Pull Up Thorns from Childhood
How did your self-view develop? Sometimes I ask my students to discuss this. I ask them to remember when someone or something influenced the way they viewed themselves. Later, reading the assignments, I encounter a plethora of scenarios. For example, many students are keenly aware of a loved one who neglected them or provided levels of disdain. Interestingly, those impacted negatively by peers or loved ones tend to comment that their own behaviors were caused by these experiences.
Once, while evaluating this particular assignment, I realized I had never really stopped to analyze how my own childhood had impacted me. Upon reflection, I realized that bullying was a part of much of my schoolage experience. My first experience with bullying occurred during a bus ride on the first day of school. That day in particular can be quite scary for any six-year-old. After the bullying, I got on the bus and scrambled as fast as I could to my assigned seat. I slid over close to the window. I believe I took my pinky finger and slid it into my nostril. This was crazy, but it was my area of safety. I felt comforted by this. Unfortunately, the pinky slide out of my nose was detrimental. A long trail of snot emerged, and suddenly it seemed as if everyone on the bus had seen this. Immediately, one person yelled, “Ewwwwww the Boogy Girl.” That first day became my naming session, because everyone started calling me the Boogy Girl. To make matters worse, one popular song of the day was “Get Down Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste of Honey. So the kids started taunting me by yelling, “Get down, Boogy Girl.” I hated it. I numbed myself up every morning just to get through the first part of the day.
Later, in sixth grade, the now-despised Jheri curl was the latest hairstyle. But, unless your hair was naturally soft, it took a lot of Oil Sheen to keep this style moist. With this in mind, I wanted my Jheri to be perfect. Sadly, on one particular day I did not have enough sheen and I would soon pay the price on the bus ride to school.
I was attending a special school program that bussed inner city kids to better-resourced schools in the suburbs. Our ride to school took about an hour and a half. There was automatic pressure to look your best and portray the best image possible. Since both middle and high school students rode the bus, the older kids tended to sit in back. This particular day, I got on the bus and became the target of one of the bullies in the back. He began to say, “Look at you, you are so black and ugly. Your hair is so nappy!” My stomach turned at each remark he yelled in front of the others. No one said anything to stop this. I cried so intently that the imprint of my face and curls was etched on the green seat cushion as we drove to school.
Again, I numbed myself after this and just accepted that I was not the prettiest girl in the world. I wrote in my personal journal that “I felt like a black marker on a black board.” I truly felt invisible. Overall, my identity and self-awareness had been influenced by how my peers viewed me.
Similarly, as a young student, I internalized the messages about beauty I received from my peers, media, advertisements, stereotypes, and more. I assumed there was something unacceptable about me. There was no one in my immediate sphere to discount these messages, so I felt that my perceptions were correct. It was only after enrolling at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst that my knowledge about identity would come to my rescue.
While at U. of Mass., I headed to the eleventh floor of the library. I immersed myself in articles from many places around the world. I wanted to understand why I was such a problem. Why did I have to endure the years of namecalling and bullying regarding my outward appearance? It truly baffled me. Why did the words of people matter so much? Could I find information to prove these messages were false? I began to read historical articles about the descendants of African-Americans. I also read about the lineage of kings and queens who looked the same way I did. This was monumental. I realized that some of the messages I had internalized came from ignorant individuals who were not privy to the vast world we live in. I felt a sense of indignation and resolved from that moment to teach other women to love everything about themselves.
My life took a radical turn. In essence, I was able to let go of the bullying that had initially numbed my emotions. This learning experience was a redeeming moment for me, and I was able to change the course of my life decisions.
I recently conducted a workshop at a library used by middle school girls. It was a small open area. I had these girls discuss distractions they encounter when going to school. As I was speaking, I noticed two young people who were doing searches on the library computers. During one portion of the discussion, I explained that peer pressure and bullying are most likely to occur at school and at home. When I said this, the girls at the computers slowly turned toward the workshop I was leading and eventually tuned in to the entire discussion. I wrapped up the workshop, offering tips on how girls could maintain their authentic selves as they grow into young women.
Afterward, the two girls ran up to me, and one of them asked, “Who are you?” She continued, “Everything you are saying is true. I am much older than these girls but I am going through all of this right now.”
She had endured years of bullying. She said, “I have to find a way to keep this from getting to me as much as it does. When someone says something to me or calls me names, I just lose it. When I was on the bus going to school, one of the boys called me fat, and I was so mad that I jumped over two bus seats and hit him in the head with a bottle. It was really bad.” The young lady eventually got suspended from school and lost the opportunity to engage with her peers. She explained that she wasn’t able to control her temper. Meeting this young lady caught me by surprise.
Another girl, who was only in the seventh grade, walked toward me with her head down. She said she hated her face. When I told her she was beautiful, she said, “But I wear glasses.”
Taken together, these experiences show how important it is to face the personal demons that can stunt our growth. For these ladies in the midst of adolescence, understanding their value and self-worth was crucial. In essence, it is important to unveil the hurts in our lives but then reach back and help those who remind us of the problems we faced back then.
Negative perceptions can be detrimental if not addressed head-on. All the events I have described took place outside of classroom walls. Thus, the choices and decisions were made from a personal mind-set. We cannot expect teachers and our loved ones to always understand the weight of negative actions toward us. Perhaps these individuals have not addressed their own closet of childhood pain. We can begin by using these experiences to address areas of our personal lives in which we want to grow. We can find strategic steps to help us emerge victoriously from the box created by negative experiences.
Questions for Growth:
- What are your three strongest memories of pain as a child?
- What emotions come to surface as you recall these memories?
- How have these experiences impacted your choices in life?