A Tale Of Two Bullies
By: Cynthia Stewart
Legs. That’s what landed me on the bully radar. I was five-nine and my legs were twice as long as my body—it seemed to me—when I entered high school. I was only a seventh grader but in our town grades seven through twelve were considered high school and were all under the same roof.
Five-nine. As tall as some of the twelfth grade boys, some of the teachers. Towering over practically everyone in my class.
Five-nine and no athletic ability to make it cool. I was a skinny, shy, self-conscious book worm who loved the world of books better than the one I lived in most of my high school years. Also my hair was too thick, my bra size too small. But the worst of it was my legs which seemed to have doubled in length over the summer.
As I wove my way through the crowds in the hall, averting my eyes, counting the floor tiles, I might as well have worn a pep rally poster that read, “Wounded Wildebeest.”
But even without the poster the pride and its most vicious members sniffed me out along with the other shy, insecure students. They saw our wounds, the features that made us stand out and with the instinct of all successful bullies they knew we wouldn’t fight back.
“She” was fast as a lioness—good at all sports, exceptional at track and basketball. Not tall enough to slam dunk she didn’t hesitate to slam an opponent into the gymnasium bleachers. She broke a school track record in the seventh grade. She was great at sprinting. And at running down Wildebeests.
Near the beginning of seventh grade “she,” along with her flock of followers, answered with missionary zeal what seemed to me to be her calling—to make me always aware of my freakish height.
“Watch out for Telephone Pole,” “she” said as I entered the classroom. While not all that catchy or clever a nickname, it caught on.
“How’s the weather up there, Telephone Pole?” someone said.
“Take off the stilts, Telephone Pole.” There were muffled giggles as the teacher sat at her desk, stapling worksheets.
And then there were my feet. “You don’t need shoes,” someone said. “Wear the boxes.” Granted it’s not the worst insult in the world, but I still remember how it felt, the tears I struggled to keep out of sight.
I was fortunate to have friends who, if they didn’t exactly speak up during the attacks, would remind me after the perpetrator moved on how tall Twiggy was, how I had pretty legs, how the teasing was just because they were jealous. They were a well-meaning amalgam of bystanders and wannabe allies and I’m glad I had them. I wish they had been real allies.
I was also fortunate to have the encouragement of a strong, extended family. When I came home in tears with my wall of self-confidence cracked, threatening to crumble, they helped me re-mortar the cracks.
“I read in McCall’s that Jackie Kennedy wears a size eleven shoe.”
“You’d look ridiculous with tiny feet. A tall girl needs a good foundation.”
“Ignore them. They’re just jealous of you.” That one took the cake. Didn’t she know I was the jealous one, who just wanted to be one of them? Average. Regular. I’m glad my family was there, but to middle school students peers count most.
I was never pushed, never accused of “liking girls.” I was no outcast, but I cried more than once, maybe more than a hundred times over those high school years about the teasing.
I finally graduated. With a car full of friends, I drove away from the school the night after graduation and I didn’t look back. I wasn’t about to take the chances Lot’s wife took. I wasn’t about to spend eternity in that town. I had gotten through high school, done well, grown a body that better fit my legs, made some good memories. But not enough to erase the unhappiness of those years.
“Let’s get the hell outta Dodge,” a classmate in the back seat said to the pop and fizz of a beer can. It’s just what I did.
That fall along with two of my high school allies/bystanders I went to a college two hours away from home. It felt like another universe. It was the early 70’s when all the 60’s high fun the northeastern and west coast hippies were having finally woke up the sleepy South.
I encountered iconoclastic teachers who questioned the tenants of the Bible Belt and were not, to my Baptist amazement, struck dead on the spot. I joined friends in preaching universal love and criticizing everybody. I loved it.
A senseless war was waging in a place few of us could locate on the map. And an intellectual one was being waged at home between likely bedfellows, unlikely foes. Men and women. Feminism raised its head like a sleeping dragon.
Gloria Steinem spoke on campus one stormy night. She was three hours late due to a delayed flight, but we waited in the packed auditorium. No one dismissed my size-ten rain boots, suggesting I could have just worn the boxes. No one asked me about the weather. We all knew what it was. The winds of change were blowing, whipping our long hair. Love was in the air and no one bullied anyone.
Except for the twins. The twins knew we, my roommate and suitemates and our friends down the hall, didn’t like them. Yet for some perverse reason they still often sat near us in the cafeteria. Just asking for it.
“They’re joined at the hip,” we said metaphorically and almost literally, as these homely, identical twins crossed the cafeteria so close together you couldn’t see daylight between them. They always dressed alike. In winter old-women style coats, buttoned up to the chin, touching the limp, identically-cut dingy brown hair. In warm weather puffy-sleeved, cotton, little-girl dresses with prim, pressed collars.
Hadn’t they heard of gauze shirts and short shorts made from army fatigues?
“Too weird,” we said over our Salisbury steak and lima beans as they sat side-by-side at their table where no one ever joined them.
“Go look and see if they’re eating the same thing,” somebody said, invoking a group howl.
“Shut up before they hear you,” somebody else whispered.
My roommate, a worldly graduate student who we all thought was too cool to sweat, wondered aloud if there was such a thing as lesbian sisters? “Have you noticed how they look at each other? And nobody’s ever in their dorm room but them. Could be a regular little love nest. ” Everybody fell out laughing.
Everybody but me. I leaned toward the center of the table. “They know we’re making fun of them,” I whispered, looking around at my friends, “that everybody does. Aren’t we women who believe in empowering other women. All of us, the twins included, have throughout history been victims of male chauvinism… ” Gloria Steinem had not gone unheeded. “And here we are victimizing these sisters, our sisters because of their clothes, their background, their… ”
My friends hung their heads. Rubbery steak and congealed limas suddenly seemed to hold great interest. I stood up to my full five-eleven height, squared my shoulders, slung my long, black hair away from face and walked over to the twins’ table. “I am sorry that I and my friends have nothing better to talk about than… ”
I wish it had gone that way. Instead I leaned across the table. “Lesbian sisters! God, that’s gross. But if they’re ever going to get any, it’s going to have to be with each other.” Everybody howled.
“You are SO bad,” someone said. I could almost feel the wind beneath my wings as I shot upward in the pecking order. Had I finally left that basketball player and her cruel in-crowd behind? Or had I just indulged in a perverse form of paying it forward?
I wish I had not been part of making fun of the twins. I wish “she” and her flock had not made fun of me. I sometimes wonder how high school might have been if I had fitted in better, if I had never known the girl with the hateful heart. Perhaps the twins wonder the same thing about their college years—how things might have been if they had never known my friends and me and others like us who loved to hate them.
Did u 4get 2 wear ur bra? An over-weight boy in a shape-revealing knit shirt receives this text in the school cafeteria. Cyber bullying, using the Internet, cell phones and their dissing, kissing cousins to threaten people, have added new dimensions to bullying. They make it possible to say hurtful or disgusting things without having to face the victim and the damage.
But as new ways to bully have emerged so have new attitudes. In North Carolina in 2009 state lawmakers updated anti-bullying legislation. School systems are now required to implement anti-bullying rules, spelling out characteristics of potential targets, including sexual orientation. The legislation also gives guidelines against cyber bullying.
On the local level Safe Schools for All, a coalition of schools, non-profits, houses of worship and other WNC agencies, is sponsoring No Name Calling Week Jan. 23-27, 2012. Its goal is to educate about bullies, victims, bystanders and allies. Special events are designed to educate adults who work with young people, as well as parents and grandparents, on what research shows to be the best practices related to bullying. Youth and adults will be encouraged to have group discussions on the impact of bullying on individuals, schools, teams and other youth groups. Watch for the billboards, listen to the radio and TV ads, and attend the workshops. We all have a lot to learn.
Information and additional resources are available at Asheville Safe Schools for All on Facebook or at 828-232-5024.
We can push back. And what behavior would a bully better understand?
- Define bullying with your child* Encourage them to tell you if they see it—information is available at www.olweus.org; www.onlineonguard.gov
- Encourage your child to report school bullying to a trusted adult
- If your child is being bullied report it and document your report.
- Report bullying anonymously to the Buncombe County Bullying Hotline at 828-225-5292
- Nurture your child’s talents to give her or him success outside of school
- Monitor use of cell phones and the Internet
- Encourage your child to support other students who tend to be bullied
- From earliest age praise your child for appropriate interactions that avoid bullying
*Bullying includes name calling, spreading rumors, sending threatening text or phone messages, punching, shoving, or any form of physical or emotional abuse.
- When a child reports bulling, do something about it
- When you see bullying step in and stop it
- Use consistent consequences for students who are perpetrators.
- Keep a log of observations
- Make surprise appearances at places where students are usually unsupervised
- Discuss bullying and peer relations in class
- Encourage students who are allies and “upstanders” rather than bystanders
- Provide information about bullying to parents
Additional resources are available at the
Diversity Education Center (828-250-3827).
Cynthia Stewart lives and writes in Asheville, NC and is a new volunteer with WNC’s Safe School’s for All coalition.