Sin and Punishment

Okay, I try to keep this blog mostly about games and criticism and scholarship and sometimes games criticism scholarship but I don’t really have a personal blog anymore with the demise of Livejournal to our capitalist Russian overlords (now there’s a sentence you never expected to hear) and I find Tumblr to be… uh, the word I’d use is “annoying,” so.

Lately I’ve been reflecting a lot on my physicality, for all sorts of reasons… and more than a few of those reasons are related to what I perceive as my relationship with gay culture, an endeavor I have persistently referred to on Twitter as “That Thing I Did,” and my thinking on the broad story arc of a novel I have been wanting to write off and on for over a decade.

But really, I just wanted to tell a pair of stories about my school years. Apologies: this post is light on pictures, so don’t feel bad if you stop reading out of boredom.

Story 1: Harry S. Fisher Middle School, Grade 6 (circa 1988-1989)

My mother had married my stepfather and we picked up and moved to Connecticut. Specifically Plymouth, a small town outside Bristol (where ESPN is). I started going to school in the Plymouth/Terryville school district as the new kid. And the fat kid. And (increasingly) the fey-seeming proto-gay kid although at that point I was pursuing girls because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be doing.

Needless to say I wasn’t popular, and I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear I was a total doormat, too. Once in art class I found jumping up and down in place made my classmates laugh, so I kept doing it for their amusement. Obviously, they found the effect gravity and physics have on a fat kid in semi-flight hilarious. But what strikes me about this memory is also that our art teacher — a younger guy, doing his best to seem “cool” — came up to me and said “You know, they’re laughing at you, not with you.” It says something about me that even at age 10 I stared him in the face and said “I know. It’s better than the alternative.”

Waiting in line for lunch one day, holding a spiral notebook, I started getting punched by a tall, thin young woman with a very bad attitude. She was just punching me in the arm, over and over and over again. Not knowing what I was supposed to do, and having been told since time immemorial that you have to “not let it get to you,” I sat there and took it. Over, and over, and over again. And then eventually some tiny part of me got tired of that and I held up my notebook in front of her fist. She punched the notebook instead of me. She made a face and stopped. I ate lunch.

Then in the middle of lunch, the vice principal came and got me and brought me into his office. He sat me down and said, in a very serious tone, that the young woman who had been punching me had broken her thumb, and what did I have to say for myself? I really wish I could have been outside myself looking at me, because I imagine my face was priceless. I said the only thing I could think of at the time, which was: “I didn’t hit her. She was hitting me.” The vice principal did not seem to like that answer. He informed me that fighting in school was a very serious offense, especially the case of a big guy like myself picking on a girl. “But you seem like a good kid,” he said. “Usually it’s five days out of school suspension for fighting. But I’m going to give you one day in-school suspension.” And that was that. Oh, and I had to call and give the girl an apology for “breaking” her thumb.

I’m sorry to say that day of in-school suspension was the best day of my school year. I sat in the school office at a desk, quietly doing work assigned by my teachers. When it was done, I read books. Nobody hit me, shouted at me, asked me to perform demeaning physical stunts for them, or anything of the sort. I was almost sad to see it go. As far as I can tell, nothing ever happened to the girl who punched me repeatedly until she injured herself trying to hurt me, physically and emotionally. Except the day off school she had to go to the doctor, maybe. I dunno; I was suspended.

Story 2: Paul V. Moore High School, Grade 9 (Circa 1992-ish)

Eventually we moved back to my hometown of Central Square, NY. This meant switching schools, again, but this time it was more complicated. For those who don’t know, Central Square is one of NY’s largest (geographically speaking) school districts, covering about a third, if not more, of Oswego County. I had gone to grade school with some of my classmates, but there were suddenly people who’d moved up from 4 other elementary schools, through middle school. I was both the new kid and the returning old kid. I wish I could say this made people friendlier, but it didn’t; in general, the new people didn’t like me and the old ones only remembered me as an 8 year old kid who they found off-putting and weird.

Another impact of a geographically large school district is that you often have a long and crowded bus ride to school if you don’t drive (and at age 14, I did not drive). Mine was from out near West Monroe, so not too long, but it was crowded, and I had no friends who lived even remotely close, so it was also me by myself, trying not to catch the attention of anyone on the bus. For those of you who never took a school bus to school every day while being “different,” please let me tell you it’s not pleasant. The bus driver has bigger problems than what the kids in the back are doing or saying to each other. They have to drive a big, difficult to handle vehicle with frequent stops and on a nastily tight schedule. I get that.

One day on the way to school I was dressed relatively nicely — slacks, I want to say a nice polo. I was in choir, and we had a choir concert for the whole school that day. I was sitting by myself on the left side of the bus (the one behind the driver’s big, blocking chair) around the middle of the bus. I was reading, probably, or just staring into space, or possibly listening to a walkman, I can’t remember. But what I do remember is that once we got close to school, a kid from the back — lanky, short brown hair, freckled — started heading to the front of the bus, holding a yogurt container, presumably to throw it out.

As he walked by my seat, he turned to me and smiled — a big :D face, I can remember that with perfect clarity — and flicked the yogurt at me with his spoon. I got big splashes of white-pink yogurt on my nice, for-the-concert clothes. And then he finished his trip to the front, threw out the container, and walked back to his seat, laughing.

The bus driver noticed… eventually. He asked who did it and I said I didn’t know, which was a lie on my part but also on the bus driver’s part.

When I got on the bus to go home that night, the driver said “Here… right behind me. We’re gonna sit you there from now on.” And that’s what happened. For the rest of the 18 months or so I went to that school, I sat behind the bus driver, unable to move, because someone had thrown yogurt on me. To the best of my knowledge, the guy who did that was never punished. He also sat wherever he wanted on the bus, a thing I noticed every day.

So, I’m sure some of you who’ve read this blog and/or know me personally have heard these stories before. I don’t tell them often, but they were both in my head as I’ve been reflecting on what it’s like to be fat in the various cultures I inhabit, because they have all the parts of that experience. The idea that your body is community property, not just verbally in terms of people shouting things at you, but physically in terms of doing things TO you, like punching or yogurt or the guy who laughingly tried to run me off the sidewalk with his car in Milwaukee when I was out walking, attempting to get some weight-reducing exercise in. And because being fat is always your fault, nobody cares what happens to you because of it. If bad things happen to you because you’re fat, well, try not being so fat and maybe people will stop doing things to you. None of this even discusses the impact that the perception I was gay had on what people did to me over my years in public school, either.

I’m not telling you this story because I want a pity party. But as I’ve often said, I think these experiences have helped me greatly to understand people outside of my own experience. All this stuff happened to me as a white male, for example. Imagine what it’s like if this liberty people feel they can take with your body for being “different” doesn’t stop at acts of petty personal violence and escalates to things like rape. That is a fear women live with in our culture every day of their lives. That vice principal immediately assumed I was the violent perpetrator when that girl broke her thumb, because I was male and because I was the cultural outsider. But imagine that on an economic and sociopolitical scale. Imagine having that happen when you walk into a grocery store, because you’re perceived to be a certain way because of something like skin color, clerks start watching you to make sure you’re not going to steal something. These are experiences friends and colleagues have related to me.

And perhaps the worst part about both stories is that I was the sinner for being different. When bad things happened to me, it wasn’t the perpetrators of violence who got punished. It was me that was punished for being the “cause” of the problem in the first place. If you are a person without privilege in this country that is the rhetoric you live in every day of your life. If you could just stop being so different for five seconds, people would stop treating you poorly. Victim blaming paradigms like that make me sick and I’m sure these experiences are part of that.

So no, I had a miserable childhood in school for these and many other reasons. But seeing as those things are said and done, I am glad at least that they gave me the empathy to understand others, even a little bit.

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