Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Point of Clarification

When I was in fifth grade, a new student at a new school, a popular girl in my class took a dislike to me on my first day, according to her, because I "played kickball wrong,"" talked "too smart, like a book or something," and "had a weird name."

My response was to ignore and deflect. She called me ugly. I would respond with a phrase I'd heard my mother say, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." She called me stupid. I would roll my eyes and head down the hallway to my gifted enrichment class. She called me clumsy. Well, I was clumsy. There was no point in arguing there.

But I didn't attack her back, in the way she was attacking me. I didn't call her names. Even as she called me a coward and spat in my face while the other students, cowed by her, laughed.

I wasn't a coward. I wasn't a doormat. I was a Christian (then, at least in name), and I had been taught by what I had read about Jesus to turn the other cheek. I was a book addict. I had read Tolkien, and Lewis, and L'Engle. At ten, I plucked my personal morals from fantasy worlds where heroes triumphed by sticking to their values, and the high road always led, eventually, to victory.

And perhaps more importantly, once, a few years earlier, I had let a visiting step-cousin of mine pressure me into joining her and some friends in publicly mocking a kid in our neighborhood who everyone thought was a little quirky. As I had seen the tears well up in that little girl's eyes, and seen her turn and run away to her mother's house while the circle of children I stood in laughed, I suddenly had to suppress an overwhelming urge to vomit.

I apologized later that day. But the hurt in that girl's eyes didn't disappear with my apology. I had broken a trust between us. It was irreparable.

We would never be friends.

And that day, I vowed never again to join in a mocking circle meant to destroy another person's self-worth.

So, I deflected, and avoided, and ignored. My refusal to be goaded into a petty reaction by that popular girl in my fifth grade class infuriated her. She tore my books. She stole my homework. She wrote fake love letters to boys in my name. She lied to the teacher to try to get me in trouble. She lied to my friends and told them I had done terrible things.

The more I refused to fight back, the more I refused to run and cry-- the more I just stood there and took it, the angrier that girl became. "You're jealous of me," she would scream. "You wish you could be just like me."

I didn't.

I really didn't.

Maybe I should have fought back. Maybe I should have insulted her in front of everyone, or spread a rumor about her, or smacked her in the face. This was, after all, the real world, the real, savage world of human children, all jockeying for position in a social hierarchy, playacting at a very serious game they had watched their parents play. In the real world, sometimes turning the other cheek turns out badly.

In the real world, sometimes you have to hit back.

But I hadn't read Lord of the Flies yet.

So one day, when that girl, antagonized beyond words by my simple refusal to fuel her drama fire, icily informed me that she had scheduled a fight between the two of us on the playground at recess, and that if I didn't show up, her enforcers would find me and make me pay for the insult?

I showed up. I stood tall and faced her livid face as two of her lackeys distracted a teacher and the schoolchildren gathered around in a tiny circular mob, whispering their chant, "Fight! Fight!"

And I said, "Hit me."

The girl sputtered. "What?"

I repeated it. "Hit me. Go ahead. Hit me as hard as you can. Hit me if you want to, but I won't hit you back. I'm not like you. I don't hit people just because I don't like them. So go ahead. Hit me."

"But it's a fight! You have to fight!" She rocked back on her heels and whipped her head back and forth, searching the little crowd, which had gone silent.

"No, I don't. You're the only one who wants to fight. I didn't ask you for a fight. You asked me for one."

A few of the kids in the crowd giggled.

They weren't giggling at me.

The popular girl screamed a terrible, primal scream of frustration. And ran. She pushed through that little crowd of children, and ran away from me.

I write about this incident from my childhood today because that moment changed me. It made me, in many ways, who I am.

I'm wise enough now to know the high road may not always lead to victory. I also know myself well enough to know that, try as I may, I don't always succeed in taking it. I'm a terribly imperfect person, as easily ruled by fear and emotion as anyone else. I sometimes say things I don't mean out of anger, and later regret them. I sometimes fail to say things I should, out of fear.

But know this: every time someone responds to an honest disagreement I have with them by lobbing a petty insult at me, or telling a lie, or spreading false rumors, or demanding that I fight, (or censoring my posts on a community site for political reasons, or blocking me on Twitter, or defriending me on Facebook, or any of the other hundreds of petty ways people slight one another on the internet these days) I am inevitably drawn back to that day on the playground, and the peace and strength that suffused my whole being in that one moment of triumph, when I said, "Go ahead. Hit me."

So, go ahead.

Hit me.

I'm not like you.

And no, actually, I'm not jealous.


Angela said...

Oh my. I absolutely love this.

Melody said...

That really is a great story, Jae! Thank you for telling it :)

KBO said...

So much word. Love you!

Farrell said...

I don't know the circumstances that made you write this post, but I will say that I really wish I had you around in 6th grade, when I was the one being mocked on the playground, by my "best friend"....

Andrea (@shutterbitch) said...

Oh. My. God. I love this post!

I recently stopped reading the blog of a well known person because they behave in this manner, instead of engaging in healthy and polite debate, they rudely dismiss other viewpoints and belittle people. There's no discussion. It's a far cry from what the blog used to be and I for one am just tired of the petty.

I'm glad to know that the first online friend I made has such integrity and bravery and honesty. I'm glad I met you, Jae.

rebecca said...

I do know the circumstances that made you write this post, and all I will say is: I want to kiss you, your response is perfection.

Benticore said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again. You are easily the bravest person I've ever had the pleasure to know...

Kim said...

My respect and admiration for you just increased ten-fold.

I'm going to have Maddy read this tonight. Words to live by.

Sara said...

great post! I love that the popular girl ran away in frustration. What an amazing life lesson.

Maria said...

Hello, I found you via Andrea (@shutterbitch), because if she says someone is worth reading, they simply are. This was beautifully written, and I admire your strength. I'll be back.

Michelle said...

I want to print this and hang it in every room of my house.

And also, know what my comment verification word is for posting this? "Commi." I swear.

Andrew R said...

absolutely fantastic story. words to live by. you had wisdom as a child and have only grown wiser with time.

Bea said...

I've been picking this theme up a lot in the books I teach in my Children's Literature class - the exact books you mentioned, and a few others. The emphasis on fighting wrong by staying different from the ones you fight rather than sinking to their level. It's inspiring to think of it actually working - actually influencing the kids who read.

Jaelithe said...

Bea, I ABSOLUTELY was morally influenced by the books that were read to me and the books I read as a child. Absolutely.

Of course the influence took place in the context of my own personality and an existing set of moral guidelines laid out by my mother and other influential adults in my life. And I am not sure I would have let the moral codes expressed in certain books influence me if I had not found them appealing.

But still. Books did make a difference.

People who write for a living are nearly always trying to make some sort of moral impact on the world, aren't they?

Debbie said...

I can only echo Andrea. I'm honored to have known you for as long a time as I have, and I'm so pleased to have this to refer to for my (oft-bullied) son's sake.

And I really, really love seeing you in all your strength. You're like a statue, smoldering in the sun.

D. Lorraine said...

Jaelithe: You convey your experience and world view both compassionately and beautifully. I know of what you write more than you could possibly realize. I had a very similar experience as a shy, quirky 3rd-grader with bully (who later became my best friend), and it's not too much of a stretch to say that my life since that moment has become a search for the balance of when to turn the other cheek and when to take a stand and "fight". Thank you for reminding me - all of us - how vital that search is.

Unknown said...

Beautiful. You were a strong child and are a strong and amazing woman.

Magpie said...

You are friggin' cool. So cool. Thanks for sharing this.

Lisa said...

I love this post! (This is one that will stay in my heart always.) And this post and your character are some of the many reasons why I admire you so.