As the first, American-born child of Pakistani immigrants, I was hella awkward.
My mother dressed me in clothes that were two decades behind in fashion or in trends she had seen on random soap operas on TV. Therefore, on any given day, I either looked like a Brady Bunch member or a tiny little old lady. My flowery, thick-rimmed glasses that also magnified my eyes by ten also didn’t help.
I was also a shy and meek little thing that always had her head buried inside of a book. Since my parents primarily spoke Urdu and Punjabi in the house, my English was broken at best my first couple of years of grade school. Because of these characteristics, I was mainly a loner that stuck to her books.
The earliest memory I have of being bullied is from either first or second grade.
I remember a girl who made it a personal goal to make fun of me throughout the day for various things. Her favorite go-to insult was that I stank like curry, and since she was one of the more favored students in the class, our peers also made it a point to hold their noses and run away from me giggling relentlessly as I pretended that I couldn’t hear them. I remember distinctly that the only way I knew how to deal with the pain of not having friends was by pretending that Karen Brewer, the main protagonist of “The Baby-Sitters Little Sister” series, was my friend.
I busied myself with escapades in her life so I could escape mine.
It was during this time that I started believing that every giggle I heard and every whisper I saw being exchanged was always about me.
In fourth grade, my classmates gleefully sang “nobody likes Sarah and Lee” to the tune of the Sara Lee jingle “everybody loves Sara Lee”. As Lee laughed along with them, probably in an attempt to hide his true pain, I excused myself to the bathroom.
As burning hot tears ran down my cheeks, I vowed that no matter how much their words hurt, I would never, ever let them see me cry.
In the sixth grade, the bullying became so bad that even teachers turned on me. In a friendly competition between “teams” in each grade, there was a point system very similar to the style of Harry Potter. One science teacher, in particular, had it out for me, often deducting points from my team while blaming me for the deductions. When I cried out in pain after being shot in the face with a paper football, ten points were taken away.
When I voiced my frustration out loud to no one in particular when my books were slammed to the floor, twenty points were taken away.
All the while this “teacher” conveniently wouldn’t hear the taunts or see the assaults that rained down on me every day – even when they were so clearly in front of him. “Thanks to the usual delinquent,” he would say, staring at me. “More points will be deducted from this team.”
And that made the bullying that much worse.
By the time I was in high school, bullying had become such a norm in my life, that it just became a part of who I was. Instead of wondering “why me”, I often wondered what assault I would face next and what I could do to ready myself for it.
Since the popular kids had it out for me, I started dressing the part of the person they would want to hate – the person the opposite of them.
To my mother’s dismay, black eyeliner, studs, and black pants with bondage straps became my staple (all thanks to Hot Topic). I took an interest in rebel punk rock and hardcore, because the artists understood my pain of never being able to fit in or accepted.
Not only did I dress the part, but I became the part.
Most importantly, I found friends with kids who were also shunned or ignored by the popular kids. Although we had pretty decent GPA’s and generally didn’t get into trouble, we looked like a bunch of delinquent kids that didn’t give two fucks about school – or anything, really. But I wouldn’t doubt that as we tried to prove how tough we were to each other, we were all dealing with issues of constantly being reminded that we weren’t good enough, ugly, different, nerdy, and weird.
[bctt tweet=”I started believing that every whisper I saw being exchanged was always about me. ” username=”wearethetempest”]
They made things better.
I would instantly forget the fact that somebody pulled a chair from under me when I sat down as we discussed what concert to go to next. I wouldn’t mind being shoved into lockers, because it helped toughen me for my persona. I didn’t have to worry about eating lunch alone anymore because we all gathered in the guitar/orchestra room during lunch hours and played guitar.
My guitar teacher, Mr. Slocumb, who is still my friend even 12 years after graduation, was an angel in disguise. He always made sure I knew I was good enough, that I was going to go places when I grew up. I’m not sure if he ever saw me being bullied, but if he ever did, he never let on. Regardless of him knowing or not knowing, he was a true teacher that made me not only realize the true potential that I had in myself but also the value of my life.
And it is my friends and people like him who inadvertently saved me from killing myself on many different occasions.
Unfortunately, they couldn’t help when I started cutting myself in an attempt to make my physical pain so bad, that I couldn’t think about my emotional pain. In some sort of twisted way of thinking, I believed that if I could be the cause of my worst pain, it would be a way for me to win over the bullies.
Since I caused my own worst pain, I believed I had control and not them.
It was in this state of mind that I was in for four years before I walked across the stage in 2004 to receive my diploma. As high school came to an end, I believed I was walking out of the doors of Robert E. Lee High School forever with the rumors, bruises, and cuts behind me.
I was wrong.
A year after graduation my first “big-girl” job was at Forever 21 as an accessories manager – a job that was good enough to get me through school at the time being.
It was at this job that I started experiencing the same things again, and the perpetrator this time was my manager Sonia.
Although at the time, I had lost massive amounts of weight and was in the best shape of my life (at a size 8, nonetheless!), Sonia made it very clear that she thought I was fat. When a customer shred a dress a size too small while attempting to take it off and left it in the fitting room, she joked that it was me who did it.
When the staff carpooled for our annual Christmas party, she joked that she was afraid the tires of her car would fall off because of my weight. She would often pinch my hips and make jokes as other staff members laughed or stared in dismay.
And when I turned in my two weeks notice, because I couldn’t take it anymore, she attempted to frame me for theft.
When I found out of her master plan, all the years that I had spent pent up instead of fighting back burst out.
[bctt tweet=”It was the first time I ever stood up for myself. ” username=”wearethetempest”]
A long call to corporate and a harassment complaint later was the way I fought back.
Not only did I complain about the daily harassment I – and other employees – had received, but I also told corporate about her employing all of her family members, faking time sheets, and other shady things she did. Upon hearing of the investigation to start due to my complaints, Sonia never showed up to the store again.
It was the first time I ever stood up for myself. While I admit that these complaints should’ve been made much earlier, I’m glad they at least were made. And it was at that very moment that I had come to a point in my life that I refused to take anyone’s shit any longer.
And this is exactly why I refused to take part in the petty drama, gossiping, and backstabbing that I saw occur during my years at Harvard Divinity School and while I worked as an optician in an optometrist office. By the time I was in my early 20’s, I made it very clear that I was not one to take anything lying down.
Nobody was going to bully me any longer.
So imagine my surprise when I burst into tears when I saw a Facebook group for my ten-year high school reunion.
Ten years later, and I was reduced to tears in less than five seconds.
I told myself that I wasn’t the same person, that I was in a way better place than any of them were in – I was at Harvard for eff’s sake! I had traveled the world and worked for world peace. I was working alongside my heroes Leila Ahmed and Diana Eck. I was engaged to be married to the love of my life. I had made friends across the world. I had a solid foundation of best friends and family who would do anything for my happiness.
And at that moment, it didn’t matter.
None of it mattered. No matter what, I still felt like a sheep who had been thrown to the wolves.
That was almost a year and a half ago.
Today, if given the chance to go to another high school reunion, I don’t think I would be reduced to tears again. I dealt with my feelings at the time and came to the conclusion that I would like to face my bullies one day – if not for anything but to show that I am a strong woman unable to be bullied any longer.
However, that still doesn’t change the fact that even to this day, when I see people staring at me, I think the worst.
When I hear hushed giggles around me, I think they’re about me. My stomach still drops when I see people whispering to each other in my presence. My fear of speaking up in classes or in front of a group of people also stems from my past – it’s a fear that’s so great that I will often lose my voice or shake uncontrollably while speaking.
Then I remind myself that people sometimes stare in a positive way.
Hushed giggles could be personal jokes or completely unrelated to me. People whispering to each other are probably speaking of something pertaining just to them. I have also made public speeches, entered symposiums and given many oral presentations over the years in order to conquer my fears.
Ultimately, all of this proves that every day is still a battle against the bullies – but in a different way.
And it’s a battle that I’m winning.