn’t help attributing their behavior to their fictional counterparts. Captain Jack Kelly, for instance, hadn’t so much died as simply up and vanished from his tank, just like his escape-artist namesakes. (I still suspect my parents actually found him dead and flushed him, but they refuse to admit that to this day.) Then there was Jean, who, appropriately enough, died before Scott in spectacular fashion (I’m still waiting for her return from the cocoon I assume she must be forming), and Logan, who outlived them both. On particularly boring college afternoons, I liked to gaze at my Scott and Logan fish and imagine the inevitable fight to the death that would result if they were to mix in the same tank (male bettas attack each other automatically, but I liked to think their namesakes’ rivalry would have made the battle even worse).

This habit of geeky naming and personality attribution was only heightened when I began to follow nerd conventions and name my personal tech. After a non-geeky first computer named Magellan had burned out its hard drive within two months of purchase (a word to the wise: don’t name computers after explorers who were victims of mutiny), I christened my new computer Captain America, and he continued to function beautifully for several years despite the advancement of his chronological age. My red external hard drive I decided to name Iron Man (and he occasionally refused to work properly with Cap, though they usually got along splendidly), and I named my maroon phone Dark Phoenix and my second iPod Marvel Girl (neither has attacked me yet, but I sometimes worry about letting Dark Phoenix reach its signal into space). None of this compared to the fate of my first iPod, though. Since it was silver, I’d decided to call it Bucky, reasoning that if it ever died, I’d know it wasn’t really gone — it was just brainwashed and turned into an assassin for a foreign government! Unbelievably, Bucky wound up experiencing an unfortunate washing machine incident, but though I believed he’d been drowned, he actually recovered a few days later — after I’d already bought his replacement. The only way the story could be more perfect is if he’d reprogrammed himself in Russian.

All this brings me to the past week, when I bought three new important things: a computer, and two gerbils. The computer I named Pixie, after a minor X-Men character with butterfly wings and a crush on Cyclops (my personal Mary Sue if ever there was one). The computer is pink and black, like the character’s hair, and as long as it doesn’t get transported into Limbo and get part of its soul removed, it should be ok.

More worrying are my gerbils, who I named Jean and Wanda. Jean is a lovely tan color; Wanda is a nice black and white. And while I named them that largely because of the friendship Jeff Parker (and Colleen Coover!) gave them in X-Men: First Class, I haven’t gotten a solid feel for their personalities yet. I can’t help but wonder what will happen if they decide to take their cues from the Dark Phoenix Saga, or the House of M.

So if my gerbils decide to eat the sun or tamper with genetics on a worldwide scale… well, I apologize in advance.

(So, what are your geeky pet or tech names? I know I’m not alone. Feel free to share in the comments!)

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The Toilet Business

April 6, 2009 at 9:30 am (real life) (, )

It seems I overestimated the amount I’d have to say on this blog. The job hunt has been stressful, and while I’ve still been chugging away over at Fantastic Fangirls, working up the energy to write posts on other topics has been difficult.

However, I hope that will change soon, because I am finally — at least for 8 weeks — employed, and I’ve just completed the first 9-5 work week of my life.

It isn’t thrilling work. It’s boring temp data entry, the rite of passage of young professionals everywhere. I stare at numbers all day long and plug them into a spreadsheet. But my coworkers are nice, the office is clean and has unlimited free tea and isn’t too far away, and I’m getting paid, which is more than I’ve been able to say since… well, since the summer.

Also, it involves toilets.

Here’s the thing: my whole family is in the toilet business. My father, who’s always dreamed of becoming a plumber (yes, seriously) finally became a pipefitter recently, and he does all kinds of plumbing maintenance for his corporation. My mother, a bookkeeper, works for a company that outfits public bathrooms with stall partitions, toilet paper holders, and other paraphernalia. And my brother works for a company that, while not explicitly toilet-related, is affiliated with the company for which I now work: a national manufacturer of toilets, sinks, and other plumbing equipment.

It’s easy to laugh at. I mean, my family spends every day quite literally dealing with other people’s shit. But at the same time, it fills me with a bit of pride. Because each of us, in our own way, is working on something important — something absolutely necessary for the comfort of human beings (at least in first world countries). My ultimate goal, as most people know, is to work in publishing, or, perhaps, to go to grad school and become an academic in the field of media and cultural studies. In my wildest dreams, I hope to someday publish a book. But I know that, no matter what I accomplish in those fields, it won’t benefit nearly as many people, in nearly as fundamental a way, as my work indexing toilet parts for my current employer.

And that? Is pretty damn cool.

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Driving Past Billy’s House

January 7, 2009 at 9:00 am (Introduction, real life) ()

As a naturally anecdotal person, I’m going to start this blog with a story.

When I was in Kindergarten, I rode the bus to school. I actually lived fairly close to all the schools in my town, and by 7th grade I was no longer given the courtesy of a bus; instead, my mom was forced to drive me to and from school each day to prevent me from having to walk through a tangled forest or along busy, sidewalk-bare streets, the only two options for walkers. But back in Kindergarten, I still had a bus, and it was on that big, yellow, diesel-fueled monstrosity that I traveled to school each day.

Of course, we didn’t drive straight to school. There were several other bus stops to hit after mine, all around this little corner of my suburban New Jersey town. To my 5-year-old mind, the trip seemed to take forever–certainly far longer than my ears could stand the incessant repetitions of “Ice, Ice, Baby” and “U Can’t Touch This,” the contents of the only two cassettes the fourth graders brought each morning for the bus driver to play. But eventually, we’d hit the last stop on the route, way out at the edge of town: the front lawn of a boy named Billy, who once ripped my homework in half and consequently earned my hatred in perpetuity. After Billy’s house, the bus would do a k-turn in the dirt-packed parking lot of the sprawling industrial wasteland across the street, and we’d be off, full speed ahead, to my elementary school.

I have, rather notoriously, no sense of direction. My mind contains no functional mental map, and while I can follow some directions from memory after traveling them many times, I have no concept of how those discrete trips might provide me with the raw material for traveling to other, exotic destinations. (The GPS my parents finally gave me this Christmas is, perhaps, the best gift I’ve ever received.) Unsurprisingly, my sense of direction was no better when I was 5 years old, and not even driving anywhere on my own power. So it didn’t even occur to me, until years later, that Billy’s house, which had seemed so far away in those early bus years, was actually about five minutes away from my own house.

This fall, I spent a whole semester teaching 6th grade English at a middle school in a nearby town. Each day, I woke up at 5:30 (or, more frequently than I like to remember, 4:30, to finish work I couldn’t finish the night before), and I was out of my house by ten to seven. As the sun began to peek out from beneath the horizon, I drove down the street toward work, and the first significant landmark I passed–the first thing I noticed, as I focused my bleary eyes on the road ahead–was Billy’s house. And every day, as I would approach that house, some part of me, the five-year-old buried inside, would feel strange. Would feel like I shouldn’t be doing this; like I should, instead, be making a k-turn in that dusty parking lot and heading back in the opposite direction. Billy’s house was a boundary, the thin, soapy wall of the bubble of my childhood, and to drive to my first real adult job, I had to pop that bubble every single day.

In many ways, my whole life has been about metaphorically “driving past Billy’s house.” My natural resistance to change has meant that there are very few new things in my life that I’ve been immediately comfortable with. I was a naïve goody two-shoes who never disobeyed my parents until my friends in sixth grade, disregarding my reluctance, taught me how to curse. I was convinced, until age 10, that the only music that existed was country, oldies, and classic rock, because my parents’ music was all I’d ever heard, and when the local country station went off the air I was ready to stage a protest. (Nowadays, I mostly listen to pop, showtunes, and singer-songwriter-type stuff, but Garth Brooks and Bruce Springsteen make up quite a bit of my iTunes library.) I have hated every single interest I’ve ever had–from the Animorphs books I read as a kid to the Hanson music I still proudly enjoy to the comics that currently consume my life–before I became interested in them. Every step I’ve taken in my life has been a case of reevaluating my opinions and expectations, of pushing past the rigid boundaries I always thought I had and realizing that they were little more than soap bubbles after all. Every moment of my life, every new experience, has been about pushing farther, about discovering new worlds, and new parts of myself, that I never imagined. Every day of my life has been about driving past Billy’s house.

And now, I find myself at a crossroads. As a young adult about to enter the workforce in earnest (in a terrible economy, no less), I’m about to make a series of decisions that will each involve the breaking of a new boundary, the trying of something new. I will be frequently “trampling through the brush,” as the title of this blog says–a quote from a statement I invented for myself back in high school: “When two roads diverge in a wood, I often find it’s best to stray from both and instead trample through the brush.” I would be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified of the prospect. But I recognize this new world of opportunities for what it is, and I’m willing–cautiously–to meet it head on.

2009 has just begun, and the new year is always a time for renewal and fresh starts. And so I’ve started this blog. It doesn’t have a central purpose–not like Fantastic Fangirls, the comics blog I run with three of my good friends. This blog is likely to be meandering, with topics ranging from my current life to past reminiscences to commentary on books, music, movies, politics, Broadway, or anything else that comes to mind. I won’t be surprised, or offended, if no one at all reads this. But as I begin my journey into the so-called “real world,” driving past Billy’s house after Billy’s house after Billy’s house, I think it’s worth recording my thoughts, as I have them, to create a document of who I am, and who I’m about to become.

I hope some of you will join me on the journey. Even if, in the end, it only turns out to be 5 minutes long.

Jennifer Smith
throughthebrush@gmail.com

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