It's hard to be smart in elementary school.
You can't say that to anyone. Try and you're laughed at. Things are allowed to be hard for people with learning disabilities, people who are mentally challenged, people with a physical or mental handicap. Things aren't allowed to be hard for you if you're smart. That's supposed to be a good thing. That's supposed to be an asset. If you're complaining about being smart, you're being ungrateful. People mock you and laugh at you and say cruel things to you. Because you're not allowed to complain if you're smart.
It's the smart kids, however, who have the hardest time in elementary school.
I mean anyone who is book smart. Anyone who likes to read. Anyone who always knew the answers in class, who was resentful that the teacher wouldn't call on them more often and bored, simply doodled through class. Kids who didn't ever have to study; they would ace the test without any work. And the kids who wouldn't tell their grades because they'd be attacked if they did.
I was one of those kids.
I read all the books in The Little Midrash Says which meant I always knew the answer in Chumash and Navi class. I would always raise my hand and the teacher would avoid calling on me in order to give the other girls a chance. I was bored. I would draw pictures all through class. It never occurred to me that people would think I was showing off or a snob, though in retrospect, I'm sure that is what they thought.
I was painfully shy. Not shy of kids, but of adults. It was regarded as an honor for the teacher to ask you to go to another teacher's room and request a board marker or a board eraser. I hated being asked to go on these missions. I hated having to go to the room of an adult I didn't know. What if I did it wrong? What if I went to the wrong room?
I didn't even like going to the receptionists' office. Adults frightened me. I didn't like them. I couldn't understand the easy banter some kids had with them. I didn't know how other kids in the school seemed to know all the teachers, even the ones who had never taught them. I didn't know anybody outside of the teachers I had to take. I was quiet around anyone else.
I didn't have any friends. In fact, I didn't know what it was to have friends. What would you do with the other person once they were actually at your house? I had no idea. On Shabbos, when other people would get together or have playdates, I would read books. I didn't realize this was unusual. I thought everyone read books or went to the park on Shabbos. It didn't occur to me that you could have friends over.
I tried very hard to make friends. It was very difficult. We weren't the same. This isn't me being elitist; this is me telling the truth. I was in the uncomfortable position of being more mature than those my age. I simply couldn't find the things they did to be compelling or interesting. I also wasn't good at them. I wasn't good at sports. And I didn't know much about fashion. So what would I talk about? I could only try to interest them in the things that interested me, and they would make fun of me for that. I "talked like a dictionary." I had a "good vocabulary." For some reason, this was regarded as a crime.
But the worst of it was that I was picked on. Bullied.
I was bullied by the shortest girl in the class. A girl I could have beaten up in two seconds flat. But she wasn't physically hurting me. She didn't punch me or hit me or otherwise leave any marks. She hurt me with her words. She verbally slammed me and put me down and was cruel to me- at least once a week, probably more often. She did this starting from third or fourth grade.
I didn't know how to defend myself.
I didn't have the ability to come up with quick retorts, with easy, witty comebacks. I was at a loss. She would say something hurtful and two hours later I would think of what I should have said, what I ought to have said. But it was too late; the opportunity was lost. I was slow. I was a slow thinker. I wasn't good at banter or at retorts; I wasn't good at giving as good as I got.
I was also not good at hiding my feelings.
When people hurt me, I became upset. I cried. This only handed her more ammunition. I was, she said, a crybaby. And others agreed with her. I was sensitive.
Being sensitive is even worse than "having a good vocabulary."
Of course, I was angry with myself. Anyone in my position would have been. Why couldn't I control my feelings? Why couldn't I, damn it, just not cry? Why did I have to show everything I felt; why couldn't I be more thick-skinned? Why was I so sensitive?
I tried to toughen up. There was a period of time, albeit a short one, where you couldn't make me do anything. I wouldn't cry for you. I was sullen, sulking, angry. But it was too hard to mantain. I couldn't do it. Everything she said was shocking, surprising; low-handed blows to the gut. I couldn't school my face into submission. She made me angry and I had no way of fighting back. Crying and yelling at her was exactly what she wanted; she wanted to see me cry. And she succeeded.
She only bullied me. I don't know why she hated me so much. My parents thought that perhaps she was jealous of me. I don't know. There wasn't much to be jealous of. Why be jealous of the kid who didn't have friends, couldn't play sports well and didn't know about fashion?
A lot of times what hurt was more her tone of voice than the words used. The words were innocuous; the tone made them poisonous. And of course there was the sarcasm.
I recall one time she walked into our sixth-grade class and smiling in a satisfied manner, possibly after reducing me to tears, she said, "I like to make people cry."
I can't remember the incidents so much as how she made me feel. She made me feel so low, so confused, so unhappy. She made me feel angry- angry at her and what she was doing, but also so helpless. There was no way to stop her. We tried every way possible. Also problematic was the fact that she was charming around anybody else. Nobody else saw this side of her. It was only me. I was the lucky one.
There was one time where she had made me angry and I wanted some privacy so I was talking to my sometimes friend and we were hiding in the closet of the room. So she calls out, "Shoshana and Chana are making out" in her mocking, nasty tone of voice. I didn't even know what it meant but I knew it was something bad. And I was angry and couldn't control it so of course I started crying, which just made everything worse.
There was another time where I had done something nice- someone had a little kids' chair they couldn't sit on; they were too tall. I was the second-shortest in the class; the shortest person was my bully. So I told the girl who was too tall to give me her chair and I sat on the baby chair while I gave her mine. My bully somehow managed to twist this entire scenario around and make me into doing something bad. I don't even remember what she said, but she somehow made it sound like I was an attention-seeking freak who was sitting on the little kid's chair in order to get everyone to look at me and more along those lines, when I had only done it to be nice. It was that kind of thing that really got to me, that she was even able to take the things I had done that were nice and twist them into something bad. And I didn't know how to stop her.
I couldn't defend myself at all.
I came home and would tell my parents, but they were at a loss for things to do. They called the girl's parents; that obviously didn't work. They even called the principal; that was horrible. My bully and I were called to the principal's office; she walked alongside me and said, "Listen, Chana, let's make up; I don't want to get into trouble. Let's just tell the principal we both get along." And of course, since he saw us both at the same time, I didn't dare to disagree with her. I couldn't tell him what she'd done to me in her presence; I was too scared. So we made up and I was disgusted with myself but what could I have done? She was the one who wielded the power, not me.
My parents tried to help me; they really did. They came up with retorts and responses and ways I could defend myself. But none of it worked. In the end, it always came down to her and me, and she always won.
She was a mercenary for hire. Whenever anyone in the class was mad at me, she'd saunter over to them and say, "Oh, you're upset with Chana? Let me help you" and she'd come over to me and shove me or take my things away or mess up my desk.
I was miserable.
Another problem was that it was all easy to dismiss. It wasn't as though she were really hurting me; she didn't leave scars or marks anywhere. And the things she did were minor enough that adults would dismiss them. It's just that they were constant. All the time, every day, I would go to school fearing what would happen that day, what she was going to do to me that day, what she was going to say. All these minor things add up until your life is truly miserable.
In seventh grade, I discovered a book. It was called Sticks and Stones: When Words are Used as Weapons by Dr. Miriam Adahan. I read the book cover to cover, then I had my parents buy it for me. It explained so much. It helped me so much. Because it made me realize I wasn't alone in this. I wasn't the only one who was mercilessly teased and bullied without cause, who was punished for being smart, who had to deal with this. No.
I was so glad to know that other people thought that that rhyme was wrong. "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." In truth, words hurt far more than sticks and stones ever could. The rhyme should have been switched around.
I decided that my bully had APD. I read this passage and decided it absolutely fit my bully:
- THIRD DEGREE- CONSCIOUS CRUELTY: When people use words or facial expressions to control, belittle and terrorize others, this is ona'as devarim at its worst. Like a third-degree burn, the hurt caused by this type of verbal abuse penetrates deeply and often leaves victims with a permanent sense of worthlessness.
People who purposely dominate and belittle, and do so compulsively, are like alcoholics. They suffer from a serious and dangerous addiction called Abusive Personality Disorder (APD).
To gain control over others, those with APD use a range of cruel tactics such as violent explosions and cruel coldness, alternating with moments of charm and friendliness. Those with APD have no sense of guilt or remorse for the pain they cause others nor sympathy for their victims. If they do apologize, it is only to win back the person's trust, and once that is accomplished, they begin attacking again. Their compulsion to undermine and humiliate is as compelling as any addictive craving.
Many people with APD are very charming to those whom they want to influence, while terrorizing others. OR they are alternately charming and cruel, or nasty only to one family member while nice to others. This double personality phenomenon makes the victims thoroughly confused and constantly agitated.
People with APD almost never go to therapy since they do not recognize that they have a problem. They think they are reacting to provocations in a justified manner and that their moments of niceness make up for whatever they do the rest of the time.
What is very confusing about people with APD is that their public image is often so very different from their private behavior. They are often in positions of power and may be dynamic community activists, generous philanthropists and seemingly friendly, normal human beings. Outsiders would never imagine the viciousness which erupts only in the privacy of their own homes.
That was her exactly. That's exactly what she was like. She would be very kind to me one day, very pleasant, and the next day she'd be cruel again. She would apologize for hurting my feelings, then hurt me even more the next day. Most other people thought she was charming. Not me.
I finally had a kind of handle on why I was always so confused about her- that was part of it. All these apologies and lies and pretending to be nice only to kick me down again- was part of her act. So I got wise to it.
The book empowered me. I was still being put down, but now I understood, and that really made a difference.
It was Aliza who really helped me. Aliza came to my school in eighth grade and when my bully tried to put her down- because Aliza, too, was smart- Aliza just laughed and talked right back at her. And it worked! I had never seen this before. So I realized that it was possible to talk back; I didn't know how to do it but Aliza did. And Aliza got her to leave me alone. Which was one of the first reasons I decided Aliza was going to be my friend.
Strangely, my bully appears to have no idea what she did to me and how she made my life miserable. At the end of eighth grade, she signed my autograph book and wrote something about how "we were such good friends and she looked forward to having fun with me next year in high school." I looked at that in shock. Never had I expected her to write anything like that. Could it be? Could she really not have realized what she'd done to me, how miserable she'd made me?
It appears that the answer is yes.
I never brought it up to her. I think she has changed. She certainly had a miserable enough time at Templars- this time, it was she who believed she had no friends and who hated the school. I think that perhaps she has matured, grown up, become a better person.
It is strange that someone could do so much to another person and not realize the impact she has on them. She seems to have no idea how much I hated her, how she hurt me and how she ruined elementary school for me. I don't know whether she'd be sorry if she knew. I'd like to think she would be.
I will tell you what is hardest. It is hardest to see your sibling or someone else who is close to you going through the same experience you had to deal with, the same torture, the same bullying. At first, you want to deny it. You want to say it isn't happening, not again, not to him. But then you realize it is. And there's nothing you can do to change it. You're just as helpless as you were. Now he has to learn how to deal with it, how to cope, how to suffer through. You, just like your parents, can be a support system, of course. But you can't really change things. Not in any way that helps.
You can only listen as he catalogues the reasons he's being hurt- this time physically, too- because he's too frum for his school, not in any kind of ostentatious way, but simply because he doesn't touch girls. Keeping shomer negiah makes you too frum. Or because he really does pray, not those one-minute Minchas but a true prayer. Or because he's smart, bookishly smart, just like I was. Or because of his vocabulary and the way he speaks. Oh, and he's not incredibly good at sports (that prerequisite for being popular.) Yes, for all these reasons, he's the odd one out, the outcast, the one who is being bullied. Oh, and lest I forget, he's sensitive. The crime above all others.
Telling kids to toughen up doesn't help. In fact, most typical responses (thank God my parents aren't typical) don't help. Asking your child whether he provoked the bullying, for example. The first couple times, that might make sense- sometimes your child did provoke it. But with a constant bully, that's not the case. You've done nothing but you're still going to be attacked. Telling kids to "please" their bully doesn't help either. The bully isn't "pleasable." S/he's not going to stop because you satisfy some kind of condition of theirs. They get a kick out of what they do, putting other people down in order to feel more important themselves. Telling kids to "ignore" bullying won't work, either. You can't ignore it when someone is trying to hurt you. You can't. And being sensitive isn't a crime and shouldn't be treated as one.
I may say this, but what can I do? I can only watch what happens helplessly.
I love my brother. He doesn't deserve this.