That’s OK: I Do Not Want to Go “Home” Again

I thought long and hard about whether or not I should publish this post. But I want to do it. I want to say that what happened to me in high school hurt and that it still hurtsMy anger is something I carry with me. I might as well lay it all out, here, since I’ve made a habit of baring my emotional life in this space. I don’t know what my classmates, teachers or family should have done differently. I do know that what happened then exacerbated my anxiety. I’m honestly not sure how helpful this post will be to anyone else. I’m hoping it may exorcise a few of my own demons.

I was invited to my ten year high school reunion a couple weeks ago, and I’m not going. I thought that I would go, initially. I thought about all the people I would like to see. I haven’t been back to my “hometown” since I was 19; my parents don’t live there, anymore. I thought it might be neat to see the changes. Then, I watched the Oscars, and I freaked out about the misogynist jokes and about the way people treated Quvenzhané Wallis. There was the name thing, and The Onion thing. When Twitter exploded in rage over both these issues, the rage was justified. But my reaction was disproportionate. I felt a rush of emotion so huge that I couldn’t stand to participate in social media for a little while. I talked it over in therapy, and I realized that it was all connected to my own experience as a girl and young woman. I am a privileged white woman. I am not claiming that I am similar to Quvenzhané Wallis. I am simply explaining that the Academy Awards controversies triggered a cascade of emotion and memory for me that resulted in my decision to avoid high school reunions, now and forever.

I was bullied. I didn’t know then that that’s what it was. I wasn’t beaten up or taunted relentlessly on the playground. No one graffitied my car or TP’ed my house. But I was told, in so many words, to shut up. Over and over. By boys who didn’t like that I was never shy about my success or quiet about any opinion. I remember it starting late in the fourth grade, and it didn’t let up. That makes nine years, grades four through twelve, of hearing that my voice was irritating, annoying, offensive, obnoxious, stupid, bitchy, pointless. It wasn’t one boy, or a specific group of boys. It was a sort of truth universally acknowledged that I was simply too loud. And the boys were the kids who felt free to tell me so. I’m not sure exactly why it was always boys. But in my memory, the girls are quiet, barring a few short outbursts, and the boys are oh so very loud. I shouted back, partly in order to drown out the anxiety roaring through my head and partly because I was raised among people who fought.

Not every boy actually threw an insult or told me to shut up. But no one told them to stop, either. And that is how it managed to become more frequent and more intense until I knew that the only way to escape it was to leave. Part of me wishes I could go back in time and answer a mom who asked me, “Why would you want to go so far away for college?” with “Because your son calls me a feminist and a lesbian like those are dirty words, and I want to get as far from him as I can.” They called me “Smart Girl” as though the words needed to be spat out, the way I might say “pedophile.”

If you are reading this and knew me in school, this might make sense to you, but it might not. I was what someone might call today a Highly Sensitive Child. Other people’s moods, words, the looks on their faces, took on huge meaning to me. This is still true, to a large extent. I now know that I am “spinning stories” about people around me, as one psychiatrist put it. I am trying to let go of the “probable” hatred I could very well have spun from a misinterpreted glance. But there were direct insults that I remember. It was sustained over years. That is bullying. One boy’s name would surprise none of the people who witnessed our battles. This one boy just would not leave me alone. But there were other boys who said something here or there. It all added up.

If you are reading this and took classes with me during our senior year of high school, I’d be shocked if you didn’t understand my feelings. My father taught two of the classes I needed to take in order to finish the requirements for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme–English and Theory of Knowledge. Students actually yelled, in my presence and sometimes directly at me, about his teaching methods. I don’t care if his classes were the best or the worst or somewhere in between; it was not ok to take it out on me. A classmate’s mother called our home and yelled at my father for ninety minutes. He hung up. She called back. He finally changed that kid’s grade just to avoid the yelling. I would have, too. My classmates called him names. They called me names for doing well in his classes. They said we were cheating. My high scores on the tests wouldn’t come back until after I had moved away, but it wouldn’t have mattered. I had been raised to do well in those courses. Do you know who lived in my house while I was in high school? Me, and my father. The two of us. What do you think we talked about at the dinner table? Over breakfast? On weekends? I loved to read. School was the most important thing in the world to me and my ticket out of a life I hated. He groomed me to get those grades. And no one spoke up for me. No one stopped an eighteen-year-old boy when he stood five feet from me and called my father a “moron” who “had no idea what he was doing.” That is wrong. If you are reading this and took IB Physics with me senior year, you should have said something. I did. I turned and told him to complain all he wanted, but to please do so somewhere I couldn’t hear him. But do you know what researchers say stops a bully? Not standing up to him. A peer who stands up and says, “enough.”

I don’t really want to punish anyone, or shame anyone. I don’t want to go back and prove that I’m above it all. I simply do not want to go back “home” because the memories still hurt. I can list on one hand the students of the Class of 2003 whom I trust. I’m in touch with those people, and will arrange for our families to meet another time. I was closer to older students and to adults. I would love to go back to that beautiful town in the north woods of Minnesota, to see the people I still care for who still live there. I have finally separated the place from what happened to me, there.

In just over four years, I experienced the traumatic divorce of my parents, the usual trials of adolescence, enormous pressure to apply to and get in to exclusive colleges and universities and the collective hatred, expressed quite vocally, of most of my classmates for the only parent who still lived within five hundred miles of me. The very thought of seeing the faces of the people who spouted vitriol and the people who looked away when it happened makes my face flush.

It’s been ten years. If I close my eyes, it feels like yesterday. I don’t trust my own memory, to a large extent. I don’t know if, by the time I graduated, everyone hated me or most kids even liked me or if hardly anyone outside the drama surrounding my father really thought about me at all. I don’t even know how much of the controversy surrounding my dad’s teaching (and my success in his courses) actually made it to that graduation ceremony. I do know that adults chose me as a graduation speaker. So, I spoke about being an “outcast” and the necessity to risk the acceptance of The Group in order to gain truly great insight. It was not subtle. I read part of this poem by Alice Walker:

Be Nobody’s Darling

Be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Take the contradictions
Of your life
And wrap around
You like a shawl,
To parry stones
To keep you warm.
Watch the people succumb
To madness
With ample cheer;
Let them look askance at you
And you askance reply.
Be an outcast;
Be pleased to walk alone
(Uncool)
Or line the crowded
River beds
With other impetuous
Fools.

Make a merry gathering
On the bank
Where thousands perished
For brave hurt words
They said.

But be nobody’s darling;
Be an outcast.
Qualified to live
Among your dead.

6 Comments

  1. Lindsey said:

    Yes, this post resonates. If it’s any help, I’m almost 15 years past graduation, I have never been back to my southern Minnesotan high school or the surrounding town, and I have zero need to reconnect with any of those mediocre souls ever again. No need, no desire. My life was always going to play out on a scale none of them could ever understand. (I was a day student on scholarship at a boarding school that has been in the news for unsavory reasons lately–there was sexual abuse going on. The class issues around being on scholarship led to a lot of bullying; given recent revelations about all else that was happening there I am not surprised that the bullying I encountered was not taken seriously.) My academic achievement was my ticket out, too, and when the opportunity presented itself, I didn’t look back. Thank god.

    I’m glad you got out, too.

    March 12, 2013
    Reply
    • Anne-Marie said:

      I was really unsure whether this would mean anything to anyone besides me. I just don’t understand the “keep your head down” mentality. Why *not* make waves, even if it’s just at a PTA meeting or in your physics class? What reason is there for keeping your mouth shut so tightly all the time? Acceptance? It doesn’t make sense to me.

      I know people who live in that town who make waves, gorgeous art, beautiful music. But I “got out” in the sense that everyone in my life now wants to hear my voice. ::huge sigh::

      March 12, 2013
      Reply
  2. Darcie said:

    I love this post. Thank you for sharing. I myself never suffered with anxiety until I became a mother, but your blog has helped me realize, I’m not the only one, even when my doctor told me it was all in my head. Thanks for being there and the constant support.

    March 12, 2013
    Reply
    • Anne-Marie said:

      I have to say this, first: A doctor told you something was all in your head?! I am *always* shocked. I hear these stories every day. And they never cease to amaze me. By the way, next time that happens, say this: “Of course it’s in my head. We are talking about anxiety. Where else would that be? My liver?”

      I really am just here. I write because I have to. I love that that feels like support. I do things that actively feel like “support” – let my anxiety skyrocket to go on TV is one example. But this post felt totally selfish. I justified it to myself by saying that putting out the Dickinson and the Frost balanced out any selfishness. ;) I’m really glad it’s not.

      March 12, 2013
      Reply
  3. I wonder now if I had shouted, if I had been loud, if this is the memory I would have. I was so quiet. I honestly did not understand how to play the game or who I was supposed to be, so I just did not play it. I was not only introverted, I did not just avoid social situations, I fundamentally did not get it.

    I love this post. Because it is real, and so many of us can relate even if we reacted differently to the same pressures. Because I remember those boys, too – I just heard fewer comments because I kept my head down. I did not understand what I was supposed to do, even with people who were not actually hostile.

    I think it’s healing for all of us who did not have the cinematic experience of high school to know how traumatic it was for so many. I’m never going to a high school reunion, either. What would I say to those people? They don’t have any idea who I am, even if they remember my name.

    March 15, 2013
    Reply
    • Anne-Marie said:

      I always thought that the people who kept their heads down had gotten out unscathed. Apparently, not true. If I try and put myself in the place of someone watching one of the fights I had with one of those boys, one possible reaction I see is: “I agree with her. If I had said something, would they be shouting at me?” Doesn’t sound like fun. More importantly, SHUT UP is still the message. You didn’t even have to speak to be told to shut up.

      March 15, 2013
      Reply

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