Many times in my life, I have been called an animal, or worse, treated as one. This started early, as most things worth forgetting do. It hasn’t stopped, even though I am now 35 years old. There are still the people who seem to get a thrill by putting down others. People who will see you on a beach with your children and proclaim that they didn’t realize they would be whale watching that day, as they look at you with mirth, meanness spilling from their eyes. There are 16 year olds testing out their freedom and first driver’s licenses in their mother’s cars, who yell swear words into your minivan, laced with childish insults and comparisons to farm animals.
There have been so many, that I have lost count. Or maybe, I let go, and chose to fill my hands with something other than petty hurts. If I should keep count, let it be of the things that build and bring hope. How many times my children say they love me in a day, how many hugs can fit in 24 hours, how many smiles you can give to strangers who look like they need one.
Still, I remember some. Like little thorns on an old vine. There isn’t a lot of life left in them, but they are pointed enough to cut if you land on them just right.
There was the boy in fourth grade who stood behind me as I took a drink of water from the hallway fountain, and proclaimed loudly that he didn’t know that whales drink water. It was stupid, but stung all the same. Or the boy that called me a hungry, hungry hippo at lunch in the cafeteria, that same year. I beat him up. Someday I might regret it. Maybe. And maybe not.
But, there is something special about your first, isn’t there? So here it is, the first time I was compared to an animal, at least that I remember.
In first grade I was in love with Joel Johnson. He was shorter than I was, but I knew that our love could weather the trivial storms of height. After all, a difference in height is no match for the magical combination of blue eyes, blond hair, and the denim tuxedo that Joel wore so frequently. That’s right. Joel could pull off wearing a sandy blue jeans button up with sandy blue jeans pants, all anchored with a real leather belt, complete with a large silver belt buckle.
I knew that we were meant to be. I also knew that love requires sacrifice. Which is why I allowed him to flip up my skirt on Friday flip up day, every Friday. It is also why I ate the ants that he offered to all of the girls, and agreed with him that they did, in fact, taste like mint. They didn’t. But I wanted to believe it so badly, that I almost had even myself completely convinced.
I would have done anything to win the love of Joel Johnson. Which is precisely how almost every other girl felt in our small 1st-2nd grade combination class. We thought that this was our chance, the day that Joel invited us all to play with him at recess. Like little pig-tailed lemmings, we followed him to the side of our brick private school, all the way to the very edge of the chain link fence. The air buzzed with excitement. There is nothing more anticipatory than a gaggle of girls during their first groupie experience. We held our breath, and waited for Joel to announce the game.
I leaned against the fence, my too big for my body hand, brushing against the cool metal diamonds of the empty chain link. Which is what I was doing when Joel took off his belt and proclaimed that the game we would be playing was farmer. He was the farmer and we were the cows. He promptly began whipping us all with his belt. Thwack! Thwack!
I looked incredulously around at the other girls, as they took it. They did not run away. They stayed, eyes on Joel, and forced nervous giggles from their innocent mouths. “No!” I yelled, in a voice that even I did not recognize. It stunned Joel long enough that I could wrangle his stupid leather belt out of his mean little fist, after he had only landed two blows on my body with it.
My hand raised and lowered with speed and indignation, Crack! That belt hit little Joel so hard that I heard the sting. He cried and cried, telling the staff at recess all about how he had been mistreated. But in the end, it turned out that no adult had seen my transgression, and Joel was the one sent to the Principal’s office. The principal, who winked at me later and told me that no boy that would hurt a girl is worth liking. I agreed.
I forgot that for a while in high school, but I have since remembered. They say that elephants never forget. I wouldn’t know about that, as I am not one. No matter how many hurting people have told me so. I am not the animal they said I am.