I walk into 8th grade Algebra and – bang! – it’s exam day. I haven’t studied, my eyes keep blurring out the questions, and this is the big test. The one that determines whether or not I go to high school. In fact, if I fail this one, they’re going to put me back in 6th grade and make me redo that, 7th, and 8th all three. I’m probably naked again, but I don’t stop to check, because I’m too busy frantically scribbling down answers in fuzzy pencil.
I’m thirty years old teaching college, and a letter comes. We regret to inform you that the program under which you avoided high school has been cancelled, you chickenshit. If you do not suck it up, return to Western Brown, and complete your eleventh and twelfth grade years, your undergraduate and graduate degrees will be nullified.
Just a dream, just a dream, just a dream.
I used to go to bed chanting that, because if I could keep up the patter, it would carry over into my sleep, and I could be certain that whatever was going on was just in my head. But I often lost my rhythm drifting off, and on those nights, everything seemed real. Pinching myself didn’t work, because I experience physical sensations in my dreams, and so I felt the pain. But I had other tests. I would try to remember a string of events that led me to reaching whatever point I had just gotten to. No memory of how I got to be standing nude in the middle of gym class? Then it probably wasn’t really happening. My mind plays nasty tricks, though, and I could conjure memories of events I’d never experienced to fool myself into believing the horror.
So I would try to fly, and if I achieved liftoff, then things were OK. And if that didn’t work, I’d jump in a large body of water (I always seemed to have one handy) and try to breathe without surfacing. Of course, these things always worked when I remembered them, because it is rarely outside of a dream that I actually question reality in more than an abstract way.
When I was very young, my nightmares involved monsters chasing, but those stopped as soon as my accidentally wise father introduced me to horror films. Somehow, knowing about Poltergeist gave my subconscious a dividing line between dream and reality, and after that my nights were almost never filled with imaginary terrors. (Though I did go through a bad period when Freddy Krueger scared the hell out of me. Especially since there was a “Jesse” in the first Nightmare on Elm Street.) But mostly, the horror soothed, and I still I avidly read and watch it for the way it comforts me, limits my sleepless nights.
But it doesn’t stop me from dreaming. Instead, I dream about real things. Or possible realities. The schoolmares, where nakedness substituted for exposure, and my knowledge that everyone was talking about me behind my back (which was better than when they threw rocks) replaced the demon-monsters. And I think I would have traded back for the falsities given half a choice.
Still would. Because the monsters go away when I wake up. But the things that might be real, they linger. It’s actually been over two years since I had those particular nightmares, and it’s the first time since second grade that I’ve been free of them. But they still haunt my waking life, because getting bullied isn’t something that just goes away when you escape it.
My parents were bullied, too. So they were sympathetic to my plight. And Mom was in there advocating for me, ensuring that when I could take something to a teacher, the teacher was open to me. But how the hell do you prove the Jessie-hahas? How do you convince a teacher that the people behind you are whispering your name, then laughing about it, and, even if the teacher believes you, what can that teacher really do? The culprits have but to deny the action.
And even my parents were scared of making it worse for me. Mom feared that removing
me from one school would just leave me in another one to be bullied by different people. (And how would I have gotten to school with no bus?) I was in 9th grade before I brought her around to supporting the homeschooling bid. I escaped for one blessed year. After that, things were better, because I became eligible to attend college. I could get high school and college credit simultaneously without ever darkening the high school’s doorstep.
In fact, by the time I was thirty, I had been collectively out of elementary and high school for far more years than I had ever been in them, and yet those were the experiences that brought me up-sitting awake from a dead sleep until comparatively recently. (And yet some people who know me, know me well, still fail to understand why I say my children will never attend public school. Can private schools have these problems? Oh yes. And I’m terrified for Sam already, with such a rocky start. But I have far more control over my children’s experiences right now than my parents ever had over mine, or than I could hope to have if they were in public school classrooms.)
And it wasn’t anything predictable that made the nightmares stop. Time and maturity brought no perspective. The medications I took typically included nightmares as side effects. (The phrase “Prozac nightmares” has social meaning.) And I have always been a vivid dreamer, even when the thoughts aren’t scary ones.
It was Facebook. I reconnected with an old friend, and everything changed in my sleeping mind. I had three long-term friends in elementary and high school, though only two of them actually went to my school. And those three friends have been my stalwarts. I never lost track of Jenny, Genie, or Rachel, or not really, and I can still sit down with any one of them and pick up a conversation as if we’d never stopped.
But I went through a period in seventh and eighth grade where I actually connected with a wider group of girls. One of them even rode my school bus. (And the bus ride was so much worse than actual school, because it was long and the other kids had nothing
better to do than torment.) However, we had started to drift by the time we got to ninth grade, and by the end of the year, we barely knew each other anymore.
The loss of that protective group affected me more profoundly than I realized at the time, and it was one of these women that I reached out to on Facebook. The one who rode the bus with me. I’ll tell you the truth. I was terrified. It is one of those moments like asking Scott out that I still relive with a reddening face and quaky hands. But where I know why I was afraid of speaking to Scott before I knew he might agree to a date, I cannot put a rational finger on why the memory of sending a friend request and message to Heather-who-rode-my-bus makes my heart constrict. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been much impacted if she had ignored me or my little note.
Perhaps it is precisely because she did not ignore me that I’ve had to stop typing twice now and remind myself to breathe. Heather reached back. Suddenly I found that she missed me, and that was when I realized how badly I had missed her. She welcomed my request so warmly that it healed a wound she had not created. I stopped having schoolmares almost entirely. So I reached out to the one other person who had been part of our group who is also on Facebook, and Carmen was glad to hear from me, too.
Their online friendship doesn’t undo a decade of being bullied for being a smart, outspoken girl who also happened not to be Christian. But it puts that decade more firmly in my past than in my present, and forces me to have nightmares about other things. Things that don’t linger as painfully after I open my eyes in the morning.
This post (which, to be clear, is nonfiction) was composed in response to The Lightning Bug’s flicker of inspiration Halloween linkup (#21). The actual prompt asked us to describe (show) rather than simply naming a horror. I went about it sideways (I always do) and incorporated the next prompt (#22), asking for nightmares. I don’t say the word “bullied” until the halfway point, so I think I’ve met the original requirement here. And the school nightmares are worse than anything Stephen King can put on paper. Um. Not that I’m trying to challenge him or anything.