I was 10 years old, and in the 5th grade. One day, my parents made the decision to take me out of my private elementary school which I’d attended since kindergarten. I still know the school song we sung. (*starts singing in her head* When my friends ask me where I go to school I say, “I go to Challenger and it sure is great! We have *clap clap* teachers who care a lot *clap clap* good friends who share a lot, Challenger, that’s my school!”)
That single move took 5 years of habits built in an environment conducive to raising an avid reader with a wild imagination, a library card, and an insatiable thirst for knowledge (see my previous blog on my passion for learning here) and turned me into the precociously gifted and talented socialite you all know and love today.
My parents enrolled me in the same elementary school as all my neighborhood friends in the local school district. My grade was assigned based on age. The school was free, which freed up my parents’ budget spent on the moderate tuition for my learning. My dad lost his job right around that time, and suddenly, they couldn’t pay for private school anymore.
My dad worked implementing management information systems like SAP for other companies in Silicon Valley, after moving my mother from upstate New York first to Dayton, Ohio, then to San Jose, California as he landed a job with a small company called Intel in 1979. Apparently once a system is implemented and the transition is executed, there is little needed of the specialist who oversaw the project. It was a contract based line of work, so very often he was “in-between jobs”.
My mother worked for a company which ultimately got acquired by a German company called Siemens AG in production management/cost analysis/logistics, and used SAP, coincidentally. If I were writing my version of the Divergent series, I’d be in the super-nerd business faction in the right place at the right time, whatever that may be called, with both parents entwined with everything that made Silicon Valley what it is.
This private elementary school had no “school district” of which to speak. But all the other neighborhood kids went to public schools. They were basically my social circle, as I didn’t have many good friends at Challenger. I remember feeling disadvantaged socially, somehow, because I didn’t have them in my classes, or go to the same school. Going to a private elementary school was just as damning to a reputation as being homeschooled. Go figure, “disadvantaged”… Sometimes, I crack myself up.
I was also a minority in that private school. Most of my classes were kids with ethnicities of Chinese, Indian, other Asian backgrounds, and relatively few who would classify themselves as Caucasian (is that even an ethnicity???). Talk about having a childhood that turned diversity on its head, where the “privileged” were those of diverse backgrounds in the educational space, and the minority, or the underdogs, if you will, were those of European descent with fairer skin.
Somehow, that was a unique formula for an inclusive generation raised with mandatory computer classes, with the now archaic dinosaur versions of a giant desktop Apple Macintosh. The donated computer lab had tiny green-and-black only monitors in Silicon Valley, just as the Dot Com Boom unfolded and became not just a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ and Bill Gates’ eyes.
I was bullied at that private elementary school. On the playground. By a girl named Jennifer who was bigger than me.
I loved the play structure that had what I’d recognize now as a high bar in gymnastics. I loved to jump on with one leg bent around the pole and one delicately balancing behind me and just spin circles forwards and backwards on that bar. In fact, all the kids did. So we queued up and got x number of minutes and some kid with a watch timed until it was the next kid’s turn since recess was only so long. As long as I got one session on that bar per break, boy was I a happy camper.
I got off the bar when my turn was over, on no day in particular, and I went to another play structure – a triangle of leaning opposing ladders so you could climb to the top to meet a friend. Other kids and I liked to hang upside down from these bars by our knees, underneath the triangle. I was a huge fan, as I was convinced it would help make me just a little taller. I wanted to be 6 feet tall when I grew up; I read somewhere that someone who is 6 feet tall has a femur length of 20 inches. I wanted a fully grown femur length of 20 inches. And the award for Most Unrealistic Expectations goes to…
Anyway, Jennifer decided I was done hanging upside down because she wanted to climb to the top, and pushed my feet forward. Suddenly my knees were no longer hanging on the bar, and yours truly had her first taste of playground tanbark as I fell face first into the ground. She then picked me up by the scruff of my shirt, scratching my neck with her finger nails. After that, a teacher came up to break it up. It baffles me to this day what that was about.
So given my difficulties at the school, and the change in my parents’ fiscal status, off to public school I went. It was very different. Bigger classes, but my friends were there. I had trouble making friends other than those neighborhood kids I knew. Because I was the new kid, I was suddenly the most picked on fish in the pond, though nothing escalated beyond what I’d already experienced with that bully. Rather than violence, kids just reacted how they did, and I wasn’t popular.
Despite my disadvantages (*snort and smirk*), once I moved into a public school, I quickly learned that my previous school had been teaching me at a grade level about 3 years higher than my peers. That is to say, I suddenly developed all the confidence in the world, despite the status at my new school. I decided I would try harder to be liked. Because I was ahead in my learning and the other classmates were learning stuff I’d learned already ages ago, I became the class clown. I tried to be friendly with lots of people. Report cards I brought home to my parents always had comments that I needed to stop helping and distracting other students from their learning, because I already knew the answer. I’d raise my hand in class and engage with the teacher. I’d talk when I wasn’t supposed to. I worked that room.
Thus began my love of attention (being the Leo/only child/Chinese year of the rooster that I am), and positive attention at that. I needed it. I loved to make people laugh. Jokes, impressions, cleverness, timing, punchlines, and using new and varied vocabulary to which I’d been exposed in my fancy private school – I picked it all up, while everyone else was catching up with things I had already learned. I learned the art of coasting. I was learning the art of social interaction. I memorized lyrics of songs on the radio, and quoted TV shows and movies like it was my job.
I also found very quickly I marched to the beat of a different drum. 5th grade was the first year of sex education courses for students, so all of a sudden, the blurred lines of innocence recede into the distance as we gain an awareness that our bodies are going to change and make us sexual beings. But I knew then, when I just didn’t get the concept of “balls”, that I was different. I was like, are they Baoding (or Ben Wa) balls that you rotate repetitively in your hand to improve manual dexterity and strength? Is there like a silk pouch, and that’s the sack?
Change, my body did. I was awkward at best. I had a mortifying experience in my formative years. I’m going to share it for the first time with anyone since it happened. I release this story to the abyss, simply for the sheer terror I felt and the empathy or sympathy you, as my dear reader, will hopefully feel. I can see the humor in it, and it wouldn’t phase me at all if it happened now. Hell, now, it’d be considered “part of her charm, bless her lil heart!”
I was a moderately early bloomer. 5th grade was such a crazy year. I got my period for the first time. I joined an organization for young girls in my spare time, because my best friend got me involved (it’s NOT a cult). I figured I was good til the 8th grade with my schooling (at least in my head), and needed someplace else to apply my attention. Wise ahead of my years, I was. Or incredibly stupid. Pick one.
So, at the end of 5th grade, there was a class trip to a swimming pool. It was a big deal. There were no classes since we were graduating 5th grade, and moving on to middle school. Ahhh, the good old days, when we applied baby oil instead of sunscreen and didn’t wear seatbelts on the way to the pool… but I digress. It was to be a fun swimming day! Hooray! Well, it was supposed to be anyway…
I begged my mom for a new swimsuit that season. My favorite style of swimsuit was a one-piece, but it had a giant hole on the stomach and hole on the back so it looked like a two piece, with stirrups on the side to make it one-piece. My favorite swim suit ever was a little chartreuse (yes, highlighter yellow) number in this stirrup design with silver sparkles. That… was my Vegas costume, my pièce de résistance. I went everywhere in it. I’m sure my mother has a picture of me somewhere in it. Alas, I outgrew that suit, and it was so last season, so I had to get a new one. I found one in a similar style with a white top and orange bottom. It would do, so prepare for pool day, I did! It was going to be a-mazing!
Turns out that suit, despite having an orange bottom, was basically like wearing white bikini bottoms – completely see-through. Who has two thumbs and had no body self-awareness at 10 to notice the changes on my own body? This girl. Yes, my awkward little 10 year old self had pubes, of which I was unaware, on display for all to see when I emerged from the pool.
HUMILIATED FOR LIFE. Words cannot convey. At least for the vocabulary I had at that age.
When you are the first little lesbian out of the gates in that puberty race, it was social suicide. Thoughts crossed my mind as I overanalyzed it for days afterward. I didn’t choose that! It just happened! It was never there before! What the hell is that? No I didn’t know they were there; let alone showing to everyone in my class of friends. Not even being the class clown could pull me out of that one. Luckily, most people in that class chose to go to a different high school than me. They went to the high school in the “richer neighborhood”, because the Dot Com Boom was financially benefitting all families at that time, apparently, except mine. Go figure.
If that happened to me now, I couldn’t give two shits if my pubes show through my swimsuit (if I happen to be wearing one at all). I pride myself on not having had them completely lasered off (or waxed off) yet, like most of the women I know. Guess who’s keeping warm this winter. BOOM.
I’m 32 and I’m ok with my body. When I was 10, my body was doing all kinds of things that I had not approved. You get used to being in your skin, and the mortification of all things related to your body ebbs away, I promise. There’s something I would have told my younger self. Pearls of wisdom here; write that down.
My point, and I do have one (to quote the title by Ellen Degeneres), is humiliation at a delicate age is a precious thing. I figure my revenge, besides having lived an amazing life so far, is that there is a whole generation of young people out there who’ve never felt that humiliation. On one hand, I want to pull a Dazed and Confused and make them “fry like bacon you little freshman piggies!”
Kids need to know the angst, feel the raw human emotion of embarrassment. It comes with finding yourself through challenges and hardships like that. It builds character. Or as my dad used to say, it puts hair on your chest.
However, on the other hand, bullying is bad, m’kay. It not nice to bully, m’kay, not everyone is as resilient as me, m’kay.