For my 2nd grade year I switched schools to another Christian school in Mountlake Terrace. It was a grade school located north of where we lived in Seattle. Instead of riding the city bus to school, Mountlake Terrace had a small bus service of its own that picked me up right outside my house. Switching to a new school is always a little stressful, and involved getting a new teacher, and going to school mostly with kids whom I had never met before. A few of my friends from Seattle Junior Academy also switched schools, so I did know a few of the kids.
My 2nd grade year was the beginning of my more difficult school years, where the teasing and bullying because of my birth defects started in earnest and became a regular feature of my school days. In addition to my finger deformities due to amniotic band syndrome (ABS), one of the effects of the amniotic band on my left ankle also became more apparent. The band caused the lower part of my leg and foot to grow more slowly than my right leg, so that by the time I was 7 or 8 years old, there was almost an inch difference in length between my legs. To prevent potential strain on my spine, from walking with legs of such different length, I started to have to wear a special pair of shoes where the left shoe had a 1 inch thicker heal and sole than on the right shoe. Add to that my thick glasses needed to correct my moderately severe myopia, and I presented quite the target for ridicule. I was a four-eyed monster with a limping gait and deformed fingers.
My abnormal appearance soon resulted in new nicknames made up for me by my classmates which were often variations of things like four-eyes, clodhopper, and the one that causes me the most pain in remembering it, nubs. Because my fingers were a lot shorter than normal, and, except for my right thumbnail and a grossly malformed nail on my right index finger, nail-less, the name “nubs” was used all the time for me. My last name, Ness, also got thrown into the mix as well, since I had monster-like appearance in their eyes, I was also commonly referred to as the Loch Ness Monster.
As the teasing and name-calling became more frequent, I sometimes end up in tears, which only made things worse. Crying in response to teasing and bullying just made me more of a target. I do not remember who my teachers were in 2nd or 3rd grade, or much about them, except that they seemed noticeably absent when the teasing and bullying occurred.
The regular teasing and bullying resulted in me ending up near the bottom of the social scale in my classroom, sometimes leading to other acts of random bullying. I remember that sometimes the teacher would leave the classroom and appoint one of the other students as class monitor. The monitor’s job was to write the names of any student who talked or disturbed the class while the teacher was out, with additional tally marks added for multiple occurrences. I was usually one of the better-behaved students, but sometimes the student monitor would write my name down anyway, and even add a tally mark or two if I complained. Students with too many marks would have to stay in for recess, something that happened to me every so often, as a result of dishonest and mean student monitors.
When I complained to my parents about the teasing and bullying I was experiencing at school, they were very sympathetic, but I am not sure they knew how to confront the problem. I remember my mom repeating the common aphorism, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Her advice was essentially to ignore the teasing, including trying not to cry. If I ignored it enough, she believed it would eventually end.
My dad added the additional advice that if it got to be too much, I could also fight back. I interpreted that to mean physical retaliation. I remember one day when I tried just that approach. Another student, a boy in the class ahead of me, was calling me names as he walked down the hallway just behind me. After a bit of that, I had had enough, and turned around and punched him in the face. Somehow my fist made a good, strong connection with his nose and he started bleeding. He ran to the bathroom in tears, and I had a few moments of feeling proud that I had stood up for myself. Later, though, I was disciplined by the principal for my aggressive behavior, which at the time seemed extremely unfair, considering the excessive amount of teasing and bullying routinely directed at me.
One thing my parents, and some of the other adults in my life, did do that was helpful was to identify my strengths, and then help and encourage me to excel in those areas. I was a very intelligent and inquisitive child, so my parents especially encouraged me to excel academically. They did this by buying me science-based gifts for birthdays and Christmas. I remember getting a butterfly net and bug cage one time, and my most favorite gift of those early years, a compound microscope, which provided hours of fun as I looked at everything I could fit under the lens. My parents also encouraged me to read. Consequently, even though encyclopedias were expensive, my parents invested in a set of World Book Encyclopedias. I spent hours, not just looking at the pictures in them, but also reading many articles on anything that caught my interest.
My teachers at church also encouraged me intellectually, as well as spiritually. I remember one teacher in particular, Dr. Koch, who had a PhD in chemistry. He gave me a small poster of the periodic table and encouraged me to learn the letter abbreviations for the elements. He also introduced me to the Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis. I quickly devoured the stories, and their spiritual message was helpful to me in surviving and thriving, even while being teased and bullied at school. I identified with the children in the story who became kings and queens in Narnia and saw my own potential to make something out of my life. The stories also helped me see that as Aslan was there for the children in the story, Jesus was with me when I was going through difficulties. I just needed to put a brave face on and look forward to positive outcomes in the future.
My focus on academic excellence in school was helpful. Even though I was at the lower end of the social scale in class, with few friends, I did stand out as being the smartest kid in class. In one sense, as my grade school years passed, my classmates did look up to me at least for my intelligence. Unfortunately, even that distinction was sometimes turned around and used as a way to tease me. My first name, Bryan, was often misspelled by my classmates as Brian, and to make fun of me for my intelligence, they would sometimes turn the letters around and call me Brain. Although this did bother me, I still saw it as a badge of honor, in part. At least, I was smarter than them. I could use that to make a success of my life.
I was not the only child teased and bullied in my class, although I was the only one to be teased for having birth defects. At least two other classmates were also bullied frequently. I befriended both of them, and we made a small clique of our own that helped us survive. I also discovered that even though most of the other kids participated in the bullying, some of them felt kind of bad about it, and secretly treated me nicely, although sometimes, they would then turn around and participate in the bullying when being friends with me was socially inconvenient.
As I progressed onward through 3rd and 4th grade, I gradually learned better how to cope with the teasing and bullying. Ignoring it did help, which did lessen its occurrence somewhat, but it was still painful. I also adopted the attitude that even if they chose to treat me badly, I would treat them kindly anyway. It was my way of applying the Golden Rule, so nicely articulated by Jesus, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Since I was the top of the class in all subjects, I also readily helped other students when they needed help on homework, math being a frequent subject where help was needed and I shone.
As the bullying lessened over time, I noticed too that the boys were most often the instigators of what teasing and bullying continued. Often the girls were more kind and tenderhearted toward me, and were more willing to be my friend, at least some of the time, and at least not participate as frequently in the bullying. Consequently, I had a hard time developing very many friendships with other guys. Even as an adult I find it harder to make male friends and relate to males than to women.
I want to assure any of my friends who went to school with me back at Mountlake Terrace that I do not hold any hard feelings toward any of you. I have long ago forgiven all my classmates for the teasing and bullying, as well as the teachers who were somehow either not fully aware of what was happening or did not know how to intervene constructively. Teasing and bullying of more vulnerable children, because they are different or odd in some way, seems to come very naturally to children. My main purpose in sharing these experiences is so other may understand what it is like for a child to experience such things, and that survival and healing is more than possible. I also hope it will bring some greater awareness to the problem so parents, teachers, and other adults can intervene more effectively.
Instrumental in my survival through these years was the support of my parents and other adults in my life at that time. Even adults who may have no opportunity to intervene in the teasing and bullying, can have a very positive impact on a child who is experiencing these things. I would also add the importance of the spiritual component. Being taught about Jesus and his life experiences helped me to identify with him, who is often described as a “man of sorrows, despised and rejected.” I could relate my own experiences to what I imagined his had been as he grew up. Coupled with the many promises of Jesus in the Gospels that he would be with me when I went through trials, gave me strength to endure. Sometimes, in my mind’s eye, I would see myself standing on the top of a hill, with the wind blowing my hair, standing bravely and defiantly in the face of the struggles I was experiencing.