I wore these corrective shoes. One of my feet turned in and these were supposed to help. It must have because it no longer pronates as it once did. Or I grew out of it. I remember they were expensive and I didn’t really want to wear them.
Because they were different and overly retro, I was relentlessly teased about them. But I didn’t kick boys because they made fun of me or my shoes. I just endured that.
What no one ever seemed to remember, mention or even know was why I kicked boys. No one ever asked or considered there might be a reason other than just me going all jujitsu on hapless, innocent males.
The truth is, I kicked to defend myself.
There were many times I was surrounded by a group of kids, boys mostly, who threatened me and I was outnumbered. They would close in and when they got too close and started swatting at me I got scared and kicked the living shit out of their shins.
I fought back against my tormenters. And as a girl, that cost me. Apparently fighting back was not lady like. A lecture I got for at least three years from teachers and other administrators.
I was cornered on the playground, at recess, in the lunch room. They’d surprise me in the lunch room, hide behind the line so the teachers or monitors couldn’t see and punch my lunch and smash it. I hated smashed food so I just went hungry. Sometimes I knew I’d suffer consequences and they would not and there were not so many of them and it was not worth the fight. They were having fun. I was not.
I lost recesses over it. I developed a reputation as a kicker of boys that lasted. But no one knew the whole story. No one considered it. No one ever asked.
So one day, I’m walking home from school because we lived very near my elementary school.
I’m carrying my books and my homework which I had gotten done for the most part. No backpacks then. This meant I’d get to go out and play dodgeball in our cul de sac, a past time I loved.
I was surprised by two students my age. Both boys. And they start surrounding me and teasing me. Now I’m really scared because I’m totally by myself. No one would hear me scream in the middle of this field and flight or fight kicks in. I remember trying to remain calm and not panic. I even remember seeing the fort in the woods and thinking maybe I should run over there. I knew I was faster. But they could get up there, too.
They swatted at my books and knocked them out of my hands. And there they went into a mud puddle along with my homework. What teacher would believe my homework got thrown in a mud puddle?
They started coming for me and it was two against one. I kicked one of them so hard my foot hurt and I fell backwards. The other boy stepped back when he saw how the other one was screaming in pain and they both ran. I’m was a mess but relieved and shaken. I was filthy from falling in the dirt and my books and homework were muddy.
So the next day at school, the boy I kicked pulls up his pants leg to show my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Stutts, the bruises up his shin. I was shocked. Surely she will ask when it happened and I had no idea he’d turn this in his favor. I got him good but frankly, I didn’t like hurting others. I still don’t.
She glares at me and I try to explain that they were following me home after school and threatening but she didn’t want to hear it. She yelled at me and said I’d have to miss a week of recess. And pay for the books. Three of them at $6 each. That’s a lot of chores. I was something of an entrepreneur but that was way beyond my budget. I can’t remember how that worked out but I know I was stressed about it.
I remember crying that whole week. Being so angry about what happened that I was always the one being punished. What was I supposed to do? No one ever thought or considered there was a reason for kicking or gave me an opportunity to explain. And good God I was teased about this “kicking habit” all through junior and high school.
It was later in fourth grade that my mother was concerned about my behavior in school, the kicking included, so she took me to a therapist where they observed me behind the glass. They ushered me in the room without introductions and left, went back and perched on their chairs to observe. Three or four of them I remember. I walked in that room full of boys who were there because of aggressive behavior and they all attacked me almost right after I started playing with some blocks while the “therapists” watched without doing anything. Those boys were all over me. At least eight of them pounding, kicking, and scratching and I was terrified.
I managed to break away because I am a fighter and started banging on the door. Some lost interest and one bit my leg while I pounded on the door and another was pulling my hair out. Clearly the observers didn’t move. I remember looking at them pleading but they just sat there riveted to their chairs. It was like they threw fresh meat into a pool of piranhas and I was the meat. The administrator opened the door and was shocked at what she saw. My hair all array. My clothing ripped. My face and legs scratched and the bite, on my leg was now streaming with blood. My face, too.
She asked what happened and I broke down and cried uncontrollably. I remember I cried so hard the salt from the tears ended up in my mouth. I was so thankful she opened that door and even more thankful she closed it behind me and listened. She was shocked no one in the other room intervened. And they weren’t coming out then either. They never said anything to me or showed their faces. This memory is so vivid and I remember so many details including how the office looked and the secretary’s hair which looked like a shorter version of Marlo Thomas’ hair on “That Girl.”
She immediately called my mother and invited me to sit down while I waited. She was the first adult that ever wanted to hear my side and showed me kindness. She was not about to let me out of her sight and she was busy putting bandaids on places that were bleeding.
My mother cried the whole way home. She was devastated I was subjected to this. She was trying to find help for a situation.
The point is that behavior has a root cause.
Kids don’t act out because they are “bad.” It’s important to listen to kids and figure out the why. We simply don’t do that. We default to knee-jerk reactions like suspensions and punishment. We default to lecture and model our schools after our criminal justice system which is hardly a fair system. We rarely focus on the person. We just want it out of our court. We never teach kids conflict resolution or make it a teaching moment.
I know there are great teachers and educators but this was my experience in the late 1960s. I can’t say there was a big change when Charles was in high school in 2010.
How can we expect our kids to act with kindness if the adults are not modeling it? Why don’t we ever consider things may not always be what they seem to be on the outside and be more curious? There is always more to the story.
I am not angry at those who bullied me because I made peace with them long ago. I hardly ever think about it and I’ve had a lot happen since then, namely a brain tumor and a loss of my son Charles to suicide.
I have to tell you that years later when I was attacked at knife point, I fought off my attacker like a tiger and barely escaped rape and murder. I can attest it was that old instinct kicking in. Pun intended. So it ended up benefitting me in some way.
Someone was talking about bullying the other day and it got me to thinking of the difference between what happened to me and how it is now. The 24/7 nature of it and the fact that more bullies identities are unknown to us. At least I went home and got a break. I knew who my attackers were. And they turned out not to be bad people but very nice adults.
I also thought about my experience and why it didn’t jade me for life. I don’t know the answer to that but I can tell you I didn’t go home to a toxic environment. I had friends and family in town. I never went hungry or without clothing. So I had support I could count on.
It also made me think about all the times I tried to advocate for my child and the situation went south and ended up resulting in adults making knee jerk reactions because they had a zero tolerance policy. They never considered there might be a reason for Charles’ lack of motivation. Curiosity and fairness is not as much a focus as discipline.
If we want to see more kindness in kids, we need to model it not lecture it. We need to foster connection, talk about differences and educate our kids on coping strategies and offer opportunities for kids to show kindness. We’re so busy cramming them with math and science, we miss the opportunity to teach them skills they’ll use for a lifetime.
I’ll admit that some forty years later I wanted to set the record straight, too. Things are not always what they seem.