Isn’t it funny what the brain decides to hold on to from the past? As you get older, the memories become more faded, sometimes disappearing altogether.
I do have a few childhood memories locked in the vault. For some random reason, these ones aren’t going anywhere. And they pop up in my mind, off and on, with no rhyme or reason. And for the most part, they all suck. Like the time someone ran over a yellow lab in front of my bus stop. We arrived in the morning to see its guts all over the side of the road, and no one cleaned it up for days, I think. I remember waiting for the owners to tearfully come, but it never happened. Or maybe it did happen, and my brain doesn’t feel like remembering that part. That’s the thing about these old memories…I think the brain fills in the blanks when it can’t remember something, even if the filling in part isn’t true. Then, you end up second guessing yourself. “Am I remembering this right?”
Another memory that’s been locked in the vault comes from around 1st grade. Let me tell you, I might have well been invisible in 1st grade. I did not say a peep. I had no friends. I sat by myself at recess, leaning against the wall with my head in my lap, hoping no one would approach me, while simultaneously hoping someone would approach me. And this was years before any of my childhood trauma! God, it’s not easy being a painfully shy child. Anyway, this memory had nothing to do with me. This one girl brought something in for show and tell. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t even show and tell day. I think she just found something cool and wanted to share it with us. Her name was Catherine Wilson. She held this magical mystery item cupped in her hands, carefully walking to the front of the class. I can remember the teacher telling us to be careful when we looked. It seemed like a BIG deal, whatever it was. I could not wait to see it! Everyone was buzzing with anticipation and crowded around her like paparazzi. I was last in line, of course. The kids were pointing and commenting and even though I was standing like a statue in the back of the room, I was filled with anticipation, too. I was dying to see what was in there. Finally, after everyone had gotten their fill of seeing “it”… “it” was right in front of me. I hesitantly peered over the little Dixie cup she was holding, and nestled gently on top of some Kleenex was a tiny, delicate, sky blue Robin’s egg. I’d never seen anything like it. So fragile looking. So amazing. The only eggs I’d ever seen were the ones in my refrigerator. Gosh, Catherine Wilson was so lucky. Nothing this magical ever happens to me…
The teacher had us settle down and we went about whatever it was that 1st graders did back in the early 70’s. Catherine put the cup on the corner of her desk as she did her work. At some point, we all got up from our seats for something. Maybe lunch, or to get books, or recess or something that doesn’t really matter to this story. What matters is what happened when we returned to our seats. Or more correctly, when Catherine returned to her seat. Someone broke her Robin’s egg. I think time stood still for a minute. We all took turns looking in the paper cup. The pastel blue shell was crushed. No one was saying anything. She started crying. I can remember her face like it was yesterday. It wasn’t a typical six-year-old kid’s whiny cry. I don’t remember any sound coming from her at all, actually. But her face, and the sorrow it conveyed….well, that’s stayed with me for almost forty years.
I’ve reminisced about this egg tragedy off and on ever since. No rhyme or reason to why I thought about it. I never had any emotional feelings when I thought of it. I mean sure, it was a sad story, but forty years later, it just kind of became the “Oh, that was the time Catherine Wilson brought the Robin’s egg to school and some kid crushed it”. Not that I told that to anyone. I guess that’s just the conversation I have in my head, with myself, when I remember random things. Yes, I have conversations with myself in my head…don’t judge.
OK, now fast forward to a few weeks ago. I’m scrolling through Facebook and see a photo of someone I know with someone else I don’t know and I click on something and next thing you know, I’m on someone elses page, who I don’t know, knee-deep in their photos. Like I said earlier, don’t judge…you know you do it, too. Anyway, it’s the page of a local radio personality and I happen to come across a photo of her 7th grade yearbook. I look at the names on the page and realize it’s my grade. At my school. Puzzled, I thought “Wow, I didn’t know I went to school with Cat Wilson”. It took my 45-year-old brain a few moments to process that “Cat” is short for “Catherine”… duh… and the next thing you know, I can see that little blue Robin’s egg, clear as day. I stared at her 7th grade photo. Yup, even 6 years later, I’m sure that’s the face I’d been remembering all these years. Or had I? What if it was never Catherine Wilson at all? What if it was some other random classmate. I honestly couldn’t remember any of the other girls in that class. It very well could have been one of them, and my brain filled in the blanks for me. Or, maybe it wasn’t a memory at all and just a crappy dream. I had to find out.
I send a text to our mutual friend, telling of the sad, sad day at Hyannis West Elementary school in the early 70s. He relays the story and sure enough, it’s her. She hadn’t thought of that story in a long, long time. I think maybe she forgot. Or put it away someplace where she didn’t have to look at it. Can you blame her? That story sucks. Luckily, we just randomly crossed paths and I was able to bring that shit right back up to the surface! We end up connecting on Facebook (legitimately, this time) and go back and forth a few times, reminiscing about it.
Turns out, she’s a blogger, too. She wrote about this same story today, which you can read here.
So, at this point, we all know this is a tragic, sad story about the brutal demise of an already dead Robin’s egg. A tragic story that sort of became “just” a story, as the years passed. Until I read her blog. You see, now it’s not just a story about some rambunctious 6-year-old poking his thumb into some other kid’s pastel egg. It’s about bullying. It’s about not liking part of your childhood. It’s about kids making other kids feel bad for not fitting in to whatever is considered “normal”. God, this little girl got picked on for loving butterflies…
As soon as I read about her tormentors, my heart went into my throat for a second….“Oh God, please don’t tell me I bullied her”. Yeah, I had my spurts of being one of those asshole kids. At the time, I never knew why I acted that way. The behavior just sort of oozed out of me. All I knew was I felt terribly ashamed afterwards. Which, at the time, was confusing…because I hated that feeling, yet I bullied more than once. Of course, as an adult, I can now see why I acted that way. Trauma creates trauma. Luckily, I was fairly confident I only ruined a few kids lives back then, and was pretty sure she wasn’t on the list. But it doesn’t matter. I might as well have bullied her. I made other girls feel the way she did, so what difference does it make?
I’ve spent the past few days thinking about this. Of course, I’m now a completely different person than that damaged kid I used to be. I think I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to make up for being that kid. Not just to the girls I picked on during those few difficult years, but also to the girl I treated the worst…me. I’ve been thinking how when a child grows up knowing inherently that they are bad, they eventually end up acting out that role. I can’t speak for the other bullies out there, but for me it was almost like a way to have some sort of control over at least something in my life. No, I wasn’t consciously aware of that at the time I was being a jerk, but I’m pretty aware of it now. I had no control over anything back then. Not the feelings of abandonment, not the emotional neglect, not the sexual and physical abuse…nothing. I just absorbed it all, like a sponge. Total acceptance. This is just how my life is. This is all I get.
Forty years and tons of therapy later, I’m slowly learning that this is not just how my life is. I do have control over things (well, some things) And I am compassionate. I am not a bully, and frequently bend over backwards to prove otherwise. Well, not really to prove otherwise. I sincerely find joy in bringing peace to others. It helps me on my own journey to peace. You just never know what people are going through…who spent part their lives being tormented, whether it was by a school bully or a sibling or a husband or a stranger. You never know who has a voice in the back of their head, telling them “this is all I get”. Sometimes, all it takes is a small act of compassion, or more commonly…a small act of validation…to quiet that voice, or to change the words to “I am worth more”. And that’s something we all should be saying.