Square. Baby. Slut. Nerd. Loser. Geek. Bitch. Dork. Whore.
These are the words that I carry into the rest of my life.
There are more specific words, too.
‘Participation’ makes me cringe because a classmate sneered that word, over and over, to put me down for a low score on a state-wide science test.
‘You are my sun, my moon, my stars’ reminds me of the fake love-letter my friends put in my locker and their amusement at my humiliation.
I still hear the girls taking my pathetic, childish words—‘You’ll be sorry!’—and screeching them back at me between fits of giggles.
I still hear the teasing, fake tears my classmates used to torment me. I still hear the creak of metal underneath my shoulders as I land against the lockers, and I still hear the girls giggling as I pass them in the hallway.
I’ll never forget cringing back against the wall, alone and helpless, as a boy advanced on me. ‘I’ll punch your face in!’ he said as he waved his fist in my face. I don’t remember why he wanted to hurt me. I don’t remember the names and faces of my tormentors. The only things I remember are the words.
Even now, they still have the power to make me cry.
I endured most of the things that happened when people think of bullying: the verbal assault of name-calling, slurs and threats; the physical assault of pushing, hitting, shoving and groping; and the psychological assault in the correction of pronunciation, friendlessness, isolation and mocking. I’ve been spat on and locked in the toilets. I’ve had textbooks stolen. Uniform-free days, with their inevitable onslaught of teasing, were a visible reminder of all the ways in which I am different—and in which high school is a dangerous place for difference.
‘Boys only tease you because they like you,’ my mother said.
‘Just grow up and stop crying about it,’ my father said.
I spent parent-teacher interviews listening to teachers insist that I needed to stop getting upset.
‘You worry too much,’ they said. ‘You’re too shy,’ they said. ‘You need more friends,’ they said. ‘You’re just giving them reason to tease you,’ they said.
Looking back, the words that matter are the words they didn’t say: words of help, support, counselling, reassurance, safety. The kindest teachers said and did nothing at all. They just watched with silent eyes while I wiped mine dry.
The words that now hurt the most are the lies I told. ‘I had a great day at school,’ I said when I came home with slag all over my backpack. ‘School was fine,’ I said the day I was pushed into the lockers. ‘It was good,’ I said with a smile after I spent the lunch-time wandering the schoolyard alone, afraid to talk to anyone. I didn’t know then why I lied, just that they were the words that rolled off my tongue. My daily hell was my private secret nobody else wanted to see.
No one said the words aloud, but no one had to: I was the problem.
I became an adult who struggled with words. I avoided speaking to people. I so feared the words they might say to me that I was afraid to dress, speak or think in any way that might inspire a hurtful word or phrase. I didn’t have the words for my sexuality or my gender identity. I didn’t have the words to describe my dreams, my interests, my joys, my fears.
I didn’t have the words to describe who I was.
Photo credit: Public Domain Pictures
I ghosted through a BA and a job: silent, voiceless, dishonest. My teachers and my bosses didn’t know me. ‘Work was fine,’ I said to my father, even though I spent eight hours trying not to cry in the aisles as a co-worker harassed me. ‘These clothes are great,’ I said to my mother, even though the thought of wearing a dress brought me to tears. I waited, wondered and hoped for that change in me, that moment in which I would become grown-up—that moment in which I could say the right words and silence the bullies.
‘Those words don’t exist,’ my psychologist said, fourteen years too late.
She gave me words, strange new words: abuse, invalidation, love, support, empathy, pain, survival, bravery. She supported me in my stuttering fumblings as I began to give voice to my gender, my history, my creativity. She encouraged me to go back to school and to trust that the teachers would listen to me the second time around.
‘I want to be a writer,’ I said to the teachers during interviews, anxious and awkward.
In acceptance letters and conversations, they all said the single word that mattered: ‘Yes.’
I’ve heard many different words in the intervening years—I’ve had teachers ask about my gender identity, offer writing advice, answer questions, encourage me in my hopes and dreams.
It’s a strange, precious freedom to know that I can be who I am. For the first time in my life, it is safe to be different, and my new teachers are only remarkable in that they’re everything a teacher should be, complete with words I don’t remember and smiles I’ll never forget. I have teachers who offer me opportunities, who challenge me, who believe that I am entitled to sit in a classroom without having to fear what others say. I now find satisfaction in helping others to reveal their words, just like my teachers have helped, and are helping, me. I now have enough confidence in my own words to share them with the world—and gratitude for the teachers who have nurtured that ability in me.
I don’t know what I might have become if my teachers in high school said the right words.
I just know that words shape the path of a life.
(Previously published in Platform 16, 2014.)
Kim Cook is an autistic, quirky, queer creative who writes novels and short fiction, blogs about equality and disability, designs flyers, and administrates the Twilight School website.