“Loser. Creep. Stupid.” The words stung as much as the icy wind that whipped at my face. It was new territory for me. Literally. At elementary school in California I was in the orchestra. I sat next to Ord, who was my best friend. He played cello, I played violin. Ord and I were in “exceptional” classes for students who excelled. We learned Spanish and delved into the history of distant cultures. We were the students first introduced to “new math” in the California school system I attended.
School was my refuge. I would much rather be at school than at home where there were frequent explosions of tantrum and temper – not mine – my mother’s. Home was not safe. The disabling words above were more often spoken in the walls of my home than on the playground…although they were also spoken there.
In elementary school I was what I later learned researchers define as a “bystander peer.” It is one who lurks on the outside of the group but never actually enters in. Timid. Afraid. Not knowing how to enter the group. What to do. What to say. How to play.
Bystander children are often targets of bullying because they are odd. They don’t disrupt anyone’s play, they stand out because they don’t do anything. They don’t know how.
There are other peer categories into which I also eventually fell – neglected, rejected – and one into which I never fit as a child but eventually moved into as an adult – provocative.
The provocative peer taunts others unsuccessfully. As a child on the playground, she is frequently hit when no one is looking. As an adult she involuntarily invites/provokes others to do violence against her – relationally, emotionally and/or physically. It is an unconscious way of relating she acquired through the hallmark of childhood trauma, but one that does not satisfy the longing for connection she is seeking to fulfill. I sometimes still struggle with knowing how to enter into a group or remain there comfortably.
When we moved from California to Illinois – my new territory – I no longer had Ord or orchestra or exceptional learning classes or new math. By then I was halfway through the sixth grade and the elementary school to which I was assigned had already learned to divide fractions. After five and a half years of new math – I had never seen fractions. I didn’t know what to do with decimals, how to figure percent, calculate prime numbers or add, subtract, multiply and/or divide the broken digits.
Consistently an A student prior to our move, my grades plummeted to D’s and F’s, which bore consequences of more severe name-calling – and additional punishment – at home.The dark clouds of depression began to gather around my young heart at this crucial juncture in my development. The words that stung that icy October morning echoed from my inner critic and joined the “Horrid” nursery rhyme my mother often recited to me. That morning it felt painfully true – I was incurably stupid.
Years – a lifetime – later, in my late 40’s sitting in a research class at the University of Mississippi, in pursuit of a Ph.D., I decided on a topic for my dissertation and reached back to grasp a phrase I considered when working on my master’s degree. With the help of a faculty mentor, I researched and wrote about peer victimization. The phrase “once a victim, always a victim” was part of the guiding direction of that writing. Our research suggested the phrase was not true and demonstrated that children who are victimized can stop being victimized if they learn to associate with peers who are not victims. “Always” a victim was not true according to my research, and it is not true according to my story.
Several years ago after listening to a guest speaker at our home church who spoke, in part, about recovery from childhood trauma, I shared some very minor details of my abusive past with him and related the fact that it often seemed as if I had a label on my forehead that read “Victim.” I seemed incomprehensively vulnerable to acts of repeated abuse, which made me feel weak, stupid, and crazy.
He looked me squarely in the face, reached an index finger to touch my forehead (interestingly, the same gesture – although with evil intent – my mother made when reciting the Horrid nursery rhyme to me) and said authoritatively, “I no longer see that word written here. Instead I see the word, ‘Healer’.” His finger lingered on my forehead for several moments and as it did, the warmth of his touch and his words found their way to my heart. I felt the Spirit of God whisper, “This is Truth.”
I remember the warmth of that moment as viscerally as if it occurred today. Although I was often a victim in childhood, adolescence and even into adulthood, it does not have to be true of me today. My story is still being written. Chapters are being added and expanded. New categories of joy presented and pursued. More parts of me are waiting to be discovered and uncovered, unbound and grieved, seen and celebrated.
I wonder where you are in your story? What words ricochet off the inner recesses of your memory or feel stuck like a label on your forehead? What edicts were pronounced over you as “always” true? This is truth: There is always reason to hope, to look for choices, and discover more.
In his book The Singer, Calvin Miller (1975) creates a beautiful allegory based on the gospels. In one exchange with a little girl, the Singer says, “…no man may burn a label into flesh and make it stay if heaven disagrees” (pg. 142). Heaven does not agree with the label, “Victim” for me. Instead, I have a new name I choose to wear, “Healer.” There is also a new name for you that is Truth. The inner critic is the lie.
Christine Browning is a lover of story—including her own. She loves to hear and longs to respond well to others’ stories. A late bloomer in the field of education, it is her absolute delight to teach at Milligan College in East Tennessee. She also counsels women who have experienced trauma and abuse. Christine is the mother of three adult children, three incredible grandchildren and has been married for 42+ years to her delightfully playful husband, Tom.