March 25, 2004 (excerpt from a journal & material for my collection of stories: The Thing About Bullies)
Flashback to fifth grade: I gave a speech in Social Studies. A quote I used referred to Japs and Jews. I swear to GOD this material was in the books I was quoting. By the time I got to my seat in math class, it was clear to me I'd fallen out of grace with the new group of friends I'd finally made at my new school. I was baffled as to why I was suddenly being treated with such hostility. And it wasn't a subtle matter of ignoring me - it was a full scale, systematic freezeout. I ceased to exist, save a few icy glares and shoves in the hallway. The bus ride home was painfully embarrassing as the girls whispered and shot poison glances my way. What had I done? I saved my tears as long as I could. I got off the bus, eyes brimming, and walked ahead of several of my friends turned tormentors listening to whispers punctuated by an occasional hissing of "bitch."
By the time I got home, to my mother waiting to drive me to swimming practice I was crying hysterically, it was a full ten minutes before I could tell her no one was hurt. Mortally anyway. I tried to tell her what happened "what did you do?" She kept asking. While now I might call that victim-blaming, back then I just sobbed harder, trying to figure it out, ticking off all my faults and possible reasons for them to hate me. My mom shook her head looking at her watch. "Go get dressed," she urged. I shook my head and sniffled a quiet no. She gently pushed me toward the hallway. "come on, you can't let it get to you." I remember wondering, "Is she crazy?" And shook my head again. I was far too traumatized to take more abuse at the pool. That stuff I never told her about but today I couldn't cope with it. Even at ten I knew I was on the verge of a meltdown and wasn't about to have it in front of a group of mocking, snobby ten-year-old bullies disguised as daughters of the rich and famous. I risked my mother's anger. But there was no way I was leaving the confines of my house.
When the phone rang at dinner, I watched my mother answer it hopefully. Normally I couldn't take calls at mealtimes but she must have sensed I needed to take it as she excused me from the table. It was Naomi B., Paula R.'s sidekick, calling to tell me that a racist like me isn't welcome at their school. Paula's grandma was Japanese - and she was offended by my use of both the words Jews and Japs. But that was the whole point of my paper! That we have to be careful what words we use because they could hurt other people! I exclaimed in my defense. Naomi laughed - you should've thought of that before you offended Paula, she said.
"Maybe she didn't hear my whole speech?" I suggested. "Could you explain it to her?" I was desperate not to be misunderstood. And horrified that the very point of my speech was misconstrued and held against me.
"Yea, sure, but you're out. Maybe you're communist parents can take you back to the communist country they came from."
I sucked in my breath. My teacher asked me to share their immigration story. I didn't expect it to be used against me. Now I was indignant. Again, they hadn't listened. My parents escaped communism, risked their lives to protect their children from it and here was some girl calling them communists. I puffed up my chest ready to defend myself when I realized she'd been calling from the very slumber party I'd been ceremoniously un-invited to. She thought I'd already hung up. The girls were giggling hysterically.
"Communists, that was a good touch," I heard Paula say. I heard "ugly" and "foreign" in the background, wondering who all was there. "She was really scared you were going to kick her ass." Naomi laughed. I held the phone to my chest, tears spilling down my cheeks - but I couldn't put it in the cradle - holding it back up to my ear, I heard N. say "she believes you're pissed." Paula responded, "And I'm not even Jewish or Japanese." My mom's heels clicked along the hallway - I heard the echo of my brother's laughter. I hung up just as my mom appeared.
"Everything alright?" She smiled, wanting the answer to be yes. I'd changed schools several times and my parents wanted me to make a better effort to make friends. "Is everything okay? Do you understand what happened now?"
I shook my head yes. As I sat in front of my cooled Hovedzja Polievka, my brother asked me why I cared so much what other people thought.
It's a question I ask myself to this day.