“Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words can never hurt you.”
Children are taught this expression the very first time they are bullied. They are supposed to rely on “sticks and stones” when they are picked on, but…. Words do hurt. In some cases, the stick is less painful than the words.
I vividly remember the first of what was to be many taunts and insults directed at me by my peers. I was nearly seven years old, and it was hot out, and I was playing Tag with a group of boys I called friends. What I didn’t know was that only one of them was my friend, and that would soon change.
I was never any good at Tag. I wasn’t fast, and I wasn’t clever, and I utilised the theory that the quickest way from Point A to Point B was a straight line. Is it any surprise that I was always It?
And I hated being It. I could never catch anyone. Douglas, Nathaniel, Brad, Chris, Shane, Peter – they were all too fast for me. They always reached our flag pole base long before I caught up to them. Finally one day, after being tagged for the eleventh time and not catching anyone for the sixth, Nathaniel – a short, blonde, glasses-wearing know-it-all who had never liked me – stormed up to me. In my naivety, I tagged him, ecstatic at having caught someone and thinking that maybe he was starting to warm up to me.
Nathaniel shoved me, and I fell.
“Go away!” he shouted. “Just stop playing with us already! You suck, and we never wanted you in the first place!”
I picked myself up, ready to hit him. I had been tough in those days, having grown up being tormented and picked on and taunted by cousins, in particular my cousin Shawn, who was four years older and more than a hundred and fifty pounds heavier and who liked to sit on me to see how long it would take me to suffocate. I could take Nathaniel. He had never been in a fight in his life.
Someone shoved Chris, the unofficial leader, at me. His face, his wonderful face, normally so warm and inviting, was cold and hard. His brown eyes betrayed the apology I knew he would never give me.
“Go,” he said quietly. I stared. Chris, my Chris, my best friend and only friend at Pfaff Elementary, wasn’t standing up for me as he always had. Chris, who had always offered himself to be tagged after I failed at catching anyone, who always spoke kindly and gently to me. He was siding with Nathaniel. Nathaniel had fallen from grace when I had come along. Now, looking back on that day on the playground, I can understand why he hated me.
“Go!” Chris yelled. “You’re just a girl! You don’t belong here! Get out! We don’t want you!”
My eyes filled with tears, tears that blurred Nathaniel’s and Shane’s smug faces, Peter’s and Douglas’s surprised ones, Brad’s unreadable one. I turned away from Chris, my tears blurring the face I loved so much, and ran across the playground, seeking refuge in the small space between the yellow plastic of the slide and the woodchips on the ground.
At that moment, I would have rather Chris have hit me with a brick, because him saying he didn’t want me, that I didn’t belong with him and his friends, hurt more than the brick ever could.
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