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On Being (or perhaps Becoming) an Outsider

I read Shweta Narayan's post at http://shweta-narayan.livejournal.com/95168.html, and it woke uncomfortable childhood memories.

I had a pretty normal childhood, from what I remember, up through first grade.  I went to the school my parents picked for me, and made friends, and, so far as I can remember, was just one of the students, neither special nor pariah. 

Then, I switched schools between first and second grade. Unlike when my daughter switched school at third grade, and went to a school that had no first and second grade, so everybody was new, this meant I was coming in to the school as an outsider.

Worse, I admitted I liked school. I scored well on tests. I read all the time. I didn't bitch about my mother not hemming my uniform skirt to exactly the popular length. Oh--and my first teacher at that school was a woman who harassed me because I already knew cursive handwriting, who thought I was arrogant or something for using a skill my first grade teacher had given me--required of me--and punished me for it.

The kids took their cues from the teacher.  I was harassed and teased and ostracized. I remember hiding behind a couch, crying, wishing I'd never been born, or would die (soon) of some deadly disease. Later teachers were more friendly, but that didn't help me get along with the other kids--quite the opposite.

Eventually, my family moved. Just across town, but a new school. A new start. I hoped, maybe, things would be different. But they weren't. Once again I was a new kid coming into an established system, but this time I started with a handicap--the me who existed then was afraid that any kid my age who deigned to speak with me was planning to harass me.  I also lacked social skills due to being ostracized at the previous school. And I suspect there were other factors--as an adult I've come to realize that most people recognize and remember faces much, much better than I do. And it really doesn't help if you can't remember the person you met yesterday.

I became "Martian Murphy Beep Beep". 

Happily, I don't spend a lot of time reliving my childhood.  I don't talk about it much.  I'm much happier as an adult. 

So why am I telling you about it now?

I think I'm talking about this because the kids in my childhood didn't need me to have a different skin color or a different religion or a foreign accent to decide to make my life miserable.  Simply having gone to a different school and having learned things the kids at the new school didn't know yet was enough to start a cascade that ended in me being identified as alien, and given an imagined ethnicity. 

I'm not sure how much of what I suffered was due to human nature, and how much was due to American (or perhaps western) culture.  But I do know you can't blame institutionalized racism for it. 

And I wish I knew how to go from the knowledge of what happened to me, and what happened to people like Shweta Narayan, and create a world where no grade school kid is ever again hounded into wishing she (or he) had never been born.

Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
luciusmalfoy
Sep. 20th, 2010 09:20 am (UTC)
Re: This got long, sorry, and you may prefer to delete it...
OH GOD THIS IS THE MOST WONDERFUL POST EVER.

Not till we see that it happens to all of us, that it is *in* all of us, will we begin to make real progress towards resolving it.

YES. YES. YES.
wyld_dandelyon
Sep. 20th, 2010 09:58 am (UTC)
Re: This got long, sorry, and you may prefer to delete it...
Institutionalized racism is real, and is terrible. So is institutionalized homophobia, institutionalized mysogyny, and so on. And so is individual bigotry of all the various sorts.

But I do not think institutionalized racism is the only factor in the story I linked to; I think there are commonalities that all kids who are bullied face, and to the extent that is true, addressing only racism (or only homophobia, or only mysogyny, or even a whole list of protected categories) will fall short of creating the change we need if we are to protect our children.

Now, I would characterize the central problem differently than you do, since I do not think everyone hates and fears the different--on the one hand, some of us were trained so that our greatest fears are things we have come to know all too well, and on the other, many people are attracted to the different--but I certainly agree that at least part of the problem is universal. And I fear that so long as we only deal with the problem piece-meal, some kids will fall through the cracks.

On the positive side, I hope that the commonalities in our stories will help us to have empathy for each other. And I also hope that this empathy will allow us to work together to make our world a better place for all of us.
luciusmalfoy
Sep. 20th, 2010 09:18 am (UTC)
I'm so sorry for what happened to you. That sounds absolutely obscenely awful.
wyld_dandelyon
Sep. 20th, 2010 10:34 am (UTC)
It was awful for a while. It wasn't the most awfullest thing to ever happen to anybody, of course. In retrospect, I can count my blessings for all the awful things I didn't have to face.

But at the time, and especially in second grade, I was stuck in a situation that was dreadful, with no way to get myself out, and no real understanding of what was going on or what resources I might call on if I could have articulated what was happening to my parents.

But, happily, that was a long time ago and I have a lot more knowledge and resources today, to say nothing of having an adult's privilege to kick people out of my life if they're hurting me.
cflute
Sep. 21st, 2010 08:42 pm (UTC)
For you, it was second grade. For me, it was mid-year entry into kindergarten. The bullying and ostracism were point-for-point alike.

I'm sorry that switching schools later still didn't give you a reset. I was stuck in the same facility K-6, so never had a chance at a reset. By the time I hit 7th grade I'd convinced myself that I liked being a maverick and didn't want to fit in, and found places to hide and eat lunch alone (since outdoor recess wasn't so much of a requirement anymore).

Kids are so vulnerable, and cruelty to them is wrong in any and every circumstance.
wyld_dandelyon
Sep. 21st, 2010 08:45 pm (UTC)
So true!!!!

Yeah, I decided I'd rather be weird than normal, if "normal" meant treating people the way my classmates treated me.
maiac
Sep. 20th, 2010 11:53 am (UTC)
I gave a speech at a science-fiction convention in which I said I was happy I found SF fandom because "I used to think I was weird, and I found out I was just out of context." I got a standing ovation for that line. A lot of people -- too many -- had much the same experience you did.

Institional racism has very specific origins that make it different from what you and I suffered in school, and more inescapable. But it has the same underlying factor: identifying certain people as "different" so they can be abused in order to give their abusers a sense of superiority.
wyld_dandelyon
Sep. 20th, 2010 10:51 pm (UTC)
I agree that Ms. Narayan was targeted by institutional racism, something I have not had to face. I'm not so sure that everything she suffered was due to institutional racism, or even individual bigotry. I suspect--though I will never know for sure--that part of what she suffered had exactly the same origins as what you and I and so many other friends suffered in school.

I don't in any way want to minimize the evils of institutional racism.

However, I do think that when there's more than one cause for a problem, identifying them all can be valuable.

As a metaphor, I kept a food diary for more than two years without identifying the source of some gastrointestinal problems I was having. Later, when my sister did a web-search on short pinkies, I experimented with a no-wheat diet--with good results, until I started buying stuff made gluten-free, and increased my corn intake, and the symptoms came back. It wasn't until I stopped eating wheat AND corn that I could see consistent improvement.

Looking back, and also having looked at so very many ingredients lists (and put thousands of and jars back on the grocery store's shelves), it's no wonder I couldn't figure out the problem!

Likewise, I think if we try to address only one cause of the problems bullied kids face, we will not be able to make things better.
cflute
Sep. 21st, 2010 08:43 pm (UTC)
That "out of context" line is fabulous! I love it!!
trinker
Sep. 22nd, 2010 09:11 pm (UTC)
I followed a pingback from Shweta's journal. May I try to explain why I think Shweta's story goes beyond bullying in the classroom for a random reason of otherness?
wyld_dandelyon
Sep. 22nd, 2010 10:51 pm (UTC)
Glad to see you here.

No need to explain--I'm very aware that her story goes beyond bullying in the classroom for random reasons. I know that having just one adult in authority sanctioning, by her actions, putting me down for having learned and using something my classmates didn't know yet made my situation much, much worse. As a result, from the inside, I can all too easily imagine how badly having a whole society of adults sanctioning putting me down for my ethnic origin would have magnified things. And from the outside, well, I may be geeky and pedantic, and awkward in how I talk about some issues, but I'm not blind.

Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for being so polite! I hope to hear from you again.
trinker
Sep. 22nd, 2010 11:00 pm (UTC)
*nod* That teacher...*argh* I have my own story of a teacher using power in completely inappropriate ways. Yours adds to my list of reasons why I think I want to homeschool my kids.

I managed to find my strong and clear *and* polite again. I don't want to lose it.
wyld_dandelyon
Sep. 23rd, 2010 01:18 am (UTC)
The teacher left halfway through the year because she got sick. But the damage was already done.

When my daughter was miserable in second grade, we talked about home-schooling her, though I was working full time and she didn't have enough reading skills yet to really be able to study on her own. She didn't want to give up her time socializing with other kids every day.

Happily, we got her into a school that suited her MUCH better the next year. And that school was able to give her opportunities and lessons I never could have alone.
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