We were coming up towards the end of the grading last weekend, and I was up against two other guys. It was going to be tough – I knew it would be, I’d been carefully avoiding thinking about how tough it would be, because it was how people lost – but right there, right at the finish line, my breath started coming short, my throat dried up, and I felt like I was sucking air through a straw.
And I still had two guys to deal with.
That wasn’t my first experience with fear. As already covered, I am, by nature, a fearful person. A natural worrier, if you prefer. I remember a particular episode (I was young, but not that young) where I burst into tears because it occurred to me I would die soon. I wasn’t sick (for a change) and I wasn’t hurting, but I believed that time would compress itself and in no time, I would be a gnarled old lady struggling to catch a breath. I believed that with the certainty of a prophet.
My fears run far and deep and vary from the very bizarre to the downright dystopian. But here’s the thing: there are only a handful of times that I felt I couldn’t deal. And those times… those times are when the fear grows into a full-blown terror.
Flash forward. Or rather, flashback. A bus stop, and me, on my way to school. I’m in 8th grade and we’re pretty far into the year. My French is improving. My maths isn’t. But I’m not thinking about trig or the subjonctif. My bus is coming around the corner and for some reason, my heart is beating really, really fast. Something is squeezing my lungs. I can’t breathe.
I can’t get on this, I think. I can’t go.
The public transport is better in spring than it is in winter, but still, if I miss this one, I won’t be able to catch another bus for at least 20 minutes. I’ll be late. I don’t have a note. This would go on my record, not to mention my teacher will be awfully disappointed. I’d have to go to our GP and ask him for some medical excuse, but then I’d have to explain to my parents why I did that.
I’m not ready to have that conversation again. I’m tired of having it because there are rarely ever any results.
The bus doors open, and I’m terrified to get on. But I do, and I brace myself for the next 6 hours.
Did you have a slam book when you were in school? They were all the rage when I was 11-13, but they also made a special appearance in the 8th grade, because everyone was new at my school, friendships had to be formed, alliances had to be reinforced, and the geeks and weirdos had to be put in their place. In middle school, I’d written some nasty things in slam books myself. Nothing anybody else hadn’t put in, but not exactly going out on a limb to protect the innocent, either. I suppose karma had this one coming for me.
Some of the comments I can still cite verbatim. Others have faded from memory, although I do remember they had something to do with my breasts and what the writer wanted to do with them. I’d been called a bitch, a cunt, stupid, crazy, angry, in any combination and order people could think of.
What had I done to deserve this? I didn’t respond too well to teasing and hit somebody.
To this day, I wonder how did the teachers not drag me off to the principle’s office for a reprimand. I mean, doesn’t that happen when a student gets into a fight with another student? Especially if you threw the first punch, there is nothing that can save you. Was it my gender? I was a girl and he was a boy and therefore, it was fair game? Or did the teachers know he was bullying me and turned a blind eye?
I can’t remember any specific things from that year – I learned my French in the following years, and I never really got around using trig in real life. My mind switched off then.
I remember with my body – the fear making my heart clench, the hot spikes of anger in my gut, the frustration giving me migraines, and unfairness souring my breath. I may not have started off that year as a hag, but by the end of it, I must have well and truly grown into the part. Some days I dreamt of not going to school. Others (more often) I dreamt of finally doing enough damage for him to leave me alone. Even now, sitting here, I can’t help a freeze creeping through my spine and straight into the base of my skull.
It’s been 10 years. Surely it doesn’t matter anymore.
But what if it does?
The worst part of that time was how, under the anger and indignation – why isn’t anybody stopping this? Why is everyone letting him say these things to me? Why is the teacher not stepping up? – I believed that I’d earned this. If only I was more pleasant, better socialised. If only I did the things other people did, like getting drunk at parties and making friends, I’d have a crew to back me. I wouldn’t even have to deal with teasing or bullying – I’d deflect everything with my superior wit.
Instead, I was a loner. I was an outsider. I was a girl who was too sensitive and who couldn’t take a joke. Big surprise they hated me.
I wish I could step through a time portal and show you how wrong you are. Or, at the very least, I want to show you a time when you are doing martial arts and facing off two guys at once, not because you’re a badass now, but because you were a badass then. You always had nerve – the same nerve that let you believe you can do sports and grade in a tough martial art is what got you through some of the toughest months of your life.
You will remember the terror of seeing that bus approach.
You will forget that you got on it anyway.
But you did. And you will continue to.