Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Perpetual Clean Slate

I left my public school at the end of 5th grade (age 11) and and spent my 6th grade year (age 12) at a K-8 private school, where my mother was teaching.

A fresh start; a clean slate.

Then Mom got a job in the public schools and could no longer send me to the private school, as it was too far away.

An entire year had passed since I had been in the public school system, and since a year is a long time in childhood, 7th grade (age 13) was another fresh start (sort of).

Another clean slate.

When I started going to Camp Negev in the summer after 8th grade (age 14), it was another clean slate, another fresh start. Since I didn't realize that I would be zoned for a different high school (10th-12th grade in my district) from most of the kids at my middle school, I was sure my camp would be my last clean slate until college.

My last clean slate until college? Yes, what a lot of pressure to work under.

As stated, I was zoned for a different high school from most of the kids in my middle school.

Another clean slate, another fresh start. 

I went to college.

Another clean slate.

I went to grad school.

Another clean slate.

I took a job at a library in Maine. I got fired. Then I took a job at another library in Massachusetts.

Another clean slate.

I got fired again. I decided was done with libraries.

So what happened to all these clean slates? I went to the small private school and generally got along well with everyone else. But then I had to go back into the public school system. I was bullied relentlessly, verbally and sometimes even physically. I didn't feel safe going to school. My parents and brother didn't seem to really understand that I was being bullied. Back then, people didn't really take bulling seriously, and the term "bully" meant "the school bully", as caricatured on The Simpsons, for example: The kid who indiscriminately shakes down everybody for their lunch money. Not a group of kids who targets one person. No, my parents and brother told me that I brought the treatment on myself with my relentless wiseass comments and because I didn't dress and act feminine enough.

I went to Camp Negev. At last things seemed to be going right. I was with a group of kids who understood and appreciated me. But then in the CIT program, I learned that many of the counselors were wary of me. They said that I was inappropriate. It's true, I was sometimes, with my jokes, etc. Part of the reason I sometimes acted inappropriately was that I was rebelling against my parents because they never let me do anything irreverent, even with my cousins around. I felt asphyxiated. So the dam burst, so to speak, at camp. But I did come to the CIT program prepared to "grow up", as I was no longer a camper. However, it was too little too late. And I should note that the other counselors' concerns about my being inappropriate were hypocritical as many of the counselors didn't care about the kids. They belittled the ones who were different, left them alone in cabins, and smoked weed in the staff lounge. Sometimes they even came to activities while high. They were just inappropriate in more socially acceptable ways. I wasn't given a group of kids until second session, and despite the ways that I had toned myself down for that summer, I wasn't hired as a counselor the following year.

I found another camp to work at. I made some stupid mistakes and got fired, so then I found another one.

I got a fresh start in the summer of 2000, working at a camp in Michigan. I was hired again in 2001, but in 2002 I had to come back as a volunteer, as they wouldn't rehire me.

As for high school? I was very quiet because I was so worried about screwing up. The result? I wasn't bullied, but I was too timid and didn't make any friends. You can't live like that. Remaining withdrawn in high school is one of my biggest regrets.

In college? I made friends but starting junior year, most of the teachers didn't like me. I wasn't used to this; in high school teachers generally did like me. When I went to grad school, I got a fresh start and fortunately the teachers liked me.

At the library in Maine?

The parents were wary of me and constantly reported me to the director. I was fired. I read books about child development and came to the library in Massachusetts, armed with more knowledge to help me work better with little kids. Not good enough. I was fired again after four months, although this time there were only two complaints. The rest of the staff liked me, but my boss didn't. I knew by the end of the first week that she was avoiding me.

Mom told me, "You'll get a fresh start" when I entered 6th grade at the private school and 7th grade in the public school system that I grew up in. She told me that when I went to summer camp, to high school, to college, when I worked at the camp in Michigan, and when I started at the library in Massachusetts.

I cringe about "clean slates" and "fresh starts". A clean slate is only clean so long as you can disguise who you really are. Ultimately, it's less about learning to stop telling inappropriate jokes and whatnot (although it may seem that way superficially) and more about not letting who you really are come out. Whether or not my parents realized it, when they told me, "You'll get a fresh start," they were really saying, "Try again to be someone you're not and things will go well." And as you can see, many of these "fresh starts" (though not all, by any means), ultimately failed.

It is for this reason that experts advise parents of bullied kids not to change schools unless it's to a private school or some kind of "special" school. You bring who you are to any new situation, and when the results are the same, the message that one gets is that they've failed, over and over again.

Imagine what it feels like to go through life like that.

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