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Black Lightning: A Bully Survivor’s Tale

I was a military brat. Military brats are unique creatures in that we have to be flexible, adaptable and able to accept change. I was able to do this, and in many ways I believe that this internal resilience helped to get me through school. I lived in many interesting places, saw and did many interesting things. I would not trade the experiences I had as a military kid for anything- except for school. School was the Dark Side of my life, the place of humiliation and torment.

I had a little hint of what was to come when I was in fifth grade. I was a brilliant and gifted student, and because of this, was the darling of my teachers, and the target of bullies. One girl in particular was my chief tormentor. For some reason, she hated everything about me- my hair, my glasses, and probably, my ease at reading in front of others. She took particular delight in getting the other girls to gang up on me and rip out handfuls of my long hair. My teacher told my mom that if I had fought back, she ‘wouldn’t have seen a thing’. I never did.

True hell began when my family returned to the US, and I went to off-base schools. I became the victim of my mother’s fashion sense. In the early 70s, the clothing sold at the local K-Mart was stunningly hideous, and I would cry at the things my mom would get for me. Her choice of eyeglasses for me was also awful- I begged for wire-rimmed glasses, but would end up with what my mom thought looked nice on me- light blue, sixties-era cat-eyes. She would have done better to paint a target on my back when she sent me to school in the wilds of Arkansas. The abrupt silence that greeted me when I walked into the classroom was the opening overture to the three years of sheer physical hell that followed. I was beat up on the very first day of school. My glasses were replaced 10 times between the 7th and 9th grades, when my mom finally gave in and permitted me to have the wire-rims I so desperately wanted.

I rode my bike to sixth grade, and would often find my tires flat, the paint scratched, or the seat slashed. Someone partially cut through the gear control cable, and it broke and tangled in my front wheel one morning when I was going full speed down a steep hill. To this day I remember the screams of derision from my classmates as they zipped by me as I lay bleeding and half-conscious in the middle of the street. A base security policeman scooped me up and took me home. My dad made me go to school that day, even though I was in obvious shock. He wanted me to ‘get back on the horse’. I wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out. "Why don’t you tell me who did it?" he demanded many times, several in the emergency room where I was being splinted yet again. He wouldn’t accept my insistence that most everyone was in on it. He thought I was lying, and I overheard many heated arguments between my parents about what to do about me.

How could I be ‘their’ daughter, when I wouldn’t fight? My passive acceptance of the kicks, fists, pinches and other indignities puzzled my parents. Why wouldn’t I fight back? They tried to get me to take self-defense classes. Dad tried to teach me to box. Mom constantly wished she could ‘be in my body’ for just one day, and she’d straighten out my tormentors. Boys in particular singled me out to grab my breasts, stick their hands between my legs, or snap my bra straps. I would try to get the teachers to get them to stop. "Boys will be boys", I’d hear. Or, "He likes you." (This after a particularly painful ‘noogie’ to my head.) The boys who wore the Converse baseball shoes were particularly vicious- they were the proto-jocks who shadowed me all through junior high and some of high-school. There was the cavalier attitude of the privileged about them, and the knowledge that they could- and did- get away with just about anything. I loathed them.

One example of the untouchable jock was in my eight-grade algebra class. The teacher asked me to draw some circles on the blackboard while he went to the office to get more copies of our worksheets. I did as I was asked, but one fellow didn’t think my work was good enough. He tried to take the large chalkboard compass from me. I stood up to him and wouldn’t let go. So he tried to twist it out of my grip. There was an awful ‘snap!’ It wasn’t the wooden compass, it was my ulna. I fainted from the pain. Jocko was suspended for three days, and I, after having my arm reset and encased in a heavy plaster cast, was removed from the class. The reason the teacher gave was that he thought it was too advanced for me, even though I was making a B. The real reason, I was told later, was that the jock was failing the class, but had to take it in order to be eligible to play football the next year. He didn’t want me ‘distracting’ him.

High school was also hell, but with the exception of an occasional grope from a steroid-addled jock, the torment became more psychological than physical. It was bad enough that I dreaded getting up in the morning, and nightly wished I would not awaken the next day. It didn’t help that my father teased me constantly- my vehement distaste for the male sex was a source of gleeful teasing that would leave me in frustrated tears. He would threaten to marry me off to the first hick who asked. In Arkansas, early marriage was the norm, and it was a while before I found out that he could not do that. Still, I had nightmares about something like that happening for years after I left home.

The overtly physical torment I suffered trickled off, to be replaced by social and psychological rejection. I didn’t talk, act, or dress like them, nor did I grow up with them, which automatically made me an outcast. I wasn’t ‘saved’, either, and the more religious of them would single me out for derision and Biblical bad-mouthing. I was also the target of Christian ‘love-bombing’- intense, but false ‘friendships’ meant to lure the lonely and the outcast into going to their churches and being converted. When I did not fall for this bait, I was ostracized even worse.

I found an outlet in reading, and escaped through Star Trek and Science Fiction. Even though I was going to go straight into the USAF, I still took a full load of AP classes for the sheer fun of it. I refused to participate in the teen rituals my mom wanted me to go to- the dances, the prom, and all that. Why should I set myself up for ridicule? Around that time, "Carrie" was published, and I very strongly identified with her. I turned my back on the social whirl of the school year and lost myself in books. I was 300 books short of reading the entire library when I graduated.

It was during my senior year when I had a very interesting and enlightening conversation with my school guidance counselor. He was one of those youngish, ‘mod’ sorts who tried his best to be ‘in’ with the kids, but never quite ‘got’ it. He was a proto-New-Age hippie sort, and was interested in all sorts of esoteric things. "Did you know that you have the highest IQ in the school?" he asked. I did not know that, nor did I know that the school wanted to skip me forward a grade- back in the sixth grade. My parents told them no. "Why aren’t you going to college?" I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I was afraid that college would be socially the same as high school. The Air Force was more attractive to me. My counselor told me that I was an ‘old soul’- because I dealt with the slights and head-games of my peers in a very dignified and mature manner. He foresaw a good life ahead for me. I told him that all I saw was that diploma in my hand, and the school marquee in the rear view mirror- that was my mental goal. But his kindly treatment of me was a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel of darkness that was my teen years.

The day I graduated in 1979 was the day that I truly began to live. It took many years for me to heal the scars inflicted upon my soul by my tormentors, and to gain the seamless self-confidence that today is my stock in trade. I daily believe that the latter part of my life will be (and is rapidly becoming) the best part. I managed to survive my childhood with my sanity intact. I battled severe depression in my twenties and early thirties, but conquered that, too. I realized that I had regained my confidence and self esteem when I worked in computer retail for several years after my military career abruptly ended. There, on a very competitive and all-male sales floor, I learned the art of graciously shutting down bullying men who thought they knew more about computers and electronics than I did. Today, I work with powerful and political people in my job as computer technician for my State Legislature. They can be overbearing at times, but rarely with me. At my job, I am liked and respected, and treated as a peer, not a subordinate. It is a heady feeling, long in coming.

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In retrospect, I know why I didn’t fight back. I was afraid- afraid not of hitting my tormentors, but afraid that if I started, I would not be able to stop until I had killed them. My martial arts instructor helped me to uncover this, and turn this black and overpowering rage into an awesome weapon that I can control. He called it the ‘black lightning’, and told me that it is the source of the so-called ‘death touch’ in some martial-arts forms. I told him about my school days and my fears. He looked me in the eye and told me that I was right to fear this power, because it was there even when I was a child. I had to stay away from practice for a few weeks while this understanding found its place within me. I realized that this terrible gift was the other pole of my gift of healing. I have learned to take extra care about touching people when I am angry.

The telling full-circle moment came last fall, during elections. I had returned to my home state, and had settled into the same neighborhood I grew up in. Running for a county office was my former high school social studies teacher. I didn’t think he’d remember me when I introduced myself, but to my surprise, he did. We had coffee together, and he told me that he had wondered what became of me. He was the only teacher who actively defended me when I was being picked on, and I remember him making a bullying jock stand in the middle of the classroom and hold two encyclopedias in an ‘iron cross’ configuration. He told me that he knew I was different, and hoped that I would do well after I left school. I told him that I still had nightmares occasionally, but that I felt the worst part of my life was over. The man had a memory that was incredible, and related to me the fate of several of my former tormentors. Two had died in an alcohol-related car crash in college. Others were in prison, or had criminal records. Several of the proud crowd girls were on their fourth husbands, and one already had grandkids. Many were dead or dying, or diseased. Other of my peers were more successful. One went on to teach at the school she graduated from, another is a prominent psychologist on the west coast. Another is a coach. Most of the women had kids. I told him that I remembered him classifying the lot of us in various cliques as a part of our social studies class. Some were jocks, some were band-jocks, others were preppies or proud crowd, and there were the stoners, the greasers, the brides-to-be, and me. He couldn’t classify me at all, which made for some amusement in the room. He remembered that, and told me that he figured out who I, and others like me were- mature misfits. Young adults. Geeks in the good sense. Intellectuals-in-waiting. It was gratifying to hear that from him. He went on to win his seat in the election.

Today, at 40, I am successful in my job, confident in myself, and know in my deepest marrow that no one can ever hurt me the way I was hurt as a youth. I am an accomplished occultist, respected writer, and sought-after speaker on technical subjects. I have learned about the healing side of the Black Lightning, and have done a lot of work to repair my self-esteem. I am also a keen judge of character, and can spot out a bully in a line-up of identically dressed people in a heartbeat. I bear deep scars from my torment, and even today, there is a certain type of male that totally repulses me. It took me a long time to trust men and see them as human beings, but I have never married, and do not intend to. Yet I hate no one, and hold no grudges against any of my former tormentors. Although today I could peel them like an onion, I know I will not have to. For me, my success, survival, wisdom and insight are my best revenge. Unlike them, I have been through the crucible, and had the dross burned away. I have emerged stronger. I am a Warrior.

As I consider my former youthful peers from this crag of serenity, I understand that there was no rhyme or reason to their torment of me, except for that animal fear of the odd one. Their hate, envy and fear was very primitive and very basic. I now see it as doomed animals (them) turning against the proto-humans (people like me). Human animals try to harm that which they cannot understand or that which they fear. Perhaps it is the same today- with the targets being the quiet and intelligent ones who can see the social bullshit for what it really is, and the tormentors for the sheeple they really are. And the sheeple, ignorant as they are, know this, know that they are bound for eventual cultural slaughter and consumption by the life-script of school, job, marriage, debt, kids, and the SUV, and lash out with the last desperate twitch of their doomed souls. High school is the high point of many of these tormentors’ lives- in their marrow they know that their lives are over after they graduate- even if they go on to college. Many try to carry on the high school mentality into college, but the gig is over by then, and no one will dance.

I survived my childhood. It’s funny to say that now, but in retrospect, that is what I did- survived, in spite of their best efforts to eliminate me.

If you, dear reader, are still in what Jon Katz calls "the Hellmouth", take heart. It ends when you graduate. When you leave school, you enter the adult world, where people don’t beat you up because they are stuck with you in a lock-step high-vacuum environment. If you are intelligent, articulate, mature, responsible- and burn for knowledge, you will be sought after- not for torture, but for those very qualities the savages in school loathe. If you should encounter a bully in the adult world (they do exist), you have recourse- everything from Human Resources to lawsuits. If that bully is a superior, you can leave. You don’t have to take it. It isn’t your problem, it is theirs. Remember that.

It may take you some time to get on your newly minted adult feet and get past the fear of more torment. But today, you have many more resources than I did 20 years ago. Use them. Get counseling if you need to. Get your depression treated. Turn the page, and know that your own best years are ahead of you- even as your tormentors best years are behind them.

And never, ever forget: Success is the best revenge.

2001 By Lorie A. Johnson

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