If you asked the kids in my middle school class if they had bullied me they would firmly say “No”. Appalled at the question or the mere idea that at some point of their lives, someone construed their actions and responses so malicious and hurtful to the point of labelling it harassment.
When I was nine years old, my parents moved me from the 8-4-4 Kenyan National Schooling System to the British System. I was an immediate outcast. My wool braids too basic, my accent too thick and my exposure shallow. I had a nervous habit of picking at my lips and nails, a visible slouch and a tangible awkwardness about myself. I was a year or two younger than most of the class: my whole being felt lacklustre. A wire fence sat between I and them; a class of 32 children most of whom had grown up around each other, I stuck out. To soothe the brunt of being rejected by my cohort, I began writing in a diary. It wasn’t a proper one; just a basic notebook which was to be used to practice my cursive writing. I also befriended the junior classes and split my free time between them and the library.
The most amazing thing about all the kids around me is that they were selectively frigid. I was a disruption: clunky, rude at times and intolerably insecure. The ideal target. I quickly began to fill my “diary”; most entries were sour, long sentences detailing my misery at both school and home. I often mentioned my classmates by name and even wrote about my teachers. The art of secrecy i.e. code names was lost on me. Once in a while, I would write about a crush I had, a friend I’d met, a good day. I was as much an avid writer as my classmates were readers; ever looking for new material to breeze through and discuss.
On the second term of the year, my classmates happed upon my “diary”. All the times I spent alone in one corner or the other of the small school bent over the notebook surely couldn’t be to practice handwriting. It was always too close to me and too full to be slanted sentences about quick brown foxes and lazy black dogs. One morning after the Friday assembly, when walking back to homeroom, my classmate walked up to me and engaged me in pleasantries. I had had a crush on him earlier in the year- and made keen record of this. This must’ve been why he was tasked with stalling me: I was unsuspecting. Middle school kids find strength in groups and it was odd to me that he walked slowly beside me while his friends sped up the stairs. He had a haughty expression on his face and I read it too late. My heart stopped and my eyes widened; I bolted to class.
Peering in through the classroom window, I saw them gathered around my desk, skimming through my entries. My eyes brimmed and I could think of no other place to go than our class teacher’s office across the hall. Another classmate saw me slip in and followed. We stood there awkwardly glaring at each other; the teacher hardly noticed. I knew I couldn’t say anything about the diary because he was quick on his feet. Anything I could come up with; he could counter just as well. My plan to ally the teacher to me had tanked. I mumbled a question about the upcoming class trip and left. I stormed into class and bee-lined for my open desk avoiding all the glares and pity stares. I flipped the desk top down and sunk into the new rock bottom. My diary was not in it’s usual corner.
I sat still, hands clasped staring at my chapped nails, rehearsing my defence. I could almost hear their case through the closed office door; “she has been slandering us, look! She even wrote about you, she thinks you’re partial and hates your hair; she hates us all!”. I sighed concluding that if ever I needed divine intervention, now would be the ideal time. Our teacher didn’t have time for this: she was gearing up to chaperone a junior class’ overnight trip, mediating would take time she didn’t have. The next best thing, she decided, was class court. I would sit facing my accusers, we would talk it out, settle it, and never bring it up again. The Science teacher sat in for her, emphasising that he was nothing more than a coordinator. He brought test papers and settled in to marking them. He congratulated the class on being so reasonable and settling for dispute resolution, he admired their maturity. The staff-room had heard and I looked bad; my perfect teacher’s credit was eroded. He made sure to avoid my eyes as he commenced the court.
The wire fence settled deeper between us and the frigidity turned up. Our class teacher suggested that they try to understand why I felt that the only person I could talk to was my diary- which was brimming with vitriol. Any anger I felt that my classmates had violated my space and rummaged through my personal effects clearly had no place in this court. I sat alone and braced myself for the barrage. Three quarters of the class looked on bemusedly as I tried to keep my tears from falling while being dressed down. I swore to never be this vulnerable to embarrassment again. Two years later, the same thing happened.
They had done it before and felt an encore was due. This time, I had found some friends and some favour with my classmates. I had made sure to tuck the book in the deep recesses of my rucksack, I however brought it out often enough. They’d found it and pored through. The new kids stood stunned as I stormed in and grabbed the diary back, I knew that every chance of high school not sucking was dissolving faster than my will to forgive my classmates. My Mother’s lessons on calm and composure took a backseat, I exploded into a angry frenzy. This time, there were no tears and no court.
Severally over the years, when I would reach a level of amity with them, the memory of embarrassment and helplessness I’d felt would flood in anew. Twice bitten. The fence stood steady; no matter how well we grew to like each other. I remained weird and easy to mock. My awkwardness through the years proved meaty a material for discussion, diary or none. Even the upperclassmen joined in poking fun at my misfit-ness. Later that year, heading home on the school bus, the boy who had stalled me in middle school asked if I had a diary. I replied with an honest yes. His eyes lit up and asked if he could have a skim through; I smiled through my mounting rage and playfully refused. That night, I bound up the pages of the journal and boxed it away. Énouement burst through my whole being the first time I recalled this and found humour. I laughed at how I didn’t need practise after all; my handwriting was perfectly legible.
After all these years I’ve finally understood that the fence held me back only as much as I held it up.
-On why the little things are gigantic.