Reading Between The Lines
I tell stories all the time. I’m no good at plot, though, so the stories I tell are almost always from my own life. And because my memories are so vivid, I enjoy coloring in the details and senses so the listeners can feel like they were there too. I’m also a total ham, and I love making people laugh, so you’ll get no quiet recitation of facts–if I’m telling a story, there are wild gestures, silly voices, dramatic pauses, and rhetorical flourishes.
I don’t have much of a filter, so there aren’t many stories from my life that I haven’t told to somebody at some time. And much of the activist work I’ve been involved in over the last year, especially on marriage equality and improving access to healthcare, has revolved around the power of personal stories to move people to connect with their own stories and act on common values.
Some stories, I’ve told literally hundreds of times, like how I met and married my husband. Others, I’ve had to grow into telling over the years, and I only pull them out when there’s an important point to be made.
All these stories, they’re pieces in the mosaic of me, and I’m content with that pattern.
But I don’t expect them to change on me, especially those whose roots lay decades in my past. Yet that’s what happened last night, and I’m still reeling from how a shift in perspective can alter a story I thought I knew by heart.
I attended a community meeting about the state anti-bullying legislation I’m working to get passed into law this legislative session. It was a bit of a drive for a Tuesday night, but I’m keenly interested to see the diverse and passionate coalition we can build around the need for stronger protections for all our kids. The meeting took place in the heart of the Anoka-Hennepin School District, where the lack of clear anti-discrimination policy can be measured in young lives lost.
After a breakdown of the legislation and the likely timeline through the Capitol, we did a mini-workshop on telling compelling, personal stories about why a better anti-bullying law matters to us. Before sharing a quick story with another attendee, each of us took a minute to scratch notes on a worksheet of prompts about our own experience with bullying, the values and emotions those experiences evoke, and why now is the time to fix this.
I’ve talked about my older son’s horrific experience of bullying in kindergarten before, and when I’m asked why I’m so engaged on this issue, that’s the story I tell. Sometimes, I talk about the friends who were beaten up and harassed in high school for their appearance and what it supposedly said about their sexuality. Obviously, though, the anguish and devastation of a mother who can’t protect her son when the school wouldn’t act is far more effective than secondhand memories from 20 years ago.
But because we’ve been dissecting the language of what constitutes bullying and harassment on such a minute level, the question “Were you ever bullied?” tripped a different wire last night than it ever has before.
I don’t go around broadcasting the fact that I’m a sexual assault survivor, but I’m not shy about sharing that when it can bridge a space that isolates someone who feels alone in his or her similar experience. What I share less frequently is that my assaults were the culmination of a ten-month abusive relationship–textbook, really, with repeated passes through honeymoon, deterioration, confrontation, and alienation, before the pattern repeated once again.
Because this was a high school relationship, and my abuser was in many of the same classes and activities I was, a major portion of the drama unfolded on school property. To my older and better trained eye, I can now see the stalking and harassing behaviors that I just accepted as either romance or punishment. Following between classes. Cornering for long talks at my locker, in a practice room, under a staircase. Blocking me from leaving those spaces until he’d had his say. Physically threatening behavior. Physical abuse. Telling lies to turn friends and teachers against me.
I was harassed for almost an entire academic year, and not a single school official once stepped in.
I don’t blame anyone for this, in large part because I know that the people who were concerned were actively misled by my abuser, and I’d been convinced I deserved what was happening. But I am suddenly, acutely, aware that if a clear policy had been in place that defined bullying and harassment, supported by training for teachers and staff on how to recognize and intervene, that relationship would never have gone on for ten months. I wouldn’t have been isolated and stalked. And ultimately, I wouldn’t have been raped, because the whole pattern would’ve been stopped before it escalated to that ultimate violation.
When I first told my parents I was raped, almost three years after it happened, my dad set up a meeting for me with one of his grad students who was also a survivor. She showed me a piece of blank paper, and said, “You see this paper? Like this, it takes up almost all of your field of vision. This is your rape, right now.” She folded it in half, and then half again, saying, “Time does this to your experience. It makes it smaller, bit by bit. Therapy helps, but time does most of the work. And eventually,” the paper was just a small, thick square now, “it’ll be so small, you can tuck it the furthest corner of your pocket and almost forget about it. It’ll always be there, but you won’t have to take it out until you want to.”
I’ve taken out that experience, unfolded it from the tiny corner where it resides, for many reasons–sometimes, just to reassure myself that I can fold it back up and shove it out of sight whenever I want. But my realization that I do have a personal experience of bullying and harassment feels like that paper suddenly has a message written on it, one that I’ve never seen before because I haven’t really spread and smoothed the whole experience out for examination in such a very long time. And though it doesn’t make sense, it feels like the paper won’t fold back up again quite the same way, or quite as small again for a long time, now that I’ve seen that writing.
A) My previous comment should really go here.
B) I wonder if this is why I have a mental loop open. If I am looking for a message (or if the message is there, but isn’t revealed to me yet). That scares me. I need this paper to go back in the corner. I need to be fixed.
But maybe I’m putting too much on being fixed. Maybe I need to be okay with still being a little broken. Maybe I need to be okay saying, “My community failed me.” I don’t have to be angry with them, or hate them. I forgive them. I have forgiven them. But I may need to say “I was failed.”
I think we both were failed. By people who we expected not to fail us. And looking back on it as adults I think we can see how we were failed, and understand that the failure wasn’t intentional, but it’s still powerful to be able to say “This was a failure, and it can’t happen again. Not on my watch. I will help construct something better.”
And maybe in time that something better will be replaced by something better than it, but right now the building is healing.
Here’s the thing: If you need the paper to be put away right now, you can do that. There’s nothing to be gained by going over and over that page, looking for something you can’t find. Unfortunately *and* fortunately, the paper will be there when you’re ready to deal with it again. As for the systemic failures, they can be really oppressive, and it takes practice to shovel all that fuel into the engine that moves my activism. Don’t judge yourself too harshly if you just don’t have the energy to shovel yet, and know that I’ll pick up your slack until you’re ready.
No matter how small a school is and no matter how close a school community is, harrassment is sometimes so well hidden that those who would step in to do something cannot because they don’t know. The conspiracy of silence is pervasive and was and still is my biggest nightmare. I still have nightmares and ask myself why didn’t I see? why didn’t I know? why didn’t I do something? why was I so stupid? This isn’t an excuse. This is a demand that all teachers know and are reminded what really can happen in their halls,, classrooms and playgrounds.
One of the points that came out of the Governor’s task force was how damaged teachers and staff are by the climate of bullying and harassment too. So many people came forward to plead for clear definitions and rules, as well as training on recognition and intervention, so they can be empowered to stop what they know is happening to the kids they want to protect. I could hear your voice in every single one of their statements.
I am working as hard as I can, with really excellent, committed people, to make model anti-bullying legislation a reality in Minnesota. I want to see it work, so the climate improves for every student and teacher, and nobody can say anymore that these laws don’t make a difference.