Kids can be mean. I learned this at a very young age. Like many children, I was bullied throughout much of my childhood. I was a chubby weird kid, painfully shy, with a voice of a whisper. I had a hard time making friends. I never quite fit in. I couldn’t find my group. I did connect with some of my peers, and had a few friends along the way, but the mean kids always seem to outnumber to nice ones. I found solace with myself, and enjoyed my own company. And did eventually find my place. My experience was not debilitating, but it has formed the core of my personality. I still very much see myself as a wallflower, despite people telling me otherwise. There is a part of me that doesn’t believe my advocates. I’ve never quite overcome the emotions caused by my childhood bullies, and I try hard to suppress these feelings. It is a part of me that I’ve rarely expose prior to today. However, there was a recent incident that made me want to share my personal experience and how I was able to break out of my shell to become the woman I am today.
Part 1: The Shell
Bullies prey on the weak. What were my weaknesses that exposed me to the bullies? At various points I was the shy kid, the quiet girl, the chubby one, the new girl, a speech vanner, the girl who threw up in math class, just to name a few. The issue of my weight was the one that always hurt the deepest. If you already know the anecdote that I am about to say, you are very special, because it still hurts and don’t bring it up. My first real exposure to bullying started in 1st grade. It went to a private Catholic Montessori school which meant I was in the same class as 2nd and 3rd graders. At some point the older kids realized that Mary Pat rhymes with Mary Fat. And a new nickname emerged at the fragile age of 7. I hated it. I don’t even think my parents or teachers knew, because I was embarrassed. Why did I have to be a chubby kid with a name that rhymes with fat? I never tell people this story, because I’m still afraid they will think that it is brilliant nickname and it will stick.
Even if its endearingly, its a name I never what to hear again. Just writing it makes me cry. I don’t even like saying the word fat, even though I know I am. I got out of the situation when the school had an administration change, and my parents decided to send me to the local parochial school. I was ecstatic to go to a new school. A chance to make a new identity. I asked my parents if I could start going by my middle name, Patricia. They said as long as I learned how to spell it, I could use it. I still remember practicing that summer and calling my dad over to the computer to see if I entered my name, Patricia, correctly. I think they never fully understood the reason why I no longer wanted to be called Mary Pat, but I knew. Patricia did not rhyme with fat.
Being the new kid brought new challenges. The nature of my neighborhood school caused the other kids to have tight bonds already formed from kindergarten and first grade. Even tighter bonds from legacy kids whose grandparents and parents, cousins and siblings all graduated from there. It was a difficult environment for a second grader to figure out. All I wanted was to make new friends. But no circle would open up to me. One girl was even mean enough to invite everyone to her birthday party besides me. Message received. Around this same time, I stopped having my own birthday parties, because I didn’t want to celebrate my day with the assholes in my class. I sealed my loser status when I threw up in my math book in the dead center of the classroom one day. A story that was a class favorite, and was regularly reminded of that embarrassment. My social status was further inhibited by having to go to speech and reading van. I had a hard time pronouncing my r’s and th’s, I also couldn’t spell or read well from a yet to be diagnosed dyslexia.
The speech van kids were outsiders, and the cool kids made sure they knew it. One day while I was at speech van, my classmates found out my name at my old school was Mary Pat. I am still unclear as to how this was exposed, someone said my teacher told them. The Patricia nickname didn’t last once the kids figured out that Pat and Fat rhyme. This time around, I told my parents and they intervened when the bullying got to a head. The small diocesan school was not prepared on how to handle bullies, and did not properly deal with the situation no matter how hard my parents fought for me. I even got in trouble one day after I finally pushed a boy who had been verbally harassing me almost daily. He got to play catch, while I had to miss recess and stand facing the giant stone wall. I walled myself out and built a shell to protect myself. I had a couple friends outside school, from my old school and preschool, the neighborhood and girl scouts, but no classmates. I played alone at recess, avoided talking, and tried to fade into the background. If I don’t engage them, then they can’t pick on me. This time of my life was the hardest part of my childhood. At the end of 6th grade my parents asked me if I wanted to go to public school for junior high. They told me I had the summer to think about it, but before they could finish, my decision was made, the easiest of my life. Get me out of this hell hole. Onto the local public school for my next fresh start.
I switched back to Mary Pat for junior high. Patricia was the name the assholes at my parish school called me. I still hate the name Patricia, and have even considering dropping it completely and formally changing my name to just Mary Pat. My new classmates never called me Mary Fat. I got a new nickname of MPT from my big LL Bean backpack. I mostly dodged bullies during this part of my life. I remember a time at the Phillies Baseball Academy when a kid started picking on my name. He went through every rhyme he could think of, he particularly liked Mary Bat as I recall. And the whole time I kept thinking, this kid is a dumbass. He can’t come up with the name Mary Fat. Just go through the alphabet and you’ll get there, Buddy. I’ve been through this before kid, and by comparison, you suck at coming up with with a mean name. In 7th and 8th grade, I got much better at defending myself with witty comebacks. This one boy told me I had something ugly on my face, and I said “yeah, your reflection.” Another boy who peed himself at our little league baseball game started calling me names on the bus ride home. I turned around, and in front of the whole bus, I shut him up by saying, “at least I didn’t pee myself in 5th grade.” MP for the win. In a bigger school, I was able to find a group of people I felt normal around. Other outsiders and introverts who could hear each others shuttering voices. I was an awkward nerd.
I was managing this new social structure, and still had tormentors. I found poetry as a way to process my feelings. Poems that frequently had a strong message regarding what it means to be a friend, and reflections on who I was on the inside. My Personal Ghetto poem tells a story of a girl looking at her peers from the outside, badly wanting to be included, almost giving up when someone finally saw her, and showed her what friendship was. I was finding good people to distract me from the bullies.
My lunch friend and I ate at the table next to these two assholes every day. Don’t ask me why we sat at the same table everyday and exposed ourselves to these bullies. It was probably the only seats available for us. These two boys tormented me. I always wore my hair in a thick braid, and throughout lunch they would see how many forks they could stick in it before I would notice, or rather before they would get a reaction from me. One day, the ringleader didn’t come to school, his best friend was graffiting RIP with a silver sharpie on his lunch seat. He hung himself the night before. A heavy thing for 7th graders to process. My bully problem went away, but suicide is not something I wished on my worst enemy; he was my worst enemy. I knew in some way that even though this boy made my lunch hell, his life was worse off. So often bullies bully as a result of being bullied themselves. You never can fully know what drives peoples motives. No matter how shitty people have treated me, it never got so bad enough for me to try suicide. There are always more supporters worth living for.
Part 2: Breaking Free
I was finding my people in junior high, and would have been fine to continue there, it was a good school district. However, since my early days at my first school, I knew my destiny was to attend the local prestigious all-girls Catholic School. I am grateful to have received this elite education and afforded the opportunity of being a part of this community. Many of my classmates are likely unaware of my experiences at my prior three schools. I’ve never even told the full story until now. I am very guarded about the subject, and it is something I’ve always kept private. Though, I am sure my story is not unique. I was hardened by being harshly bullied; it took this special community to brake me out of my shell. Finally, after years of being a loser, I found my place, my people, my voice.
Having several rough starts to school, I knew to approach with caution. I was vulnerable, the feeling I hate most in life. My past stayed in the past since there were no other girls from my trying days at my local parochial school, another fresh start. My first semester I was still a wallflower, testing the waters of this new experience. I quickly realized I was in a safe space and felt comfortable to be myself. I didn’t necessarily fit the mold of the typical girl from my private school. I was ok with maintaining a GPA below a 4.0, “failing” as I jokingly called it. Never got honors, only took one obligatory AP course. I was competitive, but didn’t need to be first. I only took up golf as a sport so that I didn’t have to take gym class. I refused to officially join Community Service Corps, just because everyone was in it. Though I wasn’t cold-hearted; I still participated in fundraisers. I only ran for student council to give my best friend some competition (she deservedly won homeroom rep. all four years). I wasn’t the best student, the star athlete, or the caring volunteer. I filled a different role in the complicated social structure of an all-girl school. I was the class clown. I thrived on making people laugh. A needed comic relief in the competitive and serious environment created by smart and driven young women. A role that came as a surprise to my parents when they saw me perform as the master of ceremonies for the talent show. “Who was that girl on stage? Where is that shy and quiet Mary Pat?”
My parents were just happy I finally made friends, they hadn’t realized the extent of how much I was loved. This school created an environment that helped me to find my voice. I always felt like I had a friend in every group, not necessarily a group of friends. I nerded out with my robotics friends. Found my creative side with my art class friends. Gossiped with my lunch friends. And made bad choices after dances with my homeroom friends. I formed sisterly bonds with these girls. I generally got along with everyone. I’d even say I felt popular.
My high school experience was not drama free. We had our cliques. Girls are catty, especially in the adolescences of high school. We can be down right bitches to one another. The movie Mean Girls came out my Senior Year. I remember trying to get my religion teacher to do a field trip to go see it, even suggested we write a paper about it. I still stand-by it being a good homework assignment for a religion class. I was surrounded by the kindest, most loving community, but not one free of mean girls. I’m sure I had classmates who felt bullied. Admittedly, I’m sure I even had moments where I bullied someone. I could deliver an insult with wit and humor that would get a whole class to laugh at the butt of my joke. I have a sharp tongue, which I need to bite sometimes. I’ve had words slip out that I am sure cut a girl too deeply. I remember one art class where I was probably cutting a little too deep into a girl that most people found annoying. She said, “You know Mary Pat, you are the only girl in our class who makes fun of me.” To which I responded, “No, I’m just the only one that will do it to your face.” Cue the laughter. But she was right, I was being mean to her. I am not proud that I did that. So much so, that I haven’t forgotten those words I said. Although, I was also right, girls were saying worse behind her back all the time. She was obnoxious and rubbed people the wrong way, though popular within her own group. I don’t think I ever took it to an extent that her ego was irreparably damaged. I apologize if I did; it was never my intent. My class was a united front, but I am sure there are girls who felt they were on the outside. Females are manipulative, we can and do way more damage behind the scenes than what you see on the surface. Our mental games can hurt more than any punch to the face. As I said earlier, bullies are frequently the victims of bullies themselves. I know I’ve had moments where I use humor as a defense to hide my vulnerability. I’m not proud of the moments where I have victimized someone else so as to not become a victim myself.
I’d be curious to see an essay from a current student about how mean girl tactics have changed since the movie Mean Girls was released. I am very fortunate to have attended high school before smart phones and social media. Text messaging was still expensive. AIM was the only profile, and it was usually just your favorite quotes. Pictures got passed around the lunch table, friends got doubles, and memories were put in scrapbooks. Gossip spread by word of mouth. Now there is a new level of bullying that the younger generations are navigating. I’m not even sure if an older generation can process the damage that is done by cyber-bullying. Social media interactions release dopamine, it gives us pleasure, we are addicted to it. Its sad how thrilling it can be. Its a drug that makes us feel better about ourselves. The internet makes it much easier to prey on a victim. You can post something embarrassing to the public or slowly ware away at a person in private messages. Teenagers are masters of apps, and know how to use them effectively. Our judgement is not fully developed in high school. You can destroy someone without seeing her reaction, hearing her voice, or feeling how you made her cry. I am glad I didn’t have to figure out this added element to the already complicated social structure that is high school. It is a delicate subject for schools to manage, and it must be managed.
To whom much is given, much will be required. This understanding spans all aspects of our complicated network. My high school held us to a high expectation for our conduct. We were expected to be ladies, to be caring, to be responsible, to be accountable, to be professional. Integrity was a favorite theme. We were given the resources and freedom of thought to develop into successful women. The mission and the teachings of the sisters made me the feminist that I am today. I hope the institution is proud that they gave me the skills to have this outspoken voice I am using to deliver this message. Yes, we have our bitchy moments, but there is a line that cannot be crossed. Its a privileged to be a member of our community. To be worthy of her colors. Noble. Pure. And Loyal. We rally around each other. We strive to stay true to our Alma Mater. Forever.
Outsiders have stereotyped girls from my school as pretentious. But if I can suspend humility for a moment, yes we are better, because were given better. I got an elite education and I am proud of it. I attribute my education for many of my successes. My school held us to a higher standard, and we in turn hold ourselves to a higher standard. Alumnae hold the institution to a higher standard. We are a brand, people know the quality that comes with a graduate from my school. She is an intellectual, a leader, and a powerful voice. She is generous, supportive, and compassionate. She is confident, smart, and driven. She is a force to be reckoned with. You can meet a a fellow alumna from a completely different generation, and share a common bond. We bring each other up. We are a special group of women, a unique group of women, a united group of women. We are bonded to this sisterhood.