As a child, I acquired most of my education on the big yellow bus. The two particular experiences shaped me in ways I still struggle to define, but their influence— like indecipherable whispers —are an indelible part of my psyche.
The sing-song taunt “Mother-f*cker, two-balled b*tch, every time I look at you, you make my ti##ies itch” set my cheeks ablaze for three consecutive days. Dawn, a sixth-grade bully, delighted in my silent fluster as she peered over my three-seater to deliver a string of vulgarity before an audience of our peers. On the third day, everything changed.
Dawn giggled as she reprised her taunting tune, “Mother-f*cker…” my ten-year-old knuckles clutched my umbrella’s plastic J-hook handle as everyone’s stares bore through me. I seethed, “Enough!” She continued and I conjured the only threatening phrase I could muster, compliments of every parent since the dawn of motor vehicles — “Don’t make me turn around, Dawn!” More giggles. More taunting. More clutching.
Before the bully could cut me down with continued humiliation, my knees sank into the stiff vinyl. Face to face with my tormentor, five little fingers balled into a fist around my red umbrella handle, I exploded, “I told you to stop!” I was screaming. I was raining blurred- red- blows upon Dawn.
She slunk down and pressed herself against the cold steel panel, curled into the fetal position- a pile of tears, snot, and hair.I couldn’t stop.
“Please!” Her friend, Renee, squealed from across the ridged rubber aisle. Her panic broke my rage. I slumped into my seat, heart racing, hands shaking, ears ringing, eyes darting. The bus driver smirked at me through the long driver’s mirror. My stomach sank.
When we pulled up to Mountain View North Elementary, I was sure I’d be hauled to the vice principal’s office. My body stiffened as I passed the driver and descended the steep bus steps. But nothing happened. Nothing but mostly quiet bus rides. I hated the fear in Renee's eyes. No take backs.
Throughout my life, I’ve been in three physical schoolyard fights. All in elementary school. Dawn was my first. As for the other two, two boys on two separate occasions called my mother fat. Once in a classroom. Once on the bus.
Self-conscious of my own appearance, filled with self-loathing, such a slight against my mother would not stand. They could say what they would about me, but I drew the line at my mother. For one reason or another, I was hyper-protective of Mom. Maybe that’s what I told myself to rationalize my physical release.
Each encounter was not so much a fight as a rage induced attack— none of them fought back.
I never got in trouble for any of the attacks. Crazy.
Looking back on the bus (or each altercation for that matter), I’m struck most by the bystander inaction, including the bus driver’s supportive smirk.
No one told Dawn to stop when I was visibly distressed by her harassment. No one told me to stop when Dawn was visibly distressed by my thrashing. It took Rene’s delayed plea to snap me out of my enraged trance.
Maybe no one took the incident seriously. Girls are so often called catty...their hurtful bickering a popular punchline… their physical altercations blunted by the term cat fight. How much damage could a ten-year-old do to a twelve-year-old?
Maybe no one said anything to Dawn because she wasn’t hurting me. How was she to know that she inflamed an already oozing sore?
Consciously, I knew no matter how ugly or fat I was, neither of those things could cause spectators an allergic itch. On a very subconscious level, though, I was humiliated because her chant reinforced what I already believed— my appearance was so offensive, that I should not exist.
An early bloomer, I was rounder than my peers, a fact of which I was frequently reminded. Big- apples. Brownie- points. Lard- ass. Thunder- thighs. My physical appearance was up for comment. A constant source of scrutiny. My body was a public verbal dumping ground. I hated it...the scrutiny and the body. So on that day, Dawn paid the price. That day, in that moment, she was all of them.
Maybe no one acted because Dawn was known as a problem… and lower-income. In a way, she was my Nelson. She, too, was one of the others… another reason I recall the event with shame and remorse. Does otherness degrade violence?
Dawn wasn’t my last bully (and I’d be lying if I said that I was never guilty of bullying). But the size that earned me much mockery was also the thing that kept physical threats at bay. I looked like I could hold my own. And I mastered a stony stare… or what my mother calls the Yolanda face. My grandmother could stop time with her steely glare. I call it a subconscious coping mechanism.
The red umbrella incident wasn’t my last school bus lesson, though it was the most sudden and violent.
The next lesson, too, was delivered in the form of a vulgar nursery rhyme. The rhyme didn’t taunt me, it made me laugh. Made.
I was reminded of this particular rhyme after spending the better part of the morning at an auto shop perched on a spinning stool, feet dangling from either side, alternating heels tapping its metallic rungs. Back unsupported and sore. In the background, a talk showed chatted about Ayelet Waldman’s essay ( click if you'd like to read Waldman's essay).
I eyed the middle-aged man sitting across from me in a more comfortable chair, his legs, too, spread wide, inadvertently laying claim to the free comfortable chair to his right. In another seat, a young woman with legs crossed at the ankle, thighs glued at the knees, worked feverishly on her laptop.
Our varying postures flooded my memory with the adolescent rhyme along with its choreographed hand motions. More finger motions, really.
Over the roar of the yellow and black monster, my girlfriend and I reached across the aisle to initiate our song and dance.
Our ring fingers and pinkies pressed to our smooth palms, secured by our thumbs, with our index and middle fingers curled at the joint, pressed firmly together to mimic legs- “Some girls sit like this…”- crossed index finger over the still curled middle finger- “some girls sit like this…” returned index finger to its original position and spread the two fingers apart- “but girls who sit like this…” - index finger took a bow and the middle finger stood at full salute- “get this...” punctuated with a snap - “like that!” The taboo content cued our high fives and raucous laughter.
For one reason or another, I could never sit comfortably with my knees smooshed against each other. And my feet fell asleep whenever I crossed my legs. Suffice to say, I (for a time) learned to live with pins and needles. All the youthful practice earned me was varicose veins.
I internalized the song’s subtext. I was conscious of how I carried myself and believed any unwanted or unseemly attention I received was a product of my public presentation. Victim blaming at its finest.
Sadly this subtle girl-hate continues in the form of dress codes and other discrete practices and comments that teach girls that their appearance dictates a perceived value. Bare shoulders and thighs, open legs- these affronts warrant disrespect and pain. Shame. Boys remain helpless victims of little Lolita’s lure. This mindset silently condones cat-calls, rape culture, and worst of all- self-deprecation—we are engaged in a dangerous reality, not a game, that disempowers each gender.
My current posture claims more space. How unladylike. How insulting. To my knowledge, my adult comfort has yet to be mistaken for an invitation.
How absurd that a catchy rhyme exists to shame girls. How absurd that it works. How absurd that the slut-shaming and victim-blaming it endorses is the stuff of finger- puppet- theater.
Luckily, I got off the bus of body- shaming, slut- shaming, and victim- blaming. Luckily, all of these ailments have become the stuff of social media platform’s calls to action. Luckily, just by having conversations about these social issues we’re coasting down the road toward empowerment. But we have to expedite the next stop- a stop that moves talk to action and truth to power.