The photo of the little frowning girl is forlorn, and it still sits where I can see it clearly every day. Each time I see her face, my stomach does a little flip — not so much because that little girl is me, but because that little girl is me on the first day of preschool at about age 4. It was my first experience with being bullied, and all the shame and fear that accompanied it.
The day started out pleasantly enough in my yellow kitchen in Detroit — my mother kneeling in front of me, buttoning my white cardigan, folding me up in a bear hug, kissing the tip of my nose.
I remember my father taking me by the hand, ushering me out the front door and holding on until we walked up the school stairs. He kissed the top of my head and gave my fuzzy hair a quick pat and a loving stroke. Then there was that awful slipping sensation of his hand being slowly pulled away from mine as he walked away.
I also remember what came next: the sudden, shocking, bright flame of pain burning my upper arm, followed by a second assault so painful I thought the sky might have opened up and fallen down on top of me.
It was the first time I’d ever been pinched, and the boy who did it moved with such lightning-fast speed and alarming precision that I didn’t even recognize my own fear, at least not initially. And then just as quickly, he was gone, retreating to his hiding place where not even the teacher could see him. I remember how he sneered at me.
Sadly, it became a pattern. Just about every day thereafter, shortly after drop-off, he’d settle around me like a swarm of bees, stinging me all over my little shoulders and my back without anyone noticing.
How could a child at that young age even know about the different forms of punishment he threatened to inflict upon me and my family if I ever shared how he tortured me?
Of course I was too frightened to tell a soul. Not my teacher. Not my parents. Not even one of my six older siblings, all of whom would have certainly taken swift steps to protect me simply because I was their baby — the youngest of our family of nine — and they all loved me more than sunshine. Had they only known, they would have saved me from the pain.
Had they only known.
What it boiled down to was this: I didn’t speak up or stand up or even cry out because I was scared. So my suffering continued. Simple as that.
Looking back now, more than 50 years later, I realize that for decades, I carried around the fear of my own fear — and a deep disappointment in myself for not speaking up sooner. What I came to learn with time was that this little boy’s heart must have been filled with at least as much fear as what he inflicted upon me.
The demons he must have carried — his own fears, perhaps violence in his own home, whatever else was prodding him to be so cruel — was larger than he was. No kid in scuffed Keds and washed-out dungarees should ever have had to encounter the darkness I imagine he did.
To parents everywhere, particularly of little ones who may not have the courage to use their words, I urge you to tell your children to speak clearly and loudly if trouble descends upon them — and understand that the fear of talking about scary stuff is sometimes as scary as the stuff itself.
The first day of school is filled with excitement and fear, both real and imagined. Shower your children with love. Cover them with understanding. Teach them to be kind. Tell them that if someone hurts them, speak up. Silence is what gives monsters their power; it covers them with a cloak of darkness that allows them to continue their dirty work unnoticed.
I look at the photo again; at my tiny frown and my fine, furrowed brow. He’d just scampered away seconds before the photo was taken, after raining down on me white-hot pinches. When my teacher approached seconds later with her camera and her cheery “Time for a picture!” all I could manage was a turned-down frown. My arm still felt like fire. She never saw a thing. He was just that quick.
I have happy back-to-school memories, too: The smell of homemade paste. Apple juice in tiny paper cups. The sound of music floating in that always made me want to tap my toes or clap my hands. All of that was good.
What’s also good, I recognize now, is our human capacity to forgive and our divine capacity to find compassion and sympathy from somewhere deep within.
Until pretty recently, my forlorn photo was in a black frame, the only black frame in my home. But I’ve switched frames; the new one is gold and blue.
I guess that means I’m no longer holding on to the swarm of stinging bees that used to circle me. And after years of feeling disappointment in myself for not being brave enough to share my terror, I’ve finally forgiven myself.
He tried his best to conquer me, but he didn’t conquer me at all. My prayer is that he eventually conquered his own demons, whatever they may have been.
Today I look at that picture and smile. I smile because I was able to move on, and my heart has finally forgiven him.
Kristin Clark Taylor is an author and a freelance journalist. She lives in Reston, Virginia.
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