Friday, February 28, 2014

An Anniversary

March 3, 1992

We all have moments in our lives that leave a tattoo on us, seen or unseen, be it a scar, a disfigurement, or a memory so powerful and vivid that no passage of time will fade its edges to grey. 

There is always the choice with those moments - we can let them define us and the path we choose to follow or we can absorb them, find a lesson and move on whilst carrying them. 

This moment, or series of them, this memory is one that I fight recall on.  There are glimpses, there are portions that I can see in my mind with perfect clarity and there are others that are completely gone, as if someone took a cigarette and randomly burned holes in them. 

It took me years to process and internalize the lessons this day contained.  There were too many to take in that day, or even that year. 

Each year that has passed since that day, almost 22 of them now, I remember.  Some years it's nothing, just a flash of the past and gone and some it's a whirlwind.  I'm still a few days out from the day and for whatever reason, it's weighing on my mind.  It's compelled me to put these thoughts down in hopes to empty them from my head. 

It was my shadow for two years, following me wherever I went.  How often everyone else talked about it I will never know in the days that followed the event, but that is less important than how much it was in my thoughts.  How it hid in the back of my mind during every class, every conversation, every party, every moment spent with friends.  It went with me everywhere, it became my birthmark.  I was "that girl", the one that, for a short time, was gossip fodder. 

To me, I was unremarkable in school.  I was smart, I had good friends, I was on the outskirts of popularity.  I was fine with that, I never yearned for the upper echelons of high school society.  I loved where I was, with my fellow damaged and broken kids who were the best friends you could have asked for. 

Despite having wonderful friends, I had secrets.  I know we all do.  But my secrets came to light on March 3rd.  And when they did, I saw the true colors of the world in a lot of ways. 

I'm reliving it in my head as I write this and despite being 22 years out, the hurt hasn't dampened.  The shame hasn't either.  The disgust that I was a different person, a weaker person than I am now.  That I fought to be after that day. 

I had a boyfriend back then.  I'd fallen for him hard in the seventh grade.  He was as broken as I was, was even less popular than I was, and was, in a junior high sense, a bad boy.  Street wise but not book smart, I found him devastating.  We dated off and on.  We were volatile and he was manipulative.  We hated or loved one another depending upon the day. 

My friends hated him.  My parents hated him.  He wasn't very nice to me.  He had moments of being very kind and thoughtful and he had moments where his evil showed in his eyes.  My own self loathing kept me wrapped up in it all. 

This day in particular, we were arguing.  He was high, as he often was during school.  It got him through the day. 

I was losing patience with him for some reason.  He was belligerent.  We were standing in the hallway, outside of my math class where I would enter when the bell rang.  My classroom was in the same hallway where my locker was housed.  The hallway was full of yelling students, a cacophony of teenagers and banging locker doors and the squeak of sneakers on linoleum.  The kids lining the hall at their lockers were my friends, my classmates.  People who knew me.  In a school with a total population of 500, there were few faces you wouldn't at least recognize.

We started to argue.  About what I don't recall.  I do remember him being angry about how I was speaking to him, telling me that I was acting like an asshole to him because I was in front of my friends.

This statement, for whatever reason in that moment, made my temper flare.  I did something I'd never done before.  I slapped him across the face.

The force of the slap doesn't matter.  I felt it wasn't very hard but that doesn't change what I did, doesn't make it better.

His countermeasure was to punch me in the head.  Punch me on the side of my head that wasn't against the concrete wall of the hallway that drove me into the wall.  There are moments that followed the blow that I don't recall.

What I do remember was the look in his eyes before he struck.  I remember that.  Cold.  Angry.  Unbelieving.  Betrayed.

He hit me and walked away.  Walked to his class.  Turned his back as if nothing had happened, as if fifty of our fellow students and a few teachers weren't standing in his wake.

The bystanders didn't really matter, in the grand scheme.  Sure, they witnessed the abuse - the revealed secret being that this wasn't the first time I'd had hands laid on me - but they stood there.  I remember some of the faces but not many.  I remember the noise and then the silence.

I remember standing alone.

I remember walking dazedly into my classroom, unable to say much of anything.

One person came to my aid.  One.

He was a boy in my class.  Not one of my circle of friends.  We had classes together and more often than not, I ridiculed him.  Not in a bullying, go out of my way sort, but in an opposing political viewpoint kind of way.  His enjoyment of arguing with our global studies teacher was often more than I could take, his conservative leaning in opposition to my liberal views.

But he walked to me in that math class and put his arm around me and steered me to the guidance office, into the welcoming arms of my guidance counselor.  She knew me well, knew most of my secrets, knew my history.  I don't think she was surprised to hear what had happened.  She listened, she hugged me.  She and the boy took care of me before determining I needed the nurse's office.

She knew better than I that the nurse's office was where rumors went to be born.  We crafted a futile, temporary cover story that I'd hit my head on a door when a classmate had closed it on me accidentally.  I think we all knew better.  There had been too many witnesses and it would only be a matter of time before everyone knew.  This was a band aid, enough to maybe get me through the afternoon.

I hid in the nurse's office for the afternoon.  I had a concussion.  Couldn't go to sleep, not that it would have come anyway.  My mom was called.  I don't know who called her, don't remember that at all.

Then came the vice principal's office.  I was never a troublemaker, had never spent time in the office.  I sat before his big desk; head pounding, heart racing.  I had no idea at that moment what was going on in my life.
I listened to him drone on about how he'd been informed of what had gone on and that my boyfriend (ex boyfriend now? I wondered then) had been spoken to.  That he had been suspended for the following day despite the fact that I had hit him first and that I should be punished as well.

I should be punished as well.

I hit him first.

I remember being dumbstruck at those words.  I had hit him.  But I was positive I was living - and would continue to - my punishment for rising up to make a statement about what abuse I would continue to take.

I'd attempted to stand up for myself and got slapped down.  Not just by someone I loved but by a school administration. 

Life is a fucked up place.  I saw that day that the herd isn't likely to stand up and do the right thing and that rescue can come from the least likely places.   I saw in the days that followed that you can't anticipate how people will react to much of anything. 

I had a teacher try to get me to talk by pulling me out of class- not out of the goodness of her heart, but because she wanted gossip.  I had a classmate who I'd known since first grade tell me that I was a bitch, with the most contempt in his voice that I'd ever heard, for getting him suspended.  Such venom from him, such hatred. 

If there was other gossip, I was insulated from it.  I can most likely thank my friends for that.  I had enough without any more nonsense from acquaintances. 

If that's how my classmates remember me, the girl who got the shit beaten out of her, that's fine.  I was that girl. 

But I'm not just that girl anymore.  I was 16 then and had no idea how to cope with it.  I'm 38 now and there are moments when I'm still not sure.  I cry for that girl, that 16 year old who had been through so much already and was then presented with this.  I refuse to feel another ounce of shame for what happened, a second of embarrassment. 

In those few moments, I learned so much that it took years to understand.  People you know will disappoint you when you need them most.  People who mean nothing to you can be the most helpful.  People charged to protect you can be your biggest betrayer. 

And now that I've unpacked this bag I've carried for 22 years, maybe it's put away for good.  And March 3rd can pass every year from now on without the twinge of memory.