It took 27 years but it finally happened. All the anger, the rage, the sadness and hurt I had repressed from a time long ago came flooding back after an incident at my son’s basketball game the other night. In a matter of moments, I had truly lost it. Here I was, at a grade school basketball game, in a gymnasium full of people having a full blown temper tantrum… not with a child, but with another adult.
My son’s basketball team was playing a very heated game, in which they were losing. They were trying to keep up but (unfair refs aside) they were just getting out-played. This can cause 10-year-old boys to get a little scrappy. Then we lost. It’s ok, he knows we win some and we lose some and we move on. But after this game, my son was in tears. He’s never in tears – and it wasn’t because of the scoreboard.
My son told me that after a player on the other team called him an “idiot,” he elbowed the kid out of frustration. Ok not proud of that. But it was what happened afterwards that hurt him – and me too. He told me their team’s coach said to him, ‘Watch it b—-h.’ “
Now, I’m known to be a lot of things, but calm is not one of them. My face got hot. My heart was pounding. With an anger I didn’t know I had, I stormed over to the other team’s coach and basically let him have it. I screamed. I cursed. I used my Italian hands (lots of pointing, waving and throwing up of arms). I wanted to know who thought it was ok to taunt or name-call a fourth grader. I may have told an old lady to mind her own business when she urged me to “take it outside.” I wasn’t leaving that gym without a fight. Not this time.
Several of my son’s teammates also heard the coach’s comment, but couldn’t figure out whether to laugh or be scared. They knew it was wrong. Some people might say I overreacted. They might wonder why I went nuts when I could have just blown it off. But I couldn’t just ignore it, and the reason behind my reaction lies in something that happened years ago – something I have not spoken of nor have I told anyone outside of my husband.
When I started high school in 1990, back in the days of pegged jeans and Kid ‘N Play mixed tapes, I was a typical naive, scared, friendless freshman. Like many of my peers, I walked into a school in which everything and most everyone was new. What few friends I had from grade school all went to a different high school, leaving me with only a couple people I knew but didn’t really feel comfortable calling “friends.” I also had big shoes to fill, as my older sisters (who had since graduated) were everything I wasn’t. They were sweet, popular, cheerleader types – musically and artistically talented – both homecoming queens. My palms sweat and my heart races just thinking about the pressure I felt then to try and fit in.
Those first few days of school couldn’t have been any more uncomfortable as I fumbled to look cool in tight skirts, baggy sweaters and over-hairsprayed bangs. But then something worse happened. Two upper-class girls started yelling obscenities at me in the hallway between classes. I would be standing at my locker or headed to a classroom. I heard them laughing and pointing, sometimes even bumping into me as I passed, yelling and calling me names meant to scare and degrade. It was just loud enough to be heard above the banter of students and bustle of kids scrambling to and from classes but it wasn’t that big of a spectacle that anyone paid much attention.
Why were they picking on me? What did I do? At age 14, I had done nothing more than kissed a few boys in grade school – which I didn’t think warranted calling me nasty names. I had never met these girls though, so how could they know who I was or anything about me? I was always scared, always looking behind me, wondering if someone was going to mess with me. I mentioned it once to my mom and she told me, “Just kill them with kindness, Andrea.”
Instead, I killed them with cowardice. I tried to ignore them. I raced to class. I hid in bathroom stalls. I went to the library during cafeteria and always pretended to be going somewhere else. I tried to look the other way, to turn the other cheek, but every day I felt their verbal lashings a little deeper. It made me start hating.
As high school went on and those girls moved on to new prey, I clung to anything that would make me feel safe. I tried out for cheer leading and probably out of pity was added to the squad (I was a crappy cheerleader, y’all). I really only made one or two good friends in high school. I never trusted anyone and I never gave anyone a chance to be a friend, nor did I try to be a good friend to anyone else. I bounced from boy to boy that first year trying hard to make someone like me, acting ditzy and flaky – as if those were characteristics boys liked. I eventually found a boyfriend sophomore year and stayed with him throughout high school. He was an athlete. He was strong. He made me feel safe because I was sick of being scared. I thought having a boyfriend would at least make me cool. I started running track. I started lifting small weights. I tried so hard to show on the outside that I wasn’t weak. Those mean girls made me hate weakness. I hated soft, quiet or shyness in people. I wanted to make myself unbreakable, untouchable and unable to be hurt. Along the way, those coping mechanisms made me the adult I’m sometimes not proud to be. I’ll admit I’m not one of those sweet, smiley moms you meet at PTO. I’m not terribly sympathetic. I don’t have tolerance for weakness. I’m the mother who will tell her kid to “suck it up,” or fight back. I tell them not to cry, not to show hurt, to be stronger, to be confident. But I know deep down it’s that weak, vulnerable 14-year-old in me still searching for the answer, thinking it lies in stoicism and unfeeling.
We all see the news stories about kids being bullied, whether it be in school, the playground or on social media. Some kids are being teased to the point of suicide. Those stories make my heart ache. It makes my blood boil. After years of sweeping these feelings under a rug, there was such a heap of heartbreak there that I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I lost it the other day because I thought my son was being bullied. My innocent, sweet, unbroken boy was the target of unwarranted meanness – by an adult no less – and there was no way I was going to let that slide. I don’t ever want any of my children to feel defenseless. Some people choose to look the other way or ignore it, but I think that’s just accepting something that’s not right.
I decided they can’t have the other cheek. Not when it comes down to my children and their precious hearts. I will defend and protect them at any time or cost. I realized the other night there is no age limit on who can be a “bully.” It can be a kindergartner, a teenage girl or even the coach of a rival team. No matter how small the comment, it starts somewhere and the hurt a bully causes will linger. I don’t want the feelings of sadness and anger to ever anchor and dwell inside the pure hearts of my children.
I ask all moms, if it were your child, what would you have done?