My elementary school experience wasn't that bad. It was terribly boring, of course -- I tested at college level in English when I was nine, and I wasn't far behind that in math -- but it was usually physically safe.
On the other hand, when I went to middle school in 1974, it was the start of six years of horror. Status in my middle school was entirely determined by fighting. Status fights were one-on-one and there were rules. But I refused to fight (my mother wouldn't let me hit anyone, for any reason) so the rules didn't apply to me. I wasn't considered human.
In books, the kid who refuses to fight on account of principles is grudgingly respected, if not admired, by the bullies. I can tell you from six years of bitter experience, it doesn't work that way outside of books.
In middle school, I was thoroughly beaten up -- jumped by a group, knocked to the floor, head pounded on the ground (or the brick, or the concrete ....), upper body pummelled and sometimes kicked, till I was sick and dizzy and I could barely get back up when they finished -- three times a week on average, for two years. I was casually hit or kicked or pushed a few times during most class changes, and people did small things during class itself -- hit or pinched or jabbed with pencils -- all the time.
On top of these unscheduled beatings; there were two times a day I could be entirely certain that something would happen. We were required to go to the cafeteria every day for lunch (I know that in some schools kids are allowed to skip lunch; we weren't). In the cafeteria, I couldn't flatten myself against a wall as I would have elsewhere, so I could be hit from all sides. People also often pushed me -- "accidentally", of course -- into the heating units that kept the food warm in the serving line, and they were hot enough to burn, especially if the person held me against them for a bit. And for a while in seventh grade people made a game of spitting in my food and in my milk. Fortunately they thought of this near the end of the school year, and they'd forgotten about it by the following September.
The worst was gym class. I was jumped every day, regularly as clockwork, at the start of seventh grade gym class. That was worst of all, for several reasons -- I had to undress, so I lost the protection of clothing. We had fifteen minutes to dress out, and anyone with reasonable dexterity could dress out in under ten minutes, so they had from five to ten minutes -- longer than the average beating -- to do whatever they pleased. And the nature of gym class permitted them to inflict worse injuries than they could at other times -- it would just be assumed that I got them in class. We all had compasses, not the directional sort, the kind with a sharp point on one end, and my classmates in gym liked to use the points to jab or scratch me (while, naturally, others held me down so I couldn't dodge).
The teachers knew. They were required to stand at their doors and "monitor" the activity in the halls. But I never saw any of them try to break up a fight, much less try to do anything about anyone's hitting the girl who wouldn't hit back. Two of them actually seemed to enjoy seeing other kids hit me; they always watched avidly when someone was doing something to me. The others just looked through me, as though I weren't there.
The administrators knew. I always made a point of going to the office right after my first major beating of the day -- not because I thought they'd do anything (I was quite sure they wouldn't) but because the time in the office, while they took the report, would give me five minutes or so to recover from the beating, to stop feeling sick at my stomach and to rearrange my clothes to cushion any abraded place or anywhere that was bleeding -- five minutes, before I'd have to go out and be hit again. They never did anything; they never said anything other than "You've got to learn to hit back," or even "You mustn't be scared to hit back."
That last line always astonished and amused me. I was a large, strong girl. I could have fought well enough to be a leader in the school. And if I had fought, I'd never have had to face more than one of the kids at a time, and I'd never have been burned or pushed down the stairs or anything of that kind, because I'd have been considered human and the rules would have applied. And the administrators thought I wasn't fighting because I was *scared*?
The adults knew. The adults did nothing. When a boy broke my arm in eighth grade -- he twisted it behind my back and told me to say "uncle"; I didn't say "uncle" -- my mother went to school and told them that if I were touched again she'd take me out of school, but unfortunately she never told me this, so I was beaten up many, many times thereafter. The administrators' response was to tell my teachers that they didn't want to hear any reports of my being injured in class (of course, most of the real violence took place during class change or at lunch, where the teachers could always be looking the other way). Several of my teachers responded to this by ordering me to cut class and promising me a guaranteed A if I did so. Others sent me out of the classroom to work alone. One teacher shut me in her coat closet during her class period for the rest of the school year, with the door left open just a crack so I could see the blackboard. Nobody seemed to think of even *asking* the other kids not to hit me; I doubt it would have worked if they had, of course, but it would have been a nice gesture.
In high school, about two-thirds of the kids stopped hitting me and just started ostentatiously shunning me -- getting up and moving whenever I sat down at the cafeteria (I could always count on having a table to myself; even if I sat at the very end of a crowded table, and didn't look at them, they'd all get up and leave); scooting their desks away from me, spitting on me; that sort of thing. They'd always propose me for every class office (to the accompaniment of gales of laughter) and the teachers would say, wearily, "*Serious* nominations, please."
I was very lonely, but by high school I was so lonely that I wasn't aware of loneliness, if that makes sense. I had stopped wanting friends because I'd stopped believing that there were such things as friends. It had been so very long since I'd had any, and some of the kids I'd called friends in elementary school had joined the others in middle school in beating me up. I remember telling a guidance counselor who asked me what my friends thought about something to "Stop making stupid jokes. No one's friends with *me*."
By high school I had it all worked out, philosophically. All societies, I felt, required sacrificial victims to survive, and I was my school's Designated Victim. I never thought of killing them, but I was more than half expecting that they would kill me, sooner or later. They might have done so, too -- once my classmates were old enough to drive they liked to drive their cars at me, at some speed, to see me jump into the ditch; if nothing else, one of those times I might have been slow to jump.
If the Littleton killers were indeed neoNazis, I don't wonder. I wasn't a neoNazi, but World War II did provide me with the best matrix I could find for understanding my situation. Only in the accounts of Nazi Germany did I find any parallels to what my day-to-day life was like. I identified strongly with the heroes of the Resistance -- with those who risked torture and with those who suffered it. I read everything I could find about concentration camps and POW camps; trying to see how others, adults, had coped with being beaten every day. The stories about the Vietnam POWs were an inspiration to me also, but in 1974 there was more information about World War II.
I thought -- how could I not? What other experience did I have? -- that this was what adult life would be like, too -- that all I had to look forward to was a lifetime of being pushed into walls, of being knocked to the ground and beaten, of going home every day and quietly putting antibiotics on the day's collection of scrapes, scratches, and jabs, or cushioning the worst bruises with cotton. Not knowing that college would be different, I chose my college in part because it had smooth walls, which wouldn't cause abrasions when someone pinned me against them. To this day, twenty years later, I still size up my surroundings, automatically, thinking where the best place to be cornered would be if someone cornered me.
In the wake of the Littleton massacre, I have seen people say and write, over and over again, that the Littleton killers must have been sociopaths, unable to understand that other people had feelings. I've heard people say that the killers must have been unable to reason, that they must have been overreacting to some momentary discomfort.
Not having known either boy (though the others who've commented did not, I presume, know them either) I cannot be sure that these people are wrong. But I think they are wrong. I think that the killers were probably reasoning perfectly well, but reasoning from incomplete data. They probably thought, as I did, that adulthood would be more of the same thing they'd experienced in school. After all, adults always tell children that school is a preparation for life. And, given that misunderstanding, I can understand why they decided to go down fighting.
To any kids who are reading this -- I realize it's probably hard for you to believe, but adulthood really isn't like school. It has its own problems, but people don't generally hit you. In the twenty years since I graduated from high school, I've been hit exactly twice. Many adults haven't even been hit that many times. It's a lot safer to be an adult than to be a child. So, if you can, hold on. Senior year will eventually come, and pass, and then, almost unimaginably, you'll be safe.
To any adults -- I always swore I'd tell the world what happened to me, as soon as I was an adult and people would listen to me. But as you also know, being an adult doesn't automatically mean that people will listen. People generally haven't listened; they've assumed I must be exaggerating, or lying outright. There's a great myth out there, the idea that school is a good place to be, and it's almost unshakable.
I don't know what we as adults can do to make the schools a good place. I'm not sure it's possible, with graded schools. In chronologically graded schools, there will always be children like me who know all the material in their classes before the first day of class. Even if the schools are made physically safe (and I'm not sure that's possible either) they'll still be a waste of time. In my case, they were worse than a waste; I would have been safer, physically, mentally, and emotionally, spending those years at home, or for that matter working at a job. It's ironic that we've passed so many laws against child labor, for the safety of children, only so that the children can go to a school that is more hazardous than the most hazardous workplace. At least at work people don't usually try to hurt you on purpose.
Back to Raven Days' Words Out Of Shadow
Back to the Raven Days home page
Copyright to the original articles in the sectionWords Out of Shadow is retained by their authors.