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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Ode to Tyler, Carl, Asher and Seth... and a girl named Johanna.

Tonight I was free-writing off a prompt from Natalie Goldberg's "Old Friend From Far Away",based on her writing method for memoirs. Probably because of the recent suicides in our country which have been precipitated by acts of hatred and humiliation, many of the people I've witnessed being treated this way during my life came back to me in a flood. I can remember seeing the agony in their faces, their tears and the reduction of human dignity at the hands of others' harassment right before my eyes.

The prompt was "Write about a memory from Junior High". It immediately brought to mind a girl I went to school with when I was in the 7th grade. I don't remember her real name but the name she was called when she was being taunted, either behind her back or to her face, was Johanna. I don't know where this name came from, but who knows how a junior high school aged kid with a mean-streaked mind comes up with stuff like that.

Johanna was not gay that I know of, but was quite poor. Every day she wore the same dingy, dirty dress - a white dress with little blue flowers all over it, so that it looked like a light blue dress. It was cut unfashionably 3-4 inches below her knees. She always wore the same scuffed up, low-heeled black shoes with no socks. Her ankles were always dirty - like she had sweated and dirt stuck to her sweaty ankles and dried a crusty brown. I remember seeing her show up at school like this in the morning as if she hadn't bathed the night before or even in the morning before school.

Johanna's hair was blonde, but oily and unwashed and hung to her shoulders. She actually had a mildly pretty face, but wore no makeup, which wasn't odd for the times. There were still mothers in those days who would not allow their daughters to wear makeup or rings or earrings until they were of a certain age, say 16 nor so.

Johanna had moved from some other town during the summer, none of us had ever seen her before then, so this alone drew attention to her. The core of the boys who began their taunting of her began as bullies often do - making comments behind her back and out of earshot of her, but attempting to gain support from their peers in the process. Then the little comments about her attire and her lack of cleanliness. Then they began shouting the name they'd chosen for her across the schoolyard when they'd see her.

I can remember noticing the change in her. At first she had no idea that they were mocking her, Johanna wasn't her name after all. I noticed her attempting to make friends with other girls, but her appearance made it so that none of them wanted to be known as a friend to someone like her. But the comments began to sink in with her, especially when they began to be made in the classroom - about her dirty feet and oily hair and the like. Then of course she began to feel the sting of objects being thrown at her - erasers torn from their pencils, paper clips and then spit wads. You could see the pain in her face as she'd sit there and take it, trying to pretend it wasn't happening.

There were times I'd look over at her and see her in tears, but she remained silent, knowing that showing emotion would only make it worse. Or perhaps she felt that if she went along with it in some way, she would eventually be accepted for being a good sport. After class she sometimes tried to spark up a friendly conversation with someone, only to be ignored or quickly moved away from. I used to see her walk slowly away with her head hung low and the saddest look of dejection on her face. She had a spot she'd go to at the farthest place on the compound, in order to stay as inconspicuous as possible. She would still get the fly-bys, when someone would sneak up to her, hiding behind one of the school modulars and throw some object at her, a crumpled up Coke cup or a bag of mustard and yell out from their hiding place "Johanna!". And she would sit there and cry, with no one to turn to and no place to go.

Then one day several boys in the class hurled dozens of spit-wads at her all at the same time about 20 minutes into English class as the teacher was illustrating something at the green board. She broke down completely and began to sob, then ran out of the classroom. I remember she teacher yelling at her to come back to her seat, unaware of the cruel event that had just occurred. I don't know what ever happened to her, I only hope that somewhere on this earth she found someone who was deserving of her love.

Many times in my life I've thought about her and others I've witnessed who'd been the brunt of such immature and painful cruelty. Every time I do, I feel shame for sitting idly by, not rushing to their rescue, mostly out of fear. The fear of being brought into the cruelty and becoming the one they turn their bitterness and ill-placed hatred on. This is a part of the bullying process - the threat of making others feel ostracized as well should they consider intervention in any way.

I think of this even more now with the recent rash of suicides occurring across our country as gay men and women are being traumatized for being merely the person they were born to be on this earth.

The immature hatred in our country has got to stop. But how?


  1. This is almost unbearably sad. Kids can be so cruel, and as in your situation, not yet old enough, or sure enough of themselves to defend. Unfortunately none of the girls mothers, if they were aware of the situation, told their daughters to be kind. They, too, may had been just as cruel.
    My God, when are we going to learn that there is a heart beneath the grime and unkept appearance, and that tears come from pain.

    How do we learn? From true stories such as yours; from strong efforts of caring teachers, from making the parents aware that this could be their kid. The media can help but they must have meaningful material. We absolutely must care enough to take action .
    Publish your eloquent ode elsewhere. Please! It cries out.

  2. This post is so touching. Because of the recent suicides, I, too, have been re-visiting childhood taunting I saw or was subjected to. I really don't understand. I've heard that people who act big feel small. But how can making someone feel like nothing make anyone feel bigger?

    It's so important that people talk to their children about what "teasing" can do to a person. The tragedy is that this most often takes place at exactly the age when we start to feel awkward about ourselves anyway. And maybe it's that very awkwardness that causes some kids to be so cruel but when I was teased, I always felt as if the bullies felt really great about themselves. Why else would they point out my shortcomings? Because they were obviously perfect, right? And these are the sad misconceptions kids still face.

    As adults, it's easy to forget what school was like. It's easy to forget how difficult the emotional ups and downs of adolescence can be. We need to be more aware as "grown ups" because I think, sadly, a lot of this is overlooked. Some people don't understand how serious and how traumatic these actions are. No child should have to feel the way this behavior makes people feel.

    I will always believe in a world where we are loving to one another, where we all share mutual respect and compassion. Maybe if we model that more for our kids, they would stop tearing each other down to build themselves up.

    Thanks so much for sharing this!