“You are a dark and dirty child.” The whispered words floated but gained speed and slammed through me. Burning like burrowed chiggers.
I never knew why she hated me. Shy and sensitive to all external stimuli, I only wanted to blend, to make the noise and light less assaultive.
I was 8 and she, my 3rd grade teacher, was an adult.
When she noticed me, her words were acid.
“Obviously, you will never be a writer.” She hovered at my ear, whispering in it, as she regarded my handiwork. I had been proud of my story, but now I slowly crumpled it and put it in my desk.
My act enraged her.
Loudly, “Take that back out. We don’t throw away our assignments.” She held my picture story aloft so the class could laugh at it, at me.
More whispers. “You will never amount to anything. You’re a dark and dirty child. Go ahead cry.”
I learned that my tears pleased her.
I would not cry.
It was an unusually rainy day in sunny California. The kind of day my garden-worshipping Mom loved. The garbage can was wheeled in. We would be eating inside. Everyone groaned.
Painfully shy and quiet, I wanted to be part of the groaning. I wanted to be a part of something collective. Timidly, I said shoot.
“Teacher. Teacher. Liz said shit.” The popular boy in front of me, the one who called me Afrogirl, yelled out.
All the kids laughed.
Teacher’s lip tightened.
“You go to the hall and think about your filthy mouth.”
“But I didn’t say shit. I said shoot like everyone else.”
“You’re a dirty little liar.” She ushered me to the hallway. My classmates’ laughter followed.
On the other side of the door, she grabbed my ear and hair and threw me against the wall. “You stay there until I get you.”
The hallway was empty and quiet. Sometimes I can still smell the wax that was used to bring the undulating corridor to a shine that we often used to slide along.
Shame in my aloneness, I cried.
By the time she retrieved me, I was no longer crying, but she again grabbed my then sore ear.
“You say you’re sorry to the class.”
My tears poured.
No one laughed.
“You should’ve been more uppity. I told you not to let anyone bully you.” My Mom means well, but it’s years later.
Her words make me chuckle. I envision kicking Teacher in the shins, but somehow the image of the aftermath doesn’t go as well.
I laugh. “I’m telling you this because it has something to do with my worldview and when I write about the abuse Heather endured, I’m not talking about you. It has nothing to do with you.”
“Well, I still don’t understand how you can write about that. How you can understand that.”
“If that were the only time someone in a position of authority mistreated me, I’d have little to go on. Didn’t anyone ever do anything to you? You were never a great admirer of people who abuse their authority either.”
“Well, I was tied to my chair when I was in third grade because I wouldn’t sit still to my teacher’s satisfaction.”
“Yes. But how does that go from there to Heather?”
“Because that wasn’t the end.”
“When was the end?” Mom asks.
I hate going down memory lane with Mom for all the reasons I didn’t tell her what happened when it was happening.
“Fourth and fifth grade were fine. My teachers were kind. Sixth grade was different, but I expected it because everyone knew she was mean.”
“So why are you upset?”
“I’m not, Mom. I long ago forgave all of them. I have no issue. In fact, there is no doubt in my mind that they created their own misery. Think about it. An adult being so horrible to a child. I can see it now. Sickening really. I’m answering your question about worldview and how I came to write about Heather.”
“Oh. So what happened in sixth grade?”
“The second day, she asked us about our ancestors because we were going to learn about history.”
“What did you say?”
“Well, she started with the kids starting from Z so I went towards the end.”
“And? What did you say?”
“I listened to everyone else. Come to think of it, there were a lot of Germans and Swedes. I said I was Scottish, English, French, and Indian.”
“No. Nothing else.”
“Mom, it’s bad enough I was part Indian. Besides, I didn’t really know then. I just sort of thought.” But the trick of genetics in my hair, nose, and coloring were dogging me even then.
“Well, you were called Afrogirl by that boy.”
“Yes, I was and that same boy asked me what tribe I was. More like he cursed it at me.”
Mom is silent.
“Well, what did you say?”
“I said Winnebago. He laughed and asked why I would be from a tribe that named itself after a trailer and then he called me a trailer Indian. From then on, I was the trailer Indian instead of the Afrogirl.”
“He was an idiot. Why would you let an idiot upset you? And we always told you not to say you were Indian.”
“Well I did. I didn’t understand why you said that. The Aunts often talked to me about it. And anyways, it upset me because it hurt. I was different enough. Besides, from then on the teacher accused me of being a liar and plagiarist. When we did our big assignment on Hawaii I did what everyone else did but she took me in front of the class and accused me of being a plagiarist. I didn’t even know what the word meant and I definitely didn’t know that was what most people thought of Indians. Worse, she told the whole class I was an awful person and this was a very grave issue that she would have to report to the principal and my lying ways would follow me through my life. I haven’t done a research project since without the most footnotes and the longest bibliography on the planet. Great, right? Graduate papers with 100s of footnotes. Worse, I’m neurotically and pathologically honest.”
“I wish you had told me. I would’ve gone and given her and the principal a piece of my mind. How dare she.”
“Yes, but Mom. That would not have actually helped. That would have made me more obviously different. Like that was the last thing I wanted.”
“Was that it?”
I can tell she’s upset. Her conversation is now terse. I did not want to do this to her.
“Do you remember when I was on my way to my friend’s house and that guy called me to his car?”
Mom pauses. “Yes.”
“Do you remember that his pants were down and he exposed himself to me and tried to get me into his car?”
“Yes, of course I do. We called the police.”
“Do you remember the police didn’t believe me because I didn’t know the make and model of the car?”
“Yes. But you remembered the color.”
“But I didn’t know the hue or the tint of the color. The police told some of the kids’ parents that I made it up. And they made fun of me. Said my 6th grade teacher was right. I was a liar.” I am feeling like I am that vulnerable child whom no one believes. Truth? I feel like Heather.
“We believed you, Elizabeth. We knew.”
“I still don’t know the make and models of cars. They just get me from one place to the other. I still don’t get details. I get bigger pictures.”
“That doesn’t make you a liar.”
“It made me a liar to those in power and it made me a liar to my peers.”
“They don’t matter. We believed you.” There is a catch in Mom’s voice. I remember her fear back then. She doesn’t know that I still steer clear of all strange car doors and I take a wide circle away from unknown men sitting in the driver’s seat.
“I know. But I lived out there with them and they decided I was something that I wasn’t.”
“They couldn’t make you into something you weren’t.”
But I am back there as the teenager who received kicks in the hallway from the boys and the girls who would circle around each other to ensure I was excluded. “I was never in a group. I wandered from group to group. I was like a ship without a port. Thank God I had Shakespeare and Pachelbel.” But my words are sharp and vinegary. “Even the beauty of my piano was cut by the slap on my knuckles with that wretched stick.”
“She was an old school piano teacher. A German maestro’s wife.”
“Like she was fucking Beethoven.”
“Elizabeth, why are you torturing yourself?”
“Because you want to know how I could understand Heather.” My voice catches. No f-ing way I’m going to cry. I’ve forgiven all of this.
“I am starting to understand.”
“Middle school was the pits. There was a cheerleader who was talking to me and she told me she liked my handwriting. I almost broke out of my shell until one of the other cheerleaders yanked my desk around and said, ‘Who do you think you are talking to one of us. Shut up and turn around.’ And I always wondered, who did she think I was?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, how did she perceive me? Who did she think I was?”
“Why does it matter? Maybe she was nobody trying to be somebody.”
“No. She had all the power in school. Everyone loved her.”
“You’re confusing false popularity with love.”
“I tried so hard. I remember going to bed every night with my hair wrapped in giant orange juice cans and waking every morning to finish by ironing my hair. And still, my hair was wild and crazy.”
“You were beautiful. You just didn’t know it. It’s perplexing. You had great friends in grammar school. I know they didn’t abandon you. What happened?”
“They were still great friends, but they had developed new friendships in junior high. I don’t know. I was angry. I was rebellious. I was hurt. I just became a loner. One who wrote enough poetry for a lifetime. And I hate the way people talk about shy and quiet kids who are made into loners by bullying and how they resort to gun violence like all introverts become gunslingers. Jeez.”
Mom laughs. “That would’ve never been you. You used to cry if a bug got smashed on the windshield.”
“So did you.”
“Honey, you were never really an introvert. You’re like me. You’re half introvert and half extrovert. But you’ve always been sensitive. We used to tell you not to be. People don’t like sensitive people. It acts like a mirror to their lack of it. They don’t want to be censored. You shouldn’t have been so sensitive.”
“Yes, but that’s like telling the sun to quit the whole shining thing.”
“And I was just different. It’s funny how you remember things. I remember a girl who came to our school from Oakland for a semester. She was Cherokee. She used to tell me to tell people I was Cherokee or Comanche. All I wanted to be was exactly what I was. Winnebago. Just like the Aunts. But I didn’t have the straight beautiful black hair like her. Instead I had dark curly kinky frizzy hair.”
“And now people pay a fortune to have your hair.”
“Yes, but that didn’t help then.”
“Well, you’re far more interesting than all those kids with perfect hair.”
“But that isn’t the point, Mom. You were worried that people would think I am my protagonist. Like you abused me. Like this is an autobiography. You were an English and Literature teacher. You know how fiction works. I am just channeling some of my understanding of childhood abuse. Sometimes you just see things or feel things that can then translate into your understanding of other peoples’ lives, even if they are fictional. You know this shit and worse goes on.”
“I understand now. Still, people might think you’re talking about me.”
“No they won’t. People who read fiction know it is fiction.”
Our daily morning phone conversation lingers in my mind. I ruminate on its meaning and miss what my friend and writing workshop leader says. She smiles at me and repeats her instruction.
“Be vulnerable. When was a moment when you felt most vulnerable? Most afraid? Now write it down.”
The words from the morning keep playing over and over and there is no more room for another thread of thought.
But I resist.
No f*&#$ing way am I going down that freefall!
But nothing else will assert itself over the drone of my mind words.
In my worst penmanship and least articulate language, I write down the most superficial recounting of that moment of shame that, I am mindful, has the added caveat of reminding me that after years of sitting on the meditation cushion, my ego is still alive and well in America. Worse, my ear has grown hot and angry. And perhaps, I have not forgiven as easily as I thought. There are clinging morsels of shame, anger, hurt, and disappointment.
Have I been respectful of those who have survived abuse? I hope so. And I hope I have honored my protagonist, Heather, in my words. Even more, I hope I have shed a light on perceptions. The way we perceive and treat those we believe do not fit the mold of belonging. The act of excluding based on false perceptions of sameness can cut as deeply as any knife. Wound as surely as any arrow. Destroy as completely as any gun.
Choose wisely. A child may be listening. Another may act upon it. And another may be broken. And while humans are resilient, our world is damaged just the same.
Our words are wakan. They are spirits that travel. Let them do no harm.