16 March, 2010

"this I used to believe"

When I was thirteen I went to school in a gauntlet. It took a while for me to understand what this meant. One went to middle school. One was intrigued by the new building and stopped to watch boys knocking each other to the ground in the middle of the hallways. One felt crowded because one didn’t like noise. One tried to scrape out a place for oneself, in class, by saying weird things and chasing Richard around, both hitting each other with math books (whatever math was then).
Back then, in sixth grade, one was still kind of shut away from the world in a particular wing, although one ventured out, for gym, for art. On sunny days, all the kids were let outside to kick balls and make out under the trees, except one who was writing poems and listening to some older teachers talk about a girl in seventh grade who made a hit list and got suspended, one teacher saying, “She’s a nice girl. It’s sad. They just tease her so much.” And one knew, sort of--one had always known one was going to be the kind of girl who makes a hit list. It was just a matter of time.

If I expected words as withering as the ones in movies, then I was watching the wrong movies, and if I expected violence, then I forgot I was a girl. What developed around me as I progressed, making the wrong moves or just moving wrong, was an explosion of words without meaning, and endless, endless motions never carried through.
By the latter I mean goosing, jumping at me, making as if to grab my crotch or my thigh, and laughing when I flinched. Or coming at me, wielding a pair of scissors and letting them get within a few inches of my eyeballs before turning them off course. This is what I mean by the gauntlet, a tremendous difficulty, a brittleness in one’s chest as one is getting one’s books together to leave for the next class. And one is older now, and not sequestered away; one walks out the door, and one plunges into the gauntlet. One is tested on one’s reflexes and one always fails.
There are verbal reflexes, and that’s what I mean by the former, which is boys asking me on a date, even though I’m known and know myself to be not the kind of girl people ask on a date. Pale and flabby and ageless, I think, trying to fend off Taylor’s oh-so-ironic proposal: “Please, please, go out with me, come on, Amanda, just one time,” and finally, “If you go out with me, I’ll give you a dollar. You can buy a dildo.”
But that is not what I mean, and neither do I mean being accused of jerking off during the school play because I was rocking back and forth in my seat. Because the sexual stuff was always the cleverest stuff, and what I’m really talking about, besides people hitting my backpack so I slightly fell forward, is just a collection of words that are neutral and even cute--“bookworm,” “stairwell girl,” and most permanently my own last name called out to the extent that when I heard it said, at the doctor’s office or on our answering machine, I cringed. I’m still hoping I can marry out of it because it always feels like an itchy second skin, an epithet that for some reason is typed out on my birth certificate and my student ID.

But never mind. Christine was minor league, back in sixth grade--all those people who write books about how mean girls are to each other have never experienced the gauntlet, which is almost always populated by boys, the only people vicious enough, most of the time, to lean out and snarl into your face about how ugly you are when you are twitchily picking your way from art to math. Christine was just part of the pre-gauntlet situation, which maybe explains why in seventh grade, during the development of the true gauntlet, I distracted myself by making a new screen name and anonymously messaging Christine, telling her I was going to come to her house and kill her. I was with Megan, a friend from fifth grade who now went to Catholic school and was CCD enemies with Christine from way back. Megan and I were giggling. I don’t think we thought of what was going on as evil, or thought that Christine could be scared, although in retrospect we should have been able to see that she was getting increasingly terrified.

I was always taught never to swear when I was a kid, and I believed in it so hard that sometimes I would swear accidentally, compulsively, when I was alone, and then break down in tears. I don’t know why you would tell a kid like me something in such a serious tone of voice, but I guess my parents had their reasons.
I generally believe what I see. It’s not that I don’t believe in other people’s humanity, but that I had to meet it first. And the first time I said fuck you to one of the kids who was goosing me, I thought the world was going to explode, but he just laughed and imitated me in a high, lilting voice. This was not a meeting. And it also wasn’t a meeting when Christine said pleasantly, after some sort of encounter in which I had been asked how much I weighed and why my hair looked the way it did, “Come on, Amanda. You pretend you like being weird, but everyone knows that you wish you were pretty and had a boyfriend.” Which I did. She was joking, kind of, we were kind of friends--but as I said my verbal reflexes were poor, and as those books point out, as if they’ve thought of it for the first time, friends can treat each other badly.
Anyway, her mom called the police, and I was shocked when I found out that Christine had a mother and that she could cry. That’s when I started believing in her insides again.

For the rest of school, I’m not embarrassed to say that I sometimes imagined holding down the boys of the gauntlet with guns to their heads or cutting off pieces of their ears. I wanted to believe in them. I wanted them to wear it on the surface, like I do--to be reduced to squirming, to begging, to flinching. To swear.

1 comment:

  1. "... all those people who write books about how mean girls are to each other have never experienced the gauntlet, which is almost always populated by boys, the only people vicious enough, most of the time, to lean out and snarl into your face about how ugly you are when you are twitchily picking your way from art to math."

    No kidding.

    I had similar experiences to this when I went to middle school (1995-1997? or thereabouts), and responded more or less similarly to what you describe here: with really intense, impotent fury, and also with fear that it could escalate anytime to physical violence. I have a similar background to yours about swearing, too --- I almost *NEVER* do it, and had never done it before I experienced this stuff. So when I tried to tell them to f*** off, or tried giving them the bird, to me it was a Really Serious Thing, but they only laughed. I also had revenge fantasies similar to yours --- in them, the boys *would* decide to get violent, but I would fight back, and I would win. This led me to pursue weightlifting really aggressively, since I wanted any punches I threw to have some power behind them. What I'm very glad of now, and what probably made a big difference in how my life turned out, is that once I started to actually develop the physical strength I had dreamed about using in anger, I stopped feeling the anger. *SO* glad it turned out that way.

    Anyway, back to what I quoted from you. I think the experiences those women have, who go on to write exposes on girl-girl relational aggression, aren't the experiences of an outright pariah so much as they are those of people within relatively privileged groups fighting among themselves for within-group status points. That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt to experience those things, just that when you really *are* hated, ridiculed, or reviled by everyone, you might experience those things or you might not, but you'll also experience things next to which those little clique squabbles would barely even register.

    Also, great post!