Reindeer and Bullies

Since my earliest childhood, I have hated the Christmas song, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”.

I associate my distaste for the carol with the fact that I am now and always have been sensitive to the effects of bullying. Bullying was a culturally accepted child-rearing and social practice during my childhood, and, while still extremely common (and if you doubt that, just glance at the comments bandied about at the end of news stories!), is slowly being recognized as the abuse that it is. Nevertheless, when I was a child, no one, neither other children nor adults, thought a thing of verbal bullying.  Parents who did not hesitate to label their own children “dumbass”, “blockhead”, “idiot” or far worse things paid lip service to the ideal that “name calling is not nice”. Those same verbally abusive parents scolded their children when the kids mirrored adult behavior and mocked their playmates. This dichotomy probably resulted in many a psychologically screwed-up adult.

Perhaps it was because I was labeled “skinny” by adults that I felt such a distaste for verbal bullying. (Ah, to have that problem now!)    In the late 1950s, when my adult relatives and my parents’ friends felt perfectly comfortable discussing my physical defects, thoughtlessly and loudly, right in front of me, it was not considered a good thing to be “skinny”.  Like Anne of Green Gables, I had “not a pick on my bones”, and was consequently humiliated in a world of plump, dimpled girls.

But on to Rudolph. I encountered the carol in my first-grade classroom, and I to this day I remember my distress on hearing the lyrics sung so cheerfully by Miss Markey, my teacher.  “All of the other reindeer/used to laugh and call him names…”  The shock I felt at hearing those words echoed right to my bones, but I (always the well-behaved little student) bit my tongue.  At home, I’d been known to occasionally use a word or phrase picked up from my adult male relatives, and, had I been a few years older, I might not have restrained myself.  I’d have burst out with my Pop-Pop’s well known phrase, “The hell you say!”

Uh…if we laughed and called someone names on the school playground, we got at least a token scolding.  So exactly why were we singing about it?

Bewildered, I listened to the rest of the words of the song, feeling even more confused. Mind you, this was 1960.  Civil rights were but a glimmer in the eye of Dr. Martin Luther King, and racial prejudice, even in the nominally-northern state of Indiana, was rife.  But, due to early encounters (see the post of 06/01/2018, “Amosandra”), I, although fish-belly white, was personally familiar with racial prejudice.  And it seemed to me quite clear that  this was what the song was about. Rudolph’s nose was a different color. That made him fair game for exclusion and humiliation.  To reach the status of any other reindeer he had, in fact, to prove that he was better than they were–sort of like Jesse Owens winning the Olympics.

To me, a six-year-old child attempting to make sense of the lyrics, this song was not about his eventual triumph over humiliation and abuse…because the humiliation and abuse should never have happened at all in the first place. Why, my child-mind demanded to know, didn’t anyone protect poor Rudolph?  What was Santa thinking?!

It was a rotten song, a song that glorified rudeness and humiliation and prejudice, and I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all.  After that, I mouthed the words, but I refused to sing along.

And in my heart, I’m still that astounded six-year-old, sitting in my classroom, shocked to my core about a song which laughingly portrays bullying and bias. To this day, as each holiday season rolls around, I refuse to watch the classic Claymation show, and I switch off the radio the minute “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” begins to play. My heart will always ache for poor Rudolph, bullied and shunned and rejected for nothing but a physical characteristic.  For me, that pathetic little Christmas carol will never be about Rudolph’s eventual triumph over adversity, for he should never, never ever, have had to prove himself in the first place.

Only At the Holidays

I’ve made my own Christmas cards for nearly three decades now, each year choosing a special photograph or a theme as my holiday greeting to family and friends. At the time I began creating personal cards, the only way to do so involved bringing a printed picture to a photo shop and making a selection from a very limited variety of card designs.  But just a few years after I began sending photo cards, color photocopies became affordable.  Delighted with the new opportunity, that holiday season I had my young daughter draw a picture of  our family at Christmas—Mom, Dad, herself and three cats–added a greeting, and had copies made to send out for the holiday.

Not long after that, I bought our first home computer, which came with a wonderful publishing software called Picture It!  (which, I must sadly report, has gone the way of the dodo, but it was a fantastic software).  From that point on, my holiday cards became more professional, more personal, and involved considerably more effort—sometimes hours of work, in fact.  It didn’t matter; I  thoroughly enjoyed creating my special greeting cards.  I even created a succession of logos for the back of the cards, updating our trademark as family circumstances changed. Logo for Yule

But, just like the software, eventually my state-of-the-art Moo Cow computer—fondly named Hal, after the evil genius computer from 2001–became a venerable antique.  Nevertheless, I kept the old dinosaur hanging around, solely due to that publishing software.   Until Hal went permanently to the blue screen of death, I booted him up once yearly to create my Christmas cards.

In the years since, never having found an inexpensive software with the versatility and functionality of the old Picture It! , I’ve been forced to create my cards using just one side of the standard piece of paper.  They don’t please me nearly as much, but I’ve still enjoyed making them.  And my family and friends assure me they enjoy the special greeting cards and look forward each year to seeing what I’ve come up with.  Some tell me that they even keep each of my cards, while tossing “store bought” ones in the recycle bin at the close of each holiday season.

Yet I have one upsetting memory connected with my personal greeting cards and, each year as I sit down to my annual ritual of creating my special holiday greetings, I recall it.  And it still bothers me.

It was back in the old “photo card” era. Someone, knowing my love of all things Christmas, had given me a giant stuffed Santa.  Reindeer being unavailable, I’d perched Stuffed Santa on my daughter’s old red rocking horse, posed him by the Christmas tree, and snapped a photo, which I used the following year for my holiday cards.

I thought the cards were cheerful and whimsical—bright greens and reds, Santa and the tree, the silly rocking horse instead of a reindeer. But it seemed not everyone felt that way about my choice, for a month or two after the holiday, as I had dinner with a group of friends, something was said that reminded two of them of my annual card, and they began to ridicule it…right in front of me.  Perhaps unthinkingly, or just uncaringly, they made mocking remarks to each other about the greeting card as I sat there, listening and slightly humiliated.

I said nothing; what was there to say? They didn’t appreciate my creative effort. That was their privilege.  But was there any need, I asked myself silently, for them to have humbled me in front of our other friends by scornful remarks?

Gauguin is said to have wept over disparagement of his paintings by art critics who themselves couldn’t have painted a cow barn. And while I hardly compared myself to a great artist, my little yearly creative expression was satisfying, and brought me joy each holiday season…and I felt like crying  to hear it belittled.

I might have let that unpleasant experience put me off creating my holiday cards, but I chose not to. I’ve continued to create greeting cards, as I said, for decades.  And each year as I sit down at my computer and await the magic of inspiration to strike, I recall the casual cruelty of two former friends.  Then I smile and remind myself that the spirit of the season—true loving kindness—should continue not just until the last greeting card is tossed out with the wrapping paper, but throughout the year.

Amosandra

My mother grew up in a neighborhood that was well below the poverty line and (in an era in which only poor neighborhoods were so) racially mixed. At the time, the phrase “colored” was in popular use; citizens would not be either “black” or “people of color” or “African American”  for another forty to sixty years.

Because of her family’s financial situation, if she wanted pocket money, Mom had to work. And so it was that, as a very young adolescent, she began babysitting for a “colored” family up the street, watching their infant after school and on Saturdays, so that the lady of the household could go out to work herself, doing washing or ironing for more affluent families.  Years later, Mom would explain to me that it was because of this experience of caring for a black infant that she came to understand that we are all, no matter our color, simply people.  Our “race” is human.

Determined to bequeath that lesson to me, when I was about four years old, my mother sought out and gave me the gift of a black baby doll—an “Amos and Andy Amosandra” doll. The soft rubber doll, perhaps 8 or 10 inches long, was a rich chocolate brown, with painted black hair and eyes.  It was just the right size for cuddling into a little girl’s willing arms.  Amosandra—yes, that’s what my Dad told me to call her after reading it stamped on the back of the doll—was dressed in a little yellow knit cap and jacket, and my Mom made several little cloth diapers for her, triangle-style, gathered with a little gold safety pin.

Amosandra
Amosandra: The Sun Rubber Company Amos and Andy Doll.

Along with Lisa, my much larger white baby doll, Amosandra was laid to rest every evening in the little wooden doll crib that had been passed down to me from Mom’s own childhood.

Years later, when I was in my 50s, my father found Amosandra stored in the attic. Being made of rubber, she had hardened and melted in that unforgiving environment; she was too far gone to be repaired.  But how I wish I had her still, not because of her probable value, but because she was dear to me, and adorable, and because it was through Amosandra that I experienced first-hand the vile cruelty and wrongness of racial prejudice.  It was a lesson that would stay with me my entire life.

Most of the children in the neighborhood where we lived in the little suburb of Beech Grove were older than I by two or three years—not a large gap when one is grown, but an impassable chasm for a little child. Still, occasionally I was invited to play with Connie and Linda, girls who lived in nearby houses.  On that particular day, I recall, they decided we should play on Connie’s front porch, pretending to be moms and neighbors.  Each of us ran home to get a doll or two to be our play children.

I came back with Amosandra and all her accoutrements—diapers, dolly bottles, clothes. We each chose a corner of the porch to be our home, and I busied myself with setting up my area.  But, after a few minutes, I noticed that Linda and Connie were giggling, looking at me over their shoulders and whispering together.  My five-year-old self recognized that something was wrong, but I was totally at a loss to explain it.  Finally one of the girls spoke up, saying, “I guess Becky is a nigger momma!” and they burst out laughing, pointing at Amosandra and sniggering.

I didn’t quite know what “nigger” meant, but I knew from their attitudes that it wasn’t good. I grabbed up my toys and stormed off the porch, hurrying home in tears to tell my mother the whole upsetting story.

She comforted me as I wept and tried to explain. I don’t recall much of that conversation except a sense of bewilderment.  Amosandra was my favorite baby doll, and I loved her.  Why was it wrong that she was brown?  It made no sense.

In giving me Amosandra, my mother taught me a much larger lesson than she had actually planned, for I learned not only what she had intended—that we are all merely human—but the additional cruel lessons that Connie and Linda forced upon me that sad day about the evils of prejudice and bullying.

I never dared bring my beloved Amosandra outside my house again.  Forever after that, she stayed loved and well-cared for but played with only in my bedroom.

But there was one thing that I could do to mend the sad memory of that day, and when I was a young mother, I actually did: When my own daughter was just three,  following the heart of that long-ago lesson, I  gave her a black baby doll.

Judge Not…Sort of

At a summer gathering I attended some years ago, I overheard a young guest berating another for having worn pantyhose with her open-toed shoes.  Totally without shame, I sidled over and eavesdropped while the condescending young person explained that this was a complete fashion faux pas; no one wore pantyhose anymore, and certainly not with open-toed shoes.

It horrifies me to see anyone publicly belittled this way, so, despite the fact that I’m rarely assertive, I decided discourtesy was justified. I rudely interrupted the Fashion Policewoman to compliment her victim’s shoes, which were not the ubiquitous flip-flops but retro heeled sandals.  The girl under fire looked grateful for the change of subject and commented that both the shoes and her cute sundress had come from a vintage shop, and were classic 70s style.  She did not even attempt to explain the pantyhose, but she didn’t need to do so; it took very little effort to see a fresh surgical scar down one calf, partially-disguised by the sheer material.  At that point I glared at the self-righteous critic and said bluntly, “I think the pantyhose were a great idea.  I’m giving away my age by saying this, but that’s exactly how we wore open-toed shoes in the 70s.  Pantyhose without a reinforced toe were a new fashion then, designed just to be worn with shoes like yours.” I smiled at both young women and melted back into the crowd.  But what I really longed to do was grab the sanctimonious little faultfinder by her over-styled hair and yank her right along with me, possibly bitch-slapping her a few times as I did so.

I experience pretty much the same reaction when reading stories about the various shenanigans of the Westboro Baptist Church members. Administering a few head slaps and hair yanks to those people, perhaps accompanied by a kick or two, would be eminently satisfying, as would being able to reach into the computer to dispense a few good wallops to some of those posting cruel comments at the end of news stories.

I admit it: I am completely judgmental about judgmental people. I am unforgiving about condemnatory, negative, disapproving, disparaging and pejorative commentary, especially that made by individuals who don’t have all the facts at their disposal.  It infuriates me.

No matter how well-intentioned, publically criticizing another person in a social situation is an unnecessary cruelty—and, yes, that includes all the pejorative commentary heaped upon celebrities. It is hard enough, I imagine, to live one’s life under a microscope, without having the very hand adjusting the lens also writing vicious rhetoric for public consumption (fully half of it untrue or inaccurate). Let their agents tell them that there is no such thing as bad publicity; I’m not swallowing it.  Having hurtful and scathing things said about one in public forums is rude and miserable.

But (and here is my shameful admission) the simple truth is that I am so intolerant of judgmental behavior, not just because I’ve been the victim of it numerous times in my life, but because I have also practiced it.  It’s true: The bad behavior of others that we hate most is conduct we dislike in our own selves.  I am absolutely as guilty as anyone of sitting in public making casually cruel comments about various public figures, based solely on my own supposition of their probable characters.  Doing this—and I’ve done it a lot–is essentially slander.  And the fact that my victims are not, will never be, present to hear my comments is not the point.  It’s just bad behavior.  And to justify that bad behavior would be to be wrong twice.

There is a place, a proper place and time, for constructive criticism, which should be given gently and with consideration. A garden party, surrounded by other guests, is not such a place.  I’ve often wondered if the Fashion Policewoman took heed of my interruption and learned something from it.  Sadly, I doubt so.

The Best Revenge

Their names were (I think) Emily and Linda. Since the events that I recall transpired 50 years ago I may, perhaps, be forgiven for my uncertainty over the names of these two young women–especially as the only reason I have to recall them is that they bullied me—cruelly, continually, mercilessly, and without reason–throughout my first year of high school.

I no longer hate Emily and Linda, although achieving emotional distance took me at least 25 or more years. As adolescents, we are at our most fragile, most sensitive, and the distress induced by viciousness during that period is more telling, and harder to cope with, than it would be later in life.  As mature adults, we have usually learned wisdom, detachment, and survival skills.  Nevertheless, I’m sorry now that I wasted so much precious emotional energy on hating Emily and Linda.  Nothing I ever thought of them—none of my fury, none of my hatred—ever harmed them;  none of things I wished upon them (pain, anguish, failure) did anything more than keep me emotionally bound to my torturers.

And torturers they were.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!” we used to chant as children when taunted by another child.

It’s a brave, wise shield thrown up in the face of unspeakable cruelty, but it isn’t true. Words hurt.  They wound.  They scar us, less visibly but just as deeply,  as physical assault.  And those wounds and scars can last a lifetime.

I began high school already at a psychological disadvantage, coming as I did from the household of a Borderline Personality Disorder parent.   I had begun developing acne at the early age of 11, and (although I was perfectly proportioned, as I now know from looking at old photos) was told repeatedly by my mother that I was fat.  Neither pretty nor ugly, I might have been called average.  But at 12 and 13, one doesn’t want to be average.  One longs to be pretty, and to be popular, or at least accepted, among one’s peers.

Added to the burden I would carry was the fact that I was just leaving an 8th grade in a parochial school where we girls wore uniforms; I needed all new school clothes.  This was during the height of the hippie era.  Clothes were “psychedelic”, in hot pinks and shrieking lime, and paisley; skirts were short, boots were “go-go”,  and dresses were A-line.  In the midst of all this very definitive and silly fashion, my mother decided to clothe me in my grandmother’s used Chanel knit suits. Those suits were the height of fashion—for a 40-something working woman.  On a 13-year-old teenager, they were the kiss of death.

Plain, covered in acne, in clothes that made me a laughingstock, I entered high school. And Emily and Linda, popular girls leading their clique of sycophants, made the most of it.

There is no point any longer to recalling the things they said, they did to me; the degrading tricks they played on me, the humiliation and mortification piled upon me. day after day . There is no longer any reason to recall how hard it was for me to hold my head up and pretend to ignore their bullying, nor the bitter, gulping sobs that engulfed me when I was alone, nor the many, many hours I spent plotting and visualizing terrible revenge and promising myself that it would happen.  There is no point to any of that, because I was fortunate.  In that era, the local school system considered 7th, 8th, and 9th graders to be “junior” high school.  Emily and Linda were a year younger than I.  When I began my sophomore year in the 10th grade, I was stationed across the street from them, in the high school building.  I no longer rode the same bus.  I moved on, and they were left behind, to torture some other sad victim.  And by the time they arrived at the high school, we were worlds apart, absorbed in a school of almost two thousand young people, in different classes, different rooms. I never saw them again.

Except that I did. For decades,  Emily and Linda lurked in the corner of my mind’s eye, at the periphery of my inner vision, undermining my confidence, dimming my achievements, continuing to torture me–but only, I understand now, because I allowed it.  Trapped in the memories of those painful days, continually rehearsing old grievances, I remained a helpless fly caught in their spiteful web.

Forgiveness, I have learned, does not mean forgiving what was done, but forgiving only the person. Decades later, I realized that Emily and Linda were, in a way, just as trapped in their own web as I was.  Frightened; angry as all adolescents are angry, they chose to victimize me in order to make themselves feel less vulnerable and more whole.

I wonder how well it worked for them.

I was able, eventually, to forgive Emily and Linda, and in doing so, I moved on. And yet I have finally had the revenge I promised myself all those years ago.

The best revenge, after all, is in living well.