There are pivotal moments in life, and one of mine came in the winter of 1974 when I was a senior at Wilbur D. Mills High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Up until halfway through the 9th grade, I had attended the Arkansas School for the Blind. But due to unfortunate circumstances I won’t bother with now, I was forced to transfer to the public school system.
Because I had to wear hideously thick eyeglasses to correct my vision as much as possible, I was an automatic target for bullying at a school where I had no friends and where no teachers knew me. Here are some photos of the glasses I wore and the accoutrements I used:
This was the house that I spent the second half of my childhood in, as it looks now from Google Maps (it was a little more kempt (if “unkempt” is a word, surely “kempt” is a word?) back then:
I grew up in the hotbed of the Civil Rights era. If you would like to know a little bit more about it, take a look at this link. Around the time I was busy being born, the United States Supreme Court had mandated that the nation’s public school system become integrated, and Little Rock Central High School became the focal point. But the integration mandate had not solved the problem, and after more Supreme Court battles, busing was used to achieve racial balance in public schools. This was put into operation at the very time I transferred from the Arkansas School for the Blind to the public school system.
Where I lived in southwest Little Rock, half of the students in the predominantly white neighborhood were bused to formerly all-black schools far out in the county, and half of the black students who had attended those formerly all-black schools were bused into our neighborhood to what had predominantly been all-white schools.
My school bus stop was only two houses down from where I lived, at the intersection of Southern Oaks Drive and Lancaster Road. Those first years, I was not only new to the public school system; I was also new to the neighborhood. So I had zero friends, me with my thick glasses.
Have you ever seen the movie Forrest Gump starring Tom Hanks? Even if you have, please watch this short clip:
When I saw this movie, this particular scene was almost written as if someone had been spying in on my life. The difference between me and Forrest was that I was a young teenage girl who would one day transition from female to male. There was not a beautiful girl (or boy!) who kindly offered to let me sit beside her. Even though the school bus was half-empty by the time it arrived at my house, none of the schoolchildren would let me sit beside them. It was a long, humiliating, bumpy ride to school.
Once I’d gotten to near Christmas of my senior year, I couldn’t take the bullying any longer. I had what I thought was a brilliant idea!! I would walk to the next earlier bus stop and catch the school bus there, and I’d get a seat. I didn’t care if I had to sit alone; I just didn’t want to stand up in the aisle in humiliation.
This is what the 15 minute walk looked like to get to the next school bus stop, taken from Google Maps:
Since the public school I attended, Wilbur D. Mills High School, was waaay out in the county, I already had to get up early. Now I had to get up even earlier to get to the new bus stop. In winter, the morning light would still be faint. A railroad track ran along the left side of the road. A bit eerie…
And this is a photograph of what the one-stop-earlier bus stop looked like, but as it looks now from Google Maps:
Back then, it wasn’t quite so desolate. The grass was greener, and a nice business building was at the intersection.
Here is a map showing the route of my 15 minute walk:
And this is a map showing the way from my neighborhood to Mills High School:
However, the interstate wasn’t built yet, and so the actual route the bus took was much longer and traversed pitiful 2-laned roads with many potholes. Roughly a ~45 minute drive.
The kids at the old bus stop two doors down from my home had grown accustomed to me, and they would ignore me and leave in peace, but I didn’t know anyone at the new bus stop. I guess I had “victim” tattooed on my forehead, because one boy in particular took an immediate dislike to me.
The first few mornings, I would sit on the ledge in front of the business with my head hung low, trying my best to remain invisible. And each day, that boy would saunter past me and purposefully bump against my legs, stretched downward so that the tips of my shoes touched the sidewalk to balance me.
I grew weary of his taunts and him invading my personal space and jostling me as I sat silent. One day, I had had enough. As the boy did his sashay down the sidewalk for the daily embarrassment, I extended my arm to prevent him from bumping against my body. The boy was too busy looking back to see if his comrades were enjoying his performance, and so when he collided into my stationary blocking arm, he tumbled backwards into the soft, lush grass.
He immediately jumped to his feet, grabbed my shirt, and flung me onto the ground. He straddled atop me and tussled with me and began to strangle me. The other kids stood by idly, either snickering or in silent amusement. They did not intervene, or even suggest that he might ought to stop what he was doing. Meanwhile, I was beginning to black out from lack of oxygen. Long minutes dragged by, and I thought I was surely going to die.
Then I heard the school bus approaching, and I briefly thought I’d be okay. The bus rocked to a halt, the other kids formed a line, and boarded the bus. But the kid did not release me. The yellow bus pulled away, the bus driver appearing not to see what was going on in a large empty space or ignoring as it if didn’t matter, and me and the boy were left alone in the silvery morning fog, his fingers digging into my neck, cutting off my breath, and the weight of him on my body prevented my lungs from expanding, a life-and-death struggle. We were alone, the two of us now.
Every effort to squirm and get loose from the boy failed me. He was bigger and stronger than I was. But by some mercy, I bent one of his fingers, and I maneuvered it into my mouth and bit like hell. He cried out in misery and begged me to unclench my teeth. I bit all the harder.
Finally, I mumbled to him something like, “Apologize to me,” and he said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I responded something akin to, “I will let you go, but if you ever do anything like this to me again, I will kill you. I’m going to let you go — when I do, run away and don’t look back.”
I unclenched my teeth and the boy hot-footed it away from the wet, dewy grass and didn’t look back. I picked myself up and walked home, clothes torn and stained.
After that, I refused to ride the school bus again. Refusing to ride the bus meant that I couldn’t get to school, and not getting to school meant I could not complete my senior year of high school. Luckily, I was able to complete the last portion of my classwork via correspondence course and received my diploma. I missed my high school graduation since I was no longer a student, but I started college early. And life went on… More pivotal moments along the way.
But, I had stood up to the bully and I had won!!! This was the “old me,” and I was already beaten down when this incident happened. There would be many more future skirmishes to battle against, sometimes acquiescing and sometimes fighting back. Decades later, carrying a heavy load of similar tribulations, I have finally learned that it is okay to be me and it is okay to stand up for myself — in fact, it is essential.
Stand strong — don’t allow yourself to be bullied or abused by anyone. There are cruel people in this world, and one learns to draw a line in the sand. Buried beneath the slime, the slush, and the shit, I have a fighting spirit, and so do you. Love is the answer, but not the answer to every question. Sometimes the greatest love is loving yourself, and not letting the bullies and the evildoers triumph.
I do believe and we are not afraid….
Me in a fairly recent photograph:
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