STICKS AND STONES

Treynor, Iowa. It's a small town of 900-some people. There are no stoplights there, but there is a post office and a grocery store. There is a bank, too, and the bank is the only establishment with a drive-thru. "Rush hour" occurs when school lets out, when the teenagers drive their hand-me-down Tauruses and Buicks and Oldsmobiles and Saturns out of the parking lot and onto the streets, onto Highway 92. Treynor is where, for better or worse, everyone knows everyone. And, for that matter, everyone knows everyone's closeted skeletons, for there aren't many secrets in small towns. It is unsurprising, then, that Treynor--as a former classmate said--is where "gossip runs deep and doors stay unlocked."

All the same, my little hometown has been making headlines recently.

Talk began this past summer--just before school started--when a student was arrested after allegedly sexually abusing four girls. The student was charged with two counts of third-degree sexual abuse and first-degree kidnapping. Allegations aside, there was one absolute truth: the student was the teenage son of the Treynor Community School district's superintendent.

The student eventually entered a plea deal, which left him in jail for two weeks. He was required to register as a sex offender and is now on probation for false imprisonment and assault. He no longer attends Treynor High School.

My understanding of the situation is gathered from the media and from the mouths of others. And, mind you, it is also pieced together six-hundred miles away from Treynor. There's a lot of opportunity for uncertainty. I can tell you, though, that the most recent headlines concern a petition asking for the resignation of the superintendent.

The town is split. Stakes are high.

And it hurts. From two states and a time zone away, the talk and the everything--online comments included--hurts.

In a story published by KETV, one Treynor student said, "I don't see bullying as a big problem."

That student is lucky. I sincerely hope that that student is enjoying high school, and--in the long run--has many a fond memory.

I have some fond memories of high school, too, most of which are related to extracurricular activities. Speech was undoubtedly my favorite. It involved acting, memorization, performance, improvisation, instinct, emotion, and bravery. There were the early morning practices, and the early morning bus rides to catch the early morning competitions in Des Moines or Clarinda. I loved it. I loved it all, and--eventually--I minored in theatre.

There were other activities, too. There was choir--though I am completely untalented at singing--and the yearly musicals. In the fall, marching band was always a joy. Furthermore, I treasured English, despised biology, and--save for those damn geometry proofs--legitimately enjoyed learning math.

I kept my nose clean, my grades high, and my mind on the cities I wished to move to. I always knew I'd seek opportunity and culture elsewhere, and my vocalization of that plan earned me a lot of criticism. In other words, in an exclusive community like Treynor, it is, at times, difficult to feel supported. It is even more difficult to feel understood.

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In high school, I was both the victim and the perpetrator of bullying. Words were my weapon. I made conclusions without learning all the facts. I was stubborn. I was opinionated. And I had both a fast temper and dangerously thin skin. I verbally attacked before taking time to ask for an explanation. I participated in gossip, contributed to rumors. God, I was terrible. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?" Bullshit. I undoubtedly brought heartache and frustration to others, including my best friend and a member of my family.

To this day, those are my deepest regrets. It's been eight years now, and I still think about all the things I shouldn't have said.

I have yet to forgive myself for making enemies.

And for being juvenile. 

I took everything to heart. When I was picked last in P.E.--for my obvious and awkward lack of physical ability--I was embarrassed. When I was ridiculed for whom I had crushes on, I was mortified. My self-esteem began to decline in seventh grade, when I overhead a classmate tell a friend that I shouldn't be wearing makeup if I didn't know how to use it. When I was a sophomore, I remember sitting next to another classmate, who was writing a note. The note would migrate down the row of desks, be opened and read, and would return with another scribble, some more words. Words about me. My heart bled.

I don't know if it was because I was awkward. Because I was weird. Because I was quirky. If it was because I was adamantly against drinking. Because I cared more for academics and books than I ever did about sports. I don't know. I really don't know. I was just ... different, I guess.

I was often teased about my clothing. To this day, I enjoy bold colors. I've toned down since high school--I wear cardigans now, after all--but, back then, I didn't mind standing out. Purple leopard-print pants. Zebra-print shirts. Pink shoes. Snakeskin pants. Black, sleeveless tanks. I wore temporary tattoos and white nail polish, and, on some days, I even wore chopsticks in my hair. I was repaid with snide comments, sneers, and--unsurprisingly--more words. In seventh and eighth grade, I was one of the managers for the junior high basketball team. On game days, everyone involved with the team would dress up. One of my favorite outfits included a black skirt and high-heeled, knee-high boots. I believe the word "slut" was most often used to describe me and my outfit. (And, mind you, I was thirteen at the time. I had never had a "real" boyfriend, and it would be two years before I received my first kiss.)

When I was a fifteen, I was sexually harassed for the first time. A friend had asked me to go to prom with him, and I had happily accepted. A couple of weeks before prom, the house phone rang. I answered it, and was surprised to find that the person on the other end of the line wanted to speak to me.

"Who is this?" I asked.

The boy claimed to be my prom date. But his voice was different. Higher-pitched. Not the same.

Not my prom date.

My racing thoughts were confirmed when the boy asked if I would be providing oral sex after the prom. "You'll be giving me a blow job, right? I know you want to."

I was shocked. I was speechless. But despite the dead air on my end, the boy spewed a few more crude suggestions. I managed a quick "I gotta go" before hanging up the phone.

I told my mom. I told my prom date. I did not tell anyone else.

Two weeks later, my friend and I had a fantastic time at prom. He graduated soon after and went to college. He eventually married his college sweetheart. The individual who impersonated my prom date was charged with assault in 2005. Three years later, he was charged with two counts of third-degree sexual abuse. He is now in prison.

No parent wants to see their child in prison, in jail, or in handcuffs. That said, no parent wants to see their child be attacked or abused, either. Sometimes, we rightfully want justice. But, for every teen, for every child, for every son and daughter who is visibly struggling, there is a parent who also suffers from a broken heart. You can see it in the graying of their hair, the lines on their face, the hollowness of their eyes. Parents will do anything to keep their children from hurting.

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I spent most of high school feeling utterly and irrevocably lonely. Even now, I feel unwell when not in the company of others. I love people far too much; I love laughing, and I enjoy making others laugh. I no longer mind being "the quirky one." But in my formative years, in my hometown, my oddities were not always welcome. And so, on weekends, I would spend the days at home, on my computer, playing "Rollercoaster Tycoon" or "Age of Empires" for hours and hours and hours. It made me forget.

For a little while.

Back at school, I was the girl with spitballs in her hair, the girl who spent half of economics class plucking sodden bits of paper from her curls. I was afraid to ask teachers questions about assignments, afraid I would be confronted with a classmate's snide "Why do you care so much?" Books were knocked from my hands as I walked down the hallway. True enough, the knock-em-outta-their-hands-while-you-can prank happened to many others. But, for me, it was just one more thing. I was already having things stolen from my locker--my hairbrush, my pens, my pencils, my mirror, my homework. Even the photos I had up in my locker were stolen. Or, sometimes, they were shredded and confetti-ed across my books. And on my birthday, when my friends would hang a homemade sign on my locker, I would often return to it, to find it, too, shredded. Ripped. Torn. On the ground and stepped on, just like my esteem.

It's amazing, really, how whispers in the hallway make us feel so worthless.

I didn't know what to do. I figured that teachers and "the uppers" would brush things aside, dismiss the comments and the pranks as "teens being teens." Sure, insecurity comes with high school. So do bouts of low self-esteem. And there are always jokes, immature actions, and kids depants-ing each other in the hallway. Girls are dramatic, boys are gross. Shit happens.

But, sometimes, you just want some reprieve. You want to go one week without having something go missing from your locker. One week without snickers of laughter in P.E., when you fail, again, at badminton. One week without spitballs, without name-calling, without judgment for growing up in a family who never had any money. So you do things you're afraid to do. You do it because, this way, people will ignore you rather than mock you. So you let them cheat off of you. You let them copy your homework. You let them look over your shoulder on tests. You whisper answers, sign the letters "A," "B," "C," or "D." You're afraid to get caught. You're afraid everyone will know. You're afraid of continuing to be used but, hey, at least things are "better," right?

We were immature. I was immature.

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I still take things to heart. I still struggle with self-esteem. And, when I come home at night, after deadlines have been met and documents have been pushed through, I still get lonely.

That's when I'm most nostalgic.

I think back to the things I should have done in place of the things I said. I think back, and wonder how I pushed through some days, and why I chose to shake my mom's suggestion of open-enrolling. I think of the cattiness, the gossip, the drama, the silliness, the jokes, the fads. And I wonder about others. I wonder how they perceive high school. I wonder if they enjoyed it, or if they, too, dreaded the mornings. I wonder what their perspective is, for there is always another side, another point-of-view, another value system.

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."

Not true.

I still have insecurities from eight years ago, ten years ago, junior high. True enough, sometimes we didn't know any better. ... But, sometimes, we did. I've done my best to move on, to forget everything that doesn't matter anymore. But all the same, late at night, I'm left wondering if I'll ever be forgiven, too.

11 comments:

  1. I bought chopsticks for my hair after I saw you wearing them once. ☺☺ This is the best thing I've ever read of yours. Its a beautiful and heartbreaking and so so relatable.

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  2. Kristyn Vorthmann1/21/14, 4:28 PM

    Dawn, this is really amazing. So many people, myself included, can identify with so much of this! It definitely took me back, especially the part about letting someone cheat off of you because you thought that would make it better..seems so ridiculous now but I did it way too many times! It's nice to realize we have grown and changed, but also makes me think about things I should continue to change. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Kristyn. I want to thank you, so very much, for reading this. It was a hard post to write and, at times, I didn't really know where I was going to go with it. I was honestly miserable for most of high school; and, even know, if I hear whispering, I worry and wonder if it's about me. That said, I made my fair share of mistakes, too. I just have to sit and shake my head at myself, because I can't change things now. We survived; that's a fact. What's important, though, is if we learned about ourselves and how to treat others. For me, I know it's more important to be kind than anything. And that is something that I have to remind myself every day, lest I forget my own lesson.

      Again, thank you for reading. Hope you are warm and well, cousin. Love you.

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  3. Kelly (Rath) Towne1/21/14, 10:45 PM

    beautiful- just like you. :) and i adore the picture...

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    1. Thank you so much for reading, Kelly! You don't know how much I appreciate it. Being that you were Keith's age, I admired you like another younger sister, and viewed you as the best kind of rebel. Thank you so much for your sweet comment. ... And I'll try to take some more photos of Treynor when I'm home next. :)

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  4. This post really hits home for me. We're very similar here on multiple levels though the one thing that I DID have going for me is that I was good at sports. However, that didn't save me from most of what you describe. I've always felt like the outsider, and even today I still feel that way in many ways. I came from a very poor family and never had the advantage of knowing the right people to get me ahead in life. I've spent the majority of my life working my ass off, only to be ridiculed or have others around me have an in with someone that gets them ahead, leaving me in the dust despite all of my hard work. In sports, it was that I didn't have the best equipment because we couldn't afford it, in other areas I didn't have the right clothes (I wore what I wanted and made a statement just like you), I didn't know how to do my hair (and still don't!), I was too book smart, I wasn't girlfriend material (heck, I couldn't even get a prom date even when I tried!), and I definitely wasn't a party person. Either way, this is STILL something I struggle with today as well, so you're not alone on that. Apologies for the brain dump, but your post just got me today. Thank you for that!

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  5. Very interesting post!!

    When I was in middle school I was bullied really really bad. I had racist things said to me and I was picked on in the classroom and almost got jumped multiple times. Pretty much 6th and 7th grade were awful. It didn't help that I felt I received no support from teachers or administrators. When other kids would say racist things to me in the classroom, I never once heard a teacher say 'thats inappropriate'. I had really low self-confidence and it was a very very dark time for me during those years.

    Something changed at the end of 7th grade and 8th grade was so much better. I had lots of confidence and things got better but then freshman year sucked. Somehow I managed to tick off the new people and was bullied again.

    When I moved to CT my sophomore year, I really did make myself invisible. I didn't care to be involved in cliques or groups or anything. I was just trying to get done. Plus.. my home life was a drag and took away from my H.S. experience. I still managed to get popular though.. and I just don't know how that happened.

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  6. It's naive of me, but I am always so surprised when I hear about this stereotypical "high school" experience where there are queens and jocks and people who were always picked on. I've met people, generally who come from small-town schools, who were like "yeah I got stuffed into lockers once a week." It's crazy how "kids" can be capable of such cruelty. My high school was quite different, mostly because we had 3000 students. Our school was a maze and our teachers, fair, for the most part. I'm not saying bullying existed, but for the most part, if you stayed off the wrong turf (e.g. certain lunch tables, stair wells), you'd survive.

    I was also in a math/science program within the school so my hours were completely different and I never had to deal with a lot of the other students, which I am glad for. It was strange because we were all removed from the crazy house parties, prom drama, drugs that circulated the hallways. Sometimes, I wonder if I missed out on a lot of the "traditional high school" experience, but I think I'm pretty okay not having to deal with it.

    I think you are really courageous to have made it through school like that. And just remember, those idiots that bullied you before will probably be working for you in the future. =)

    Cheers, Liz

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  7. The only way I've been able to explain the way high school felt is to say that we were all trying to define ourselves and fit in at the same time. We were trying on identities and learning how to police others' behavior before any of us had developed conscience or confidence. And Treynor's size is just too big for acceptance and just too small for anonymity--that middle ground where toxicity runs wild. That's no defense for the things we all said and did, the ways we behaved, but it's at least a reason other than "we're terrible". (Also, to be clear, it's certainly not a defense for anyone who sexually harassed or assaulted anyone else--that is messed up.)

    Seeing/hearing all this stuff has been hard, because I feel about Treynor the way people feel about the aunt/uncle/cousin everyone in their family hates: only people in the family get to say anything against them. Anyone else is an interloper. So thank you for writing this, and leaving in all the good, and bad, and confused emotions.

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  8. This is such a great post. I watch films about high school and teenagers and feel this massive sense of nostalgia for an adolescence I never had. Any film, any story, relating to school or uni just makes me feel like I should still have all that to come even though I know that I passed through those years but all there is is a great big black cloud full of depression and bullying. Sure I came out the other side but it will take me quite a few years to reclaim that period of social learning. Thanks for talking about it so honestly and openly.

    Lucy x
    La Lingua : Food + Life in Milano

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    1. And thank you for reading. I'm always interested to see how movies portray high school, because you never know what sort of stereotypes will be portrayed. ("Mean Girls" and "10 Things I Hate About You" are popping into my head at the moment.) I've always found a stronger connection to books, though. "Stargirl" and "The True Meaning of Cleavage" have always resonated with me. You're very right about it being a period of social learning--we're all trying to figure out ourselves at that time, and are typically opinionated when it comes to telling others what is "right" or what is "wrong." It took me a long time to realize that, and to realize that all that really matters is that we nice. Every day. :)

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