exciting, informative, snarky, and very likely fabricated tales of life as an american expat in london

nothing you could put your finger on

by Jen at 8:41 pm on 17.01.2010 | 6 Comments
filed under: classic, mutterings and musings

*thwack*. the sharp point of an elbow slammed into the back of my head and i saw stars float in front of my eyes.

sitting at my desk, i hunched low and kept my eyes down, hoping the teacher hadn’t noticed.

*thwack*. the elbow met my head again as she returned to her seat, ostensibly using the wall-mounted pencil sharpener. i did my best not to flinch visibly, even as the words on my paper swam in front of me.

crystal n_________. probably the smallest girl in the entire school. my tormentor.

hard to believe that back at the start of september, we’d been friends. i started sixth grade in a different middle school from all my old fifth grade classmates. at eleven, i was shy and awkward, with a choppy home-grown haircut, still getting used to my brown owl-like glasses. so when i recognised crystal from the accelerated enrichment class we’d both been in the previous year, it was a huge relief. we were both learning to play the flute, both liked prince and wore purple legwarmers. crystal had an indefinable edge to her, a coolness combined with the defensiveness of living in a grittier area of town – but i didn’t care. we quickly started hanging out together, passing notes, exchanging stickers, and even had a few sleepovers where we played 1999 til we wore out the record.

and one evening, lying in our sleeping bags in the dark, she confided to me that she was abused at home.

i didn’t know what to do – what do you do when you’re little and someone drops that kind of reality in your lap? i only knew that when someone reveals something bad, you’re supposed to tell someone in authority. someone responsible. and so i persuaded her to tell our teacher.

we sat in the teacher’s meeting room, the three of us. i don’t remember what was said, but i remember staring at the wall as if my life depended on it. i’m sure the teacher said all the right things, made the appropriate reassurances.

that wall was seafoam green.

what came after that, was a fury directed at me that blindsided me, spun me round with the force of being clocked. at began with a campaign of silence. crystal no longer spoke to me. when i tried to talk to her, find out what was going on, she looked through me as if looking through a ghost. my notes and calls went unanswered. i couldn’t understand what i’d done to make her reject me so completely. but she never let up, not for one second. from that moment in the teacher’s meeting room, with the seafoam green walls, it was if i had ceased to exist.

until, that is, she switched alliances. crystal and i had been a pair of oddball friends, but somehow less odd for begin together. everyone else in our class had pre-established friends from years of graduating up through the grades together. she and i had become friends out of necessity. but now she began cultivating relationships with the popular girls, currying favour with them through her acid remarks and brazenness. as the leaders at the top of the food chain, they admired someone who could act so tough. they took her into the clique, and she soon became one of them.

i’m not sure what she told them about me, but it must have been pretty awful. previously they’d ignored me – i was completely peripheral to their day-to-day, not even worthy of attention. once crystal joined their group, all that changed. they began going out of their way to trip me, sneer at me, steal my books off my desk when i wasn’t looking and hide them. to them, i was something for their amusement – it made them laugh to knock my flour on the floor in home economics class, or snigger at a private joke until my face burned red. it was crystal, however, who reserved a special kind of hatred for me.

“you’re dead. after school, you’re dead,”
the note flung surreptitiously into my lap read. i managed to leave unseen by the rear exit of the school, and walk home by the back streets that day. but she wouldn’t let up – she hissed epithets in my ear when no one was looking, continually threaten to beat me up, shoved vicious notes through the slats of my locker. and her specialty – the elbow to the back of the head with an innocent look on her face, while i swallowed the pain.

and day after day, i endured it in silence.

i don’t know why i didn’t tell anyone. perhaps i knew without asking that the adults couldn’t do much. after all, she was so sneaky about most of it, it was invisible to the naked eye. perhaps i assumed that without proof, no one would believe me. perhaps i knew any intercession on my behalf might make things worse.

when, towards the end of the long school year, i finally told my mother, i remember only this: she offered me a prayer. a prayer that i clung to, repeated ceaselessly like a balm. a prayer that did little to stop the bullying, but somehow felt soothing nonetheless.

god has not promised
skies always blue
flower strewn pathways
all our lives through

god has not promised us
sun without rain
joy without sorrow
peace without pain

but god has promised us
strength for the day
rest for the weary
light for the way

god has promised us
help from above
unfailing sympathy
undying love.

i don’t know why or how that was supposed to make me feel better, but it did. even as i stumbled home in shame, hot tears running down my cheeks when i couldn’t hold them back until i got home. it makes me angry now, that message – that somehow the torment of that year was part of my cross to bear, and that if i only believed hard enough, i could continue to bear it with god’s help. no child should believe that the cruelty of others is part of god’s will.

and i did bear it. sixth grade finally ended, and by the following autumn, crystal and her friends had moved into different classes. i was once again blessedly ignored, forgotten about.

but i’ve never forgotten about her.

as an adult, i came to understand, of course, why she turned against me so viciously, in an effort to protect herself from someone who knew her secrets. funnily enough, i was a threat *to her*, though even in all that grief, it never once occurred to me to lash out, or use what i knew to discredit her. i understand why she did what she did.

i can understand it, but even now, more than twenty-five years later, i can’t forgive it.

i looked her up recently on facebook, out of curiosity. and there she was. looking almost exactly the same, only an older version of the eleven year old she was. my stomach seized up involuntarily – it seems unbelievable to me that someone who’s lived so long in my memory as this feared image could be right there, looking innocent in her curls as ever. if her facebook profile is anything to go by, she doesn’t seem like she ever softened at all. i guess she might’ve had a difficult life if she was so hardened by eleven. maybe life didn’t get any better for her after that.

and of course, i wonder if she ever thinks of me. if she’s ever sorry for what she did, the hell she made my life for that whole year. writing about it now, the tears i never let her see then, still spring easily to my eyes. it probably doesn’t even register on her memory.

i wish i could say the same.

just like anyone – aimee mann

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3 people like this post.


  • 1

    Comment by k

    17.01.2010 @ 23:28 pm

    this post made me well up in tears………….

  • 2

    Comment by Amy

    18.01.2010 @ 04:20 am

    beautifully written, Jen – I’m so sorry you endured that. I remember so well the cruelty of the middle school years. I didn’t endure anything quite to the level that you described, but being shunned by cliques, the cruel, offhanded remarks in my direction, the painful awkwardness – - I remember it all too well. It makes me so sad for that girl that I was then, not understanding who I was yet, and thinking my worth was based on what these mean girls thought of me. So I felt your pain to my bones reading what you wrote – - the pain during adolescence is quite acute and never fully leaves. Amazing.

  • 3

    Comment by Jen

    19.01.2010 @ 17:46 pm

    thanks both. it’s amazing how it’s just below the surface.

  • 4

    Comment by daddio

    20.01.2010 @ 08:01 am

    stunned to read this. i never knew and i would have tried to protect you. i am sorry you endured this. everyone who delibertly tries to hurt someone are just badly hurt themselves, but not a reason to be allowed t to continue. i love you…just what do you mean a choppy haircut…ok, so it was choppy (sorry!)

  • 5

    Comment by Strawberry

    24.01.2010 @ 00:38 am

    It’s awful when this happens, when you find that someone you thought was a friend suddenly dislikes you, doesn’t want to know you. If it makes you feel any better, you can be sure that something similar to this probably eventually happened to her too.

    We are all cruel to one another, we are all dismissive of someone else’s feelings and friendship at some point — easily spotted when it happens to us, but so difficult to recognise in ourselves. And though we like to think it’s a school-aged thing, I think it happens just as much in adulthood, but unlike in school, as adults we have the freedom to choose the circles we move in.

  • 6

    Comment by A Free Man

    26.01.2010 @ 23:10 pm

    This is fantastic, Jen. Brought me back to that age and brought back the bullys. Kids can be so damn evil. It’s one of the things that worries me about my own kids. What the hell do you do as a parent when you find out that someone is torturing your kid. I love your Mom’s answer, it’s the best I’ve ever heard.

    I see a lot of the kids that I hated and, like you, still can’t forgive on Facebook. Some of them try to friend me and I just don’t get it – they spent our teen years taunting, punching, tripping, mocking and now they want to be my ‘friend’? Seriously?

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