Words Do Hurt

Like many people, I was bullied as a child. It was something I grew used to from my peers. I was a little too weird for my own good. My fixation on horses often got me compared to them in unflattering terms. “Look at her,” one boy would say as I drank from the water fountain, “she even looks like a horse when she drinks!”

But it was never the other kids that were the worst bullies. It was a teacher.

I was an Air Force brat and often the new kid in school. After almost three years in Greece, my father was transferred to Cheyenne, Wyoming. We missed out on a lot of the things we loved while we were in Greece (our relatives would send us VHS tapes of stuff like the new episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and American Gladiators) and gained new interests and things to miss when we would eventually have to move back to America. We were behind in our pop culture knowledge when we got to Cheyenne, and it was a bit of a shock. In one of my first days in second grade, we were asked to identify an image from an electron microscope. I had no idea what it was and guessed: “the inside of an electrical wire.” Everyone else knew the answer was “a strand of DNA” because they’d seen Jurassic Park. Even my teacher gave me a weird look for not knowing the answer.

I never ended up fitting in. Not fully. I made one very good friend during my four years in Cheyenne. We’re still friends to this day, and she is my sister in every way except by blood. I love her dearly, and she is the only person in my life who can understand what it was like to be bullied by this same teacher.

His name was Mr. Bowser, and I was definitely not his only target.

We had music class in a separate room across the building on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The first time I walked with everyone else to the classroom, one of the smaller boys (just as small as me) in line behind me tapped my arm and said:

“Mr. Bowser is really mean—I hope he isn’t mean to you.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. I just shrugged and we filed into the music room to sit down. Mr. Bowser looked like he’d be a nice guy. He was rotund and had a goatee. I associated people like that as genial and fun-loving. Every Disney character I’d ever seen who was round and had cool facial hair was a good guy. Dr. Dawson from The Great Mouse Detective was the first thing I thought of when I saw Mr. Bowser. Sure, he made us sit ramrod straight in our chairs, but my mother told me that good posture made your singing voice sound better. So it made sense to me. I sat in my chair as tall as I could—my feet dangled far above the floor and they would often fall asleep during those thirty minute classes.

On that first day, it only took minutes for this teacher to pick me apart. Over the next four years, he bullied me. Nearly every single time I went to his class, he would find a hole in my defenses and prod at it until I broke. It usually didn’t take much at all to do so.

I wasn’t wearing the right clothes. I was stupid for not knowing about recent pop culture. I was short and would always be stunted. I was ugly because I had moles. I was fat. My mother was a terrible piano teacher since she couldn’t keep a dummy like me behind the keys long enough to learn anything beyond the simplest songs. I couldn’t play an instrument and would never have the talent to do so.

I tried my damnedest to prove him wrong. One year, during our lesson on the holiday songs to learn for the yearly concert, he brought out some conga drums and played a beat. He gave us a mnemonic to remember that beat and had every single one of us try our hand at playing it out. I was one of the only kids who could do it repeatedly and never lose the tempo. It visibly surprised him and he gave me the opportunity to play during the concert. I was proud of myself. I was good at something he said I would never be good at.

But that didn’t happen until I was in sixth grade and getting ready to move to Virginia. Before that one Christmas, I was still useless, short, ugly Jennifer. During the previous year’s concert, I was caught rolling my eyes on camera during “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer,” and I remember being so scared when I saw the playback and felt Mr. Bowser’s hateful glare. He didn’t yell at me that time, but I could tell that he sorely wanted to.

I can’t remember what grade I was in, but one year he played Cats for us on the tape deck. He started calling me “Jenny-Any-Dots” because my name was Jennifer, I had “all those freckles,” that “ugly mole on my eyebrow, and was “fatter than the others” (I wasn’t even overweight). After a little while, some of the other kids started calling me that during recess. It was far worse than being compared to a horse.

The only day we ever had a substitute in music class was the greatest day for all of us. We were excited and attentive. I remember staring at her and smiling bigger than ever while she spoke about the different shapes of notes and what they meant. She was perfect. During recess, all of us whispered about how much we wished she was our real teacher. My mother still remembers how happy I was when I came home from school that day, and how I went on and on about the things the substitute taught us. I wish I could remember the woman’s name.

In Wyoming, 40ºF is considered jacket weather.

I ended up crying almost every time I had music class. There were days when I would pretend to be sick either at home (yes, I heated up a thermometer using the lightbulb on my bedside lamp), or at school where I could hide myself in the nurse’s office to avoid class. After a while, the nurse caught on to my charade and would refuse my plea for a quiet place to rest for a half hour. Needing to step things up, I figured out how to make myself physically sick. I would fake nausea in our main class and ask to be excused to the bathroom, make myself vomit at least twice, and proceed to the nurse’s office where she would examine the back of my throat and see that it was bright red. I couldn’t use the trick that often, as it hurt so much to do, but I used it a lot more than the one instance.

After all, you can’t sing if you’ve just been vomiting your guts out for the last five minutes.

When faking sick got old and suspicious, I decided that I could pretend to be somewhere else while sitting in one of those blue, hard plastic chairs. I would stare at the Peavey logo stamped on the amps that were on the floor next to his keyboard until everything faded in my peripheral vision. I could make the rest of the room disappear until it was just me and that amp. Mr. Bowser’s voice would end up sounding like the adults in those Charlie Brown specials—all nonsensical and rounded by the sound of vowels.

After faking sick, making myself sick, and then learning how to make the world fade from my peripheral vision, I would go to bed each night and pray for Jesus to return and start the End Times so I could leave. I actually prayed for my own death. My suicidal thoughts started when I was ten years old. Not because of any problems at home. I had no problems at home.

I wanted to die because he wouldn’t stop.

The only good days were the ones where he would show us a video (usually one of the Wynton Marsalis videos about syncopation or something). If the chairs were facing the mirror at the back of the room, that meant we got to relax a little bit and watch the television mounted in the corner. But that didn’t mean Mr. Bowser wasn’t staring at us from his position at his desk, waiting for someone to be even the tiniest bit disruptive so he could snap at them.

There was one incident where we were split into groups of three and asked to sing “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” in front of him and the rest of the class was instructed to stay silent. After the second group of three started singing, I began my little staring contest with the amps and let the room fade away. After a few minutes, I noticed that the keyboard playing had stopped. Mr. Bowser was suddenly right in front of me. He leaned inches away from my face and proceeded to scream at me for talking (I can’t remember if I did say something or if I hadn’t made a peep). He wrapped up his tirade with:

“If I hear one more word out of you, I will nail you to the wall!”

At the time, I imagined him literally crucifying me to the back wall of the classroom and I had a panic attack. I burst into tears and frantically promised that I wouldn’t say another word. That I was sorry for talking. I still remember the look on his face when he yelled at me. He had turned purple with rage and I felt his spit on my face from his last statement.

The year or so after I moved out of state, he was fired for reasons I’m still not clear on. Perhaps other parents finally stepped up? I have no idea. An old school friend that I found on Facebook told me that she’d heard he was fired for assaulting a student. She said that she remembered how he treated me and ended her comment with: “I hated that man!” When she said that, I felt such a wave of relief that someone else remembered it all that I burst into tears.

I found his address a little while ago and I was sorely tempted to ask him what the hell he was thinking, treating me and several other students like that? My therapist suggested it might help if I actually did write a letter, and I recently mailed it to him. But I know better than to expect a response. I’ve rarely met a former bully who knew who the hell I was when I saw them. I am faceless to them. I was and am nothing. And what is there to remember about nothing?

Still, it bothers me to think that he might have no idea of the impact he left on some of us. We were just children. He was an adult. A teacher. Who would believe a kid over a teacher if someone said something?

Thankfully, my mother did.

It didn’t matter how many times my mother spoke with the principal or how many times Mr. Bowser was reprimanded. Whatever the principal said to him seemed to only make the man work harder to make me cry.

The advice I got wasn’t the most ideal. My mother knew, but my father says he didn’t know about the music teacher’s constant bullying. He thought it was just the other kids. He told me to laugh. To take away the bullies’ power over me by laughing instead of crying. But Mr. Bowser was much bigger than me and very intimidating. So, instead of laughing, I would pretend I wasn’t there at all.

I’m almost thirty now, and this is still something that affects me. I didn’t really want anything to do with music after that experience. Singing in church became something that I dreaded. After the success with the conga drums, I wondered if I could try learning an instrument on my own. I found a six-string guitar at the flea market for ten dollars and tried to learn chords. My fingers were too short to reach a lot of the common ones. Eventually, as I didn’t have a case for it and was careless, the body warped and cracked. In a moment of purely cathartic violence, I smashed the broken instrument to pieces on the back patio. I hit it on the bricks so hard that the steel neck bent as the wood snapped.

In the last year, I’ve taken up the ukulele. It’s small enough for me to comfortably reach most of the chords and fairly easy to learn. But sometimes, I’ll be strumming away while I’m teaching myself how to play another song and I’ll be reminded that I was once told by someone in authority that I would never have the talent to play an instrument. I’ll remember that and smile.

I’ll smile because I’m thinking to myself: “Fuck you, Mr. Bowser. I can play the theme from The Greatest American Hero.”

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