I'm writing this in 2009, ten years after Columbine. It's been ten years since I launched Raven Days, and ten years since I wrote "Stalag HS." I feel I should write something to mark the tenth anniversary of the site.
There's no point, I think, in mentioning more instances of the bullying I experienced. I've given a representative sample in "Stalag HS." Rather, in this article, I'd like to discuss why I was a good candidate for bullying and what its effects on me have been.
First of all -- yes, as a good many people have pointed out to me over the years, if I were (absit omen) a child in school today, I would be diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. If the diagnosis had been made when I was in school, it wouldn't have surprised me. Even in the '70's, I knew I was different from the other children and that my grandmother and my uncles were "weird" in the same way I was.
But I have never liked the fact that neurotypicals call it a "syndrome," because that implies that it's something that needs to be cured. I don't think it is. I think if my brain had devoted a significant percentage of its neural nets to recognizing and understanding non-verbal communication, it might not have optimized itself for academics -- which it did. My grandmother and I both tested at the genius level on IQ tests.
Having AS doesn't automatically doom a child to victimization by agemates. It does in today's society, but that's a mark against the modern U.S. school system. My grandmother, who was in high school before World War I, was honored and respected by her schoolmates. I asked her once, when I was an adult,(and so when she wouldn't have had any incentive to lie to me for encouragement) whether she had been bullied at school, and she could only recall a single incident -- and that was in grade school, not in high school. She pushed her bully into the horse trough, and that was the end of the matter.
But then, Gran was in school before Dewey, before chronological grading. Once she knew the material in a class, she got promoted to the next class. For her, there was never any question that classes were for learning. Compulsory schooling only went to the 8th grade, so teens who didn't want to be in school were free to leave. That meant that the only students in high school with her were students who wanted to learn. Gran was the valedictorian of her high school class, and she went on to achieve the highest grade point average of any student ever enrolled in her college.
I, on the other hand, knew the material in almost every class long before I took it, and anything I didn't know I learned by reading my textbooks on the first day of school. I could never resist reading a book as soon as I received it, and with a reading speed of well over 1000 wpm, I could read all my textbooks, which were mostly "dumbed down" anyway, in a few hours at most.
The three exceptions were algebra, chemistry and Latin. Algebra I actually did know, but I didn't know I knew it, because I didn't know it by that name. And my mother always spoke of algebra in tones of horror, so I was prepared to find it incomprehensible. My math scheduling had been mixed up anyhow. At the start of seventh grade, for once in my life, I was allowed to test out of seventh-grade mathematics, and a classmate and I got to race each other through the eighth-grade math book doing independent study. It was fun! By the end of that school year, though I didn't know it, we had gotten to the rudiments of algebra.
In eighth grade, however, I still had to take math. (The fact that I'd successfully completed every assignment in an 8th-grade math textbook the previous year, under a teacher's supervision, was immaterial.) The honors 8th-grade math class, Pre-Algebra, happened to conflict with French II, so I was placed in Remedial Math. My mother, who was understandably confused as to how I could have aced 8th-grade math in 7th grade only to require remediation in 8th grade, complained to the school, and was told icily by the 8th-grade math teacher, "If you insist, we will put her in Pre-Algebra, but I guarantee she'll fail." Mother decided not to press the point.
In ninth grade, when it became obvious to my Pre-Algebra teacher that I already knew the work, he arranged for me to switch to an Algebra I class. Unfortunately, we were twelve weeks into the school year; I was already nervous about taking a class called "Algebra," and I was spooked by the novel experience of taking a course in which the teacher was talking about things I didn't already know as well as I knew my own name. I panicked, and assumed I couldn't do the work, and did not do well. That meant that I wasn't qualified for Chemistry, since it presupposed a knowledge of algebra. In the end, I actually managed to fail Algebra II, which kept me from being a National Merit Scholar. When I went to summer school at a local private school to make up the deficiency, the teacher there told my mother that I might grow up to do original work in mathematics. I'm sorry I never have.
Latin, the third exception, was my most frustrating class, since we were being taught by what should have been an independent study program -- but the teacher taught us as a group, moving us through the independent-study modules at the speed of the slowest and least interested child in the room. But the material was new to me, and that was tremendously exciting. My teacher had forbidden me to work ahead in the independent-study modules, and I always obeyed what authority figures told me, but I found an old Latin Grammar at the Salvation Army thrift store and I learned Latin from that. I went on to choose it as one of my majors in college. It was so wonderful to find something new to learn at last!
But, back to my comparison of my school with my grandmother's. I was warehoused with my chronological age-mates, and almost never allowed to learn anything new during school hours. At least half of them didn't want to be there, so it's no wonder they were bored enough to bully me. It's no wonder that I lost sight of the importance of grades and even the connection between classes and learning. Classes were something you sat through because the grownups said you had to. It was foolish to expect to learn anything in them. Learning was for summer vacation, when I split my time between the public library, the science museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts.
Adults, making conversation, used to ask me whether I liked school. I would always say that I hated it. And they would always ask, "Don't you like to learn things?" "Yes," I would answer. "That's why I hate school."
By high school, if there was a way to misinterpret a question on a test, I misinterpreted it, just to add a moment's fleeting interest to the six hours of utter boredom I faced every day. It's not surprising that I graduated from high school with a 2.8 and a requirement for remediation in Algebra II. I was also a National Merit Semifinalist, though my principal "forgot" to mention this at the academic-awards ceremony. He mentioned our school's Commended Students, who were only in the top two percent on the SAT's. I had been in the top half of one percent. I had, of course, also been a Commended Student, but I wasn't mentioned among them, either.
Getting back to bullying, I had another neurological problem that I didn't know about in high school, and no one has yet recognized it in my "Stalag HS" account. But it was extremely important. Thanks most likely to my having been born at 28 weeks' gestation, I have prosopagnosia. That means that I can't recognize people by their faces. With a lot of effort, I can learn to recognize individuals in other ways -- by their gait, by the set of their shoulders -- but usually only in context.
I didn't know this in middle school and high school. I didn't know it even when I wrote "Stalag HS." So when I say in it that "everyone was bullying me," well, everyone probably wasn't. Most likely it was the same dozen or two dozen kids, out of 500 in middle school and 2500 in high school. But, outside of classes with assigned seating, in which as a matter of course I memorized the seating chart the first day, I had absolutely no way of telling who was a bully and who wasn't.
So when the administrators asked me, "Okay, who knocked you down this time?" and I answered, "Some kid. How should I know?" I was not refusing to tattle, as they thought, but telling the literal truth. And for my part, I thought their insistence on asking me what no one could possibly know was just a way of refusing to deal with the problem. You see, I had no idea that anyone else could recognize others any better than I could!
I knew where I was bullied, but I didn't know who was doing it. And that was true all through school. Naturally I assumed everyone at my school was likely to hit me or knock me down. And, of course, in middle school, a lot of them were. As I said in "Stalag HS," whenever anyone lost a pecking-order fight, he or she knew whom to hit to make himself or herself feel better.
By high school, things had probably improved, but I didn't really notice, because more people than I could memorize were still knocking me down.
So that's why I was bullied. What were the effects? Well, because of my comparatively-lousy grade point average, I missed out on a National Merit Scholarship, and probably other scholarships as well. It also took me my first two years of college at an excellent school to learn decent study skills and to start expecting classes to be interesting, or at least filled with new information.
It took me about that long to learn that I could assume that I was included in a general invitation. I made rather a nuisance of myself my freshman year. Someone would shout across the lounge, "Hey, let's all go out for a pizza!" and I would answer, hesitantly, "Do you really mean *all* of us, or all of them and not me?" Of course, human nature being what it is, sometimes the person would laugh and answer jokingly, "I mean all of them and not you, of course!" And I would accept the answer soberly, and go away.
To this day, I'm scared when I have to be around groups of people, especially teenagers. I always expect them to hit me or knock me down. But in fact, no one has hit me or knocked me down, except by a genuine accident, in decades. I don't know whether I'll ever get over expecting otherwise. I suspect not.
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