When I was eleven, we did a secret Santa at shool. I say secret, but of course we all knew who got whom. I remember very clearly being in the PE changing rooms and standing not far from the girl who got me. She and her friends were discussing the difficulty of buying presents. “How do you think I feel?” she hissed. “I got that freak.” My skin burned and when I looked up she had caught my eye. There was guilt there; she hadn’t realised I was listening. But there was also a hard defiance. She was challenging me to protest. I didn’t. Instead I sat with the insult for weeks. What made me a freak in her eyes? I’d heard the word before in relation to myself. But for some reason, I had never thought that it was something that was said behind my back as well as to my face. I thought that they said it to hurt me, not that they really felt it.
At that time in my life, I was shy. Maybe shy isn’t quite the word. I was overwhelmingly self-conscious. I found it hard to keep my face still when I was alone, in case my resting face looked “weird.” I had a difficult time making the transition from primary school (where I was not as shy) to secondary. Shortly after this incident, I would start ” acting out” to give them something to freak out about, but at that time I was still quite innocent. So that girl’s words hurt me.
When I tried to explain how I felt to others I was told not to overreact, that she surely hadn’t meant it. Years later,when I mentioned that people called me a freak, my headteacher refuted it simply by saying that eleven year olds don’t use that word.
Shortly afterwards I penned a little rhyme: sticks and stones may break my bones. But only words can hurt me.
Kindness doesn’t kill.