the twenty-third

What was your childhood like? — Jamar

that which does not kill us makes us stronger.

she would be better off
in an institution for people like her.




you should kill yourself because the world would be better off without you in it.

nobody’d ever wanna marry you because you’re too ugly
and nobody wants to wake up next to something that ugly every morning.

god, you’re bitter.

hey! are you a hermaphrodite?

you’re the strongest woman i know.

When I was born, there were a number of things wrong with me — my eyes were crossed, my hips dislocated, my skin yellow. The doctors poked and prodded at me so much they could no longer find a vein to poke or prod. After they’d examined me, they told my parents I had Cerebral Palsy and recommended I be placed in an institution for people like me. My parents thanked them and took me home.

To lessen the yellowness of my skin, caused by too many red blood cells in my system, they placed my bassinet by the window during the daytime so that the sun could color it a little better.

They found an eye doctor who could correct my vision. I remember he had curly brown hair, a kind smile, a kind voice, wore glasses and a white lab coat over muted-colored clothing. First, he tried to straighten the muscles of my eyes by having me wear patches over my eyes, alternately. One day, I would wear one over the left, the next over the right. When that didn’t work, I had surgery. Twice. I remember visits to his office afterwards where he tested the results by holding up certain objects, things I considered to be toys, like a spinning wheel that made revving noises and a Donald Duck that flipped over a bar. The thing that looked like a pen but was really a light that he would shine into my eyes to see back behind them.

My mother says I cried all the time, because every time I moved, the balls of my hip joints would slip out of their sockets. She found a doctor who put on these ugly metal braces. The moment he put them on, I smiled. This was the first time I’d done so. She was so amazed, so happy, that she hurried across town to my father’s office, ran inside and held me up in front of him to exclaim, Look! Look at her! She’s smiling!

She jokes the first words I learned weren’t Mama or Dada, but What would happen if…? That I assaulted her with questions that began with these words frequently, not so much because I was curious, but because I was afraid. Of everything.

I didn’t know about this stuff until later, though.

We moved around a lot. I have vague memories of a house in Houston. Or Clear Lake. I’m not sure which. When I was three, we moved to a small town near Tyler, called Hawkins.

Mom says that when Jon started school and left on the bus each morning, I would cry because I wanted to go, too, and couldn’t, of course, so the bus driver, Mrs. Mooney, would come back around to our house after she’d taken the kids to school and let me ride around for a bit. I had trouble learning how to tie my shoes the right way — the loop, swoop and pull method, the way that most everyone else uses — so she taught me how to tie them using the bunny ears method.

I remember catching the bus with Jon one morning, opening the kitchen door to find the ground covered in snow and being terrified that I wouldn’t be able to walk down the hill without falling and getting snow all over me, so I clung to mother and watched, peering out from behind her legs, as Jon easily made his way down the hill to the bus. And he waited there, just at the door, to catch me as I slid down the hill on my jacket. I remember my turns on the bus when Mrs. Mooney would let me pull the handles that opened the doors, standing next to her, talking with her in my curious, excited way about nothing in particular.

My Kindergarten teacher was Mrs. Terry. I remember her being tall, dressing in dark colors, with a perfectly rounded afro. I always thought her hair was cool. She was always kind to me, but stern, too, because I would’ve rather played than learned, and I had a really short attention span.

My First grade teacher was Ms. Crumpler, one of my friend’s mothers. She’d actually been my Pre-Kindergarten teacher, too. She was also tall with dark auburn, perfectly styled hair. A rather simply-dressed woman who had a kind voice and an easy smile.

I didn’t really like my Second grade teacher, Mrs. Bailey. She was a short, old woman with a harsh voice.

My favorite teacher was Mrs. Vonner, a heavy, short woman with an even bigger fro than Mrs. Terry had and a soft, sort of melodic, high-pitched voice that, when she wasn’t yelling at us, and believe me she could yell, was really quite nice. She also had a thick wooden paddle and wasn’t afraid to use it. She used it on me often, because I was always causing trouble. I’d cry like a little baby before and during my whooping, but then, she’d give me a big hug afterwards and let me sign the paddle, which made it all okay. I wonder, still, if she has that, if my signature’s stuck.

My favorite times of the school day were nap time but only because I liked the mats we laid on — those ones that were red on one side and blue on the other, with white trim and folded up, that made neat noises when you moved on them. Nap time and recess because I could play and not get into trouble for it.

My least favorite time of day was P.E., but only when we played ball sports because I couldn’t catch or throw and the kids laughed at me for it. My favorite game to play was Red Rover, Red Rover. I loved that game. I’d run as fast as I could and try my hardest to break the line. And I’d have this huge grin on my face whenever I did.

I had a handful of friends there — Kelly, a small girl with short, blonde curls and brown eyes, with whom I often played Barbie dolls; Julie who had short, straight, thin, mousy brown hair and a thin frame; Deborah, a beautiful girl with dark brown curls and dark brown eyes; Jennifer with dark reddish-brown hair and brown eyes.

I was fairly good friends with all of them until I was eight. By then, they’d started growing, their bodies getting taller, becoming more girlish. But mine was still small and straight.

I’d begun to think this boy, Joel Simmons, was sort of cute. He had thick, straight brown hair, brown eyes, a big smile and gap between his two front, top teeth.

He picked on me for liking him. By the time I was eight, most of the boys picked on me because I was so small compared to the rest of my classmates and not as pretty as the rest of the girls in my class.

On the day after I learned that we were moving, I went to school really sad. By lunch time, I was so upset that I couldn’t keep from crying. I went back to Mrs. Vonner’s classroom, sat down at my desk, folded my arms across it, rested my head on them and cried. Deborah and Jennifer came over to ask what was wrong, and after telling them, they went and got Mrs. Vonner who took me out into the hallway and held me tight and said it would all be okay, that I would make new friends.

We moved to Natchitoches, Louisiana when the first semester was over, not long after Christmas.

I hated it there.

My parents, because they weren’t too happy with the public schools there, put my older brother and me in a private, Catholic school. I wasn’t really happy about that. I didn’t like my teacher who had an incredibly plain appearance, an unsmiling face and an abrupt, rather cold manner. I remember being segregated. Mom says when she’d picked me up one afternoon and asked how my day was, I’d said it was fine, but that I didn’t like being in that box. I never did my homework, but would ace every test. The teacher wanted to put me in Special Education classes. After a few conversations between my father and my teacher, my parents decided that the public schools weren’t so bad because Jon wasn’t happy there either and enrolled us in regular school. We did a little better there. But I, being the new kid, a rather ugly runt who was quite upset with my parents for uprooting us, began to develop a rather surly disposition, which only worsened over time.

No one wanted to play with me. So I would invent games to play with myself. My favorite toys were my Barbie dolls and all the things I’d gotten to go with them, Fisher Price’s Little People, Richard Scary’s Townhouse, board games, coloring books and fresh boxes of Crayolas, Hot Wheels and Mattel cars — me and Joe would trade off, sometimes. He’d play Barbie with me, if I played cars with him.

I felt useless, sort of. Not good enough, really, for anyone, for the first time in my life. I thought about death. At eight years old. Not suicide. Just sort of wished that I wouldn’t wake up the next morning. But I wasn’t really all that serious about it. Because I had hope, could hope, could believe that it would get better.

We moved six months later to Roswell, New Mexico. Things were worse there because my disposition was becoming surlier as I grew more withdrawn and angry. The only friends I’d made were my next door neighbors.

My father was missing Texas, so a year later, we moved back, to Conroe. But I doubted the permanence. I’d begun to think that this uprooting would be our way of life. By this time, I was much, much smaller than my peers, shorter, skinnier, clumsier. I looked like a boy, a bony, pale, awkward boy.

When we’d first moved to Conroe, I’d befriended the girl living across the street from us, Stephanie, who was the same age as me. She would come over to swim most every day. If she didn’t come to my house, I would go to hers. I rode my bicycle all the time. Loved to feel the wind on my face. And for the two months before school started, I’d thought I’d found a friend. But not too long before school started one of the families that lived in our neighborhood had a Back-to-School party and had invited quite a few kids my age. I went, somewhat unwillingly, because by this time, I’d expected rejection. Maybe because I’d expected it, maybe because I’m an inherently shy girl, I got it. And so when school started, she and I ceased to be friends. In fact, she’d joined the forces of the peers that perpetually taunted me.

I could do nothing right. Could not satisfy my peers, teachers, or parents. My older brother and I had never really been that close, because when we moved to Conroe, I was ten, going to O. A. Reaves Intermediate. He was fourteen or so, going to Conroe High School. And my younger brother, at five or six, was still young enough, still at that age where looks and parentage don’t really matter. They both made friends easily enough. They didn’t need me hanging around.

The first four years we lived here were the ugliest years of my life.

My fifth grade teachers wanted to put me in Special Education classes because I was so difficult a student. I hit and bit and kicked people. I never did my homework. I spent my time in school organizing my school supplies, probably because I needed some sense of order in a world that seemed to be so miserably chaotic, so unhappy, and drawing, because that, too, made me happy.

In the summer months, I swam from the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep, because swimming, too, made me happy. Rode my bicycle a lot. Listened to music. Sang. I did a lot of singing, because that was one thing I knew I could do well.

I had a third surgery over Spring Break in Fifth grade right about my birthday to correct a navel hernia, a hole in the diaphragm, the lining that separates the stomach from the intestines. I remember not really caring that the hole could be lethal. But my parents cared. And so, when my peers were taking family vacations to California or Florida or Colorado, I was going to Doctor’s Hospital and getting cut open.

I started thinking about death more often. I started praying that God would let me sleep forever. And if He wouldn’t let me go to Heaven, I prayed that tomorrow would be better, but my hope was diminishing. I’d started to doubt that I would ever really know what better was.

In the morning, when I woke, I would greet the day with a bit regret, sadness and disappointment that I had woken up to greet it, rolled out of bed and dressed. Ate breakfast, took the lunch my mother packed for me, hugged her and caught the bus to school.

She says that some mornings she would cry after I’d left, because she knew I was going to hell and hurting, and she hurt for me. She marvels that I never once said, Mom, I don’t want to go today. But how could I say that? My parents were teachers. My father was the Superintendent. They expected me to go. And apparently, since I had woken up that morning, God expected me to go, too. So, I went. But I hated going.

Junior High was the worst. In seventh grade, one of my peers told me that I was really nice and I wore all the right clothes, that if I’d just gain a little weight and wear some make-up, I’d be popular.

But, popular isn’t what I wanted. I didn’t care about that so much. I did want to fit in, though. I hated being the proverbial dartboard. I hated that I was so sensitive to the insults. I wanted a handful of girlfriends to have sleepovers and go shopping and see movies with. I got rejection.

Seventh grade English was the worst class of all of them. I’d been placed with the most popular of folks in this class, and took insults from most every one there, especially from two boys, Matthew and Brian. The first asked me at every available opportunity if I’d go out with him. Every available opportunity meaning pretty much every time he took a breath. And every time he’d ask, the question would be followed by a snicker and a look of disgust. The other boy, Brian, had taken a liking to calling me Sweetums. So that was added to the list of nicknames.

I recall, after eating one afternoon, stepping out onto the football field, which wasn’t far from the cafeteria, for a bit of peace. It’d been a beautiful day, really, climate-wise. The sky was this rich blue, unmarred by clouds, and, though the sun was blazing, as Spring had begun to turn to Summer, the air was still cool, with a lingering breeze. I’d gone outside to pray. Because just after lunch was English. And on this particular day, I’d grown weary of the badgering, the constant nagging and snickering,

Once, for a second, I found my gumption, sort of. I’d thought that if I’d said yes — not that I wanted to go out with him; I despised him — Matthew would’ve been so surprised that I’d had the audacity to say it that he’d be speechless. So I’d asked him what he would say if I said yes. He busted out laughing, which I expected. And five minutes later, he asked again.

So on this day, I was exhausted and despaired. I needed a bit of beauty. I also wanted God to send this lightning bolt straight out of the sky and zap me dead, right then and there. So I went out to the field and sat down on the tires to pray, because, even though my belief was weakening, I still had faith in Him then.

I’d been sitting there for maybe five minutes when I found myself surrounded, sort of, by a dozen of the most popular kids in school. They stood in a semi-circle around me, facing me, looking down upon me. I couldn’t stand up, they were so close. Couldn’t stand up and walk away. Wouldn’t turn and try to walk over the tires because I was certain I would fall. So I sat there and listened while they begged me to go out with Matthew, insisting that he really did want to go out with me and that if I did so, I’d be the most popular girl in school and that they’d all look up to me.

If memory serves, I found the nearest bathroom as soon as possible, and spent several minutes in it crying. I’d come out to find a bit of peace. Instead, I found another piece of hell. I’m pretty sure I faked being sick that day, got a nurse’s pass to leave school and walked to my father’s office which was just down the street.

I should’ve stood up. Should’ve found the strength to shove them out of the way. A few years before, I would’ve been angry enough to do so. But I was weary. And that memory, that one there, best typifies my childhood. Taunting from every direction, this great sense of inadequacy, and an inability to take it well enough, to stand up for myself.

I had another surgery that summer, on my eyes, to raise my eyelids so that I could see better, so that I could look better. I got braces, long after everyone else had gotten them, and they stayed on through my first year of high school. The braces earned me yet another nickname. I had hundreds of them. But apparently, a girl can never have too many.

Every night, I would cry myself to sleep and pray for it to be over. Every morning, I would dress for the day and do my best to survive it.

for the twenty-second inquisition essay, go here.

4 responses to “the twenty-third”

  1. Kids can be so cruel. I really wish there was some way everyone could make children understand that what they say to other kids makes a good or bad difference in their life.

  2. What a lot for a kid to deal with. I could feel your pain. And wished to be able to give those kids what they had coming. Thanks for sharing such a personal story.

  3. For what it is worth I'm so sorry for the cruelty you endured throughout your childhood. Unfortunately that kind of meanness is learned, usually through parents.

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