“Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words can never hurt me.”
I wince at the public pool when an overweight woman pulls herself up the ladder and pauses in a puddle to get her breath. A tiny 3-year old girl watches her and announces, “That guy’s fat!”
My legs fold. I sink, then dart away. By the time I come up for air, her mother is dragging the child to the locker room.
“Don’t ever say anything like that again! You hurt her feelings!”
Now we are all ashamed. And although we want to, none of us will forget this moment. Words carry a powerful punch.
In the classroom, I offer my students a strategy to avoid the blow of cruel remarks: abstinence.
“You don’t have to go for the cheap laugh. Haven’t you ever been the butt of a joke?” Of course they have.
“You don’t have to insult someone to feel good about yourself. Think how the other person feels.” They think they can’t afford to.
“And sometimes you have to act like you don’t care what people say. Just walk away.” They think I don’t know what I’m talking about.
My own system for buffering perceived peer rejection was to alternate between squinting and sleepwalking through most of the stretch from seventh grade to high school graduation. In effect, I said good night when I was twelve and woke up at eighteen, all packed and ready to attend a small liberal arts college in the Midwest.
But vivid dreams populate such long naps through adolescence. There are uncomfortable body changes, ugly pimples, oily skin. No one monitors how I spend my lunch money, so for six years I approach the glass-enclosed snack cabinet like a zombie every day at exactly the same time. I buy the same three items from the same lady in white: a Three Musketeers, a bag of Fritos, and a box of Luden’s Cherry Cough Drops.
In this nightmare, the cafeteria is a sea of unfocused faces, a wobbly watercolor painting. I navigate the visual static with the same acute sense of hearing that makes me dangerous on the tennis court. (I refuse to wear the dorky glasses that would sharpen the edges and bring objects in about a hundred feet.)
I only hope that I am as fuzzy as everyone else. I aim toward one edge of the din, groping for a vacant table where I can blend in and consume my chocolate, salt, and pectin in anonymity. One noon as I settle into that island of familiar tastes and soothing textures, a form emerges from the haze and beckons me.
“Moi?” I gesture in astonishment.
“Come to me,” he re-beckons.
I wade toward the vision in slow motion, and finally recognize him. He is the handsome and talented rookie quarterback on my big brother’s football team. Yes, I shagged balls for them in the field behind our house last summer! He’s sitting at the jocks’ table and he wants to ask me something. I imagine he’s already told them I’m a pretty good receiver.
“HEY, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THAT GUY?”
I can’t think what he’s referring to, but I keep smiling as I glide closer, arms alive with goosebumps, self confidence surging as I approach this table of elites.
“WHERE DID HE GO? WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM?”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about. What guy?”
“THE GUY WHO RAN OVER YOUR FACE!”
Boy, is there a riotous burst of laughter!
Boy, am I a good sport!
I have practiced at home in the mirror, rehearsing for a potential spotlight moment in my dormant social life. I can roll my eyes, raise one eyebrow, flare my nostrils, wink, and pout. But right now, I have no idea what to do with my face.
Somehow I cover it and lurch away, scooping up the rest of the corn chips and cough drops. I am in a hurry to disintegrate.
I burst through the door of a nearby restroom and push past the pack of smokers. Please let me make it into a stall before my face breaks the rest of the way.
I hole up in there for about forty minutes till all the lunch periods are over. The bathroom is empty and quiet. There is no more tissue on the roll, so I come out and wet some paper towels. I squint at the mirror. I look like I have been run over.
Eventually the sting fades and humor returns. Over the years, many of my students cringe at this story and feel sorry for me.
But I tell them I’ve moved on and they can, too. Saving face seems so important when everyone agrees that image is everything. But sometimes losing face is surprisingly liberating.
And, yes, sometimes I still wonder what happened to that guy.