My mother got rid of me, but good. I had just turned 14 when she locked me up in a warehouse. Straight Inc., the place was called. I was trapped there for 16 months.
Her husband had been beating me up. I guess she got sick of my screams.
Straight billed itself as a drug rehab for kids. The weird thing was, out of of the hundreds of us in there, like three of us had done more than drink a beer, smoke a joint.
But to Straight, every teen was a druggie. At least, every teen whose parent had a checkbook and a desire to disappear them….
My mother told me she was taking me to a boarding school. Picturing green lawns and window seats, I got in the car. I let her and her husband drive me across six states.
But then I stepped into the Straight building, and everything felt wrong. Like carnival music played backwards. The few kids I saw had shirts tucked in, robot eyes. The adults had clenched jaws and clipboards.
I was a strong kid, a loud kid. I was used to being able to at least fight back.
There was no fighting back at Straight.
My mother said goodbye; said she was leaving me there. I tried to bum rush her. Seven people–three girls, four guys–grabbed my arms, my legs, my Levi’s waistband. They held tight.
When I tried to scream, they clamped hands over my mouth. When I tried to bite, it felt like they’d stolen my teeth.
I learned quick that I couldn’t use my teeth at Straight. Or my screams. Or my fight. All I could do was tell those hundreds of kids, “My mother was right. I am a drug addict.” All I could do was lie, and swear it was the truth.
When I was a kid, my mother and her husband abused the fuck outta me.
At 12, I hit puberty and started fighting back.
At 13, I ran away and was homeless.
At 14, my mother locked me up in a “troubled teen” program, Straight Inc., that’s been called “a concentration camp for throwaway teens.”
I was trapped there for 16 months, being abused in ways you can’t even imagine. I saw a lot of blood. I heard a lot of bodies, breaking. I wasn’t allowed to scream. I wasn’t allowed to move.
When I got out, I wanted to kill myself, quickly.
Instead I did it slowly, by having mean sex with guys who hated me.
I started my life with other people abusing me. Then I learned to do it for myself.
Today, thanks to a lot of therapy and a decision to spend my life helping kids like me, I’m way better. Today, my life is almost perfect.
This is a blog about me, but maybe it’s also about you.
There are so many of us who have been hurt by people with power and control.
In my blog, in my books, I describe what hurt me, and how I survived.
If you’ve been hurt, and you want to know how to survive, come on. Get reading.
My husband broke the gender divide down for me. “The difference between guys and girls is: guys fight by punching each other. Somebody wins; the problem’s over. Girls fight by talking to other girls. Nobody ever wins. The problem never ends.”
I know this smacks of gender stereotyping. Apologies. But some traits came down to us from the cavepeople. And is he wrong? He’s not. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture, but us chicks, we’re like, still too gentle to tell another chick we’re pissed off. Instead, we tell all our friends we’re pissed, and win the fight that way: by making everybody else hate her, too.
One of my teen clients was the center dot in that bulls-eye recently. Let me tell you about her. She’s the definition of cool. Great hair, half smile, and AE clothes, but not too tight or short. She even has a girl name that doubles as a boy name. And here’s the rub: she doesn’t know how fucking cool she is. She thinks she’s a semi-loser, lucky to be orbiting in her mean-girl friends’ circle. Oh, Jordan*.
This awesome humility is exactly what makes Jordan a target. The shitty human is forever trying to boost itself by squelching its superior (see: Adolf Hitler. Donald Trump. All of Taylor Swift’s boyfriends). And the superior, naturally humble and innocent, is easily squelched. At least, the first few times.
Jordan comes to me with the half-smile gone: “My three best friends won’t talk to me, and I don’t know why!” All she knows is the one friend (who, it turns out, is the most popular in the group, because she’s so skinny, and the least popular with the boys, because she’s too skinny) is mad at her. Nobody will tell Jordan WHY Slim is mad, but they’re happy to send texts like, “Slim is SO mad at you.”
Ping! Ping! goes Jordan’s cell phone, each text the same message with new words. Poor Jordan thumbs out, “Why?”–SEND–each time, helpless and confused. I’m working real hard to not pull a Mama Bear on these tweeny bitches.
After a struggle, I manage to pry the phone from Jordan’s shaking hand. And I even get her to listen to me.
Me: “Jordan. Me. Over here. We got this.” If she was the kind of girl who needed eyeliner, it would be smudged all down her face. “Check this out. You know that one guy the girls all looooove?”
Jordan: (sniff) “Yeah.”
Me: “Does he act like he loves them back?”
Jordan: “Um. No.”
Me: “How does his ignoring them make them act?”
Jordan: “Like they love him even more.”
Me: “Exactly! Sad fact of human nature: we want most whatever doesn’t want us. Which is why you’re race-texting back these ‘friends’ who are dissing you. You want them to want you back?”
Jordan: (sob) “Yes!”
Me: “Then be that guy all the girls love. Act like you don’t give a shit. Now. In case this takes a minute, do you have other friends you can hang out with at school tomorrow?”
Jordan: (gulp) “Um, yeah…my friend Tyler and his lacrosse friends….”
Me: “Bingo. Ready? Here we go….”
Cell phone: PING!
Text Message: “Slim said find another lunch table.”
My Thumbs on Jordan’s Phone: “Alrite”
Cell Phone: PING!
Text Message: “And don’t come to her party fri”
My Thumbs: “Got other plans”
Cell Phone: PING!
Text Message: “JK”
Cell Phone: PING!
Text Message: “Jord, it’s Slim”
Cell Phone: PING!
Text Message: “Want to match outfits tomorrow?”
Jordan: Smile. A full one, that time.
Oh, and by the way? I am in no way JK. It was that fast. Lightening. Shit works.
(*Jordan isn’t her real name. Her real name is way more badass.)
Let’s just go ahead and rip the bandaid off, k? This is gonna hurt, but only for a second. Ready? Here’s the suck: no matter how hard you try to make people like you, you might not end up liked.
Face that possibility, and it can’t get any worse. So all it can do is get better. See how that works? Either way now, you’re gonna be fine.
The first lesson of Buddhism is this: life is hard. Don’t expect easy. Accept that idea, and boom! Life’s a lot easier. If you stop expecting good, you’re fine when it doesn’t come.
But then, guess what happens? When you stop expecting good, good starts coming. It’s magic.
So let’s apply this concept to high school popularity. You’ve faced the fact that people might never like you (harsh). So you stop trying to make people like you (sad). Now you’re putting out that, “Meh, whatever to y’all” vibe (cool). And since you don’t care if they like you, they start…liking you (sweet).
This is boring and philosophical. We need some color. So here ya go. Meet Jack.
Jack had flat black hair and a Cabbage Patch Kid body. He wasn’t an athlete. He wasn’t a Popular Kid. He wasn’t an anything, officially.
And yet…Jack’s girlfriend was Whitney, the human Barbie doll. Jack was on auto-invite for every kegger. Jack had the teachers laughing at the shit that got everyone else detention. Because Jack had popularity Zen. He didn’t give a fuck what we thought of him.
Here’s what Jack did, instead of giving a fuck: he left the party to dance, alone, in the middle of the street. He wore a hazmat suit to school one random Thursday. He pinched my boob through my old lady costume on Halloween and said, “Nice falsies.” Then he cutely blushed when I said, “They’re not false.”
Jack didn’t drink, but he was neither righteous nor ashamed about it. Actually, he wasn’t righteous or ashamed about anything. He just…was, and we could take it or leave it. And because of that, we loved him. A lot.
So here’s a review of today’s lesson.
A) They might never like you. Face it.
B) Find other stuff to think about. Anything but Them, and whether They like you.
C) Watch as They fall at your feet.
I don’t make a secret of the fact that I like all you guys, and un-like adults. But I thought I’d break it down a little, give you my reasoning. It’s because adults are full of shit. And you’re not.
Sorry to my legions of adult readers out there, but you can kind of fug off.
Okay, back to you guys. Do you know an adult who’ll admit when they’re wrong? How about one who will listen to what you say? Or–this one’s, like, the Loch Ness Monster–one who can “self-reflect” and “claim responsibility”? Yeah, that thing. The one you’re always getting in trouble for not doing. You don’t, do you. Know an adult like that. It’s okay. I don’t, either.
Next question: do you know any teens who’ll do those things? I really want an answer to that one. I want to know how you guys see each other. But first, I’m gonna tell you what I see.
I see teens being bald-face honest about their faults. I see teens calling each other out on bullshit (yes, r/teenagers, I’m talking to you)…and I see the bullshitter coming back with, “Yeah, I see your point.” I see teens not trying to hide it when they’re psyched, or bored, or madly in love. (Oy, with the high school hallways on Valentine’s Day.)
Today I saw some teens who’re taking it to a new level. A friend of mine is a teacher at a juvenile detention facility. I imagine life might suck a little, for her students. I imagine if I were them, I’d be pissed at the world. But then, I’m an adult.
So my friend set up a blog to post her students’ writing. Here’s some of the mind-bogglingly honest, self-reflective stuff they have to say.
From “Lock Up”: “If I had a choice, I would choose to be at C—- (name of facility withheld) because you are safe here and you can still talk to your parents through mail and talk on the phone and you get food three times a day…It’s like home, except you have to stay in a cell and do what they want you to do. You still get to go to school and get to find other ways to get out of your cell.”
Get to. This kid is locked up, and he’s finding stuff to be grateful for.
In “The Boy Who Survived in the Wilderness,” we’ve got the anti-bragger: the kid who, even in fiction, makes the hero not-quite-perfect: “They went outside and hung an old tarp target on a old bale of hay. Daddy showed him how to knock the arrow onto the string and how to aim for the big dot in the middle of the tarp. The first couple of times he didn’t do so well, he missed the target all together. But finally he got the hang of it and before dark Braxton was hitting bull’s eye almost every shot.”
Almost every shot. Not every shot, but almost.
From “Mistakes”: “I have lived with my grandmother for fifteen years and I treated her like crap. I always blamed her for my mother’s mistakes. Now, since I am getting older, I am starting to realize it wasn’t my grandmother’s fault…Now I am sitting in detention because I started blaming my grandmother again for my mother’s mistakes.”
Now just for contrast, here’s what adults have to say about why they’re locked up. This quote, from a nurse at an adult prison, is a Q and A from the Ask Me Anything forum. Yeah, I’m reddit-happy today. So what.
Q: Do you get told what they’re incarcerated for? Is it in their chart in some way, or do you just learn from guards, or their own disclosure?
A: It’s not in their chart, but we can ask the officers or look them up on the DOC website. It’s an if-you-wanna-know kind of thing. If you ask them, they’ll likely lie to you, in my experience.
You see what I’m saying?
Now here’s my no-bullshit: I appreciate all you teens who tolerate my adult-assed presence in the classroom and online. My life might suck without you.
Oh, and PS: if you want to read that blog yourself, it’s here: http://writersontheinside.com/ If you go, leave ’em a comment. I’m sure they’ll be grateful for that, too.
I’m subbing for the librarian, so you know the kids in this class are the good guys. If you choose “library science” as your elective, you’re a poindexter. Truth.
So I ask these scrub-faced seniors to confirm or deny my suspicion. “Does it seem,” I say, “that most adults are mad at you before you’ve done anything wrong?”
They’re such goodies, they think about it a sec before nodding.
“Yeah,” lacrosse-star-guy says. “Soon as you walk into CVS they’re tailing you, like you’re going to pocket a travel toothpaste.”
A girl with Heidi braids chimes in. “All but, like, one of my teachers hates me.” She has a cello case next to her. How do you hate the kid who plays cello?
I’m on a mission to prove the teen-haters wrong. This blog is how I’m going to do it. Here’s exhibit A.
I am stupid. I walk my dogs without leashes. One of my dogs is a master hunter. He was the homeless guy; he’s had to hunt for food. So we’re walking on this path that follows a stream. Next to the stream is a set of woods. Next to the woods is a major road.
A deer screeches across our path and into the woods. My dogs—my precious, everything dogs—screech after it. They’re gone. All that’s left is the woosh of nearby traffic.
Understand me, I am flipping the eff out. My babies will get killed by cars, and I’m helpless. If I go into the woods and head left, what if they went right? Or vice versa? If I’m screaming their names and moving, how will they find me, the moving target? And if military logic says a lost soldier stays in his last known location, shouldn’t I stand still and scream their names? Okay, flipping. The eff. Out. And screaming.
A human figure comes limping toward me from a quarter mile away. Through the woods. In a leg cast.
“I was out feeding the cows and heard you. You okay?” this Superman of a teen says.
“My dogs!” I gack out.
“Oh, they won’t get to the road,” says Super. “That road’s a way off.”
Then he limps his broken ass off through the prickers. The poison ivy. The ticks. In a leg cast. Two minutes later I hear, “They’re coming!” And there’s my babies, barreling at me with slathery grins.
I force this kid to tell me where he lives, practically at gunpoint. I will be giving him that 20 in my wallet.
Pull up to his house, knock on the rattly screen door, and a big guy with a beer answers. I compliment him on the job he’s done raising his son; he goes, “My son? Bah.”
So broken-legged kid rescues two dogs, puts hysteria-lady on ice, and tries to wave off a free $20. In exchange, from the adults, he gets “Bah” and a gun to the head. And it’s teens that are sucky? To that, I say this: bah.
Well, that was kind of rude. I tell you to go feel good about your thing and then I ditch, without a word on how to do it. SOR-ry (to the tune of the doorbell, DING-dong). Well, chopchop. Let’s get on that.
First, some background info on feeling good about yourself. If you’re lucky, you grew up in this, like, recycling symbol of affirmation, above. Go. Read. Now.
Not so lucky? Me either. My recycling symbol was more like this:
1) You’re (choose as many as apply) ignored/resented/abused/belittled at home
2) Your day-1 self-perception: “I’m unlikable”
3) Because you’ve never known “being liked,” you put off a “Please like me, but I know you won’t” vibe
4) Your belief that people can’t like you tells the world, “This kid’s a weird one”
5) You have no friends, which reinforces…
6) Your self-perception: “I’m unlikable”
The problem with recycling symbols? They have no end. Each step in the cycle makes the next one happen, every time. So unless you got Brady Bunch lovin’ as a tiny tot, you’re socially screwed, right? Forever alone. SOR-wait! Stop right there!
There are ways to break the recycling symbol. Jerkoffs toss their 98%-post-consumer-waste water bottles out car windows every day, don’t they? They do. And if jerkoffs can break the chain, so can you. All you’ve got to do is reset your spin cycle.
The start of the loop was “We don’t like you,” and that thing kept on spinning. But jam a wrench in there–a message that contradicts the spin–and it snaps to a halt. It might not be easy; it might not be cute. But you can turn that machinery around.
Okay loudmouth, you’re thinking. It’s impossible to make people like me, and to solve that problem, I’ve gotta…make people like me?
Yeah, I guess I am saying that. And yeah, I know it sounds like psychobabble. But–and here’s where I don my top hat and tails, and jump up on my box–I know it can be done. Because–wait for it–I did it myself! And you can too, for the low, low price of…$0.
Just stick with me. Come back next time, with your mind open and your cynicism in check. We’ll get ya there, you and me. We’ll get ya to the top of the social heap in no time. Just you wait.
Those kids who have nobody to sit with at lunch. They still exist, right? Psyche. I know they do, ‘cuz I see their posts on Reddit. I always give them the same 3 lines of advice, but there’s a motherload where that came from. So here ya go. Part I in a series on how to shake your status as a high school loser.
So, this one kid? Frankenstein in Coke bottle glasses. Complete with the shuffle. And every other kid in the room has a cool haircut, if you know what I mean. Before class even starts I’m cringing for the Frankenstein, knowing that he’s the puck, and the cool guys are the sticks.
The computers are in a horseshoe around the room. All the other guys get on them and start their projects, but not weird Frank. Frank wanders around, talking to himself as the rest of the guys talk to each other. Every once in a while Frank stops, leaning in and watching over someone’s shoulder.
I encourage him to find his own computer, because some verbal sniper is about to lay him flat. How long are they going to tolerate the eyeballs on their work, the mumble in their ears? But Frank comes back with an ironclad excuse: “The program’s still loading.” And because I’m the anti-control freak, I can’t command him, “SIT DOWN.” He’s not doing anything wrong. Plus, the worst thing I could do to the kid would be to call more attention to him. So I sit. And I watch. And I learn.
I’m shocked to see that the cool guys don’t mind Frank. I’m extra-shocked that Frank doesn’t mind himself. And that’s his golden ticket.
It dawns on me like this. When I ask Frank to find a computer, he doesn’t freeze. He doesn’t look down. He doesn’t do any of the terrified-kid-in-the-spotlight moves. Instead, he keeps his eyes on some kid’s computer. As in, “I’m fine with what I’m doing. Got nothing to hide.”
Then, when that kid turns to the guy next to him, Frank doesn’t move along, knowing he’s about to get ragged on. And therefore, he’s right. He’s not about to get ragged on. The kid asks the guy how to graph a rhomboid or something.
All through the class, Frank does stuff that gets other kids ridiculed. And all through class, his classmates don’t raise an eyebrow. Because Frank is cool with his weirdness. That shit is armor.
You know the fat kid who’s picked on for being fat? He’s putting out a Damn, I’m fat vibe. Know that other fat kid who’s wicked funny, who everyone wants to be friends with? He’s putting out a Damn, I’m funny! vibe. That’s the only diff.
So here it is, a nice little vitamin pill. The prescription for losing your high school loserdom. Feel fine about your thing. Weird? Fat? Dorky? Loud? Awesome. Fuck what anyone else thinks, in the friendliest way possible. They’ve got their own thing, you’ve got yours. Both are cool. Believe that, and you’re teflon.
I’m subbing at a new high school. It’s often written up in the local paper, but not with glowing stories of promising young athletes. Rather, it’s “Student Assaulted Teacher” and “Teacher Molested Student.” I did my first 3 years of teaching at a school with metal detectors at the door. I’m not afraid of “bad” schools. More like, I’m afraid of the pain-in-the-ass subbing can be at a school where teachers are so miserable, they’ll just not show up one day. But maybe it’s my kind of place, I thought. I kind of like mayhem. So I decide to check it out. Here’s what I find.
First period class is big. Like, 33 kids-big. One guy tells me they’ve had a sub almost every day since the start of the semester, which explains why there are no lesson plans. I say hey to the kids and start taking attendance; everybody’s acting fine. Then the classroom door opens, and three adults step in: a teacher, an administrator, and a security guard. Now, it might be worth telling you that the class is like 98% black kids. It also might be worth telling you that 2 of the 3 adults are also black. And it’s probably a good time to keep it real.
Whether we want to talk about it or not, there are big differences in how white people and black people are living in this country. I’m saying, look up some statistics about the people who are stinkin rich. What are they? White. And look up the rates at which white folks graduate college, and compare them to the rates for people of color. Or just go straight to the heart of it: look up the incarceration rates for black males. Hint: on any given day, 1 of every 10 black men in their 30s is locked up. Bottom line? As a general rule, white people live easier than black people. We all know this, right?
I’m no social scientist. I don’t think I understand the problem, or have the solution. But I do know what worked for me.
I didn’t live the “easy white life.” I had free lunch in elementary school and junior high. I shared a bedroom with my step-sister and step-brother. I got smacked more than I got praised. I was homeless at 13. For a long time, life was hard. The one good thing I had? School.
My teachers saved me. They made learning fun, so school was an escape. They gave me good books to read, which were better than drugs. They told me my writing was excellent, which was sweeter than a hug. I was really, really lucky. Because of my teachers, I had something besides the ugly. Because of my teachers, I pulled myself out of that mess.
Now, back to the classroom. Back to the 3 adults, the 33 kids. Refresher: the kids are acting fine. The adults? Not so much.
Trying to support the new sub, I guess, the administrator says, “These students need to behave and do their work. Do not hesitate to call security. If one student–ONE student–does or says something you do not like, you just pick up that phone and call security.”
“Um–I’m fine, they’re fine,” I say back. “I just don’t have any lesson plans…?”
The teacher shows me a stack of copies with carefully numbered Learning Objectives taking up half the page. Like, 3.01: The student will be able to assess and analyze the difference between blah and blah and blah. This jargon makes my eyes spin. And I’m supposed to force 33 teenagers who’ve had a sub for 2 months to take it seriously? Why yes, I am. I know this because the administrator speaks again.
“These students need to take this work very, very seriously. They have not been doing their work, yet they have a standardized test coming up, an EOC. In 3 weeks! If they don’t start caring about this work and taking it seriously, they will fail. They better start caring about that.”
I have to force myself not to apologize to the students for her words. And just like every time I’m in a classroom, I have to force myself not to teach like my teachers taught me, back in the 70s and 80s: with excitement and color and creativity and good books. I have to pretend 3.01 is what they must do, because that fill-in-the-bubble, there’s-only-one-correct-answer-to-every-question EOC test is the most important thing. Because in schools today? We don’t give kids an escape route. We don’t give kids a reason to want to learn, or inspire them to do more than just survive the ugly. There’s no time for such nonsense. There’s simply no room in the curriculum.