LOVE-BOMBS FROM HELL: The Unenviable Arts of Learning Hatred
Fifth Grade: Music Room Spring
“Who just did that?” Ms. Green asks, standing up from the piano bench. “Who just hit that high note?”
I try not to blink, to move, to so much as meet her eyes. Ohhhh, please-oh-please-oh-please don’t —
She calls my name. “Was that you?”
It absolutely was.
My gaze fumbles around on the floor between the chair legs in front of me. I scrape my shoe toes against each other, shrug. “Um…I-I don’t know. Maybe?”
Maybe I really am a big ole liar after all.
“Come up here and sing it again.”
My eyes go huge. “By myself?”
Her smile and beckoning hand are full of encouragement and confidence. Rightfully so. It’s not singing alone that I’m afraid of. I know what I can do with this song. I have only been singing it since I could.
Every year, I wait for the spectacular night when Oz is on TV. It’s a big event in our house with popcorn, pizza, and a sleepover. Since the second I heard what this year’s theme for the Grandparents’ Day show will be, I have wanted so badly to be cast as Dorothy. In many ways, I am Dorothy. (Well, who Dorothy would be if she was ugly, wore glasses, and was not allowed to have a little dog.)
As I slink up to the piano, my knees quake beneath me. I can feel their eyes on my back. Stab-stab-stab with their glares. They know what’s about to happen. We all know.
But not Ms. Green. She’s a new teacher, just arrived this year. She only sees us for a few hours each week. Most of the time, the piano stands between her view and the looks-whispers-threats, so she can’t understand who she called up here to do this.
I can throw the game.
I can trip and fall short of the finish line, letting them trample me into the dust. It’s not too late. I can —
I can hit that highest note.
I’m the only one in this room who can. “…that’s where…you’ll…FIIIIIIND me…”
For a week now, I’ve been songbirding that phrase amidst a chorus of off-key attempts, a few screeches, and a gaping hole where numerous voices simply drop out. Seeing as how there is nothing to be gained by botching this moment — nothing I truly want since coming to understand the price of admission — I sing my guts out.
Ms. Green casts me in the lead role.
Without auditioning anyone else.
I want to die.
I want to crawl inside that piano and be bludgeoned to death by Beethoven pounding the hammers against my skull.
Do I even need to describe my classmates’ reactions?
Oh. I probably do, because this incident didn’t merely bring down the standard glares-threats-hatred on my head even worse than the resumption of bullying since The Trench War. It didn’t merely incite the usual shoves-trips-kicks, or bring the Flying Monkeys squawking and flocking whenever they could catch me alone. It changed the entire trajectory of my fifth-grade year, and that altered everything inside me.
It snapped the last thread that could have ever allowed me to bond with my peers, and that makes for a very lonely, not ever truly rewarding, uphill existence, no matter how many awards, medals, accolades, or stars are bestowed upon one’s chest and brow.
Dopamine, after all, is a poor substitute for serotonin and especially for oxytocin. (1)
So let’s go on, shall we?
The bell rings. My classmates return to homeroom. Ms. Green holds me back to give me the practice music and discuss rehearsal times. When I walk into the fifth-grade homeroom, I stutter-step and halt in the doorway.
A blast-crater has been blown into the orderly rows of desks. The seat assigned to me has been ousted from society and dragged into the corner. The front of the flip-top writing surface presses against the blackboard and the wall at the front of the room.
Mrs. Elhoffer doesn’t glance up at my arrival. She continues reading Where the Red Fern Grows as though I don’t exist. Perched on the safety of her stool where my classmates can’t gnaw her face off, she propagates the lie that this pack of ten-and-eleven-year-olds are an audience of angels, captivated by her voice.
That’s exactly how they sit, too. Hands folded on desks. Eyes round and shouting “innocence” when in reality, they’re watching my every move.
Something awful is born in that moment. It is fanged, and it is vicious. It blooms inside me like a collection of snapdragon heads: the utter inability to ever back down, to ever let them catch a whiff of my pain, to ever let them see me cry or get upset again. It also obliterates any shred of loyalty or liking I could have mustered up toward them.
Tears? What are those?
Anger? I can’t be bothered.
I am the glacier, seemingly immobile, but creeping ever forward. Someday I’ll creep my way right out of this piddly town to somewhere over the rainbow and I will never, ever look back. I am the iceberg. They think they can see me. They have no idea what lies beneath, and if they truly want to go head-to-head with me, I will sink every one of them just by standing here and being me.
I stroll into the room and close the door. I stroll to my teacher’s desk and leave my late pass there. I stroll to my own desk as though that is my assigned place. It is.
At least, NOW IT IS. As equally from my own choosing as from their shunning.
Besides, the adult authority figure approved it, didn’t she?
I slide into the chair to face the corner as though I had gotten first pick of spots. I don’t want to be anywhere near them anyway. My flip-top desk is obnoxiously creaky. I let it groan open niiiice and slooooow. Nice and loud. I retrieve my book to read along and let the desktop groan closed. I casually flip through the pages to find our place in Red Fern.
A crisply folded triangle of paper lands on my desk. So aerodynamic. So well-aimed.
Placing my book open face-down, I casually unfold the note and read it. Ah, such eloquence my classmates possess in their expressions of hatred. I casually refold it into its perfect pyramid, set it aside, and pick my book back up.
Wow. Their utter lack of creativity manages to astound me. They’ve only been using the same insults since we were five.
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
For the rest of the day, I collect my contempt. I accumulate my acrimony. I relish my revulsion. What a pile of pretty, puffy, girly-scrawls. Sweet little love-bombs from Hell.
When the final bell rings, I take my time gathering up my belongings as though they are the most fascinating, cherished specimens in the world— far more fascinating than anything else that exists in this room.
Splat. Splat. Oooooze…splat.
At my back, drool drips from the black lips of the Flying Monkeys and spatters the floor. They flock out to prepare their ambush, chuckling and cackling and hackling all the way.
I detour to dump their missiles into the trash on the way to getting my bag, then stroll in the opposite direction from where the buses line up — where they’ll no doubt be waiting for me on the blacktop, right there, ready to play a most cutthroat game of Trench.
Fat chance. I’m not interested in your stupid reindeer games. Homework is more interesting than all of you.
Besides, I am about to lose it, and I can NOT let them witness it. So I go out the official main entrance where the teachers all park, and slip undetected onto the sneaky back trail through the woods. Only when I’m safely home do I let myself break.
The second that door slams behind me, I race past Mom without a word. Behind my locked bedroom door, I bawl and scream with my pillow crammed down my throat. I pummel rage into my mattress for over an hour.
Once my nose has returned to its customary hue, I reemerge. Silent. I can barely choke down supper. When my parents finally get it out of me, they have no answers except to “ignore it” because — so the theory goes — “they’ll get bored and stop.”
My parents have obviously learned nothing about my classmates in all these years.
I go back into my room where I bawl over that, too. While sitting glaze-eyed in front of Little House on the Prairie, I gnash my teeth over every word out of evil Nelly’s mouth. I want to pound the smirk off her pretty little face — or at least pound the TV into kindling with the couch pillow. Instead, I crawl into bed and bawl again. Very late in the night, I finally snivel myself to sleep.
The next day, I trudge to school and do it all again. Derision. Bile. Hate.
My desk has magically returned to its normal spot overnight, but the physical proclamation is no longer necessary to announce that I have been officially outcast from the tribe. I’ve always been elbowed to the fringes, but now it is made clear. I shall be given no shelter, no food, no assistance on pain of social death. Should I be spied alone in the wild, it is every responsible citizen’s duty to attack me. (When I am not alone, it their responsibility to do this covertly.)
My parents are bewildered when I come home and bawl every day for the rest of the week.
Every day for the rest of the month.
Every single, solitary, blasted day for the rest of the year.
I gather up a handful of consolations:
1) Mari doesn’t abandoned me.
2) I knock Dorothy out of the park. That high note and all the others ring out into the gymnasium without so much as a wobble. The audience bursts into applause, and I take my well-earned bow.
3) Best of all, some of my greatest nemeses are forced to get down on their Munchkin knees at my feet, singing, “And we will glorify your name…”
“Yes,” my lofty gaze rains down upon them. “Yes, you will,” and you betcha, they’re gosh-darn right. This time, I actually do think I’m better than them. I wouldn’t have been cast in this role if I hadn’t smoked the pants off every one of them. My sweet smile and my Dorothy-pats on the heads snarl, “You can all cram your love-bombs straight down your own throats until you choke on them. It might even improve your singing,” and that is a new sensation for me.
It it is like a furnace in my guts. It burns lava and embers through my veins! Yet my chest — somehow that’s still a jagged ball of ice. So is what shoots from my eyes every time I deign to glance their way.
Quite a different type of burn. I don't quite know how to feel about that. But there is a place within me where it feels good.
My additional consolation: 4) I have now come to understand why my classmates enjoy the taste of hatred so much. It is like dark chocolate. It is as sweet as it is bitter, and a thousand times better than that milk chocolate Easter bunny that took me two weeks to eat.
Was it worth it?
Yes and no. That festering inferno that still sometimes boils up in my guts, and the flash-freeze chamber constructed inside my ribcage? Those rank among the most difficult things I live with to this day. Dain Bramage has nothin’ on those beasties, and we all know how I feel about that.
I will, however, never regret choosing to remain loyal to myself, my passions, my gifts, and my dreams in spite of losing the approval of people who wouldn’t “like me” unless I betrayed myself.
Besides, I did set out over the rainbow the millisecond my college dorm room opened. I’ve only glimpsed The Flying Monkeys once since graduation, where they pulled the same conniving, catty crap, hacking and slashing my entire existence out of our class once again. Those same girls who had written the puffy-scrawl bombs were the ones responsible for compiling the slideshow at our tenth-year class reunion.
I had hoped to find a gathering of actual adults there.
Some were, and I was genuinely thrilled to catch up with them, to discover who they had become and answer them in kind, if they asked.
Some did. They were gentle with me, with an extra dose of kindness for my current circumstances — I was only half a year out from my big car wreck, had just been given clearance to fly, and had barely begun to comprehend what the realities of permanent brain damage would have in store for me. I found a great deal to talk about with those who had also allowed a decade of life to sweeten, rather than embitter them.
One of the Rebel Crowd twins was now a caretaker of her sister, who had suffered an even worse a wreck than I had. Another of the guys had become a force to reckon with, in the ways that he cared for his disabled son.
My favorite conversation of the night took place with Calvin, that most fearsome of tormentors. He’d always been an interesting individual, too smart for run-of-the-mill school, too active for confinement to a desk all day, and way too hotheaded for heavy-handed disciplinarians.
(I never would have admitted to the crush I’d developed for him in high school. Not to anybody, even Mari. A few years after graduation, I learned that he’d only confided to his closest friends about the one he’d had on me. Dorks.)
In our senior year, at the single bonfire party I had ever been invited to in all of high school, I had tried to steal his keys because he’d been too drunk to drive.
But Cal was Cal, and I hadn’t been able to wrestle them away. “Fine,” I had snarled. “I will not lie under the wheels of your car until dawn if you promise to not go over ten miles an hour. And mister, I will be following you the whole way home.”
“Fine,” he’d snarled back, furious with my meddling.
Must not have been too furious.
He’d kept his promise, creeping along the country roads until he pulled into his driveway, allowing me to pull into mine.
At the reunion, we laughed about that — not only lightly. Then we talked about the transformational impacts drunk driving and other derelict activities had made on us — me from the receiving end, him from the reckless end. With one side of my face blistered raw from the bonfire, I enjoyed every second of discovering all the ways in which he had grown into someone I could like and respect.
Of course, not all of them had grown up.
The slideshow started out as a highlight of the event. At first, I sat laughing and sighing in remembrance of old faces who had moved away, old events well-remembered.
When we got to the one birthday party I had been invited to in seventh grade, and I wasn’t in any of the photos, I began to wonder. So far, I hadn’t seen a single image of myself, even though I had been there since the first day of kindergarten and remembered most of the incidents shown.
Junior high passed.
So did our sophomore year. Junior year. Senior year. Graduation.
They even had two photos of my hotel room from our senior class trip to Florida, but I was not pictured with my roommates.
I glanced over at the organizers of the reunion: Two-Face (so named in senior year when my father finally witnessed her cruelty toward me and then was lovey-dovey with him in the same 45 seconds), the Climber (who had always surprised me in her animosity), and Queenie III (who had ceased surprising me by fourth grade). Huddled by the projector, all three watched my reaction like vultures waiting for the road kill’s twitching to slow down.
I didn’t pretend this time. I just smirked, lifted my head, and sniffed down my nose as if to say, “Touché.”
I haven’t bothered with another of their reunions since.
And somehow, a few of my high school teachers were astounded that, whenever I wasn’t in my orange-and-black cheer uniform, I wore the blue-and-white letter jacket of my first boyfriend, Mr. Quarterback All-Star from our rival school. Oh, was that a heated topic!
So was my decision to arrange my school schedule so that I took more and more and finally three-quarters of my classes at that rival school. It had started out as my only option for taking the AP classes I desperately craved. But that meant I had to take History there, too. Since the rival school learned all of World History in eleventh grade, but my school split it into the two first semesters of junior and senior year, it would have been a waste of time to retake World History II.
My hometown’s history teacher was one of the most affronted by my habit of wrapping myself in the safety-blankie of my boyfriend’s letter jacket, and made no bones about how he felt for me. So it was an easy decision to arrange for my final semester of high school to include lunch among the enemy, who had finally shown me what it felt like to go to school among friends.
Alas, those relationships weathered their own cracks, because I also set off a bomb over there when the theater staff invited me to try out for the annual spring musical. They’d seen what I could do onstage when our schools competed (and we defeated them) in the one-act play contests each year. In my junior year, they did Cinderella.
Can you guess which role they asked me to play?
Yup. At least they made me do a genuine audition for it.
Thankfully, the parents and students threw such a fit about it that I was relegated to a minor role the next year, and that was honestly a relief. Not only because my over-achiever’s over-qualified skills stopped rocking every boat and its dinghy, but because I was finally allowed to play a bad guy and sing the heaven of alto!
I’m really not a bloody soprano, even though I can technically hit all the high notes. My peers had no idea how badly I coveted their roles as the Evil Stepmother and Step-Sisters.
They’ve never had a clue about what I felt in my heart, what I wanted most. I would have given up accolades and titles and starring roles in exchange for genuine love, friendship, and belonging. In a heartbeat.
But genuine love, friendship, and belonging never would have asked me to.
Ohhhhh, if only I could have been an evil tree…
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE:
--UP NEXT: How the most unpopular sixth-grade geek accidentally became a cheerleader. Oh yeah. And a choreographer for the Varsity squad.
--We'll be dancing with my oldest ghosts now, with the things that make TBI more cumbersome than it already is, and yet simultaneously set me up with many of the tools to weather it the way I do. They are also the origin stories of how I became a Dancer and a Martial Artist, and why I write the fiction I write. For more on those topics, see:
--THE NAVIGATION TABLE OF CONTENTS
1) WHY I WRITE ABOUT BULLYING
(In schools, families, communities, companies, between nations--it's all the same thing and it starts when we're really young. That's the best time to stop it, too.)
Simon Sinek on Community, Social Cooperation, Self-Sacrifice, Food:
I know it's a long one. But it's so worth it.
The impact made by leaders who extend the Circle of Safety out to the farthest reaches of their sphere, vs. the damage caused by those leaders who rule through fear and ostracizing tactics, reserving safety and reward for only their top echelon.
The chemical cocktails of happiness--Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin--and why awards, accolades, and titles are a poor substitute for belonging and love.
The neurological impact made by human contact and touch that is loving instead of violent.
Why mayhem explodes when Zookeepers hand the title of Alpha to someone who's not even an Omega anymore--someone who's been booted out of the captive wolf tribe but is still trapped in the cage. Why this induces Cortisol (stress) in everybody instead of the Serotonin (confidence, leadership) & Oxytocin (bonding) that awards and ceremonies are designed to induce.