Sometimes you need to stand up for yourself, and sometimes you need to let others do it for you. And it won’t always be clear.
I went to three different elementary schools the year of Grade Two. It’s nerve wracking to be the new kid at school but I was quite accustomed to it – the nature of renting and all. There was one experience that I’ll never forget.
It was during my first days at the second school and I had already made a friend. Her name was Claire. She and I were asked to play a game of kissing tag – I was familiar with the game but hadn’t played it a lot. Being the new kid, I just went along with what the other kids were doing.
So there I was chasing after some boy I didn’t even know, planning to kiss the little bugger when I caught him, when suddenly some older kids stepped in front of me and began taunting me. “What are you playing?! Kissing tag? That’s disgusting! What’s wrong with you? You’re sick!” Before I knew it, I was surrounded by a group of kids that I didn’t recognize from my class. My child’s mind eye remembers at least seven to ten kids, but there could have been only five.
In that moment, I was completely vulnerable. And I was scared. But in the same instant that I had fear, I had peaceful determination too. I told myself, “If I’m going down, I’m going down fighting,” and I imagined myself taking a few of them down with me. The kids stood there waiting for me to react with mean looks on their faces. One boy was punching his hand.
They didn’t attack me right away. So I stuck out my chin, drew up my height (I was short for my age), clenched my hands into fists at my sides and headed for two of the kids intending to try and walk between them. I totally expected the fists to come down as I took one, then two steps towards them. It wasn’t slow motion at all. Miraculously, the kids moved aside for me to pass. I was astonished but kept walking toward the school.
I half-expected to hear rushing steps behind me or feel hands on me before I reached the building, but nothing came. I stood there, my heart beating, thinking about those looks of surprise only moments before when I stood my ground and walked away. I realized then what many clichés have told me since – don’t let them see your fear, and stand up for yourself. Those clichés are true.
But sometimes you should let others stand up for you.
In Grade Ten I had a teacher who didn’t like me. That was a little hard to swallow since I had always been liked by my teachers. But looking back now, I can see why I might not have been so lovable to some. I was a teenager, prone to dramatics, hypersensitive and melancholy – sifting through the few traumatic experiences of my young life and finding room to dwell in them. Knowing what I know now, I wonder if the birth control pill added to my already destructive hormonal fluctuations that marked my teen years.
Suffice to say, my teacher didn’t like me. And her class was my favourite subject – English. I had always been an easy-A student in English. So when Mrs. Stuart tried to fail me in my best subject, I was stricken. I had never failed any subject.
It began to be very clear to me why twice in the legendary history of Mrs. Stuart’s teaching career had students spiked her coffee with acid. Maybe it only happened once, or maybe never, but word was it had happened to her twice. And had I been a more vindictive person, it may have happened again, by my hand. Let me tell you.
But my record spoke for itself. I told my mom about how this teacher was out to get me. And believe me, she was. Many of my assignments were not “finished” because she wouldn’t accept them from me.
She told me that the week I was home sick, she had seen me hanging around on the corner with all the punks in
Mrs. Stuart wouldn’t accept my assignments that I missed during that week. She wouldn’t even tell me the assignments. “I saw you,” she said. She did NOT see me.
Well, I know when I’m overpowered. I tried talking to my school vice-principle, but he was sympathetic to Mrs. Stuart. “They all stick together,” I remember someone saying about the teaching establishment.
So, I turned to my mom. She went down to the school and very calmly spoke with my vice-principal – apparently it was his jurisdiction to handle issues between students and teachers. When it was clear that he was siding with Mrs. Stuart, my mom put it quite plainly that she wanted me transferred to another class immediately.
I’m not sure if it was fate, chance, or some divine will of my mothers, but I got into Mr. Embury’s class. He was a man of integrity. I will forever respect and acknowledge that man. He did not bend to the pressure of his peers and reject me. He gave me assignments and marked me fairly. And I resumed my status quo easy-A English student status.
Both experiences taught me life-changing lessons about standing up for myself. I also learned sometimes you have to fight with your fists. And it's dangerous to mess with my mom.