I get it.
I feel that specific back-to-school dread in my body every year when August rolls around. Some ghosts leave their little fingerprints.
If you’re like me, there is a distinct kind of knot in your stomach this time of year. Or maybe it’s a lump in your throat, an unsettling fluttering in your chest, a general nervousness? For me, it’s that knot, though, and it feels like dread, like fear, like anxiety, like maybe there’s a small voice of hope in there, but mainly it feels like foreboding doom.
The back-to-school time when I was growing up was very different: We did not have long lists of supplies and it certainly didn’t start in July. School started after Labor Day and our supplies were very basic compared to today; I’m pretty sure we didn’t work off an actual list. I just know we bought some pencils, Mead notebooks, binders, glue and not much else. It is a fuzzy cluster of memories but the feeling of dread is something I can remember very distinctly, something I recall viscerally — literally — every year around this time. Vestigial echoes of that dread reemerge when I see the back-to-school displays set up; I have to consciously remind myself that I am safe now but the feeling of doom still bobs around inside me.
Before fifth grade, I actually enjoyed going back to school. I had been a pretty happy, charmed kid up until then. I had friends on my block, in my classrooms and grade. I never worried about finding a table to eat at during lunch or being picked for a team in gym; I always had a bus buddy on field trips. I got along with everyone. That ended in a fairly abrupt fashion in fifth grade. I can’t attribute my loss in status to any single event except, of all things, a lice outbreak, one in which I didn’t even get lice in but that little fact didn’t matter. It could have happened over anything but the lice outbreak was most convenient.
Before the outbreak ever happened, though, it was clear that tectonic plates had started shifting. I could feel it the first day of school when I walked into Mr. Zanheiser’s fifth grade classroom. Things were different. In fifth grade, kids started becoming more self-conscious and aware that middle school was looming, a middle school where my elementary school and a bunch of others would feed into a single building. That was the year when we started leaving the final vestiges of early childhood behind and started reading Judy Blume books with flashlights under our covers. It was the grade when the first kids started pairing up in chaste but still intimidatingly mature-seeming couples. And, as I mentioned, fifth grade was also the year we had a lice outbreak at school.
I had very thick, unruly hair, something I’d always had but wasn’t a problem until that grade. No hairstylists (did we call them that then?) knew how to handle hair like mine in the 1970s, so it was cut into a rough approximation of a “Dorothy Hamill” style, also known as a wedge, which looked breezy and perfect on the straight locks of the Olympic figure skater and like an erupting mushroom cloud on mine. No one seemed to care much about my hair until fifth grade but then suddenly, it mattered a lot. I managed to avoid lice during the Great Outbreak of fifth grade but I had a dry scalp — again, no one knew how to deal with my kind of hair, least of all myself — and I had that telltale sign of a dry scalp: dandruff. Washing my hair didn’t help — in fact, it made the problem worse. There was no Google. There were no YouTube tutorials. There was only this tar-like, medicinal-smelling dandruff shampoo and it did not help. Somehow the little white flakes became incontrovertible proof to a jury of my peers that I was a lice host; no further evidence was needed. Rumors made their way around the school and suddenly no one wanted to sit near me. Overnight, I had problems finding a place to sit at lunch and started getting picked last for teams in gym. I began to dread field trips. It seemed like it happened as fast as a thunderclap. The plates had shifted and I fell.
Once the bullying started, every day in fifth grade got a little worse than the previous one, snowballing. My friends, kids I’d played with since pre-kindergarten, started disappearing. I became familiar with that mouth-blocking whisper thing girls do. I’d walk in the room and a boy would yell, “Lice!” and then whistle to himself to the amusement of my classmates. I was suddenly contagious: not just as an alleged lice carrier but as a newly unpopular girl. In retrospect, it’s kind of stunning how quickly I acclimated to my new social standing and the feeling like I just wanted to disappear. Not die, really. Just disappear. Poof.
What started in fifth grade carried on through middle school except it was much worse because middle schoolers have sharper, more precise tools for making one’s life miserable. Even when the dandruff was under control, the legacy of it lived on. I was dandruff. Basically from the homeroom bell until the last class bell, I was bullied at every opportunity and there what the bullied soon find out is that there are lots of opportunities. The other schools feeding into my middle school brought their own social orders and cliques, crueler and more cut-throat than what I’d come from, and they changed in size and shape like amoebas to form new social orders and cliques that gobbled up kids like me for breakfast. I had a continual stomach ache from fifth grade through eighth grade because every day meant terror whenever some mean kid got bored, narrowed his or her eyes at me and decided that humiliating me in front of my peers was better than being bored.
Shortly before I graduated eighth grade, I learned how to take care of my hair. (Leave curly hair alone — who’d have guessed?) I developed a raging case of anorexia. I learned how to avoid the idle gaze of bullies but those previous points probably helped as well. Going into my freshman year of my giant high school, I had a chance to start fresh again. I found some new friends, ones who hadn’t heard the gossip about me yet, and I started to climb the social ladder. I had new kids to sit with at lunch. I had notes passed to me again. I suddenly had weekend plans.
There was a girl I became friends with who’d come from a different middle school who was pretty popular. We had social studies together. Let’s call her Kim. Kim and I were fast friends — she was fun, she was stylish, she also loved MTV — but she had a sadistic side I overlooked. She always had a running commentary about “losers” to avoid, kids like I’d been not too long before. I kept my discomfort to myself. There was another girl in the same social studies class Kim hated, one she’d ID’d as a “loser”: she made fun of her clothes to me, of her hair, of her awkwardness. Let’s call this other girl Jennifer. Kim would call me and try to get me to take the bait and make fun of Jennifer in class. One day, I did. I told Jennifer how much I liked her hair. She smiled and thanked me. The next day, I complimented her again, asking her where she got her barrettes. Jennifer blushed a little and told me. The next day in class, I said, “Jennifer, I love your sweater,” and she looked at me, her eyes filled with such hurt. She knew. I recognized from the slump of her back and her downcast eyes that Jennifer was very used to being made fun of in that way and she absolutely knew what I was doing. I could hear Kim giggling, egging me on. And…I couldn’t say anything. My experiment with being a mean girl was short-lived and it was over. Within a couple of weeks, Kim dropped me as a friend, moving on to more pliable lackeys and I accepted that this was never going to be the life for me. I was given the chance and it wasn’t worth the cost. That moment changed my life’s trajectory. It was a brief flirtation with what I needed to do to be popular and it was over. I’d failed. And I’d won.
When I see the cheerful back-to-school displays, I feel that familiar knot in my stomach and for just a few seconds, I remember what it feels like to just want to disappear, to feel your stomach clench. If you feel the same way when you see the back-to-school displays for similar reasons, this is for you.
I just want you to know something…
These kids who are shitheads, well, they may be shitheads for life. I’m old enough now to know that some will never grow out of this. You may run into them at work; they may be your neighbors. If you’re lucky enough, you can limit your exposure to them as much as possible. You’ve been through or are going through something that will make you more sensitive, more compassionate, more resilient, more resourceful, more aware and more thoughtful than your tormentors can ever hope to be. These things will serve you. The mean kids will have helped you, in their unintentional way, to be a better person than they are in perhaps a million different ways: your powers of observation are more keen, your empathy is greater, the distaste for injustice much more pronounced, your independence is stronger. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: Almost everyone I know who is a kick-ass organizer, activist, artist, creator and innovator today went through their version of what I did growing up. Quite simply, they were different, the other kids noticed it and they were bullied for it, sometimes brutally.
So prepare yourself: You may become an artist or a healer. You may become a teacher or a scientist. You may lead organizations or help to save the planet. No matter what, you will be bringing with you your sensitivity and your strength. You don’t have to thank the shitheads for it — don’t, actually, because they don’t deserve it — but you’ll live a much more interesting and full life because of what you have lived through. The main thing is to not let them live on in your head.
That feeling in the gut when you see the back-to-school displays may still be with you years later as it is with me but it’s fleeting. I know in my heart that I am okay and I know you are, too. If you are in the midst of this, know that you will get through it and you will thrive. Let the boring, basic bullies live their boring, basic lives and leave them in your shadow because when you slam your locker shut for the last time, you will walk away a better person. They will not be able to say as much.