Slings and Arrows, Taunts and Trolls

This is an expansion of a comment that I made made a while back on a post by Marni Hill on her blog Just for the Halibut.  I didn’t want it to seem like I was spamming her by writing this long, drawn-out story, but I do think there’s some more flavor to the story that makes it a bit more interesting.  Or, I could be wrong and it might only be interesting to me, but there is a therapeutic aspect to writing this blog for me.

I was reminiscing about fourth grade, which I regard as simultaneously the best of times and the worst of times.  On the one hand, I had a nice teacher and friends in close proximity; on the other hand, most of the boys and some of the girls in the class were bullying me, and one of the boys…well, let’s just say he was my own personal Begoony and leave it at that.

In the spring of that year, I broke my left arm.  When I showed up at school in a cast and with my arm in a sling, it created something of a sensation.  But I was surprised how many of the kids in the class who had previously been picking on me were suddenly just as kind and supportive as they could be.  One could be cynical and suggest that they just wanted to sign my cast–they did want to, and they did sign it–but even after that, they continued to be kind and helpful.

It wasn’t universal, however.  There were still a few in the class who were determined to be mean and hurtful and kick me (metaphorically) while I was already down.  There was one who thought it necessary to make fun of the fact that my arm sling was not medical supply specifically created for that purpose but an old filmy scarf that my mother had lent me  And yet, a handful of others–not my friends, you understand, but kids who had been happy to pick on me as recently as the week before–were suddenly rushing to my defense, enumerating all the ways that a homemade, improvised sling was actually superior to the kind that you’d get from a doctor.  It really warmed my heart, and looking back on it now, I don’t even remember who was the mean kid who went after me; I only remember the ones who came to my defense.

Right before the fall in which I had broken my arm, I had built a model of a log cabin out of pretzels for a class project.  On that day when I returned to class after breaking my arm, the projects were all on a table out in the hallway.  We were coming back from lunch when we heard a crash out there.  One of my classmates had knocked one of the projects off the table onto the floor.  Whether this was intentional or not, I truly do not know, but somehow I knew instinctively that it was mine.  Sure enough, when someone brought in the broken pieces, I recognized the sad, smashed, and salty remains of my poor little log cabin immediately.

If I recall correctly, the projects had not been graded yet, so it fell to me to put my poor little log cabin back together as best I could.  Which was something of a herculean task, as I only had one arm that was any use to me.  The teacher asked for volunteers to help me, and there were a handful of boys (all boys, as I recall) who leapt at the opportunity, boys who had been tormenting me just a week beforehand.  (Notably absent from this handful of helpers: the boy who had knocked it over in the first place.  Make of that what you will.)

Maybe they just wanted to get out of class for a while, or maybe they just wanted the fun of rebuilding something.  But in any case, as I recall, they were each just as kind and helpful and solicitous as they could be, and I was both surprised and gratified that underneath the teasing and the bullying and the taunting there was a capacity for genuine compassion and understanding, that they were able to put aside whatever they had against me–if only for one brief, shining moment–and help me instead of trying to hurt me.

The fracture I’d suffered wasn’t a very bad break; I think I was out of the cast in six weeks or less, and more than anything, what I’ve taken away from the experience is the kindness that I was shown by my classmates during that time.

***

Another point that I made in the comment that I want to expand on:

And if I can serve as kind of a buffer between the trolls and Steve–if they’ll redirect some of that negativity towards me instead directly at him–then I’m totally fine with that because I know, in part because of the healing power of Steve’s work with the Muppets, that I’m strong enough now to take it, and it’s a privilege to be able to pay back something of what I owe to him in that regard.

I learned while I was an undergraduate at NSU that if you can put yourself in a nurturing environment, surround yourself by supportive friends, and have meaningful work to do, the healthier your self-concept will be.  And I further found that the healthier your self-concept is, the easier it is to laugh off the unkind words/actions of others.  It’s a bit like acquiring an immunity to a disease; comments  that would have hurt and upset me in fourth grade, or even as recently as high school, became nothing more than jokes to me.

I also learned that an unkind comment that you yourself do not take seriously might not seem like such a joke to people who love you, and they may take a slight toward you more seriously than one toward themselves, which can be both flattering and frightening.

As an undergraduate, I took a class in creative writing, specifically fiction.  There was one student in the class who made things very difficult.  He seemed to think that he was more qualified to teach the class than the professor, that he was imbued with a wisdom conferred by cannabis use.  Which is a fancy way of saying that I think he was high pretty much all the time.

He would write these long, rambling, incoherent stories, which we would then have to try to read in case we were called to comment on them in class.  He would make long, rambling, incoherent comments on other people’s stories that we would just have to listen to.  On one memorable occasion, he commented on a story about a girl who reluctantly went with friends to a porn store to get supplies for a bachelorette party, ripping the story apart for being too unrealistic.  When the author of the story finally got a chance to respond, she revealed that it was a factual story that had actually happened to her over spring break.

I was going to post a sample of his work (after removing his name) so you could see that I’m not exaggerating about how incomprehensible his writing style was, but our campus newspaper, the Exponent, doesn’t seem to be keeping online archives of that time period anymore.  Alas!

Anyway, I had a friend in that class named April, and one day she told me that she had heard this student–let’s call him “M.” Actually, let’s not.  There are too many “M”s in my life already, and most of them are people I love.  Let’s call him “C.” Anyway, C. was talking about me to April and someone else in the class, saying that that he, C., didn’t think that I was smart because I didn’t understand his stories and wasn’t shy about saying so.

Now, there was a time in my life when a comment like that would have hurt and offended me, but I was in such a good place in my life at that time that I found the whole thing to be hilarious: oh yes, clearly C. is an auteur of the caliber of James Joyce or T.S. Eliot, and because I can’t comprehend his “high art,” I must be a lowly plebe incapable of tying my own shoes!  Obviously!

(To be fair, he had some rationale for thinking he was so brilliant: he once wrote a rambling, incoherent letter to the editor of the Exponent, who was apparently so impressed with it that C. landed a spot on the editorial staff as a result.  I never got to write for the Exponent, so go figure.)

Later, I was out shopping with friends–we’ll call them G. and T.  The three of us–G., T., and I–were all officers of our campus theater club, and we had an event coming up for which we had to buy supplies (and no, it wasn’t a bachelorette party).  I don’t remember how it came up in conversation, but something reminded me of this slight that C. had made about my intelligence.  G. was also on the Exponent editorial staff, so he knew C. (and didn’t like him), and I think T. at least knew who he was, so I thought that they would get the joke if I told them what C. had said about me, that they would appreciate the irony of C. of all people daring to say that I was not smart.

Well, I found out almost immediately that I had severely miscalculated.  T.’s response was simple, he spoke kindly to me and reassured me that C. was wrong and shouldn’t say such things about me…which I appreciated, but he wasn’t telling me anything that I didn’t already know, and that was what had made it so funny to me.  G.’s response was scary; he was ready to go find C. and beat him up (so he said, anyway).  G. had already been engaged in a “war of words,” of sorts with C. on the editorial pages of the Exponent, so maybe the slight against me was the last straw, or maybe he would have had the same reaction if anyone had so impugned my intellect.

On the one hand, it was very flattering that G. was willing to go beat somebody up to defend my honor; I deeply appreciated the love that had motivated him to express even such a violent wish on my behalf.  On the other hand, I was frightened that his response to what I considered to be a joke was so vehement.  As I said before, he’d been having this prolonged argument with C. in the pages of the Exponent, but words were all it was; it had never come to blows.  It was both touching and terrifying that G. was willing to fight on my behalf in a way he wouldn’t have fought on his own.  I was so scared that he might carry out his threat and get hurt in the process.  If he’d been hurt on my account, over something that I considered so trivial, I never would have forgiven myself.  

As far as I know, G. never carried out his threat.  Whether my pleading with him not to pay it any mind had anything to do with that, I don’t know, but I’m glad that he gave it up in any case.  

And yet…this is something that I’ve never admitted before, and I’m a little ashamed to admit it now.  There was a time later, after we both had graduated and G. had moved out of state…professionally speaking, I was no longer in a safe and nurturing place, and there was somebody who had hurt me with his words.  Not only hurt me, but torn me down, ripped me apart, and broken me so that I was no longer recognizable to myself.  And I remembered G.’s vehemence over that silly little jab that C. had made about me a few years prior, the one that I had just laughed off, and I was tempted to call G. up and say, “Remember when you once said that you wanted to beat up anyone who insulted and hurt me?  Well, is that offer still good?”  I didn’t do that.  I really couldn’t have even if I’d wanted to; I didn’t have enough information.  I don’t think that I really could have in any case, because in that situation G. could have been very seriously hurt (or worse), and if that had happened, I’d never have been able to forgive myself.  Still, it was sort of a bizarre fantasy I had; having been forced into the role of damsel in distress, I was tempted to go all Bonnie Tyler on him.

All of this is just a very roundabout way of saying that, after I got out of that bad, abusive situation, it took me a long time to work through the trauma of that experience, but one of the things that helped me to heal was Steve’s work with the Muppets, particularly performing Kermit and Ernie, which brought me back to a place of safety and comfort within my own psyche.  And because of that (in part), I’m in a better place where I can (largely) laugh off the slights and taunts and jabs that other people might sling at me.

Conversely, Steve is now on the receiving end of that abuse.  I mean, it’s not exactly a parallel to what I went through, but still, it has potential to do some serious damage.  I ache and bleed for him with every hateful word that some small-minded troll says to or about him.  And I do want to be a buffer between him and the negativity, but I don’t think that responding to the trolls and trying to draw their fire is necessarily the best way to do that.  What I think my role should be is showing support, offering encouragement, and just letting him know that I’m here for him to help him carry this cross that he has to bear in whatever way I can.  

I owe him that much for all that he’s done for me over the years–without his even knowing it.

 

 

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