7th Grade of Hell

Despite some of the revelations in my “Origin Sequence” post or even some of the borderline embarrassing segments in my first two adventures involving the opposite sex, this may be the most difficult segment to get into. From all I have learned about psychology and the helping arts as well as in examining my own life, this grade/year was my most pivotal. It would prove to set the tone for the rest of my life, even until now. The person who I was entering that grade wasn’t the person I’d become once it was over, and especially by the time junior high ended and I moved onto high school. It was this grade that, at least in my mind at this time, transformed me into the Dateless-Man (among other things).

To recap, 6th grade offered a drastic change as I went from a fairly intimate and sheltered private school experience to a very alien seeming public school experience a mile away with a completely new cast of classmates. After some initial awkwardness, however, 6th grade wasn’t so bad in the long run. I made a close friend in Russo, a foreign student, and settled into the gist of things at the school. As time went on some of the old distinctions I had at my first school began to emerge; my sense of humor (albeit in “yo mamma” joke competitions) and my creative writing.

All of that changed in 7th grade. The school had two classes for every grade level and one would be assigned to different ones based on…who knows what. So the classes would get jumbled up as one went along which usually meant friends getting separated and class rosters getting mixed around. I wound up in a class in which everyone knew each other but I hardly knew anyone there. I would still see Russo at lunch and after school, and I actually made a few friends from his class through him as time would go on. Throughout the bulk of the school day, and especially during gym classes, I was at the mercy of a bunch of 7th graders who decided that I would be their target for mockery and harassment. The boy at the center of it was named Jon (name changed, slightly), who was no taller than me but far bulkier, and his immediate circle of 4-5 friends, and their outer rim of chums which encompassed virtually the entire class (even some of the girls). I don’t remember any one incident which caused them to target me, nor do I believe there ever was any. Years later, one of my close friends (who is now a cop) would tell stories of how he and boys in that neighborhood used to do things for fun in school, and one of them was tormenting the one poor schmuck in the class who was new, or outcast, for some reason. It described Jon and his crew to a T, as neither one of us knew each other, but they were many and I was one.

In comparison to other examples of bullying, I suppose what I experienced wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t as if they’d beat me to a pulp every day for my lunch money or anything like that. The lion’s share of it was a steady stream of insults, put downs, taunts, and verbal abuse (or threats) from Jon and parroted by the others in his circle towards me. That wasn’t to say it never got physical; it wasn’t uncommon for Jon or one of his friends to “accidentally” bump into me in hallways to and from class, often so hard that I was toppled. I had things thrown at me, an occasional pencil jabbed into my arm or hand, my notes (or notebook) thrown or knocked down, or my pen or pencil stolen from me for an entire class. When I became angered, Jon was often unfazed, content in the knowledge that he and his friends far outnumbered me, and even if I had the stones to challenge him, I would not face fair odds. In addition, Jon and his friends were far more involved in extracurricular activities within the school, and thus were far more well liked within the teaching staff than I was. Attempts to inform a teacher as to what was going on often resulted in no action being done, other than the taunts and ribbing becoming more intense immediately after – because now I was a “wuss”.

Gym class was often the worst. Being the class target in a boy’s locker room was often not fun; at times my pants would be stolen and insults regarding my body (my weight in particular) were merciless to the point that I often wanted to change in a bathroom to try to avoid it. It hadn’t helped that the Catholic private school offered little functional instruction in sports, so I was a kid who couldn’t even dribble a basketball, much less had any athletic ability. Regardless, teachers would naturally force kids to play in teams for drills or whatnot. I was always the last picked, looked at with scorn by many of my own teammates in any particular game, and often the target of cheap shots during the games themselves. After all, there was a perfect excuse to knock someone over, repeatedly, during a basketball or touch football game, right? If I complained, well, I was just a wuss or a crybaby who couldn’t take it, right? So I often didn’t, so it continued.

It didn’t help that a girl from the other 7th grade class and her friend felt content to play the “She Likes You” Game with me during these combined class gym periods. I wasn’t yet as experienced at it so there were moments when  I genuinely thought their taunts about liking me were genuine, even if most of the time I wasn’t fooled. Unfortunately, these were mostly intended to make her hulk of a boyfriend jealous – a tall athletic kid who was almost 6′ tall in 7th grade. There were times when he came the closest to ignoring the plausible deniability of “checking” someone in a game of basketball or volleyball and just decking me outright. I distinctly recall a moment after his girlfriend made one of her taunting “flirts” towards me during a game of “touch football”, he threw the football full force into my skull, missing my temple by about an inch. I lost count of how many gym classes ended with me having a cut lip, or a nose bleed, due to “rough” play.

By this point, my primary defense mechanism had more than manifested itself. Rather than vent outward at trauma, I tend to go inward, burying the feelings in an attempt to deny having them. After all, men are supposed to be tough and feel nothing, shrugging off any pain. The problem is the feelings never go away, they merely become buried. I also was more sensitive than boys at the time were supposed to be; I won’t deny that I sometimes cried after I got home and felt I was alone, which I felt more shame for doing. After all, “real” men don’t cry. I recall one bit in particular during a science class when I was seated, due to rotating arrangements I couldn’t control, at a table with Jon and two of his friends. It was the usual round robin of mockery, insults, threats, and other put downs. I was fighting urges of anger and sorrow and probably burying the urge to cry and Jon chuckles with his mates and says of the matter, “These are the good times.”

My friend Russo (as well as some friends I met through him) were usually the only joy I had anywhere related to school at this time (besides working on the school paper, that is). We would walk to and from school together, and hang out on weekends. We were in different classes but still able to commune at lunch, at least until 8th grade. He was training in karate and I suppose in theory I could have tried to get him involved in my mess, try to gather my friends against Jon and his in some sort of group showdown. However, I didn’t want to involve my best friend in my own struggles and risk him getting hurt in the process – I also was embarrassed about the entire affair, so I often played it down when I was hanging out with him.

I tried my best to hide it from mom, but she eventually figured out what was going on and did try to get the school to intervene. Nothing ever changed, despite one incident where another kid socked me for my lunch one day and gave me a black eye. Near the end of 7th grade I was running with Russo out of class and across a street when one of Jon’s circle of friends tripped me as I was going full speed. I hit the pavement and broke my front tooth in half – a cosmetic injury which remains due to my inability to pay for nonessential surgery. My mother tried to press charges, but I hadn’t seen who’d tripped me and, this being a New York neighborhood, “nobody saw nothing”. As time went on, the perpetrator became an open secret, one the others knew but never told me. I now had to see a mark of my affair on my face, every day.

How did this all end? Did I man up and challenge Jon to a fight? Did the school intervene? No. In the end I chose the coward’s way out, and sunk down to their level. Near the end of 7th grade, Jon and his comrades had decided to give me a break to start mocking one of the outcast girls in the class, and I joined in. My taunts made them laugh, and for the first time I gained their tolerance – at the expense of someone else. Even at the time I felt bad about my actions, but I did it anyway; I turned around and did to someone else what I hated done to me, for no other reason than trying to save myself. By 8th grade, it was actually my knowledge of comic book lore which caused me to become a more vital part of the group, and by and large I was accepted – to the point that I was no longer mocked. By then I’d developed a strange sense of humor, inspired a bit too much by the then current Jim Carrey film, “The Mask”. The tale of a hapless loser who gains a magical mask to get revenge on his tormenters and land the girl was pretty much a fantasy for me. I was dubbed “Spaceman Spiff” by one of my English teachers, after the alter ego of Calvin in “CALVIN & HOBBS”, which at the time was still syndicated in newspapers. Still, I was on the lower rung of the school totem pole. No girl would be seen next to me, and I knew it was best to skip the junior prom – after all, who’d go with me? By this stage, Russo had utilized what I’d shown him about how to act in America to earn himself quite a few girlfriends – either I was an excellent teacher at skills I myself hadn’t mastered, or he was an exceptional student.

By the time it was over, the negative self image imposed upon me by my tormenters had become the default narrative within my own mind. I’d never been bullied before and I didn’t knew classmates could be so cruel for so long in such numbers. Add in the fact that I was mugged that summer as well by other youths in a parking lot, and it was the year I lost my innocence. I define that as a time in someone’s life when they learn first hand that other people are not nice and sometimes will deliberately try to harm you. There’s never any “right” age for this to happen, but usually it is worse if it’s at too young or too old an age. I was always a shy and introverted kid, but the bullying I endured caused this to eclipse to the point where I became a loner, almost a hermit, ill at ease in almost any social setting.

More to the point, it was first hand experience of how I failed to live up to my own idealized image of what a man was, at least as formed by media I absorbed. I was weak; the taunting had caused me to feel sorrow and cry. I was not brave or tough, as I avoided fights at all costs and never fought back when hit, fearing further beatings. I was not charming, as girls around me looked at me with scorn, as something they might find under a shoe. I was not athletic, and above all I wasn’t even just. I wasn’t even man enough to silently take the abuse, I had to sink as low as to use their tactics against an innocent person to gain their tolerance. I never became a bully myself, but there were times I bordered very close as I was stuck sitting alongside nerds even lower on the class pecking order than I during 8th grade lunch. Perhaps to this day I have never forgiven myself for compromising the ideals I claimed I had merely to escape torment I couldn’t bare. And if I wasn’t a man, what was I? Faced with this, it was easy to internalize all of the things said about me for all those months and years. I must be a loser, a coward, fat, ugly, a wuss, etc. if I was treated this way and I reacted in the ways someone who was a fat, ugly, wuss would react. I had a lot of anger towards them in private, and to this day I am glad I in no way had access to the sorts of weapons that too many psychopaths seem to have access to.

Even when  I look back, I can see no easy solutions. Maybe it would have been easier had I simply challenged Jon to a fight and taken my lumps with pride. Maybe it would have been better had I not given in and at least kept my self respect for another grade. And as much as I have tried to bury or move on from those years, my own negative self esteem and poor self image stem directly from this period. My experiences here caused my own unique shyness and awkward introverted nature to become my own worst enemies.

There is an addendum to this. Many years later while I was in college, I actually ran into one of this crew at a house party my friends were throwing. He was not Jon, but one of at least two of his close circle of friends named Tony. I immediately recognized him despite it being many years since 7th grade, and in time he recognized me too. I tried to avoid him, still trying to sort out who I was as a person in those young adult years, and pretend like what’d happened to me was no big deal, that I was a tough guy who had healed. At one point during the party, Tony confirmed who I was and asked if I remembered him. The proper thing to have done was to say, “Yes, and this has been a long time coming,” and decked him full force in the face. But as usual, I always chose the non-violent, cowardly option. Instead I acted as if it was just normal ribbing, even as he made a very half assed, not-terribly-serious attempt at apologizing. I lied and said it wasn’t a big deal; perhaps fearing how pathetic I’d seem if I instead claimed what’d happened in 7th grade was still effecting me as a college man. I never ran into him again, and to this day wonder if I should have played things differently. In the years since he’d grown up into a typical “dude-bro” type who liked drinking, acting macho and mistreating women; a dime a dozen in my neighborhood. I’m confident that he’s not someone who’s still a virgin who spills his guts on blogs.

I can’t think of 7th grade without considering it the worst time of my childhood. Some years would be worse due to various family emergencies or traumas, but in terms of my pre-teen life, nothing was worse or as defining for me. While I still feel that my subsequent misadventures with women bare some venting and examination, or at least reflection, it was this period which has shaped who I am. I try to be mindful of the element of bullying and have worked to become someone who doesn’t mistreat others, even if that did take more years than it should have. I often consider myself a broken, failure of an individual, and it was this period which unfortunately helped cement that feeling about myself. It is terrible to give so much power to a group of immature 12-13 year old boys, but unfortunately nothing else in my personal narrative has ever overridden this. From there on out I became far more cynical, pessimistic, frustrated, and bitter.

It is said that you can’t love anyone until you love yourself. And I don’t. It wasn’t their fault that I reacted to 7th grade in the ways that I did, but the results of it have shaped who I am now, for better or worse. It could have been worse, and I suppose at some point we all have to lose our innocence to the cruelty of the world, and those within it. The only thing to be gained in suffering is to realize how painful it can be and to try to limit, if not completely end, how much of it we inflict on others. I’ve spent much of my life since trying to make up for 7th grade, and a part of me doubts I ever will. A part of me will also hate those boys for the rest of my life, even if I try not to think about it anymore. It was through that fire, that the forge of the Dateless-Man was born.

So, the being which stands before you was formed by bullying, not radioactive rocks or mutant genes. I still think I got gypped in the origin sequence, don’t you?

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10 thoughts on “7th Grade of Hell

  1. When I was in 7th grade, I asked a girl that I was attracted to to dance, and we had a great time, however at other dances she would just ignore me if I tried to talk to her or ask her politely for a dance and faced a lot of bullying from my peers due to my lack of social grace, bad basketball and terrible sports skills, me not being aggressive, assertive or bold, being rather nerdy, having a short and slim physique in which resulted in me being a prime target for bullies due to my more preppy clothing style, speech impediment, Harry Potter like glasses and being significantly physically weaker than my male peers.

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  2. Thanks for writing this. Albeit with all parameters slightly changed (About 10 years earlier, in another part of the world with a different school system, I was 14 so must have been somewhat older than you at the time, less severe bullying than you had to endure) I experienced more or less the same thing, including the part for which I I feel the most shame now: turning against my own “nerdy” classmates when the opportunity arose, thus proving that I was no better than the bullies.

    Schoolchildren are a bunch of cruel primates, let’s be thankful that mess is behind us now.

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