Filed under: elementary school, English, Jesus, lost in translation, name-calling, new kid, Spanish, teasing, translation
by Suzanne Maclyn
Age seven at the time
In second grade, I was the new kid, again. My family moved ten times by the time I was twelve years old. I went to so many different schools that while eventually being “the new kid” became normal for me, it was never easy. Every time I started a new school, I had no friends, and I didn’t know the rules. Sometimes I cried because I did things wrong—or at least the wrong way for each new school.
Going to a new school usually meant that I had learned different things than the kids at my new school. In second grade, I knew how to read and spell better than the kids in my new class. Because of this, my teacher would have me tutor the other kids, most of whom did not speak English at home. We always had a spelling test on Mondays. If kids missed spelling tests because they were absent, she had me give them the make up spelling tests during lunch and recess. That was okay by me since I had no one to play with at recess anyhow. If there were no tests to give, I would pick up all the trash in our classroom. Sometimes I helped the teacher correct papers.
I was only seven years old, but I was tutoring classmates and giving them spelling tests, which in hindsight is just weird. The kids in class sure thought it was, and they were not nice to me at all.
One day I brought a new pencil box to school. I had decorated it by writing, “I love Jesus” and drawing special Christian fishes on it. I really liked going to church on Sundays, and thought that my pencil box was pretty. I was sad when the kids in class started to make fun of my pencil box, pointing at it, and singing in a teasing way, “She loves Haysoos!”
Haysoos was a boy in our class, but I didn’t really know him. His friend Raul yelled across the class and told me that Haysoos didn’t like me. I was angry at the way everyone was laughing at me, and I told him that I didn’t like Haysoos either!! I finally said that I hated Haysoos, even though I had no reason to hate him. Raul pointed at my pencil box and told me that I loved Haysoos. I was confused and told him that I hated Haysoos. I could not figure out why he kept pointing at me and laughing. Haysoos was mad and he was making mean faces at me.
I wanted to stay in the classroom during lunch, but the teacher needed to lock up the classroom, so I had to go outside. On the playground, the boys started running around me in circles singing, “You love Haysoos! You love Haysoos!”
I was getting so mad! I didn’t even really know Haysoos! Why were they saying this? I was screaming at them, telling them I didn’t even like Haysoos! When we went back to class, Raul came over to me and showed me on my pencil box where I wrote “I love Jesus.”
When Raul read it to me, he said, “You wrote it right here: See? I love Haysoos.”
I argued with him, “That says, I love Jesus!”
Raul retorted, “That is Haysoos! You spell Haysoos J-E-S-U-S!”
Now Raul was trying to give me a spelling lesson. But I still did not understand how J-E-S-U-S could be pronounced “Haysoos,” so I just kept fighting with him even though it only made me cry. Finally other students in the class told me that in Spanish, the name Jesus is pronounced “Haysoos.” I didn’t know what to do. I was very surprised, and finally understood why they were making fun of me, but it only made me mad at myself. I felt stupid.
When school finished that day, Raul and some other boys followed me and teased me even more. I was so aggravated,that I threw my pencil box into the trashcan. I wanted to show them that I didn’t love Haysoos.
I was very sad when I got home. All I could do was cry when I thought of my pretty decorated pencil box in the trash. I kept thinking of how happy I was when I first brought my pencil box to school, and how sad I was when I found out Haysoos’s name was spelled the same way as Jesus’. I was angry that the kids at school were having fun teasing me, too.
I thought that if I threw my pencil box into the trash, Raul and his friends would stop taunting me. Well, they kept harassing me anyway. But I wasn’t the only person that they picked on. They were mean to a lot of kids, and even to each other sometimes. I learned to stay away from them whenever I could. Plus I was just waiting. Waiting until my family had to move again. Then I could go to a new school.
Filed under: bully, crush, gym class, middle school, name-calling, peer pressure, sexual orientation, sexuality, volleyball
by Els Kushner
Age 13 at the time
In 7th grade, I got a crush on my French teacher. A huge, yearning, painful crush. On my female French teacher. It hit me like a truck, and it was terrifying. Particularly so because I read a lot and knew exactly what it was called if these sorts of feelings for people of the same gender continued; I had it on good authority that they could be Just a Phase, and I hoped fervently that they were.
See, all those advice books for adolescents — the ones with questions supposedly from Real Teens about things like menstruation and pubic hair — always included a question from some poor soul along the lines of “I think I have a crush on my best friend, s/he’s a girl/boy and so am I, does this mean I’m gay?” To which the answer was always something like, “Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being gay. But don’t worry [emphases mine] about your crush on your friend; it’s perfectly normal for heterosexual teens to have feelings like this…” and blah blah blah. It was supposed to be reassuring but was actually confusing: if there was nothing wrong with being gay, what was there to worry about, with the crushes on friends? Why the need for reassurance? Anyone would smell a rat.
In 8th grade, I tried to put the whole emotional mess behind me and concerned myself with the standard teenage-girl nerd things: reading the Foundation trilogy, writing in my Notebook, and trying not to get beat up by mean kids.
The mean kids were really, really mean. Especially Noelle Johnson, who was constantly threatening to beat me up because I was so bad at volleyball. Noelle was one of those girls who were mysteriously allowed to spend every gym class sitting on the bleachers, gossiping and making obnoxious comments. (And you have to wonder: why did she care about me? I wasn’t even on her team!)
One day Noelle ventured down from the bleachers again. I figured she was going to give me yet another hard time about how my inability to spike the ball was going to lead to my imminent demise at her hands. Instead, she stared at me, hard, and demanded accusingly, “Are you a lesbian?”
My jaw dropped. My first impulse — honestly, I was this nerdy — was to say something like, “How am I supposed to know if I’m a lesbian? I’m only thirteen! No one can know if they’re a lesbian when they’re thirteen! All the books say so! I’m waiting to see. Ask me again in a few years.” But even I knew that that would’ve been a Big Mistake. Though, in retrospect, maybe not worse than what I did say, which was (after a few seconds during which all the above thoughts flashed through my mind) a bare and unconvincing “No!”
As it was, she stared at me for a couple more seconds, while all her friends went “ooooooh!” with that rising inflection indicating a fight’s about to start. But nothing happened. She made a few more remarks about how dumb I was and went back to the bleachers.
I went back to the volleyball game, shaken. How had she known to ask? How??
Now I think that she probably just randomly picked the most damning accusation she could come up with. But at the time it was so scary and creepy, like she could see inside my thoughts. If she could do that when I wasn’t even sure how I felt, what would happen if I decided that I really was gay? It was too terrible to contemplate, so I put it all firmly out of my mind.
Or rather, I did the best I could. A year or two later, in unrequited love with my best friend and trying to decide what “counted” as being in love, I remember writing something like this in my notebook:
“Am I gay? I know I’m in love with Z. But does that mean I’m a lesbian? I’m really too young to decide something like that! When I’m maybe 20, if I still feel like this about girls, then I’ll decide I really am. But I can’t know now.”
And that’s more or less what I did: I waited until college, when nobody I knew was threatening to beat anyone up, and it didn’t matter how good anyone was at volleyball, and I didn’t feel like my whole world would come tumbling down with one simple “yes.”
In the decades since then, most people in my life — my friends and family and even the people I work with — have been just fine with who I am and who I love. Even my daughter says that no one at school gives her a hard time about having two moms. I know it’s not like that for everyone, and I feel really lucky.
At times I wish I’d had the courage to come out sooner, at least to myself. Sometimes, now, I wish that when Noelle Johnson asked me that question, I’d said “Yes!,” swept her into my arms, and given her a big smooch in front of the whole gym class. It would have made for a much better story, even though I probably would’ve gotten suspended and beaten up.
And at other times I think I was right and smart to wait until it felt safe for me. Life isn’t just a story when you’re living it, after all. It’s easy for me now, safe in my grownup life, to wonder whether it’s worse to get hurt, or worse to live scared that you might get hurt. Some kids who come out as teenagers did and do get hurt, in real and lasting ways, and I escaped most of that.
But you know what’s weird? No one ever did actually beat me up, even though they spent much of 8th grade threatening to. I didn’t even exactly know what “beaten up” meant, even though I spent most of 8th grade being afraid of it.
I do wish I’d been able, somehow, to not be so scared of something that hadn’t even happened to me. And to let myself decide for myself what I felt, and what it meant, and what counted as real.
Filed under: elementary school, middle school, name-calling, orchestra, race, school bus
by John H. Kim
Age 10 at the time
Fifth grade was a low point in my life. I had finally made some friends in third grade, and gotten through fourth. Then we moved to the other side of the mountain, to a huge, run-down old house overlooking the Hudson River. My parents had bought it as a fixer-upper, and I think got a real deal. It had a four-and-a-half acre mostly wooded lot, with a garage that used to be an old stable. There were no other houses for quite a distance, which made it kind of lonely.
We lived off highway 9W instead of a regular street, so the school bus didn’t stop near our house. I walked to school instead, which was only a quarter-mile if I cut through our enormous mountain lot to the dead end of Franklin Street. This involved trekking through a wide grassy path through the woods, past an old swimming pool. The walk was bearable some days, but when I had orchestra practice and had to lug my French horn, it was a real pain.
I had a hard time adjusting to the new school. I missed my friends Mark and Jason, and would call them on the phone a lot. At some point into the school year I finally invited someone from orchestra over to our house. I can’t remember his name anymore. I remember he played a woodwind of some sort, certainly something a lot lighter to lug to my house than a French horn.
When he came over, my mother was home. She brought us some snacks, then we looked through my stuff and around the house. We didn’t talk about anything in particular, and didn’t play games like I did with my old friends. Then we went outside to the big yard. The garden was still probably a mess, but it was big. Suddenly, he got mad over something, and yelled, “The problem with you is that you think you’re the spitting image of your mother!” Then he stalked off.
I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.
I couldn’t recall exactly what we had been talking over, but it didn’t seem to involve my mother. I cast my mind in all directions, trying to think what it could mean. Was it some sort of clever dig at my looks? I hated clever insults, or rather I hated being embarrassed for not understanding them. Was it a play on words, something about “spitting”? Insults often seem to invoke mothers.
Then something occurred to me. My mother was white, and my father was Korean. Did that have something to do with it? I still didn’t understand why he said that, but it did seem to make a sort of sense. In fact, I realized he was right. I didn’t think of myself as Korean at all. I didn’t interact with my father much, so most of my mannerisms came from my mother.
Still, it was a puzzle. My visitor was white, but I think he was from an immigrant family of some sort, maybe Eastern European. What would make him say that? I couldn’t remember what would prompt that, but then, I didn’t remember much about what we talked about anyway. As far as I can remember, we didn’t talk or hang out after that for the rest of the year. I certainly never asked him what he meant by it, or what made him say it.
It did make me think about a lot of things. I still remembered some of the popular chants from elementary school. One was “A fight! A fight! A nigger and a white!” Another was “Chinese; Japanese; Dirty knees; Look at these!” — done pushing up and down your eyebrows, then pulling out your shirt like breasts. I didn’t understand what was behind those rhymes as I thought about what he had said, but I somehow knew they were related.
I made it through the rest of the year at that middle school, but I never made any friends. The next year, my parents put me in a private prep school across the river. It was a long bus ride, but the bus would stop at our house. Some things changed, but others didn’t. I still didn’t think of myself as Korean for the most part, but sometimes I would stop and think about the incident, and my image.
Filed under: bully, dodgeball, elementary school, middle school, musicals, name-calling, new kid, puberty, sexual orientation, siblings
By Michael Procopio
Age 6 to the present
The men in my family loved show tunes. My grandfather, being of Italian stock, listened to opera. My father preferred Broadway musicals. Original cast albums like Cinderella, Camelot, A Chorus Line, and Annie followed us wherever we traveled in his car. My older brother loved big movie musicals, specifically those produced by Arthur Freed and his friends at Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios. Most directly influenced by him, I learned to converse in a language liberally peppered with musical references. We compared the events of our own lives to those which occurred in the movies, usually unfavorably, since it is often difficult to make homework and cleaning up after dogs more interesting than dancing around pirate ships or singing with Munchkins.
In my family, a boy singing songs from The Sound of Music was nothing extraordinary– in fact, it was encouraged. The subtle changing of lyrics to suit any occasion was applauded by my elder brother. Sadly, singing “I Am Six, Going on Seven” in a voice approximating that of the eldest Von Trapp girl did not translate well to the playground of my elementary school. Worse, my impression of Ann-Margret’s frenzied “Smash the Mirror” number from Tommy was not received with applause but with baffled silence, then derisive laughter, which I found confusing since my brother and sister had both loved the impression as I performed it the day before. Upon review some thirty years later, it seems reasonable that a six-year-old boy writhing on the on the grass and pulling at his hair while singing in an exaggerated vibrato might make other little boys uncomfortable. It was clear to them that I was different. It was clear to me that they simply did not speak my language.
By the second grade, my performances were much more subtle; intended for more intimate audiences. To offset the boredom of a long bus ride to Olvera Street in Los Angeles, I decided to entertain my field trip seat mate with what I thought was a subdued interpretation of Esther Williams’ playful version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The boy sitting next to me had always been kind and therefore, I thought, deserving of my talents. Far from being entertained, he squirmed and moved as far away as he could from me without physically hurling himself from the bus. I thought he’d get it. I thought he’d understand. In a way, I think he did. I don’t think he spoke to me again until the third grade. I rode the rest of the way to Los Angeles in silence; my status as a resident alien confirmed.
There were few opportunities to further humiliate myself since I did not sit with other boys at lunch or get invited to their houses after school or even play with them unless compelled to in group sports like dodgeball wherein they sharpened their throwing skills and I perfected my dodging abilities.
If a boy admits to liking show tunes, he invites trouble. If a boy who likes show tunes also admits to dreaming about taking bubble baths with Michael Landon, he invites danger. To my mind, liking musicals seemed a perfectly normal, masculine thing. Blowing kisses to the shadow I saw in the shape of Mr. Landon cast by my night light every evening did not. I’d never heard of another boy doing that, so I kept my mouth shut, which felt unnecessary, since everyone seemed to know anyway.
Names like “girl” and “sissy” were first muttered and then shouted at me. As we got a little older, the words “fag” and “homo” entered the vocabulary. I objected to “girl” since I had no desire to be one, Ann-Margret impression aside. “Sissy” I wasn’t so sure about– I was bigger and faster than most of my taunters, but I was mildly obsessed with people like Charo and activities such as watching Days of Our Lives. By the time fifth grade came and the abandoned fantasies of Michael Landon were replaced by thoughts of holding hands with a tall Brazilian-Swedish boy, I knew my taunters were speaking the truth when they called me a homo; I don’t think they meant as a compliment.
The name-calling eventually lead to physical threats. The occasional sock in the arm or leg stuck out to trip graduated to stomach-punching and being shoved against walls. Once cornered in the library by one of the meanest boys I knew, I pleaded with him to leave me alone and warned him of the nearby presence of our school librarian. He laughed and suggested I cry to her as he punched me in the stomach. I weighed my options and decided the best course of action
was to bury my fist in his eye. I was surprised by how much my hand hurt. That never seemed to happen to people in the movies. The following year, the boy was placed in a classroom for children with learning disabilities. I briefly worried that I had caused his brain damage. At least, I thought, he wouldn’t be bothering me again. For the most part, no one else did either.
The rest of my elementary school career was spent rather quietly. When forced to play soccer with my classmates, my attention turned to the nearby boundary fence covered in honeysuckle vines. Whenever the vines were in bloom, the class broke from play to swarm the flowers. I’d hum Lena Horne’s version of “Honeysuckle Rose” from Thousands Cheer quietly and to myself, since I didn’t think anyone would appreciate the fact that I had a song for nearly every occasion. Or understand. Except my brother. I’d tell him, since he was the only person I knew who spoke ‘Musical’ better than I did. As long as I had him to talk to when I got home from school, I remained relatively untroubled by my scholastic isolation.
When I was 12, three major events occurred that altered the course of my social life: I started middle school, entered into an aggressive attack of puberty and my brother moved to France, where he could watch musicals in French, thus combining two of his greatest passions. Though the news he sent of Gene Kelly dancing and singing with Catherine Deneuve made me nearly faint from excitement, our conversations were few, given the physical distance between us. The combination of being in a new school environment with a rapidly changing body and no brother to confide in made the issue of my own social awkwardness more acute. Since my body and voice had decided change without first consulting me, I decided I might as well go for broke, and change my personality too. Twelve-year-olds are famous for that.
I watched the other puberty-stricken people around me, noting what they wore and what they listened to and eventually learned how to be more like them, to blend in. Never entirely, but enough to be accepted, be invited to parties, and allowed to sit with others at lunch. Instead of humming Cole Porter tunes in public, I started tapping my feet to Adam and the Ants, the Go-Go’s, and other musicians favored by ‘tweens in 1982. I learned to speak the language of the people around me, to enter their world and shed some of my former reputation as an alien. I succeeded to some degree– gaining friends and higher social status, but I never felt that I could be completely myself around anyone. On the outside, I could appear as normal– whatever that was– as I wanted to be. Inwardly, I felt like an alien passing for human. The names Judy Garland and Fred Astaire never passed my lips in public, no matter how much I wanted them to.
As I got older and entered college, I found what I had secretly given up hope of ever finding– people my age who spoke openly of Leslie Caron, Alice Faye and Donald O’Conner. People who spoke my language. People like me. And they didn’t look like aliens, but rather attractive human beings who were proud of being different from 90% of the general population. Eventually, I learned to look upon my show tune-loving tendencies as a source of pride. Now, I sometimes sing them out loud specifically to annoy people. In fact, if you happen to walk through my neighborhood today and you listen very carefully, you might hear a bit of Mary Poppins, Meet Me in St. Louis, or the sound of other musicals coming from the open window of my home and me singing right along with them. I don’t really care who hears it. Unless it’s playing too loudly during my downstairs neighbor’s nap time. It’s one thing to have fun annoying people from time to time, but it’s an entirely other thing to be rude to one’s neighbors.
Filed under: ass-kickery, bully, elementary school, name-calling, siblings, special needs kids, williams syndrome
by Amanda Jones
Age 8 at the time
I had a pedestrian, mildly tortured school experience learning to sort between what mattered and what didn’t, with just the typical betrayals and embarrassments. It was my brother who suffered the brunt of pre-teen flailing, and watching what he went through taught me more than all the bullying I endured.
Marco was (and still is) my sweet older brother. As a child he was scrawny, friendly, funny, affectionate, and energetic. And he had Williams Syndrome, which meant he was a special needs kid. Only in those days no one had yet thought up political correctness, so my brother was just “retarded.”
Williams Syndrome is a genetic disorder with a long, scary list of symptoms. When I look up the most common of them, it says: “Unusual facial structure, developmental retardation, short stature, heart problems, and puffiness around the eyes. Personality traits include being overtly friendly, trusting strangers, and an affinity for music.” My brother had all of these. He still does.
For most of elementary school other children were kind to Marco. They included him in games and they’d even willingly invite him to their birthday parties. But at age 12 this swiftly changed. As hormones began their insidious creep, many friendships turned into outright cruelty.
My brother and I did not go to school together. He went to an all-boys school, and I went to an all-girls. But we lived opposite a park and would go there together almost daily. I was three years younger. He was my only sibling, my big brother, my friend, and often my rival and archenemy. I loved him. I didn’t know to be embarrassed of him, even when he laughed inappropriately loudly or let fly with the animal noises he was prone to making when overexcited. But as he got older he would embarrass the other kids, as if just knowing him made them uncool.
One awful day my mother was called to school early, bringing Marco home with red eyes even puffier than normal. Two former friends had cornered him and beaten him up in the bathroom, calling him Mongol, circus freak, animal. He could not understand what had happened, and his face registered only confusion and disorientation. And for the first time in my life I felt real, adult rage. It sped through me like fire, closing my throat and making me break out in sweat. I was eight years old and I had just felt the shock of injustice.
Marco stayed home for a week to recover. There were hushed phone calls and the low hum of my mother’s fury venting into the mouthpiece. Marco and I lived alone with our mother. Our father had hit the road with a younger woman when I was five. He couldn’t handle raising a “retard.” At the time I didn’t think much about what it must have taken for my mother to raise the two of us alone for so many years. Now I do, and I am staggered.
A month after the “incident,” Marco and I encountered the perpetrators at our park. My brother flinched when he saw them, his “overt friendliness” damaged. He wanted to go home. He started making noises. His hands came up over his head. The boys, angry that the “retard” had caused them innumerable hours of detention, strode towards him, their fists balling, mouths ugly grimaces. At first fear turned my legs and stomach soft. And then, like some sort of miraculous intervention, the rage hit me again and I became possessed. I raced towards the boys yelling words that had never dared cross my lips before.
“You bastards.” (I’d heard my mother call my absent father that often and suspected it was a terrible slight.)
“You stupid, mean little bastards. You assholes. You keep away from my brother!”
And my God, it worked. It actually worked. The boys didn’t know what to do next. They stopped, their faces froze and they stood there looking just like stupid little assholes.
The best part of all is that my brother started to laugh. He laughed his inappropriately loud laugh with a few animal noises thrown in for good measure. The boys sloped off, vanquished, with that sound at their backs. It was wonderful. Admittedly I was an eight-year-old girl and even mean boys probably knew better than to beat up on a small female child, but it was the first genuinely empowering moment of my life. And I guess I learned that it was actually possible to stand up against injustice.
Many years later, I used my brother shamelessly as an acid test for the men I dated. If they were embarrassed of my brother or they were mean or ignored him (and most did), they didn’t last long. They were filed in the “stupid asshole” category and dispatched. And then I met a guy who was different. He didn’t deal with Marco like he was retarded. He wasn’t overly condescending or patronizing or even sickly solicitous. He treated him like an adult who liked to laugh loudly, hug people, and dance erratically. He called him Big Man, which made Marco’s skeletal chest swell with pride. Greg was doing an MBA at an elite business school filled with future captains of industry who wore button-down shirts. One night, he invited Marco and me to a party with his fellow students. I was edgy, thinking that my brother’s unbridled enthusiasm for singing and dancing, or even the animal noises, might cause a scene, and I really liked Greg and didn’t want to have to dispatch him quite so quickly.
When we got there, Greg casually took Marco around, introducing him not as his girlfriend’s brother, but as his “buddy.” He gave Marco a beer and let him loose. Hours later, from across the room, I noticed a circle forming on the dance floor. With rising dread, I broke through the crowd to face what was happening. Marco and Greg were both lying on their backs, spinning in circles, breakdancing to “Red, Red Wine” by UB40. The crowd cheered and clapped and my brother hooted and glowed. Marco had found a hero, and I had found a husband.
I guess the moral to this story is that in the end, it’s much cooler not to be a stupid, mean bastard.
Here is an excerpt from Amanda’s reading of this story, from our Can I Sit With You Event at Book Passage in Corte Madera in August 2008: