It had never come to my attention before a certain freckle-faced, scrawny, corduroy-pants-wearing bully named Robin brought it to my attention: I have freakishly small hands. I have hands like a carnie. I blame the bullies I knew before Robin for being off their game and letting the small hands slide. A bully’s whole raison d’etre is to notice any slightly unusual feature that could be exploited for mockery. Before Robin made it the subject of an impromptu song parody one afternoon in elementary school, I really hadn’t noticed the small hands. Neither had anyone else.
Every day, for maybe a month or two, Robin tormented me with her song.
And I’ll be honest. It was pretty catchy. The other girls would join in. Teresa has small hands, small hands, small hands. You get the idea.
There was no escaping. I could hide my hands in my pockets or behind my back, but that song was No. 1 with a bullet. And with a bully. The other girls, most of them generally pretty harmless, would fall under the cruel spell of the ditty and feel compelled to join in until the song swelled, overtaking the street outside of school, a chorus of curious and silly childhood angst.
This small hands thing is small potatoes compared to some of the bullying explored in the new documentary “Bully.” But for reasons I don’t fully understand, it was only the beginning for me, and the film reminded me of some of those times.
I was bullied that year, most likely because I had skipped ahead a couple of grades and was too emotionally immature to blend well with my peers. I was bullied even after rejoining my own grade level, but mostly on the public busses I took to school. Kids ripped the ribbons from my ponytails, made fun of my off-brand sneakers, pulled my hair, grabbed at my backpack.
In high school, one of only a handful of scholarship kids at a private prep school, I was frequently the subject of toxic rumors, mostly sexual in nature: I was pregnant (I was a virgin). I was a slut (see the former). I made out with some older boy in his car. You name it.
Just as Robin zeroed in on the small hands, sometimes I wonder whether the more sophisticated bullies zeroed in on something harder to see but just as enticing: the unstable home life, the chaotic family, the lack of any sturdy adult figures in my orbit. I was weak and insecure and wanted to fit in so desperately that I always got it just a little bit wrong, like an off-brand shoe, all ugly angles and loud Velcro.
What’s more, it’s not much fun for a bully if they poke you and you don’t bleed. I bled.
In a moment of exemplary parenting that stood out amongst her other mostly tuned-out, mediocre moments, my mom said the thing that would carry me through. These popular kids, she pointed out, they would all grow up to be bores, enjoying their finest hour now, in school. The nerds and geeks and losers, she said, would be interesting and creative. Inventive. They would rule the rest of life.
“Do you think Steven Spielberg was one of the popular kids?” she would ask, staring out the window, tucking her silk kimono around her waist.
It was a decent point. Still, I would have traded the prospect of my future creativity for a pair of real Adidas and some normal-sized hands, but I didn’t have that option.
If it turns out Spielberg was really popular in high school, I never want to find out about it.
Through the magic of social networking, I can track my mom’s predictions. Almost all of the popular kids I knew throughout my school life, including Robin, seem to be leading lives of quiet desperation. Of course, I am, too; mine is just louder, and doesn’t involve middle management or Friday nights at Ruby’s. As for some of the other kids that got picked on with me, it’s almost uncanny. An outcast boy from my fifth-grade class is one of the best-known children’s authors in the world. A pasty-faced girl with giant, red lips and thick glasses left high-school nerdom for a career as an international fashion model. Extreme facial features are terrible if you want a date to the junior prom, but awesome if you want to make a shitload selling cosmetics.
Me? I still have small hands. But they can work a keyboard just fine.