Turning it Around – Their Terrors, My Pains, My Gains/
I was possibly the most bullied kid I knew and for years, I used to shy away from the pains I endured in my preteen years. Recently though, as I began to realize how much my story could draw attention to the issues of bullying which many children face, I knew the time to confront my past had come. Many children live with many tyrants and I hope that they can draw strength from my story. I hope this strength helps them fight back.
Home is a family of eight (six kids plus parents) and the strain of raising six children was a burden my mother bore alone. She had just sacked the last help before I turned seven. Therefore, being the second child and the first girl (yeah…girl), I grew up a little too fast. From breakfast to the time I left for school, felt like a military training session as the hurry to do every task within the shortest time possible was the chief priority for me and my mother. When school closed at 2pm or 4pm (depending on the school schedule), I was home in time…helping around the house.
I became the second mother in the house at that early age and I bore my tasks as best as I could. Maybe it was this…maybe it wasn’t but, I was scrawny and (as ‘everyone’ would say) as ugly as a mouse.
Scrawny and ugly was not something that I could help but, I was equally unkempt as I was my laundry caretaker too…a combination of these three ‘sins’, made me the easy target for bullies…they could be more than three ‘sin’ though.
It wasn’t unusual for the boys in my class to drag me to a corner during break periods and just begin to bash my head against the wall, slap my face until it bruised and then, kick me on the stomach. My crime ranged from being too ugly to too skinny to too unkempt to too spooky to too quiet and the list just kept growing until, there was no other reason except that I existed. Many days, I picked up my bloody self and returned to the class and the only victory in my heart would be that I still didn’t cry!
I had no one to call a friend as no one even wanted me for a neighbor in the class. I remember this experience…. We had just passed into a new class and at that age, girls and boys were becoming more conscious of their sexes and so, we usually sat separate-the boys staying separate rows from the girls. This time though, it was different as the teacher said, a boy must sit between two girls and so on. When the teacher called me and appointed two guys to sit beside me, they immediately shouted, ‘Aunty no!’ The class burst into laughter. The woman insisted and so, they became my neighbours.
Often, the boys fought as they pushed their lockers away from mine. They drew lines on the floor which my locker would never dare cross. Some days, my locker would have been smashed. Some days, I was beaten and blamed for causing their fights. I always took their beatings stoically and though it always earned me more kicks, I was determined to never cry and I never told my ever absent father or my always busy mother. We all had a cross to bear so why burden anyone with my problems?
What I would find funny these days were the teachers who would pick on me because ‘popular opinion’ had elected me as the target. To give them a little credit, I was either late to school or I never answered a question thrown to me. Between getting my younger siblings ready for school and preparing myself, there was really no way I could be early and I always paid the price. The teachers who loved to pick on me would drag me out to the front of the class and then, flog me until I bled. My offence? Lateness and their gain? Providing the comic relief. You see, the class usually howled with laughter as my pinafore usually made a ‘poof!’ sound whenever the cane connected. I was too scrawny to ever fill in a dress properly. The floggings were never enough as I usually got the task of darkening the blackboard after school hours too.
I stayed brilliant throughout my preteen years and I remember once, I was the only girl chosen among some boys to represent my school when the school hosted an inter-school quiz. My school lost but, we shouldn’t have. I knew the answers to most of our questions but, God forbid that scrawny mouse talks! The courage to defend my school had flown away even before the quiz commenced.
How indeed would I have had the courage to defend my school when I had no courage to defend myself against a boy who insisted that I changed my name to his otherwise, he would kill me the next school day? I didn’t want to die and so, I went home and asked my mother to please begin to call me ‘Uchenna’, which was the boy’s name. My mother found it amusing that I liked that particular name all of a sudden. She even indulged me by calling me the name that evening and I was happy. The next day though, the boy didn’t even remember my ‘assignment’ and I was happier.
With me each day of school was my favourite meal; yam. I was soon to be deprived of this pleasure. I was enjoying a class one day when my teacher began to ask us our favourite meal. Almost everyone claimed rice and chicken or salad or plantains or spaghetti or macaroni and all foods like them until my turn came. Even before I was asked, I was already shaking nervously because I was the only ‘local food eater’. I was already thinking up a lie…rice or spaghetti but, I needn’t had bothered. The teacher got to me, called my surname and said, “yam”…along with every other person in the class. Once again, I provided the comic relief. Needless to say, yam became my enemy at that very moment even up till today.
If the loss of appetite for my favourite dish was bruising, the attention of thrill seekers even among boys of that age was pathetic and horrible to go through. I remember that a guy threatened to push me down a storey building if I refused to let him “do me”. The fear of what my mother would do to me was what made me stand my ground against that bully and other thriller seekers. Somehow, it just felt like what I would rather die than accept.
I remember telling a boy that if it was that good, he should do it to his own sister. I remember the girl pleading with him to let her be. I was out of the door and fleeing the school to really know what happened or didn’t happen that day.
There are male bullies and there are female bullies. This is saddening but true. It wasn’t boys who discovered I had forgotten to wear my panties to school one fateful day. The girls did, and I paid a price for that forgetfulness. I was made to believe that the game of throwing me into the air and catching me would be very refreshing if I participated. My gratitude at been included in a game is one I am yet to forget.
The game started well for me and was going well too until, I discovered that many boys were forming a beeline around us. I was surprised but happy that my ‘skill’ or should I say, glee was indeed charming enough to draw the boys who usually stayed away from girlie games. Well, my people say that a mad man is never ashamed of himself…his kinsmen carry his shame. In my case, the girls became jealous of the attention my ‘nudity’ was grabbing and suddenly, one of the girls forcefully yanked my cape and I fell to the ground. A hand forcefully pushed me to a corner and a terse voice spat out, “Next time, wear your panties…” They all dispersed while I picked up myself from the ground amidst the jeers of the boys. This happened over a decade ago but, I have never gone outside my doors without panties till date…what a lesson!
I remember stealing a lot of the foreign pencils and cleaners that my parents kept in the home. I wasn’t stealing them because I needed them. I stole them because I discovered that whenever I brought them and someone yanked them from my hand; it brought joy to the person. So, I began to steal them and give to those who usually beat me up and they became my protectors. This saw me through for a while until the goodies ran out and I went back to square one.
Leaving my preteen school wasn’t in a blaze of glory even though I made the beautiful score that saw me straight into college. I was warned before hand by the boys that, they were going to beat me up ‘after school’. “To be forewarned is to before arm” Abi? I immediately ran away from my class and through so many hide and seek; I was able to run away from school unbeaten. I haven’t gone back since then.
Why did I take all these bullying? Why did I never fight back? I would never be able to go back and hear all my thoughts in those days or even understand all the reasons why I never fought back so…gone with the wind.
I have never looked in the mirror and seen a beautiful me. I don’t do ‘swan’ stories but, I believe this is to my advantage. I do not care about looks. I do not bother about who likes me and who doesn’t.
The bad that I deal with is my constant weight issues. In my college years, I became a junk food addict as I tried to gain weight at all costs. I didn’t want to be scrawny anymore. I did gain weight but till tomorrow, I am still fighting off the weight I gained. When not fighting off weight, I am worrying about gaining it back….
They say attitude is everything and I always like to believe this. My attitude towards these dark moments of my life has really defined me. I believe that the acceptance of the good and the bad that I have been through has made a more refined and better me.
For one, I know that those who hurt others are only hopelessly masking their own hurts, shame and complexes. I know that happy people do not have the conscience to hurt others and this brings a certain consolation to my heart.
Yes, I was alone in my world but, I became a reader and an observer. I have read hundreds of books (if I can’t say thousands) and really, I know that my ability to read people and events beautifully has made me the writer that I am today. The more I withdrew from people, the more I bettered myself and honed my skills as a writer and a critic (sure, this came later). I wrote my first novella at the age of nine and my first song at that age too.
I still do not have many friends (not because I still remember the mockeries I got from people whom I wrote letters to asking them to be my friends) but, I have better people skills and I am more humane in my dealings with all.
I am above the jeers and I feel happy living my life as a tougher woman. Not only can no one intimidate me; no one can intimidate anyone…under my watch. I have suddenly become ‘somebody’…
The scars of yesteryears remain but, through them all, I see no better way I should have turned out. Every pain has refined me in its own way and I am grateful for that and even more grateful for the grace to appreciate that. I see very few of those who used to bully me and it is a shame that they haven’t turned out better than me…I thought they were too superior to share a world with me. I meet some of these bullies and they want to be friends…and we talk sometimes.
This world keeps ‘shrinking’ through the possibilities of technology…isn’t it then a blessing that I can look through the world and see that my bullies still live on it and not in mars? I still see that they haven’t grown a second head.
I do not gloat at all but, having seen my gains as I turned around my life of pains; I can’t help but be grateful that my former bullies can see what a tougher woman I have become.