Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Greasers Vs. Socs

This Massachusetts teen committed suicide after she was systematically cyber
stalked, beaten and harassed by her schoolmates.

Recently Dan Savage (of Savage Love) started a thoughtful campaign to try and stem the tide of bullied GLBT teens from committing suicide. It's called It Gets Better and it's a good idea. My only politically incorrect concern is: why tell just gay teens "it gets better"? Why not tell ANY teen who's suffering under some school tyrant it gets better?

The high school I attended nearly 30 years ago was abysmally backwards in every way socially. It had a lot of things wrong with it -- really low state scores, high drug use and teen pregnancy -- and it was located in rural Nevada aka Reagan Country. Despite being a public school, the administration was comprised mostly of white Mormon men (who drank and beat their wives). These "administrators" towed an overt fundamentalist Christian party line. The list of books we were not allowed to read was long, from the obvious Judy Bloom to Salinger to Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet (too pornographic). If you were: not white, poor, not Mormon, being raised by a single parent or were really poor, you were an outsider. And when violence was meted out by the popular kids, it was always us outsiders that took the beating.

That book by Susan Hinton? I lived it. Instead of Greasers and Socs, we had Stoners and Cowboys versus the Jock/Preppies (athletes and those bound for college).

In fall of my first year, a senior jock sat directly behind me in freshman science with his feet propped on the shelf under my seat. Ignoring the befuddled teacher at the front of the class, he bragged to one of his buddies how he'd raped one of the school "sluts". He told his friend he wasn't worried if she filed charges as nobody would believe her. I walked to school terrified and walked home a jittery mess. By the end of my freshman year, I'd gone from an A-minus junior high student to a D-plus high schooler.

I was a bright, articulate kid and raising my hand and volunteering answers in class began to earn me black eyes in girl's P.E.

My sophomore year, things went from bad to worse. A bully in the entering freshman class put me (along with several other victims) high on his list of people to torment. It started out with name calling and progressed to getting tripped/knocked down at least once a week.

The bully chased a friend of mine across the campus one day, knocked him down and jumped up and down on his arm. My friend spent several months with his arm in a cast.

The verbal insults were so extreme and so rude, I don't remember them all. If a jock/preppie called you a cunt or a fag, you got off lightly.

Believe it or not, actress Michelle Trachtenberg said she was bullied
so badly in high school, she had her ribs broken. By another girl.

I was clocked in the back of the head with heavy text books and had basketballs and volleyballs pitched at my face so many times ... it's a blur. I had full cans of soda pitched at my head while walking fearfully "up the hill" for first period class in the "main building". I got jabbed in the ribs with Exacto knives during art class, stabbed in the hand with compasses during drafting class, pushed down hallways, knocked down stairs and shoved against lockers.

By the end of my sophomore year, it was beginning to dawn on me, that not raising my hand and not answering the teacher's questions was the most prudent route, GPA be damned.

Eventually the torment eased. The spring semester of my junior year, I briefly got to attend a real public high school in California. It was laid back, decidedly rich and slightly eccentric. But cliques were not something anyone at that school lived or died by. It was finally okay to be an individual. All the popular kids were busy playing competitive tennis, modeling for Macy's or just being Californians; they didn't have time to bully anybody. That would have been gauche. I'm not suggesting there were no cliques or fights, there were, but the teens at the California school didn't seem so terrified to do anything odd, goofy or slightly eccentric. Bizarrely, they actually respected intelligence and creative talent.

There was a mentally retarded teen who rode the bus with me every morning. Nobody beat him up, he was minimally teased. Every student council rep, every senior-class girl politely endured "R's" overly enthusiastic hugs and one even helped tutor him in Special Ed. This was astonishing to me as the Special Ed kids in my Nevada high school were pariahs, stalked regularly by every popular teen.

Back in Nevada, during my senior year I skipped over a hundred days of school -- writing fake sick notes, etc. -- essentially doing anything to not be there. I sat in shocked silence when a male teacher, famous for his dynamic wit (and ridiculous biases), told his English class 'girls don't get in fights'. At the time he said this, my friend "Jo" was sitting next to me in his class. "Jo" had a black eye from a fight she'd been in with one of the popular girls.

I had a couple of gay friends at my high school in Nevada. "T" skated the whole four years with nary a fight, maybe one dust up and everybody knew he was gay. He existed in this realm of blond coolness, kinda like David Bowie, who was our favorite singer. Another was a gregarious, stout dyke with a booming voice. She did attempt suicide but it was because of her father's abuse, not the occasional harassment she caught at high school.

The Jock/Preppie clique had fringe followers. Hanger-ons who never failed to laugh at the bully's jokes or join in the harassment of outsiders. One of them is now openly gay, married to another man and they have kids. Awesome. I still remember the way he and another hanger-on harassed a homely girl for years. Unfortunately, the homely girl didn't fare as well as the hanger-on who is now Out and Proud.

After graduation, she died suspiciously in a car accident that may or may not have been suicide. Her best friend told me memories of high school bullying haunted her long after it was over.

You do not have to be GLBT to get harassed in high school. You don't have to be a minority. You just have to be a tad smarter, a tiny bit more clever or a teeny bit independent to become a target. For some mysterious reason, teenage kids have access to a kind of cruelty many parents deliberately ignore.

I believe the person you are when you are 15 is essentially the person you will be at 25 and 35, 45 and so on. Whatever sort of moral compass we have starts spinning in our teens. You either align yourself with the "strong" out of fear or become a member of the "weak" by default because you refuse to kowtow to the "strong". The only difference is in adulthood, instead of being called a Jock/Preppy you change your title to Conservative, Country Club member, etc. and if you're a Stoner/Geek when you grow up you might become a Liberal, an environmentalist ... an individual.

Does it get better? For me it did. High school was like four years in a county jail. At 17, I made parole. Virtually every experience since high school, including hospital stays and getting fired from jobs, has been a step up. To all the Outsiders I'd like to say, "it gets better."


Lindsay said...

I could not agree more. I can't say I understand how the recent bullying is being called a 'rash' , it is simply being publicized more. As a teacher in a rural area, we have minimal bullying, and although we have quite a few out LGBT kids, none of them is a special target. I think while it is overhyped, I would much rather have it dealt with for what it really is: the disgusting behavior and power display of the strong vs. the 'weak'

Feoshia said...

Speaking to the It Gets Better campaign, I do understand where it's coming from but I don't think it's a very empowering message. Sort of like, just put up with the torment then get the H out of there. It puts the bullied on defense instead of offense IMO.

Mz M. said...

That's a REALLY good point, Feoshia. I'm more impressed with some of the existing Stop Bullying campaigns where the parents are actually taking legal action against the school.

Mz M. said...

Also, I remember my oldest brother's lame advice 'just pick the biggest one, kick the shit out of him and then say 'who's next'?'

The problem with this? There was about 20 different teens harassing me, most of them (both the guys and gals) were athletes. They were physically bigger and certainly stronger. Had I taken his advice, I might have ended up in the hospital like my friend with the broken arm.

Leprechaun Sniffer, Esquire. said...

Bravo! I'm reading through back entries of your blog from a network of another established cartoonist, but this entry I really sympathized with, right down to the final sentence.

The content you write about is fantastic, but this one in particular made me have to add a comment.

Mz. M said...

Thank you, Mr. Leprechaun.