It was the day after Mother’s Day and Kait and I were in one of my absolute favourite stores, Icing. They sell just about anything sparkly and have glittered word art, a combo of two of my favourite things. All Kait needed was a wallet with a strap on it but she found two more things and there was a buy three, get three free deal going on that day. By the time we’d circled the small store at least twenty times, Kait was rapidly running out of possibilities and patience. She needed just one more thing and it had to be under $9, which, sadly, left out all the word art. Then I saw it, a sparkly pink butterfly clip, complete with tiny fake pearls. It was $6, which made it free with the deal and thus became my Mother’s Day present to go along with my glittery card.
I put it on right away, before Kait even paid for it, and double checked that it was positioned perfectly before I headed out the door. It was a matter of seconds before anxiety began gnawing at my stomach and clawing at my chest. Suddenly I expected every person we passed to laugh at me, to point out my butterfly clip, to taunt me. I flinched when people drew close because what if they hit or punched me? No one paid a single bit of attention to me but that didn’t stop the fear. It was overwhelming… all encompassing. I tried to reassure myself. I’d got the butterfly from Icing for pete’s sake, it wasn’t like I pulled it out of the toddler section of a department store. No one was going to think I was that weird.
I managed to make it down the hall and even got in a brief run through Dollarama, another favourite store, but I didn’t start feeling better until after we left the mall and were standing in the open by the bus stop. My chest and stomach slowly started to relax although I had to inform my daughter there was no way I could cook dinner that night. My spoons were done and gone. Simply getting home was going to be challenge enough.
It wasn’t until later that I realized the origin of my fear. School. The crowds plowing both ways through the hallway felt like the halls at school and, as soon as my heart took me there, fear followed.
If I’d been bullied the same way as an adult instead of as a kid, it would have been considered abusive or harassment but I’d been a student in the 70’s and 80’s, part of the ere where kids were expected to sort “school yard squabbles” out on their own, so nothing was done.
As far as I could tell I was a perfectly normal kid. I loved to read, especially Trixie Belden books, and adored my pet cat Spotty. I rode my bike, climbed trees, and loved to write. My favourite colour was green and I’d travelled most of the way across Canada twice. My bullies didn’t know any of this. In fact they didn’t know anything about me at all. That didn’t stop them from calling me a freak, a retard, a homo. That didn’t stop them from tripping and pushing me in the hallways and chasing me down on their bikes.
I quickly learned that if I hid in the convenience store, the store owner wouldn’t kick me out and my bullies would get bored and wander away. That if you were hiding behind a car, you had to hide behind a wheel, in case they look under for feet, and move along with them, hoping they wouldn’t take a second peek under the car when you were at the back and they were at the front. I learned to check my assigned seat for spit before I sat down and wipe it up quickly before the rest of the class arrived. I learned that people, no matter how kind they seemed to others, could be absolutely vicious even when they were unprovoked.
It’s been 34 years since elementary school (28 since the end of high school). It’s been decades since I’ve been chased, punched, or spat at and still, feeling a bit different, feeling a bit like I’m standing out, is enough to bring me back to being 11 years old, being attacked for no reason other than I didn’t quite fit in.
Most days I don’t think about it but on the days when fear is triggered, when my heart pounds, and my breath tastes metallic in my mouth, I wonder about my attackers. Do they ever think about how they acted as children? Do they ever feel any guilt or do they brush it off as something everyone did? Do they flip though their grade school yearbook with their kids and think “there’s Kathleen the freak” or do they think “shit we treated her badly”. I’ll never know the answers to those questions. To be honest, I never want to see any of them again.
As for me, I’ll keep rocking my butterfly hair clip and glittery tops and I’ll make sure to keep my trips to the mall on weekday mornings instead of busy afternoons. I know I don’t fit in and most of the days I’m fine with that. On the days I’m not, I’ll try to assure that small, scared part of myself that it’ll be okay.