About a month ago through Facebook I made the acquaintance of the amazing Kristen Lamb, an incredibly talented and successful writer with an endearing, engaging personality and beautiful smile. Even within the limitations of social media, Kristen’s genuine love of people and desire to help shine through every word she types. That was evident from the moment I accepted her friend request after commenting on one of her posts via a mutual friend, M.V. Freeman (whom I incidentally met through the awesome Lydia Aswolf and had the pleasure of interviewing last year on Writestream).
Award-winning author, blogger and social media professional Kristen Lamb.
One of the things I like most about Kristen is her fearless honesty. She’s willing and able to share her most personal, hurtful experiences in the effort to genuinely assist her blog readers and fellow writers. This is exemplified by her hard-hitting post Brave New Bullying: Goodreads Gangs, Amazon Attacks — What Are Writers to Do? Before taking these cyber-bullies to task over their reprehensible behavior, Kristen first shares her own history with the “old-fashioned” form of bullying:
I grew up most of my life being bullied. I switched schools at least once a year and there was always a new gaggle of Mean Girls to make my daily life a veritable hell. I think this is why I grew to love books. I skipped school so much (to seek sanctuary at the public library), that I’m fairly certain I’m the reason for the current Texas truancy laws.
I couldn’t get out of bed. I became ill at the thought of even walking through the front doors of my school. I was poor and these girls in their designer clothes who drove their BMWs to school took great joy in throwing away what little clothing I had when I was at soccer practice. To this day, my ankles are pretty much destroyed because I have very narrow feet to fit.
These bullies stole my expensive Nike cleats that provided proper support, and threw them away. I was ashamed to tell my grandparents what really happened and pointed to the cheap $20 shoes that were far too wide (I have AAA feet). That earned me a massive third-degree sprain and four months on crutches. My ankle has never been the same.
I never really dated. I remember there was a boy (popular, of course) who I had a crush on when I was 15. He kept asking me out, but I knew I was being played. Finally, he seemed so intent and sincere that he did like me, I finally went against my gut and agreed to the date. He was supposed to come pick me up at 6:30 to go to a movie. I dressed up in one of the few nice outfits I had…and waited. 6:30 became 7:30 which became 8:30 and at 9:00 I gave up. I went to bed, then realized what day it was…April Fools.
I cried all night.
Heart-breaking, devastating, comforting….and totally relatable. Why comforting? Because knowing that such a talented, influential, smart, savvy, lovely, joyful and caring writer, author, friend, wife and mom could emerge from these horrific experiences to live out the old adage “Success is the best revenge” filled me with optimism and hope. It also made me realize that a myriad of accomplished people endured some pretty sharp slings and arrows while navigating their way through childhood, adolescence and adulthood. I felt comfort in knowing I wasn’t alone in that regard.
Kristen’s post also dredged up a long-forgotten (i.e. buried) memory. One that I never even shared with my mom or sister when it happened. Like Kristen, I did have loving, supportive family members at home to soften the blows of the cold, cruel world of elementary and high school. But perhaps due to my extremely sensitive nature (I’m a Pisces, if that means anything to astrology aficionados) and a personality flaw that tends to bury hurtful events deep down into the remote recesses of my subconscious mind rather than talk about them with someone who cares, I hid this particular humiliation from everyone who might have put their arms around me and affirmed my worth as a human being.
Photo by Anthony M. Davis.
The incident in question involves an 8th grade boy I had a major crush on when I was in the 7th grade. To set the foundation, I never felt as if I fit in at the Catholic elementary school I attended because I was, in essence, an outsider. Immediately following my graduation from Sacred Heart Montessori, my family moved to a gorgeous new home in the next town over, which necessitated a parish and school change. This did not sit well with my brother and sister who’d been happily attending St. Dorothy’s and didn’t want to leave their friends (my oldest brother was already in high school and my brother Ralph was in special ed through the public school system). After two weeks at the new school, they’d succeeded in lobbying my mom to secure bus transportation back to St. Dorothy’s where they could reconnect with their friends and teachers.
Having just started 1st grade, it hadn’t mattered much to me at first. And in the beginning, it was great. My new nun initially welcomed me to the class with open arms. But her kindness toward me ended soon after she discovered my father was a “rich” doctor; from then on, I was nothing more than a spoiled little brat in her eyes. Her influence seemed to spread to many of my classmates who upon seeing me wearing something “new” (read: hand-me-down from my sister), would make a huge point about it in the school yard while the nun would sarcastically observe, “I see Daddy bought you another jacket!”
Back in the day: Ralph and me engaging in one of our favorite childhood rituals.
Most of that year consisted of her lecturing me about the “poor, inner-city kids” and how the Bible tells us that rich men can’t get into heaven (I’ll never forget the sheer terror of believing that my decent, hard-working, surgeon father — humble son of Italian immigrants — was headed straight to hell). Of course, my wonderful dad explained that Bible verse as best he could when I later asked him about it at home and assured me that he was living as best he could to ensure he stood a good chance of going to heaven. Still, one day on the ride home from school with my mother, I lamented that he wasn’t a trash collector instead of a doctor as we passed the local dump.
“Mommy, I wish Daddy was a trash collector.”
“Honey, why would you say such a thing?”
“Because maybe if he was a trash collector the kids at school and Sr. Timothy Ann would like me.”
“Daria, your father works hard for his money, he doesn’t rob banks. He helps people get better. Be proud of that and just ignore those kids because they’re just jealous!”
So yeah, the “money is evil” philosophy was ingrained in me NOT at home but in 1st grade by a vicious nun who had it in for me. This is not an exaggeration. My presence in that classroom inspired an actual class trip to West Philly so that us spoiled suburban kids could experience what life was like for the poor.
Mom and me in 2009.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about kids knowing how blessed they are and learning how to properly care for their fellow humans. However, I fully reject the practice of injecting guilt into six year-old children born into stable, loving and financially secure homes. Shouldn’t the fact that there are some children who do have good lives be something to celebrate? How does beating them up for their circumstances help their less fortunate peers?
Even at that young age I wondered why — if money and rich people were evil — the church was constantly asking them to give money to the offertory every Sunday and during various, endless mission drives throughout the year. Furthermore, how could people give something away that they themselves didn’t possess? If the church wanted money from its parishioners, didn’t they first have to work and earn it?
Celebrating mom’s birthday, circa 1992.
Adding to my angst was the fact that I was the only kid (after my brother and sister graduated a few years later) forced to take a “special” van/bus to school. Unlike the rest of my classmates who either walked to and from in groups or took the same bus to the neighboring community of Springfield, I had a transport that 1. dropped me off almost 30 minutes early in the morning, and 2. picked me up 30 minutes later than everyone else in the afternoon.
Between all of this and my chubby body…well, let’s just say elementary school was NOT my favorite part of childhood.
Fast-forward to 7th grade. On top of everything else, I now have braces — and a crush on a cute guy in the 8th grade. My friends (yes I did have them and no, we were not part of the “cool” crowd) and I kept it quiet for a long time and to this day, I’m not exactly sure who ratted me out. But the reality that someone did would hit me hard on one lovely May evening.
From a young age, writing and reading were my refuges.
In the 7th grade, kids can volunteer to be “safeties,” which mostly involved chaperoning recess and dismissal for the younger grades. Every year, the Philadelphia Phillies held a “Safety Night” at Veterans Stadium for all of the area schools – public, Catholic and private. Having been raised an avid Philly sports fan, I was really looking forward to hanging out with my St. Dot’s friends and watching the ball game.
That night, my mom dropped me off at one friend’s house in Drexel Hill, where she and I would hang out for a bit before walking to another friend’s home. That friend’s dad had the pleasure of driving about six 12-to-13 year-old girls to and from the baseball game. As I strolled along with this one friend (whom I suspect had something to do with what happened next but never was able to prove), a car suddenly pulled up right next to us. The guy behind the wheel looked to be about 16 and most likely the older brother of the object of my misplaced affection. While he sat behind the wheel smirking, my crush rolled down the window, pulled himself halfway out of the car and proceeded to hurl the most vile, sarcastic insults at me while I stood there frozen.
Years later I’d become a ballroom dancer.
Things like: “Hey man, you’re sexy!” delivered in the meanest, most condescending tone imaginable.
I was absolutely dumbfounded, paralyzed and humiliated. Ever had a moment where you wished a giant sinkhole would swallow you? This was definitely one of those moments for me. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you it felt as if he was stabbing my heart with a thousand sharp daggers.
After what felt like an eternity, the car finally drove off. Come to think of it, I don’t remember the girl I was with stepping up to my defense which lends credence to the theory that perhaps she had something to do with it. She was kind of a surly, rebellious sort who liked to cause trouble for her parents. I’m not really sure why she was part of the circle of friends but it’s possible some of us felt sorry for her, not being part of the “in” crowd ourselves.
Strolling along the water has always brought comfort and peace. One of my favorite places is Satellite Beach, Florida.
Anyway, immediately following his diatribe all I wanted to do was go home and cry. I knew my mother and my sister would be sympathetic and that I’d be comforted with loving arms. But since that was not an option, I internalized the whole thing just to get through the night. What should have been a fun outing with my friends ended up being a nightmare. Everyone noticed I was quiet but couldn’t pry it out of me. Looking back, that might’ve been my first “out of body” experience where I went through the motions but literally felt as if my spirit had gone somewhere else to try to heal its wounds in private.
When I mercifully returned to the sanctuary of my home that night, I’d rushed up to the bedroom I shared with my sister to cry on her shoulder — only to discover she was sound asleep. For a brief moment I thought about waking her up but decided against it. To this day, I’m not really sure why I made that decision. Or why I kept the secret the next morning and all of the decades to follow. Instead of answering my mother’s “Did you have a good time?” question honestly, I regurgitated back forced words of joy, excitement and happiness.
Hugging Gold Star Mom Debbie Lee after an emotional, heart-wrenching speech. Only when we’re older do we realize that some people endure much more devastating things than mean bullies.
Maybe I faked it in order to spare her from having to fight yet another battle on my behalf. We’d already been through enough trauma including the time in 4th grade when the teasing about my weight actually altered my happy-go-lucky personality to the point where my very wise and perceptive mother could no longer sit back and do nothing. That led to a conference with the school principal and my teachers, which led to a very stern warning from the fair-minded young sister to the rest of the class. Yes, there were also some very decent, caring nuns which I should have made clear from the outset. And this new, young principal had zero tolerance for kids’ inhumanity toward other kids. God bless her.
Fast-forward 10+ years from the night of the ill-fated Phillies game. I’m out on a date with a guy who would become my first boyfriend (never had one in high school or college) at Pizzeria Uno. As we follow our hostess to our table I happen to look to my right to see the now fully grown (to say the least) bully seated in a booth, completely absorbed in conversation with a woman I assume is his girlfriend. But now he’s almost completely bald at 24 and sporting a rather noticeable belly. Having long since lost my baby fat but not my memory of that spring night in 1980, I immediately feel a sense of poetic justice.
Mom and me at the Hotel DuPont Green Room, March of 2012.
But my euphoria was soon deflated by the sanctimonious jerk I was sharing the evening with. Because when I filled him in on the whole story, his reaction could’ve been delivered by the scolding SNL Church Lady: “Daria! That’s not very Christian of you!” (For some unknown reason, I nevertheless embarked upon a 1 1/2 year relationship which ironically subjected me to similar taunts of being “spoiled”, “pampered” and “over-indulged”). I should have listened to my mother and ended that one sooner. But as they say, live and learn. And boy, did I ever enjoy learning the hard way!
Anyway, I hadn’t intended this post to run on so long but the point of my story is that thanks to Kristen I am finally publicly acknowledging an event that has haunted me in one way or another for years. I am also assured in the knowledge that so many others who are now thriving and happy at one time endured similar treatment by the hands of deliberately cruel kids. Although I incorporated countless real-life events into my novel (including 1st grade nun Sr. Timothy Ann’s emotional bullying), this incident from my adolescence didn’t make the cut. Mainly because it just didn’t come to mind. But as readers of my novel know, once an event transpires that opens the memory floodgates I take to my keyboard. For Water Signs it was a psychic who correctly identified my first love (also buried in the recesses of my subconscious mind); for this blog post it was Kristen Lamb, whose heart-tugging personal story loosened the bonds of self-imposed amnesia with respect to my 7th grade crush.
Holding my niece (brother Paul’s daughter) Emmy Rose on the way to breakfast the day after my brother Mark’s wedding in 1993.
To this day, my siblings and family friends who have nothing but positive remembrances of St. Dot’s, Drexel Hill, nuns, priests and teachers rhapsodize on Facebook about their wonderful experiences. Two of my siblings in recent years have condemned my alleged “angst” and “anxiety” and written me off as “unorthodox” for the crimes of choosing to live in another state and, notwithstanding fantastic memories of a loving upbringing, not partaking in their euphoria over having attended St. Dot’s and Cardinal O’Hara High School (in spite of the fact that I am carving out a life as a writer, blogger, ghostwriter, commentator, etc). I suppose that’s human nature: if you’ve attended the same elementary and high schools and have come away with nothing but fond memories it’s probably impossible to imagine that someone else — even your own sibling — might have had a vastly different experience.
Ironically, the mean guy in this story is the product of lovely parents with whom I’ve interacted on occasion over the years. Did they know their son was capable of this kind of behavior? Who knows. From what I hear through the grapevine, he’s now a successful insurance agent. I presume he’s still fat and bald.
And if being happy about that makes me a “bad” person, so be it.
Finally, many thanks to Kristen Lamb for being such an inspiring example of the triumph of the human spirit. So thrilled to have made her online acquaintance!