I was in third grade the first time I willfully injured myself my dragging my finger along the brick wall as I walked in line. It gave me the chance to burn a hole in my index finger, ask to see the nurse and leave the class where I was slowly coming to understand that I was an alien—a budding freak among people who were much prettier, stronger, taller, even more confident than me. My teacher—whose first name was like mine, minus that last a—was a good teacher. She worked hard, she tried to focus me and my yapping mouth, but she didn't know then what I understand now: I was slowly testing the limits of the boundaries the rest of the class was enclosing around me, seeing how far my mouth could take me before they turned on me like a prison gang.
Only instead of knives carved out of PVC and melted floss, they'd shiv you with words. Laughter. A cut direct, delivered in time-honored tradition: in front of everyone and without remorse.
Bit by bit, I took that subconscious empirical data my self-preservation collected and applied it to my behavior.
I could go this far and no farther.
I could talk to this kid, but not that one. Sit by that kid, but not this one.
Slowly, that border tightened.
I was lucky. Reprieve came in the fourth grade, when I was selected to be part of the "Talented and Gifted" program—TAG. Probably not very PC now, but that's what they called it. I don't remember ever testing for it. My grades were generally average. I was reading a lot, because it was easier and much more satisfying to read another person's story—to travel another person's path, live in another person's skin—than it was to deal with mine.
In the pages of a book, I could be a space explorer, a pirate or a ship captain, a warrior, a scientist, a wizard, and more. I could be an average girl swept into magical hijinks only to find her sense of self and self-worth—my favorite, because it meant there was hope for me.
Looking back, I wonder if the small, ragtag group of us were pulled out because we were "issues"—kids being picked on, kids needing an extra focused hand, a little extra guidance. I don't know why or what or who decided which of us would be pulled out of class for half the day, but I do know that I was saved from a monotony of spit-balls and feeling like a freak as I sat in that classroom day after day. Saved by a couple of teachers—married teachers, no less—and given something else to focus my attention on.
In fifth grade, I was on my own. It seemed like everyone decided that I was fresh meat. In an age when all the girls around me were softening up and learning how to wear the boobs genetics kindly grafted on to them, I was rail-thin and a prime target. They called me Mosquito, and when I didn't respond, they helpfully explained that it was because my chest looked like I'd been bitten twice by mosquitos. They called me Blowfish, for reasons I still don't understand but suspect had more to do with the fact that I flushed with shame the first time the lead bully in my class threw it at me and proclaimed, "You look like a blowfish, so I'm going to call you that."
Day after day, I left my house and approached the bus stop preparing for war. Day after day, I left class fifteen minutes early to don my safety patrol badge and only then did I start breathing again.
My subconscious had taken all that empirical data and drawn lines for me that fit so close to my flesh, I had no room to draw a breath. Sometimes, I'd scratch my nail over and over my skin—testing the fragility of my own flesh, leaving marks where I could explain them away. I still have the scars. Once, I came to school with bandaids all over my hands, gauze taped in place, and put Neosporin in my desk where I could easily reach it. I had no real reason for the bandages or the disinfectant. Maybe I thought the Neosporin would fix whatever was wrong with me that made my classmates want to lash out—Mosquito, Blowfish, and worse—and maybe I just hoped that the "wounds" would give them something else to focus on.
Not a single adult asked me why I was "hurt".
That day, we played a game in class that had us exchanging desks as the game progressed. The leader of the bullies ended up at mine.
When I went back to my desk, I found the Neosporin tube slashed up and full of holes, the bandaids all opened and stuck to my desk.
That day, I burst into tears in front of them all, and forever sealed his dominance over me.
The teacher sent me to the guidance counselor's office.
Not a single adult asked me why.
In sixth grade, I approached the bus stop wearing a pair of short overalls—one strap unhooked casually like the style was—and an American flag T-shirt. One boy ran up to me crowing, "Look, her underwear matches her shirt!" It didn't. The shirt was too big, because that's how I hid my "mosquito bites", and the hem was peeking out from under the shorts, but nobody cared about the truth. The damage was done.
It never got better. They beat up my brother—and my brother, afraid and as alone as I was, did not stop them from taunting me.
Once, they circled me in a ring at the bus and taunted me on until I "fought" a girl who was as abused and scared and alone as I was.
The tattoo adopted another word.
In seventh grade, my "best friend" turned on me because she thought the bullies were more fun. The bullies gain more personal leverage—hours of playing Let's Pretend and confiding secrets.
I never make that mistake again.
I was "asked out" and dumped ten minutes later because it was funny. I was jerked around by people who knew I wanted to belong. I had a few friends, but I didn't know how to act around them—to me, they seemed a thousand miles ahead, completely together, fearing nothing and no one.
They did not understand me. And I did not know how to understand them.
In eighth grade, a girl who was supposed to be my role model—older, wiser, and my new sister—couldn't stand the fact that I looked to her for everything. I copied her because I admired her—she was pretty, athletic, strong-willed, together. I was the little sister she never wanted, and so she turned my older brother against me, sabotaged my things, did everything she could to prove how much better she was than me. And how much she hated me. She threatened to shave my head if I went to sleep.
I still wanted to be her.
I gave up being myself. Myself was too skinny, too scarred, too hounded, too afraid. My self was late to everything—late to puberty, late to popularity, late to the newest toys, late to life.
Myself hated me. I hated myself. The tattoos of my earlier school years had been inked and they were never, ever coming off. Mosquito. Blowfish. Disappointment.
In ninth grade, I gave them something else to target me for. I wore outlandish colors and did strange things so that they would mock and jibe and lash out at the things I told them to. I protected myself by presenting them a leathery, toughened mass of scar tissue that was my psyche, letting them hammer on and on over places long since gone numb—and it worked, mostly.
But I got some new ink for my trouble. Shemale.
In tenth grade, I moved to a new city in North Carolina. I left everyone behind. Nobody knew me, and I was able to wake up every morning and layer on the pancake powder of my fragile psyche to hide the tattoos branded into my face. I made a few friends and figured out that there was something freeing about standing up for myself, and trying, and learning, and playing with friends. But it wasn't freeing—not really. I approached everything as if I were outside my own body—myself piloting myself like I was some kind of Sim. I calculated everything: the cost of dressing this way, the consequence of saying that. Even as I learned how to give every impression of confidence, I lied.
Brick by brick. Word by word. Choice by choice. I created a myself that wasn't at all what I was, and all of us inside this leathery, toughened, ink-stained skin let it happen. And as it happened, that ink seeped inside.
Mosquito. Blowfish. Disappointment. Victim. Shemale.
My brother's girlfriend steals that shirt I'm wearing in the photo above. She ruins some of my other clothes. She wears the stolen shirt to school proudly.
I say nothing.
In eleventh grade, I turned to drugs. Deliberately. Intellectually. I wanted to know. I wanted to be strong enough to take them. I wanted to slip this scarred skin for a few hours and let whatever happened, happened. I jumped off a flight of stairs into a mattress and sprained my ankle just so that I could earn a little "hall cred". I took on roles in theater I'd never tried before. I slacked off school because it didn't matter. I lost all my possessions and all my friends and my brother, and people thought I was strong and brave and gave all the right sorts of no-fucks.
And inside my shiny, perfect skin, a little girl with no hope looked out from between the spreading tattoo of the bullies who shaped her.
Mosquito. Blowfish. Disappointment. Victim. Shemale.
In twelfth grade, I lived alone. I skipped more school than I attended. I was independent. I made the choices I made from the same cool reasoning that had turned that tattooed skin inside out, so the words stared back at me whenever I looked up, but nobody else knew that.
I graduated. I worked. I earned my place in the grown-up world with a deliberate set of smiles and words and laughs and open to close shifts to bring in the money.
I got engaged. I got married.
In 2010, I sold my first book.
In 2013, I'm still writing.
My brothers are doing well, I have a husband that thinks I'm the most beautiful person on this earth. I get daily compliments from friends and strangers—I'm adorable, I'm beautiful, I'm attractive, I'm confident, I'm talented, I'm strong, and so on.
I smile, and thank them, and I pretend like I don't know that they're lying.
Because I look into a mirror and I see the tattoos on my face. Mosquito. Blowfish. Disappointment. Victim. Shemale.
Those years in school shape a fundamental part of who we are—as people, as members in a society, as friends, as lovers, as parents. Sticks and stones break bones, but words don't have to break a bone to leave an indelible stamp across the way we see ourselves.
I am thirty years old, and I have left my past behind me. The names of my tormentors, their faces. The things I've lost and the people I knew.
But I suffer from depression, whose roots run so deep that I don't know how far back they go. I can never forget the verbal tattoos drummed into me day after day, the fear and the anxiety and—finally—the numb resignation as I trudged to the school bus every damn day.
I will never forget that teachers did not ask why I was sobbing.
And I will never look into a mirror without seeing the scars. Some I made myself.
Some they carved for me.
Mosquito. Blowfish. Disappointment. Victim. Shemale. Fraud.
They're all different words for one message:
You are worthless.
This post isn't for me. It's not about mending my hurts or erasing the ink—those things are as much a part of me now as the myself I've become. I'm not looking for accolades or problem-solving or encouragement. I know who I am. It's taken me thirty years to learn how to find myself under all that scar tissue, faded ink and crusted blood.
This post is for those kids who never give themselves the chance.
It's for the adults who don't know how to ask.
Confront bullying. Whether it's against or perpetuated by your kids or someone else's. Whether it's against LGBTQ kids, or straight kids, rich or poor, smart or athletic or whatever the "reason"–no reason is good enough.
No child should feel worthless.