If Mean Froze
by Carrie Jones
It is recess and all my friends rush out to play
Freeze tag. I am always brilliant at standing still
As Scott Quinn, Jackie Shriver rush past me — one,
Two, three — until a hand reaches out to tag me into motion
Again, but this day I have to talk to Mr. Q,
My English teacher, a too-good girl, I never get
In trouble, but Mr. Q doesn't like me, never picks
My stories to read, never picks me to talk
If my hand is raised. He cringes when I talk. Every time
My mouth opens, he cringes. Everyone whispers
About it. Whatever he wants, I know it can't be good.
Not me alone with him and his porn star mustache and talk radio voice.
My dad has just died. My step-uncle has just touched me.
I am not prepared for even the smallest of blows, but there
He is — an earthquake of a man, always rumbling, always ready
To tremor my life into something that's just rubble.
"You are here because of your s"s," he says.
My s's ... My s's ... My ... I pick at a hangnail, shift
My weight, look out the window at Jackie running
From Paul Freitzel, laughing ... laughing ... happy ...
Back in first grade, I refused to talk because everyone laughed at my voice, at those s's that slurred around in my mouth and refused to be still, those hopeless, moving things. Jayed Jamison imitated me to giggles, calling me Carrie Barnyard, St. Bernard, pulling my hair, chasing me at recess, knocking me down so my tongue tasted dirt and pine needles invaded my mouth and then he'd start it all over again, hissing s words in my ear, sss-sausage, sssss-snake, shshshs-shiver, all those sloshy s's. Everybody just watched. Everybody took tag turns mocking my voice so
I stopped talking. I stopped
Moving my tongue. I gave
Away my lunch, my snacks
Until people loved me too much
To be mean. And slowly
-- what an s word --
I started moving again, whispering
Words and thought forward
While Jayed stayed stuck in first grade.
We moved on to second and cursive writing,
Haikus, and Mrs. Snearson who wore fatigues.
I thought it was over.
This seventh-grade recess, Mr. Q ends all that.
He says, "If you don't fix your ridiculous voice,
You will never make anything of yourself. You will be a loser
Forever, Carrie. No one wants to love a girl that sounds like you.
No one wants to hire a girl like you. Don't you want
A life?" He perches on his desk and I stare at too-tight chinos
And a porn mustache and manage to say, "But . . ."
He cringes, lifts a finger, stops my words.
"You will never be anything with a voice like yours," he says.
"Think about it." I have thought about it for six years of speech
Therapy, one year of teasing, bullying, and I do not need to think
Anymore, but I do as he lets me go. I run down the linoleum hall
Thinking about it, wondering what happened to being safe, what happened
To being able to protect my sloppy tongue with friends. And I wonder
What if mean was frozen in a game of tag and nobody ever touched
Its fingers to let it go run free and it just had to stay there alone forever.
"If Mean Froze" excerpted from Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories, edited by Carries Jones and Megan Kelley Hall. Copyright 2011 by Carrie Jones. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins.
The Day I Followed
by Eric Luper
"Only one last test and you're in the club," I said to Sam, who was trotting alongside me like a puppy eager for a treat. I could feel excitement radiate off him as we walked to the far side of Henshaw Park.
Sam fiddled with the zipper of his hoodie. "What do I have to do?" he asked.
"It's easy," I said, not quite sure what I had in store for him.
Ricky Parillo had told Sam that there was a series of tests you had to pass in order to get in with the group of kids who hung out at the park, and Sam had been begging all afternoon. The least we could do was give him something to do.
I glanced back at the bench near the swings. The other neighborhood kids — Ricky; Mark; the twins, Glen and Gary; and a few guys I didn't know — urged me on with grins and fist pumps. It had been only a few days since Ricky had pegged me in the back of the head with a basketball and I figured I'd rather be on the dealing side of things for a change. Anyhow, Sam could take it. He'd been putting up with this sort of stuff long before I moved to town.
At least that's what I'd heard.
It started off simple: sprint a few laps around the park, go buy us gum at the candy store, hang upside down from the monkey bars for five minutes, anything we could think of to amuse ourselves.
On all counts, Sam eagerly did what we told him to do.
And on all counts I was glad it wasn't me.
"The last test is on the tennis courts," I said.
"You sure every one of you had to do all these things?" Sam asked skeptically.
"Of course," I lied. I unlatched the heavy gate and led Sam to the net.
My mind scrambled to think of something that would give the other kids a good laugh. "I'm going to blindfold you and you have to find your way out."
I figured watching Sam bumble around on the green concrete would be pretty funny. Maybe he'd even trip over the net.
"That's lame," he said.
"I told you it was easy."
Sam smiled. His crooked teeth spread his lips apart. His wavy hair stuck to his forehead in sweaty swirls. He was such an easy target, so odd-looking, so gullible. It was no wonder most of the fifth graders picked on the kid.
I felt a pang of guilt.
But it was only a pang.
The rest of me felt relieved it wasn't me going through this fake initiation.
"What are you going to blindfold me with?" Sam asked.
"I don't know." I patted my pockets. "Do you have anything?"
"I could put my hoodie on backward," he offered. "You know, so the hood covers my face."
Sam pulled his arms out of the sleeves and turned his sweatshirt around. Then he flipped his hood up over his face. "I'm totally blind!" he joked as he flailed his arms around dramatically. I could hear the smile in his voice.
The other guys cheered from across the park.
Something fluttered in my chest. Was it fear? Excitement? Maybe it was something else. What I knew was that it was the first time I'd felt in control in a while. I had been struggling for friends ever since I moved here in third grade. Amusing the kids at the park, getting on their good side, seemed an excellent way to do it.
"All right," I said. "I'll just turn you around a few times . . ."
Sam held out his arms so I could spin him more easily.
I glanced at the other kids. Ricky gave me a thumbs-up.
When I figured Sam was dizzy enough, I let him go. He spun around a few extra times for good measure. By the time I slipped out of the tennis court, Sam was staggering about, groping for anything to help him regain his bearings. He stumbled to the edge of the court and leaned a shoulder against the fence. For a moment I was both afraid and amused that he might throw up inside his own hood.
Probably just playing it up to make us laugh, I thought.
That's when Mark pushed past me onto the court and held Sam against the fence. Ricky pulled the strings of Sam's hoodie through the bars and yanked them tight so Sam's head was snug against the metal. Then he tied a triple knot. Sam cried out but Mark and Ricky dashed away. I looked for Glen and Gary, but the twins were already gone, having hoisted Sam's new ten-speed high into the branches of a nearby tree. Everyone else was running, too.
"Let's go!" someone called to me.
I watched Sam struggle to loosen the drawstrings of his sweatshirt. His skinny legs kicked at the air. His fingers clawed at the back of his head.
"Someone untie me!" he shouted between sobs. "I can't reach the knot through the fence!"
I hesitated. Even with my short nails, I knew I could get the knot loose.
I heard the laughter fade toward Ricky's house.
"Come on, Luper!" someone else yelled. "Follow us!"
The cracked sidewalk passed easily under my feet. I knew the way to Ricky's. It was backed up to the train tracks on Hawthorne Avenue. I passed it every day on my way home from school, saw them eating ice pops on the front stoop out of the corner of my eye. I never dared to look up after the one time Mark chucked his blue raspberry Freezee at me.
Maybe we'll have ice pops when we get there. Maybe those guys will let me hang out with them on the front stoop.
A heavy lump rose in my chest.
Maybe they won't pick on me anymore ...
I heard Sam's muffled cries behind me.
I turned around ...
... and headed back to the park.
Even with my short nails, I knew I could get the knot loose.
"The Day I Followed" excerpted from Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories, edited by Carries Jones and Megan Kelley Hall. Copyright 2011 by Eric Luper. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins.
To Carolyn Mackler, From Elizabeth in IL
Dear Ms. Mackler,
Hello, my name is Elizabeth and I am a sixth-grade girl. I really loved your book The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. It is definitely one of my favorite books. The character Virginia Shreves really spoke to me in a way that no other character ever has. When I read this book, I felt like this was a book about me. I completely understand the way she felt in the bathroom when the Bri-girls were talking about her. I, having been ridiculed my whole life, would know that overhearing people trashing you is a lot worse than them saying it to your face. I feel like I couldn't be this happy without the inspiration your book gave me. I can feel every emotion she feels with all the description you gave. When she bites the insides of her cheeks, I can taste blood. Whenever she cries, I can feel myself starting to tear up. I can especially feel the triumph of her rebellion. I think my favorite part is when she is in Seattle and she realizes she isn't numb anymore. Thank you for writing this amazing book. I have never loved a book the same way before. If possible, please send a response to my letter. I would really appreciate it. Thank you so much.
by Carolyn Mackler
I only just got your note. You must be in seventh grade by now! Every so often I receive a letter from a reader that makes me pause in my way-too-busy life (book deadlines and two young children), reflect on what I do, and feel moved by the fact that my novels might possibly speak to someone when they most need it. Thank you for writing that letter.
You said you've been ridiculed your whole life. While I wish I could wave a wand and evaporate all bullies and jerks (wouldn't that be great?), I can't. But I can say this: I totally sympathize. Before I get to my last paragraph — all about how someday you'll be in high school (slightly better) and college (even better) and then you'll hit the real world where you can pick who you spend your days with (not people who ridicule you) and one day you'll have a way-too-busy life, surrounded by friends who love you for who you are ... before I talk about all this, I want to acknowledge how hard it is to be in the trenches. Believe me, I was there.
It started when I was in seventh grade. Someone slipped a note in my locker. Dear Carolyn, the person had written. Welcome to Hoser High. I didn't know what a hoser was, but I had a sinking feeling that this couldn't be good. It went from bad to worse. Boys started teasing me about being Jewish. They coughed "Jew" behind their hand as I walked into the cafeteria. In French class, when we learned the word jupe (meaning skirt), it sounded enough like Jew to make them turn in their desks and snicker at me while I lowered my head, my cheeks burning, my insides dying. As the bullying continued — everything from a group of kids making fun of me for showing up at school with wet hair to boys wearing swastikas on Halloween — my self-esteem tanked. I started junior high happy and confident. Sure, I was a little quirky and I didn't care about clothes and I designed elaborate villages for my dolls, but at the beginning of sixth grade, I felt good about myself and my place in the world. By the end of eighth grade, I was skittish and nervous and insecure. I barely even liked myself anymore.
The hardest thing was that I didn't know where to turn. It helped to read novels about teenagers with different lives and hope that someday I would escape my conservative small town. I had my best friend, though she was a grade younger and didn't know how bad it was for me at school. I told my parents, who talked about it with the principal. But nothing got better. My teachers didn't even make the boys remove their swastikas on Halloween!
This was twenty-five years ago. Maybe things have changed in the schools. Hopefully they have. Hopefully, Elizabeth, you have an adult you can confide in, someone at school who can help you. I know it's tricky. I know that to tell someone risks calling further attention to yourself. I'm glad you were inspired by The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. That was an important story for me to write, particularly when Virginia starts embracing herself as she is, not changing to please other people.
And this brings me to my inspiring last paragraph. The teasing subsided by the end of junior high. I went to high school and made new friends and had boyfriends and fell in love for the first time. I went to college and then became a novelist (my grown-up version of playing dolls!) and met my husband and got married and we now have two beautiful boys. No one teases me anymore. I feel safe in my life. Those hellish years are over.
Okay, one more paragraph. Because even though those years are over, they're not. Being bullied is part of who I am today — in the way I think, the way I treat people, the way I raise my children. It was scarring. Now and then I have to take a deep breath and fend off the inner voice that says I'm, well, a hoser. But it also made me a deeper, more sympathetic, more compassionate person. It's allowed me to write novels about teen characters and really feel what they are going through. Which, in turn, has resulted in letters from readers like you! Yes, I wish I'd never been bullied (enter magic wand here). But I'm writing to say that there's hope on the other side. Hang in there.
"Dear Elizabeth" excerpted from Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories, edited by Carries Jones and Megan Kelley Hall. Copyright 2011 by Carolyn Mackler. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins.