Friday, May 9, 2008

The Cold Coat of Many Colors

A woman in her 30's says:

Have you heard the song by Dolly Parton about how her mama made her a coat of many colors? Well, I had my own version of that coat. It was red quilted fabric with some floral design all over. Cheap, really. It wasn't even that warm. But a family friend made it for me, and I liked it. Unfortunately, the kids in my third grade class weren't impressed.

One day, I made the mistake of wearing it in class. The teacher left the room for something, and suddenly it was open season on me and my red coat. I was mortified, of course, and never wore it again. I remember one girl stood up for me and told everyone that at least someone cared enough about me to make it. But I was beyond believing that was enough. I felt as if my love of that coat was somehow wrong, as if I myself was flawed for even considering wearing such a dorky thing. Mind you, this was just the first in a long line of humiliating episodes at this school. I was spit on, punched, and called horrible names. The entire four-year ordeal ended on the last day of sixth grade when I found a hate letter taped to my bike. The entire class signed it.

The Conversation:

Jason: Hi there.

Hi. Sorry, I was getting a drink.

Jason: Something good?

Oh yes. Apricot Weizen.

Jason: What's in that?

It's a wheat beer with apricot flavor

Jason: Oh, I tried something like that recently. It was really good.

Tastes better than it sounds.

Jason: I have a little Limoncello. I'm going easy tonight.

Yum. I was going to stick with diet coke, then I reconsidered.

Jason: Good plan!

Yes. Plus poking old wounds requires a bit of liquid courage sometimes.

Jason: Speaking of which, are you ready to poke a little?

Poke away!

Jason: Tell me a little bit about the family friend who made your coat. Was she a friend of your mother?

She was a housekeeper that we used. My mother was a single parent so this woman would come in and help around the house. She often made clothes for me.

Jason: What did your mother do?

She was in sales. So she worked long hours.

Jason: Were you friends with the housekeeper? Was she also around when your mother wasn't?

Yes. In the summers, I used to tag along on other jobs with her and help out. It kept me out of trouble and gave her an extra hand.

Jason: Why did you tag along? Were you bored, or was there something about her you liked being around?

I think it was something my mom arranged since summer meant no child care. But I liked her. She was very salt of the Earth. She also had a helper who was mentally handicapped. He and I got along, and he was a sweet guy.

Jason: Why did she make you clothes?

She was a good seamstress so she enjoyed doing it. But I think it was also to help out my mom. Money was pretty tight.

Jason: Was it a stretch to pay for the housekeeper?

I've wondered that myself. But I think she and my mom worked out something. She only came in every week or two. And I'm sure there were times my mom fell behind.

Jason: But in the summer, you spent more time with her than that, right?

Yes. I'd spend the whole day with her and her helper. She mostly sat and smoked while he and I did all the work.

Jason: Did she talk?

Oh yes. She had opinions on everything.

Jason: Can you give me a little example of a typical day of conversation?

Gosh. It was so long ago. I remember she'd pontificate about everyone. My mom, my sister, other clients. Since I didn't get along with my sister I usually enjoyed those conversations.

Jason: What did she say about your mother?

I'm sure some of it was negative. Having to do with how my mom raised us, her boyfriend, etc. But I can't recall specifics. I remember she used to talk about herself a lot, too. She was a big woman, short grey hair. Almost manly. She'd had a mastectomy and showed me the scars once. She showed me a picture of herself when she was young, and I was shocked. She'd been so pretty in her youth. But when I knew her she looked rough. Like life hadn't been too kind.

Jason: Where was your sister during these times you were working with her?

I'm not sure. She's several years older than me, so might have been at home watching TV for all I knew.

Jason: Your mother was okay with her hanging out?

I think so. She used to leave us alone a lot. Well never me by myself except for when I came home from school. Usually my sister was there with me.

Jason: But your mother wanted someone with you other than your sister in the summer?

I don't think it was like that. For all I know, my mom might have traded my services for money owed.

Jason: What were the ages of you and your sister at this point?

Or she just thought I'd enjoy getting away from my sister since we fought a lot. At this time, I was about 8 and my sister was 14.

Jason: Why didn't the housekeeper like your sister?

Well... My sister is complicated. She's got learning disabilities and is bi-polar, although then we didn't really know about the bi-polar part. Everyone just knew she was "difficult." Unfortunately, on top of those things she learned early how to manipulate my mother.

Jason: How?

She'd get violent and throw fits.

Jason: And your mother would back off?

Or she'd cry and talk about how horrible her life was. Yes, mom's guilt would kick in and she'd take my sister shopping even though she couldn't afford it.

Jason: You mentioned boyfriends. How often were they around? Was it one guy for long periods, or did she break up more often than that?

My mother started dating a man when I was 6, they got married when I was in junior high, and they were together until I was in college.

Jason: How did he do with your sister? Did he try to discipline her?

Yeah there were lots of fights about how to deal with her between him and my mom. He never took my sister in hand or anything, but I have a sense that he would lecture my mom about dealing with her.

Jason: Did he help support you guys while you mom was dating him?

Yes. He helped my mom buy our house.

Jason: How was he with you?

We were kind of like buddies. I think I learned early on how not to be a problem, so he enjoyed hanging out with me.

Jason: What was your relationship with your mother like at this point (when you were 8)?

It was pretty good. I mostly tried not to add to her stress. Although I remember at this point, I went through a phase where I was terrified to sleep alone at night. And I would come to her and try to talk about how I didn't fit in. But I think she was at a loss about how to help me. I remember going to her and sobbing, saying "I don't feel like myself." But I never could explain what that meant. She tried to listen, but I don't think she understood.

Jason: What did you do when something big was upsetting you? How much of a struggle was it debating whether to bring it up and potentially upset your mother?

I think I internalized a lot. It was only when I was really upset that I'd tell her. Or else she'd notice I was upset and ask me about it.

Jason: Did you bring more of these things up with the housekeeper?

Not really.

Jason: You were alone with them?

For the most part. Like the hate note I mentioned in the intro. I hid it when I got home. My sister found it and went to my mom. I was so angry at her for telling mom.

Jason: How did you feel when the housekeeper made you clothes?

Well, honestly, a part of me felt embarrassed. But I knew I should appreciate the effort. So I wore them. Some of them were nice, though.

Jason: How did you feel about the coat? Did you really love it or did you feel somewhat obligated to wear it?

A bit of both. I remember thinking it might make me a target, but the rebel in me wore it anyway. I do remember feeling that "someone cared enough to make me this so it's special" thing about it.

Jason: Did you ever react less than enthused when you were handed any of these clothes?

I was trained well, so no.

Jason: In your mind, how would she have reacted if she found out you didn't wear her clothes, like the coat? (Of course, you did stop wearing the coat.)

I think she would have been hurt. Probably would have lectured me about being thankful someone made me clothes.

Jason: Do you feel like she should have been more mindful that folks generally didn't go around making clothes? Should she have thought more about how hard it was to fit in?

I don't think it's realistic to expect a 60 year old to think about what's cool. Like I said, some of it was fine and people wouldn't have known it wasn't store bought. But a couple things, like the coat, were way off the mark. Of course, that's me speaking now. I'm sure back then a few thoughts along those lines went through my head.

Jason: Did part of you resent that she was making it harder? Making you struggle between thoughts of pleasing her and appreciating the effort and what you really wanted to wear?

You know I think if I resented anything it was my mom's pressure to wear it. She's the one who drilled the politeness into me. The guilt for feeling like something wasn't cool enough to wear.

Jason: Did that kind of conversation happen right before you wore it to school?

It's really the idea that I should suffer so someone else won't that got me. I don't remember any specific conversation. I think I just knew it. She never said don't wear it if you don't like it.

Jason: I'm getting a feeling here. Putting myself in your shoes (as well as I can), I'm feeling the effect of a lot of struggles and issues and near chaos around me. I'm feeling like the last thing I want to do is make it worse. However, I have needs too. No one is really helping me.

Yes, that's it. Everyone else was so wrapped up in their own thing, and I didn't want to be a burden. So I learned to suck it up and just be the good kid.

Jason: How were you feeling the morning of the coat-day? Were you feeling like it wasn't going to go well? Or were you thinking everything was going to be cool, and were blind-sided?

I think I knew it was coming. I mentioned the rebel side. I knew it was coming, but I did it anyway. Part of it was practical, because I was cold. There was a moment there where I consciously made the decision to put it on anyway.

Jason: Were things already bad for you in school at this point? What grade?

It was third grade. I think things were already heading in this direction. The timing is a little fuzzy since it was so long ago, but there were problems with certain kids.

Jason: I remember third grade as being the time when cliques first started forming. Was that true for your school?

Yes, there was a ring leader for sure. And of course, I had a mad crush on him.

Jason: How many kids were problems? Were they rough on several kids, or mostly you?

Third grade I'm sure there were others. But I know by the end, in sixth grade, I was the main whipping girl.

Jason: Did you feel different in school versus home? Were your personas different?

Good question. I'm sure my rebellious side came out more at school. But it wasn't doing me any favors.

Jason: What were you rebellious about?

I think sometimes I tried to be different.

Jason: Was it possible that you were so invisible at home (some of which by your own painful choice) that you wanted to be seen in school? To have a bigger impact? To act out?

That's possible. I remember always signing up for the talent show and being a bit of a know-it-all.

Jason: What was it about the boy that made you have a crush on him?

Probably that he treated me so bad. But he also was the cool kid. He played soccer and had lots of friends. I remember one time he was kicking his soccer ball around the playground. It got away from him, and I caught it and took it back. He punched me for touching it.

Jason: What would he say or do to you in general?

A lot of name calling. I think he knew I liked him, which made him treat me worse. I remember one time a teacher told him she thought his behavior indicated mutual interest, and he responded by spitting at me.

Jason: What did the teacher do to that?

I think she was as shocked as I was. I'm sure she said something, but I don't recall him being punished really.

Jason: What kind of name calling was it?

Well there was one name that stuck. Most of it had to do with my appearance.

Jason: I know these memories are painful. Feeling okay?

Yeah I'm okay. I get a little angry on my kid-self's behalf.

Jason: Did you have friends of your own to back you up at this time?

I had a couple of friends. One was a tom-boy, who I think people were afraid of. *smiles* But I think at that age it's so hard for kids to know how to defend their friends. Everyone's so worried about becoming a target themselves.

Jason: Very true. How did you feel when the kid called you names and punched you?

The punching was devastating. As I staggered away, I wasn't looking where I was going and got socked in the head by a kid in a swing. So add more embarrassment. I think I went to find a teacher, the one who taught our class, and she blew me off. The names I think I just tried to laugh it off or pretend it didn't bother me. Even though they did of course.

Jason: Did you react by staying away/avoiding him, or did part of you want to change his mind?

I think I wanted to change his mind.

Jason: I can't believe the teachers blew you off. Sorry for that. Not that I'm really surprised.

That teacher didn't like me. At that point I wasn't an exemplary student. And he was. In fact, I think the sixth grade issue is because I finally found a teacher who liked me. I started making good grades and she nominated me for this award. And of course that enraged the other kids.

Jason: I didn't ask about your father yet. Was he around at this point?

Sort of. He traveled a lot.

Jason: When did he and your mom get divorced? How old were you?

I was 3.

Jason: How was your relationship with him when you did get to spend time with him?

We had fun together. I think he enjoyed spending time with me because he saw me as the kid who'd make him proud. He wanted me to go to the naval academy, something he couldn't do because he married my mom young. Which is hilarious if you know me.

Jason: Did you have a good personal relationship with him? Did you feel he knew the real you (as a child)?

Back then I thought it was good, but now I understand it was conditional. As long as I behaved it was good. And I learned never to misbehave because I'd seen my sister. He put a lot of pressure on me about grades, too. Like my sister would be rewarded if she got D's. I come home with straight A's and I'm challenged to do it again. But we did have good times. I'd travel with him in the summers, and we'd joke and laugh a lot.

Jason: At the point you were first knowingly attracted to your husband, what was the most striking thing about him?

He cared about my comfort. That sounds so simple, but it was as if he was attentive to my needs. If a noisy truck was pulling up next to the car, he'd roll up my window. When I was sick, he'd call and check on me. These two things happened before we were dating.

Jason: Those are great attributes. *smiles*

Of course he also made me laugh, which is critical.

Jason: What changed between 3rd grade and 6th grade? Why did things slide for you?

I think it was cumulative in part, but the thing I mentioned earlier about the teacher in 6th was key. For the first time, I really blossomed in school. My grades got better and I felt excited to go to school. And I think by that point, the kids expected me to be different. So when I started to shine a little bit, they felt I needed to be put in my place.

Jason: Why were they so intent on that?

I remember the award I got being a huge issue. They felt I didn't deserve it. Some said I was stupid, so I shouldn't get an award reserved for smart people.

Jason: Why did they think you were stupid?

I don't know. I'd been in the talented and gifted program since 4th grade, so it's not like it was completely out of left field. But I wasn't known for being the best student in regular class until then. I was that classic-bored-by-class-work-but-tests-off-the-charts kid.

Jason: What was it like in 4th grade? Was that boy still in your class?

Yes he was there throughout. Fourth I recall as being a bit better. Getting into TAG helped a lot because I loved going to those classes. But I think a new girl started that year who would create lot of trouble going forward.

Jason: How were you with the other kids in the gifted/talented class?

What's funny is a lot of the kids from my regular class were in there. But I don't recall trouble when I was there. I think the teacher kept our little brains so active it wasn't as much of an issue. We did lots of team projects and I don't think there was ever an issue.

Jason: What was the new girl's problem?

She was a trouble maker. She had a crush on the boy too. But she was better at the game. So she teamed up with him and teased me to get on his good side.

Jason: Any idea why he was still intent on teasing you? Was it the liking him part? Was it just habit at that point? Something else?

You know at the time I had no idea. As an adult I like to think he was insecure and boosting himself up. But the pessimist in me thinks he might have just been mean.

Jason: If you could say or shout something in response to the people who signed the hate note on your bike, and they would really hear and take in what you say, what would it be?

Oh man.

Jason: Take your time. It's a hard one.

Hold on. I'm trying to get this right.

Jason: It's okay. Take your time....

Back then I didn't know any better. I believed you when you said I was stupid and ugly and worthless. But now I know better. It took me a long time, but now I feel sorry for you all. Your herd mentality has probably not served you well in life. And I hope that no one ever makes you feel as bad about yourself as you made me feel that day. I was special and deserved to be loved. And more than anything, I wish I could go back and hug the eight year old me, and let myself know that being myself is okay.

Okay, that was really hard.

Jason: Here's a virtual hug for that 8 year-old.

Thank you. And surprisingly expletive free.

Jason: Ha! You definitely deserve some expletives in there. But then again, making them hear is harder than yelling at them. You did the harder thing just now.

Jason: Did things change after 6th grade?

Yes, my mom got married and we moved to a new school district. There was still some fun-making, but it wasn't as bad. I'm not sure anyone survived junior high without getting teased. Although I have to say, that girl, the trouble-maker, appeared a few years later at my high school. Suddenly she wanted to be friends. I had nothing to do with her.

Jason: Did part of you feel vindicated?

Oh yes. I was never mean to her, but I avoided her.

Jason: Who was the person she saw when she arrived in high school? How had you changed?

Well I still wasn't one of the cool kids. But I had good friends. I'd found some activities I excelled in. I made good grades.

Jason: Did your mother's life calm down? Was it easier for her after she married and moved?

Things at home weren't great then. Very soon after the marriage, things went downhill. My sister was a factor. She went through serious bouts of depression, and my step-father couldn't deal with it.

Jason: What was your role during those times? Similar to before, when you tried not to make things harder for everyone else?

I was a confidant for my mother, a buddy for my step-father, and the bane of my sister's existence.

Jason: What did you do with your sister? Were you taking action against her, or did she simply resent you?

She resented the hell out of me. We never got along. I did take some action. I'd call her on things, which of course never went well. Of course, I resented her too. But in many ways, I was the older kid.

Jason: Because she drew so much attention? Because people were forced to focus on her, and weren't focusing on you, except to meet their own needs (like a confident for your mother, rather than a mother for you)?

You know those birth order studies? I'm the youngest but acted like the oldest, and she's the oldest and acted like an only child. She drew attention and money. And she also had it easier, in my opinion. She'd say otherwise, of course. One time she racked up hundreds of dollars in phone bills because she called a psychic hotline. Ergo we had no money for Christmas that year.

Jason: What did your mother do to her?

Yelled and paid it.

Jason: Your stepfather was exasperated?

Oh yes. There was lots of fighting. Them and my sister. My mom and stepfather. I kept to my room a lot. Yet, in the end, my mom always bailed sis out. Which naturally upset my stepfather.

Jason: I'm going to try to put myself in your shoes again.


Jason: I feel like if a problem comes up around me, I readily step up and deal with it. I'm probably better at it than a lot of people around me. Yet, many times when I do it, it's also tinged with anger. There's a bit of resentment about stepping up. A bit of unfairness.

Definitely. There was a real double standard at work. I was always expected to be capable. Yet my sister was seen as incapable, so people expected less.

Jason: If something happened to strike at my self-esteem, it was very threatening. Very painful. It's not like I had a home version of me that wasn't being seen. At home, I was treading lightly, people really didn't have my back. I may have even looked to the outside world to build my esteem, to repair the vacuum at home. When the outside world failed me, it was terrible. I tried even harder to solve the outside issues. I never gave up, even though I was treated worse and worse.

It's sounds so grim, but yeah I guess that's pretty right on the money.

Jason: I feel like I understand a small part of what you went through.

Thank you for that. It's been a long road to deal with those issues.

Jason: I hope it lightens a bit of the old wounds to talk about them. To get some understanding.

Yes, it's cleansing. It's also good that I can talk about it all and realize that so much of it wasn't my fault.

Jason: No, what others did to you was not your fault. How we react to those harms is our responsibility, however. I know I've let some of my old wounds drive my actions now. It's hard, but important (I'm learning) to see them, then to break their unconscious hold.

Yes, I still struggle with self-esteem and worrying about people's opinions. But now when I do that, I'm able to say, "that's that old wound talking."

Jason: Yes!

Jason: I hope I haven't kept you up too late. I hope you have a great night!

Not at all. Thanks, Jason. You have a good night too.

Jason: Goodnight.


ChrisEldin said...

Bravo for talking about such a painful period in your life.

I will have to digest some of this slowly, and come back with more thoughts.

But I wanted to say that I was also bullied. From second grade through sixth grade. Those moments remain frozen in memory, and in surprising detail.

I remember a writer on one of the children's book boards I belong to posted a question. He was writing a book about bullies, and wanted to know what it felt like. He had a "boring" childhood. I felt like telling him to fuck off. I had to restrain myself.

It's good you're reflective and sensitive, so you will be much closer to your children than you were with your own parents.

I have more to say, but I'd like to think ....

Sarah Hina said...

What a rich, and poignant, night of reflection. You, and your younger self, have much to be proud of here.

What struck me most was that traumas can take on many shapes and colors. I don't know what I empathized with more: the cruelty of your school situation, or the casual taking-you-for-granted at home. Your comment of I don't feel like myself really crushed me while reading this. No little girl should feel so at sea, without the anchor of a solid family support. I'm so, so sorry you had to navigate that alone.

But I'm also so happy that you've found someone who can really appreciate you and love you. And that you recognize that the burdens placed on you as a child are not life-long sentences. It sounds like you're someone I'd be proud to know, and count as a friend.

Good luck to you! I'm so glad you opened the door and let us in.

JaneyV said...

It absolutely horrifies me to hear that you were physically abused at school and nothing was done about it. I've worked in schools and it I've seen the lack of sympathy you speak of in predominantly older staff who take huge dislikes to certain kids and as a result make unfair judgements when it comes to dealing with incidents.

I'm so sorry that you had to go though that. At so many points in this story the bullying could have been nipped in the bud but you weren't supported. I can see however, despite the wounds, you have grown as person from the adversity. Your decision in high school not to leave that bullying girl back into your life showed, I think, great maturity.

Thank you for sharing your story.

Precie said...

Thank you for sharing such painful memories. You've clearly made great strides to overcome so much pain and rejection and, well, neglect. I too am horrified that teachers brushed off the treatment you received. And I'm in awe that you can talk about such wholesale alienation without expletives.

Thanks again for sharing.

Abhinav said...

Though I've never been bullied myself, I've seen others being bullied in school. The fact that I did not protest then makes me feel as if I were a party to the act.

In college again I was spared the tradition of ragging which is an extremely perverse form of bullying (involving even sexual abuse), and which is a publicly cognizable offense that can be reported to the police.

I think it is much more damaging to the bully than for the bullied. I really admire your courage to come out with such intimate details in such a forthright manner, especially when it would have been possible for you to take the easy way out and go on living with the burden.

jyotsana said...

hi jason, nice to know the trauma u've gone thru...but i suppose u hve emerged so mature and so seeking for god coz of all this that u hve been thru...

yes death is an emancipation as on my post liberates u from the constraints of the body...after all v r not merely bodies.