Billie’s Bullies – Part Six

(Originally posted Thursday, March 7, 2013)

I first encountered Mary on my first day of ninth grade as she was sitting outside the school griping about freshmen and how annoying they were, and how if one of them got assigned a locker next to hers she was going to slam it in their face every chance she got. This turned out to be a recurring theme for Mary—one verging on unnatural obsession in my book—who was ranting about annoying and immature freshmen virtually every time I saw her, which was often since she was three levels above me on the volleyball team; she was a teaching assistant for the instructor who taught my PE class; and because she occupied a locker barely a dozen feet down the hall from mine.

To those who know me and are familiar with my tolerance for asses, twits, and morons, it will come as no surprise that I soon grew weary of Mary’s voice and her constant harping about my fellow classmen. It will be equally easy for you to believe that at one point—on the activity bus on our way to a game in Glencoe, I believe—that I took it upon myself to prove to Mary just how immature freshmen could be by placing my thumb on my nose and waving my fingers in her direction.

I should take a moment to point out that, in addition to being a senior, a skilled volleyball player and a bit of a b*tch, Mary was a body builder. In fact, the same year she was grousing ad nauseam about her least favorite group of underclassmen, she also broke some school record for weight lifting. I don’t recall the specific amount of weight involved, but the woman apparently could bench press something in the neighborhood of 130 pounds—and she was barely five feet tall.

So to say my actions were a tad reckless is akin to calling Warren Buffet comfortable or accusing Charles Manson of being an oddball.

At any rate, and to my surprise, Mary did not rise from her throne near the wheel well and pound me to pieces. Nor did she grab me by the hair, shove me to the floor and kick me to death. Instead, she stopped talking—which alone made my actions worth taking even if the effect was short lived—cast her eyes meaningfully in my direction, and informed her fellow upperclassmen that a certain blonde freshman was asking to get her fingers broken.

You know what they say about honor among thieves? Well it doesn’t apply to immature freshmen volleyball players. I know this because instead of nodding in solidarity and vowing to back me up, my two best friends, Gwyn and Lisa (not the same Lisa who objected to the exuberance with which I play kickball, by the way) immediately informed me that I was both stupid, and entirely on my own.

Knowing what was coming, I decided during the Junior Varsity game to bite the bullet and get it over with. With that in mind, I strode into the locker room where the varsity players were seated on the floor having their pregame powwow, picked up my backpack, and headed back toward the door. I had just grabbed the handle when Mary motioned for the others to be silent, and addressed me.

“You think you’re pretty funny, don’t you?” she asked as her cohorts stared into the periphery like a herd of White Tail deer on high alert.

“Not really,” I replied.

“Then you obviously have a death wish.”

“If you say so.”

With a shrug that belied my terror, I opened the door and went back to the gym where Lisa and Gwyn marveled at the fact that I had all my body parts, and not one of them was bleeding or broken.

“She’s all talk,” I sniffed as the adrenaline coursed through my immature freshmen veins. “She just wanted me to be afraid of her, and I just proved I’m not. I doubt she’ll bother me anymore, and I’m guessing she won’t have as much to say about freshmen, either.”

To my intense surprise—I was right. And I didn’t even have to relocate to avoid a beating this time. In fact, we stayed in Eden Prairie until 1982 when we moved to Rushford where I would meet the Jarhead of my dreams. He wasn’t a Jarhead when I met him, but…well that’s another story.


Billie’s Bullies – Part Five

(Originally posted Thursday, February 28, 2013)

Thanks to Eden Prairie’s status as one of Minneapolis’ most desirable suburban communities, it was only a matter of time before I was no longer The New Kid. New students were arriving on what seemed like a weekly basis at Central Middle School, and by the time seventh grade rolled around there were enough of us eating at the outcast table for us to qualify as our own clique. This included the first African American girl and the first two Asian girls to attend CMS, as well as two girls who had lived in Eden Prairie all their lives but for various reasons decided to ditch their old gang to join our band of misfits.

One person who never spent a moment at the outcast table—despite arriving to CMS after I did—was Kirsten H. (I use her last initial to distinguish her from the other Kirsten—Kirsten Q—who seemed to have a surplus of self-esteem, but who was way too decent and ambitious a person to jeopardize her spot on the Student Council by violating the CMS code of student conduct.)

The absence of Kirsten H from the outcast table probably had something to do with the fact that she spent part of the day at the high school down the street studying German and taking advanced classes of some kind. Even now—and for reasons you will soon understand—I derive a sort of sick comfort in the idea that, as a seventh grader among all those high school students, she probably sat alone at her own version of an outcast table before returning to CMS for pedestrian classes like PE and Home Ec.

It was during one of these pedestrian classes—PE to be specific—that Kirsten decided to rip my pants in half. It bears mention here that these weren’t just any pants. These were brand new burgundy dress slacks that I had bought—along with a matching tunic and scarf—with my very own money. As one of the oldest kids in the apartment complex, I was making what I considered big bucks babysitting five to seven nights a week and spending it on clothes that would help me achieve my goal of not standing out like a poor, sore thumb.

In any event, for whatever reason, Kirsten didn’t want me to have those pants. Maybe their color or their texture offended her. Maybe she thought they’d been made in a Bangladeshi sweatshop by three year-old kids. Or perhaps she was just an evil witch. It’s difficult to say.

What was abundantly clear is that she did it. I may not have seen her do it but I did see her go to the locker room after class had started, and I saw her slink back out a couple minutes later. And she had seen me—and blushed—as she came back through the gym door, which told me something was up. So I went back to the locker room where I found my brand new pants ripped completely in half and hanging from the door of my gym locker.

Unwilling to undo all the progress I’d made in terms of fitting in since my encounter with Gretchen and Lori, I decided not to report the incident. Instead I had a chat with the gym teacher, who granted my request to be excused to the Home Ec room; asked me if I knew who had done it; and, upon hearing the suspect’s name, all too happily agreed to keep it between us.

I had just finished stitching my pants back together and fixing the zipper when the members of the next period Home Ec class—which included Kirsten H—started to arrive. I allowed myself the luxury of giving her one dirty look and then spent the next two days pretending she didn’t exist. Sitting in class and looking right through her day after day, I felt like Hester Prynne herself, quietly bearing my burden with dignity and grace. Unlike the Puritan adulteress, however, I wasn’t guilty of anything, and I wasn’t trying to redeem myself or induce anyone to have mercy on my soul. I was teaching Kirsten something about money and class—and driving her insane with every moment that passed as she waited for the other shoe to drop. It was delicious.

It got even more delicious when she approached me before gym the following Monday and in a voice barely above a whisper, confessed. Evidently she’d told her mom what she’d done to my pants and, as penance, offered to pay for them. I responded by thanking her for owning up to it, and telling her to keep her money. I wish I could say I did so to reward her honesty, but the sad truth is I thought taking the money would make her feel better—and I wasn’t quite ready to let her off the hook.

Eventually, though, I got over it and Kirsten H and I learned to peacefully coexist. Likewise, middle school eventually came to an end and we both moved on to Eden Prairie High School, where I would meet my arch nemesis, Mary.

Billie’s Bullies – Part Four

(Originally posted Thursday, February 21, 2013)

Eden Prairie sounds like paradise. A haven if you will. And paradise it was for most of its residents—at least until the late Seventies when the government decided to slap down a low income housing project at the intersection of Preserve Road and Anderson Lakes Parkway.

Being only eleven years old and having attended rural schools for most of my life, I was not aware of the impact high density housing—and government housing in particular—could have on the value of privately owned, single family dwellings, or of the impact that falling property values could have on upper-middle class homeowners. Nor did I anticipate how the resentment that some upper middle class homeowners felt toward high density public housing could influence how their offspring treated the children who lived in high density public housing. Personally, I was just glad my dad had finally found a place we could afford, and hopeful that I wouldn’t run into another Lisa, Maria, or anyone with the last name of Gilmer.

To be fair, both Eden Prairie and our apartment complex in particular seemed like a haven to me, too, at first. Our ground level unit smelled of fresh paint and new carpet, and discounting the house we built when my dad married my first stepmom, it was the nicest place we had ever lived. With the apartments being part of a development called The Preserve, we had access to two swimming pools, four tennis courts, a golf course, and miles and miles of bike trails. Since it was winter when we arrived, I was unable to take advantage of these amenities right away, but the promise of enjoying them with all the new friends I would make before summer came left me blind to the possibility that, despite its heavenly name, Eden Prairie was home to wicked creatures, and those creatures attended Central Middle School.

I learned of these creatures on the bus ride home from school on my first day. My dad had driven me in that morning or I probably would have encountered them before I even made it to homeroom. As it happened, though, I retained my hopes and dreams of making new friends through all seven periods of class that day—thanks, in no small measure to a girl named Sheila whose best friend Gidge had recently moved away and who seemed eager to find someone to fill the vacancy. (Although I didn’t get the job—owing no doubt to my inability to impress Sheila’s wider circle of friends with my polyester pantsuits and general lack of sophistication—I will be eternally grateful to Sheila for the chance to audition.)

Anyway…things only seemed better from my perspective when eighth graders Gretchen and Lori abandoned their seats near the rear of the bus to pay me a visit at the front. From the way they smiled and inquired about my old school and complimented me on my hair and clothes, I thought I was about to make two new friends. That is, until they decided to give me a make-over.

I was naïve enough at first to think they were actually going to style my hair and apply eye shadow and mascara. It was only when one of them took the gum from her mouth and squeezed it into a section of my unsuspecting tresses that I realized what they were up to. Having been caught off guard and with no means of escape, all I could do was sit there as they reached down and gathered handfuls of gritty, muddy, midwinter slush from the floor and smeared it all over my head and face.

Thankfully, we were only a couple of blocks from my stop when it happened. And thankfully, when the principal called Gretchen and Lori into his office the next morning—after my dad stormed in and told him what had happened—neither of them denied it. (Note to prospective bullies: If you’re going to pick on someone, don’t choose a kid who has an eidetic memory, and for heaven’s sake don’t introduce yourselves—especially using your real names. That goes double if one of your names hasn’t cracked the top 100 for baby girls in over a century.)

Suffice it to say that my dad’s actions—however well intended—did little to enhance my experience as The New Kid, and did even less to increase the rate at which I made friends. And so it was that I opted not to tattle, but to take matters into my own hands the following year when I became the target of the lovely and talented Kirsten H…

Billie’s Bullies – Part Three

(Originally posted Thursday, February 14, 2013)

Unlike the Gilmer Girl, I received no forewarning about Lisa and Maria. On top of that, I thought I was immune from persecution. I wasn’t technically The New Kid, after all since I had attended kindergarten in Onamia six years earlier, and I knew or remembered almost everyone in both sixth grade classrooms. We all had taken the same bus to kindergarten, and I would see or hear about many of them whenever I visited my cousins who lived and attended school in Onamia all their lives. Plus, as sixth graders, we were the top of the heap at Onamia Elementary. I should have been safe.

But none of that made any difference to Lisa and Maria. They hadn’t attended kindergarten with us, and they weren’t acquainted with any of my cousins. That didn’t strike me as a problem at the time, so I went on about my business, which in addition to learning, included chatting with my friends and obsessing over Abel, Chris, Kent…

Anyway, Lisa and Maria weren’t that bad at first. Especially compared to the Gilmer Girl, whose reputation had preceded her and whose appearance, sadly, reinforced it, these two seemed fairly benign. Apart from the way they would stand together in the hall or cafeteria and stare at me menacingly, they didn’t actually DO anything that scary. And even that didn’t seem all that frightening since they looked more like a pair of ghoulish ghost girls from a bad horror movie than a couple of Midwestern bad asses.

What I failed to realize was that, while they were staring at me, they were also biding their time and waiting to catch me alone. Which they did one day after a spirited game of kickball that ended with me lying in a puddle of mud after racing to catch a pop fly that had whizzed past second base into a low area in center field. After getting up and turning around to give the rest of my class a chance to admire my mud covered back and dedication to the game, I had jogged back to the building and up to the girls’ lavatory to get as clean as I could since there were still forty minutes or so left in the school day, and going home to change was not an option for kids who lived in the country.

It was there that they cornered me. “That’s what you get for thinking you’re so cool,” Lisa informed me as she and Maria moved toward the sink where I was wiping off my clothes with wet paper towels.

As if
, I thought. Maybe Lisa and Maria would have been embarrassed to wind up covered in mud after running like mad to catch a ball and stop the other team from scoring, but I sure as hell wasn’t. In fact, in my mind landing in the mud only highlighted how far I was willing to go for my teammates, which in turn had rendered my actions—and, therefore, me—that much cooler.

Apparently they did not agree, as evidenced by the diatribe that followed about knowing my place and not showing off, which they delivered as they continued to edge closer. Although I’m sure I looked scared, it wasn’t a beat down I was worried about. I was tall for my age and a tomboy, and I was fully prepared to defend myself. What I wasn’t prepared to do was get caught fighting in the bathroom and be sent home. Or, more to the point, to have to call home and tell my Auntie I’d been suspended.

So I did the only thing I could do, which was to storm past Lisa and Maria and pray they wouldn’t trip me or knock my teeth in. They didn’t, and I survived, and they never bothered me again. Of course, they didn’t really have a chance since I moved away a week later—first to Fridley, where we stayed for three months, and then to Eden Prairie where I met Gretchen and Lori…

Billie’s Bulllies – Part Two

(Originally posted Thursday, February 7, 2013 )

Having just moved to Milaca (in the middle of the school year, of course) I didn’t know about the Gilmer Girl—or about her fondness for terrorizing anyone younger than her who was dumb enough to cut through the park on the way to or from school—until I had taken the risky trek several times.

Fortunately I learned of the fiendish fourth grader before I actually met her, thanks to a couple of curious classmates who asked me where I lived and how I got to school. I had barely gotten as far as ‘the park’ in my story when their faces all went white, and they started telling me about the dreaded Gilmer Girl and why the park was to be avoided at all cost.

Having moved three times in as many years by then—and having survived the death of my mother two years earlier—I had learned to charm my way into the heart of almost anyone in my vicinity and naively ignored the warnings of my concerned compadres. Instead I decided to continue crossing through the park and resolved that if I encountered the Gilmer Girl, I would talk her out of harming me, make her my friend, and perhaps even convince her to change her evil ways.

I’d like to report that my plan worked and that the Gilmer Girl and I became best buds who still correspond today. I’d like to say she turned over a new leaf and now runs a charity that benefits the elderly or small animals. But that would be a lie.

In truth, I have no clue what happened to the Gilmer Girl. Judging from her reputation and our single encounter, I’m guessing she’s in jail—if not as an inmate then perhaps as an employee. I can just imagine her patrolling the halls and barking orders at the residents to keep them in line, or sporting a fancy orange jumpsuit and extorting cigarettes or contraband from the other members of her cell block.

All I can say for sure about the Gilmer Girl is that she was not interested in making friends. She may have been a person in pain who only needed to be understood, but that was not apparent on that cloudy, cold morning when she hopped off the bench and stormed over to block my path to school.

I can still feel the quiver in my voice as I explained how she didn’t have to beat me up; that we could work things out; that we could be friends. And I can still hear the growl in her voice when she asked, “Why would I want to be friends with you?” Knowing even at the tender age of six the difference between a rhetorical question and a genuine interrogatory, I didn’t try to make my case. Instead, I did an about face and ran as fast as I could to the edge of the park and all the way up Central Avenue to the uniformed crossing guard—and never cut through the park again.

Although we left Milaca for Mora part way through second grade, and moved from Mora to Pine City and back again the following year, I managed to complete third through fifth grades essentially unscathed.

Unfortunately, the summer before sixth grade we moved again—this time to Onamia, which is where I met Lisa and Maria…

Billie’s Bullies – Part One

(Originally posted Thursday, January 31, 2013

I listened with interest one afternoon as Princess Primrose told me about an anti-bullying project she was working on for the PR course she’s taking this term. I say ‘with interest’ not just because I’m her mother and, as such, that is my mandate, but also because I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the subject of bullying, and was anxious for her to conclude her thoughts so I could share some of mine.

Now when I use the word ‘expert’ I don’t mean to cast myself and an authority. Nor do I claim to have devised some new means or method of managing bullies or assisting their victims. Rather, I’m simply stating that I have had a few run-ins with bullies in my day and have survived, as evidenced by the fact that I’m still here–at least as of the date of this entry.

I don’t know if it’s typical for bullies to prey on kids of their own gender, but in my case all of my tormenters were female. As I type this I can almost hear the Jarhead saying “Of course they were. Girls are twice as vicious as boys are.” And I’m not saying he’s wrong–or that it has nothing to do with hormones–but clearly PMS alone does not explain it or we would not have any male bullies.

Apart from their gender and shared goal of making me miserable, the girls who bullied me over the years had little in common. Although three of them were in my own grade at the time, the other four were all older than me by a couple years. At the same time, two of them came from poverty stricken homes, while the other five were girls from–as one principal put it after expressing his surprise–good families.

Now you may be asking yourself several questions at this point. For example, you may be wondering where I lived and why there were so many bullies there. You may also be wondering what kind of school I went to, and why the faculty did nothing to stop it. On the other hand, you may be wondering what the hell I did to cause seven different people to hate me over the course of one short childhood. Then again—and especially if you know me—you may be wondering how it is that I wasn’t routinely harassed and hounded by a dozen or so more.

The shocking reality is that I went to nine different schools in the thirteen l-o-n-g years of my elementary and high school education, and thus spent more than my share of time as The New Kid—or, literally, a moving target. I attended three of the nine twice—meaning I moved away and moved back, once within the same grade—so I didn’t have to deal with being The New Kid every time my family relocated. On the other hand, in sixth grade I attended three different schools so it all kind of evened out.

I encountered my first bully when I was six years old and a first grader in Mrs. Roehl’s class at Milaca Elementary School. I was a walker—meaning, I walked to school. From the Key Row Apartments at 4th Street NW to the old Elementary School building on Central Avenue it was about a nine block walk (which is a much greater distance than you would let a six year-old go by herself today; but this was 1973) and you could save some time and energy by crossing through the park between 2nd and 1st streets over to Central Avenue.

That is, unless you came face to face with the Gilmer Girl…