Friday, October 8, 2010

Bullies Like Her

This is a hard issue for me to talk about. I've kept pretty quiet about it for about sixteen years now, up until this past week when the suicide of Tyler Clementi, who was bullied by his roommate because of his sexuality, and of other gay students made the news. Now I'm hearing about a school district in Ohio being sued because of four bullying-related student suicides. Well, as the kid who DIDN'T jump off the bridge when it was me in their shoes, I feel compelled to write. And it's not easy.

Nobody was ever more excited about going off to college than I was. I had been dreaming of it since the summer after eighth grade. Junior and senior year of high school I spent lots of time on the University of Maryland campus, just sort of wandering around absorbing the wonderfulness. Even now, being on that beautiful campus fills me with a sense of well-being paired with a good dose of longing. I think the longing remains because I never had the opportunity to gratify it by actually enjoying college.

At 18 I was thrilled beyond words to go off to school. Even though my parents only lived a couple of miles away, they allowed me to move into a dorm so I could get "the full college experience." Thanks to luck of the draw I got an extra-large room on the sixth floor of Hagerstown Hall, then the most desirable building for freshmen. My roommate, Melisa-- her real name, although I'll withhold her surname out of the kindness of my heart-- was from Kansas, and for the first few days she seemed like a nice enough girl. We spent a lot of time talking and bonding to get our friendship off to a good start. During this time I told her something that was no secret to anyone who had known me in high school: I identified as bisexual, and although this was pretty much immaterial given that I'd had a boyfriend for two years at that point, it was worth knowing in terms of explaining some of my politics and sense of humor.

By the end of the day Melisa was no longer speaking to me. Not only was she not speaking to me-- she acted as though she didn't even see me. If she left the room and I was still in it, she turned off the light on her way out. If she passed me in the hallway, it was as though she could detect no human presence nearby. She turned on her stereo loudly when I was studying, shoved my stuff out of the way in the refrigerator to make room for hers, and let the elevator close as I was walking toward it. Oh, but I knew she knew I was there. Another pair of roommates from my floor told me she had approached them, as she was making her rounds of the floor for this express purpose, to tell them to watch out for me because I was bisexual. She got her friends to mock me outside our door, and she talked about me on the phone, while I was in the room. At this point you might ask, "Why did you put up with this?" The answer is because it floored me. I had never faced any sort of negativity because of the way I described my sexuality back then, and I had no emotional or verbal tools for handling it. I also had lousy self-esteem to begin with, and the more she acted like I didn't exist, the more I started to believe her.

My father refused to support my on-campus living if I left the extra-large room he felt I had been lucky to get, so I went to the Resident Assistant for my floor and begged him for help. A couple of times he tried to mediate between myself and Melisa, but she just barraged me with accusations that, among many other things, my clothes and food "stink up the room" and that I was looking at her while she got undressed. (For the record, I had always dressed and undressed only in bathroom stalls to avoid this as an issue, but there it was anyway). She left nothing about me uncriticized, and when she ran out of ideas, she made things up. I remember her once telling the RA that I had expressed intense jealousy of her and said to her, "Can we trade lives?" I had no idea how to defend myself against all this because she was simply lying. I was prepared to address issues I knew about, but not ones she was making up out of thin air. Still, I tried to correct the situation by being nicer and nicer. During one of the sessions with the RA, I pleaded with her to just fake liking me and maybe in the process of faking it she would find a way to get along with me. (Yes, I really said that). She shook her head adamantly. When I said to her that we should get along because we really had a lot in common, she retorted, "Well, I've never been bisexual."

With the RA not able to do anything and the situation (and my mental state) deteriorating by the day, I went to the Resident Director for the quad. I pled my case to her to intervene, but as I then found out to my dismay, Melisa had beaten her to the punch. The RD came after me like a pit bull, telling me that Melisa had issues with me because she wasn't used to being around people with morals as low as mine. That she was a "nice girl" (read: virgin) and so I made her uncomfortable. The RD then followed me to my dorm room and pointed to my calendar up on the wall, where "LGBA"-- the name of the LGBT student group at UMCP and the only support group I had-- was written on every Wednesday block. "Look at this!" I remember the RD yelling. "LGBA, LGBA, LGBA! You're flaunting it! No wonder she's so uncomfortable around you!" She then told me in no uncertain terms that it was my fault I was having all this trouble, and she left.

In the days after that I fell into complete despair. On the weekends I escaped to the house of my boyfriend, and his friendship was the only thing that kept me from going under. How vividly I still remember Sunday nights, when he would have to take me back to the dorms, and in my mind I felt like a toddler clinging to her mother's leg, begging, "don't make me go back there!" I had panic attacks as the building came into view. I never knew when Melisa would end a fit of completely ignoring me and go into one of her screaming rages, but I knew that shoe would always drop when I least expected it. By now I had isolated myself from everyone on the floor because, during her screaming fits, Melisa had assured me they all hated me. How weird they thought I was. How annoying they found me. She referred to me as a "hermit." Around this time I wrote a poem, which I'll post at the end of this entry-- the first time I've ever offered it for anyone to read.

I survived that time without jumping off a bridge because I had one friend-- my boyfriend Dabe. That is the one reason. There is no other. My family didn't understand, my high-school friends were all scattered and absorbed in their first months of college, and the University of Maryland's employee-- who was entrusted with the care of the students in her quad-- flagrantly violated the school's nondiscrimination policy and in doing so joined forces with my bully. To say I feel enormously for all of these bullied-to-death students, and the LGBT ones in particular, is an understatement. I know exactly how they felt. I understand why suicide seemed like a perfectly reasonable solution, and in fact the only solution. I have been through some rough stuff in my life-- prior to this college experience, I had lost my sister to cancer. But even from the vantage point of sixteen years later, the misery of Melisa's bullying is still so vivid it makes my hands shake to write about it. I have no history of mental illness and have never even been on an antidepressant, so my experience can't be blamed as circumstantial stuff around a deeper problem. I got out when I demanded emergency housing just before Thanksgiving, knowing that I had to risk letting my father pull his financial support (which he didn't, not that year) because I simply couldn't wake up in that room one more day. And as soon as I was out of that room, I never felt that low again. Not any day since.

It's hard to talk about this for several reasons. First, because I am a happy person, and it acknowledges my lowest low. Second, because it gets into issues of sexuality that don't feel relevant when I'm thirteen years into my marriage, and I don't want my kids to get bullied by people like Melisa because I posted this. And finally, because I feel like it sounds silly. "My college roommate bullied me." How could something so crushing sound so whiny? So I'd rather not talk about it. Because nobody would. That's why they jump off bridges and hang themselves. Because there's a word for feeling bad about feeling bad, and it's "shame."

And on that note, I'll close with the unedited poem I wrote in September 1994. This was once her bullying was well underway and long before it stopped.

welcome to college

scratchy sound of my fork
(brought from home) against styrofoam
yellow green bean grease
limp turkey, tidy wedge of pie
and the squeak of the straw against
the cup cover so loud
so loud in the empty room
if I've learned anything so far
it's that this is the sound of
alone alone alone

another night another styrofoam dinner
solitude's okay when you
can't hear the b-ball players six
stories down or the laughter,
the piercing laughter of the
sorority chicks down the hall

or worse the tone of my phone
that means no new messages
a blank message board on my door
and my styrofoam takeout dinner
on a stool by the rent-a-fridge
getting cold, stomach's too full of
loneliness, sluggish metabolism
knows there'll be no knock no
"ya hungry?" tonight, again

I don't know what's worse
the sounds of loneliness or its silence

always liked to be alone but that
was back when I had an option

told the RA the sniffling was allergies
(pathetic bitch) damn that crummy insulation, uh huh
as I closed my door stared at my computer
idly fancifully composing another
suicide note in my head
hey guys, hey God, forgive the RA
wasn't his fault I'm a loser

guess that's all tonight,
time to go out and pretend to be busy
act like I'm going someplace and
give a big broad smile, it's
the only way to hide the
shame

-Rebecca Coleman 1994

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. I teach high school students. It breaks my heart each time I see one being bullied, and it makes me sick to my stomach when other adults let it happen.

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  2. That's a great poem Rebecca... I'm sorry it had to hurt so bad to write.

    I have some bully stories too, I'll try to put them down when I have a fresh box of tissues.

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  3. Oops... I thought all my comments went through. Here is the first one.....(more or less)
    Just when I hit my pocket of shame from dealing with a small town library I reached for a scrap of paper to write down a quote for my memoir, but,low and behold, I pulled out a scrap with your name on top and decided to 'google' you. I read both bully stories and recognized myself -- just at the moment when I was about to crawl into a hole and hide for a few days. So I ditched (pun intended) the shovel and read all of your posts. Thank you for appearing at just the right moment. That seems to happen more often for me.
    Margie B from WA across the river from Powell's (famous) book store, should you ever come here to present your next book, I will be there to meet you!!

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  4. Hello from Canada. I just came to read your blog, and this is the most interesting. I understand that the exprience was painful and that it wasn't comfortale to write about it, but as a reader it was very interesting to read it (although I had no personal experience to relate to it). I wonder if you can expand it into a YA fiction book. Some of the events like Melisa turning off the light while you are still in the room are touching. It's a captivating story and you can also help. The poem, however, didn't do it for me. Best wishes to you and your family, Giora

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