When it came up later, my mother said that my problems started in third grade. “Katie was always the top dog until then,” she said, as if I were some kind of show animal who had lost rank at the latest exhibition. “Then the other kids began to give her trouble.”
There is some truth in that, I suppose. Certainly third grade was when I entered hell and knew it for the first time. Until then I had gone to a private girls’ school and if I was not happy there, at least the torment was less overt. Kids’ stuff. Not being allowed to take part in the jump rope games for some reason known only to the popular girls who ran them. Always being cast as the evil witch or the vampire in games of make-believe. It may not seem like much to an adult, but as a child it gets to you. It makes you see yourself as an outsider. Never the beautiful princess; always the demon who, in the end, is killed and has to lie freezing in a heap of snow on the playground while the others pelt you with balls of ice.
But I never thought to complain about any of that. Nor did I complain about the girls who poked fun at my pudgy figure (“jelly belly,” they called me, and I wonder why now. When I look at pictures from that time I can see I was no larger than any of the rest of them). I said nothing about the woman who watched me after school, who beat me with a wooden spoon when her son got into trouble.
I said nothing about the incidents, but I did beg my mother to put me on a diet (“you’re too young to worry about that.”). I developed mysterious physical symptoms: pains in my legs so bad that I couldn’t straighten them or walk for a month. My mother took me to a doctor who could find nothing wrong; I was labeled a hypochondriac, a word which stuck to me for many years to come. Still and all, that school was better than the one that came after.
When I was in second grade, the girls’ school ran into financial difficulties, which they solved by merging with a co-ed prep school a mile or so away. I attended that school from third grade until graduating some ten years later, and it was hell every day of my life from September until June.
It might not have been so bad if I had not elected to cut my hair. (My therapist says this shows a remnant of self-blame and I should let go of it, but I can’t help but wonder.) The summer of 1970, the pixie cut came in and I was dying to have one. Like most girls of the time I had very long hair. It was heavy and hot in the humid Michigan summer, and I wanted to be rid of it. I wanted something new. Much to my shock, my mother gave her permission for this radical alteration, and I went to my new school with new hair, thinking maybe that the other girls there would admire my radical sensibilities. Or maybe I didn’t think anything of the kind. I was only seven, after all.
Whatever I thought, it wasn’t long before I regretted the haircut more than I’d ever regretted anything before or have regretted anything since. From the first day, every other girl in my class, and later, every girl in my grade, followed me around taunting, “Are you a girl or a boy?” And no matter what I answered, I was wrong. If I said I was a girl, they said I wasn’t because my hair was so short. If I said I was a boy, they taunted me for wearing the girls’ uniform. If I said it was none of their business, they said I was stuck up and thought I was too good for them.
I feel foolish writing this down as a central trauma of my life, but even now I get sick at my stomach just thinking of it. Thinking of how there was no place I could go to escape. They hunted me down to torture me in this way.
Not long after, someone picked up the old “jelly belly” refrain and, in addition to getting teased about my hair, I got a daily dose of being teased for being fat. Girls I hardly knew would sidle up to me in the hall and poke me, then run away giggling that they had seen my fat jiggle. Then a really unfortunate event put me in even worse circumstance. I happened to wear a pair of pinkish underwear with the leg elastic worn out so that they didn’t fit very well. As I climbed on the jungle gym that day, my skirt flipped up and I gave the girl below me—one of my chief tormenters—a good view of my private parts. After that, the rumour went ’round that I didn’t wear any underwear. Of course this meant I was a dirty and shameful girl. And of course it meant that everyone had to see for herself. So whenever I came close to anyone, she tried to flip my skirt up to show the world my lack.
It was a horror, every day. If there had been a sympathetic adult in my life, I might have survived it with less damage. But there were no sympathetic adults. When I asked my mother to intervene she said she couldn’t because that would just make it worse; the kids would think I was getting special treatment because I was another teacher’s child. “They’re just trying to get your goat,” she said. “Ignore it and they’ll stop.” Well, I stopped reacting, but the torment continued. And as I had no one to turn to, I just buried it: the hurt, the hate, the anger. It eats at me even as I write this.
The teachers were no help either. One time after gym, two of my chief tormenters stole my clothes and threw them in the shower. When I complained to the gym teacher, she told me that if I had gotten dressed faster it wouldn’t have happened and I should look out for my things more carefully. Another time, I was slow at completing a classroom assignment. The good girls had already been let to go to the play corner where they were making a lot of noise. I asked my teacher if she could please ask them to be quiet, and again was told that if I were smarter and had completed my assignment more quickly I would be in the play corner too, and she had no intention of punishing girls who could keep up because of one who couldn’t.
Even at home I got no relief. My grades began to fall. Things that had come easily to me before were beyond my reach. I was made to know that I was a disappointment to my parents and they were spending a lot of money to send me to this hell school and I should be grateful and do good work. Otherwise I would be sent to THE DETROIT PUBLIC SCHOOLS, which, I was given to understand, were a dirty deathtrap of drugs and decay even at my grade level. It was my responsibility to see that such a thing didn’t happen.
At the age of eight, everything was already my fault.