Insinuation 2.4

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“Nobody likes her.  Nobody wants her here,” Julia said.

“Such a loser.  She didn’t even turn in the major project for art, last Friday,” Sophia responded.

“If she’s not going to try, then why is she even coming to school?”

Despite the way the conversation sounded, they were talking to me.  They were just pretending to talk to one another.  It was both calculating in how they were managing plausible deniability while at the same time they were acting totally juvenile by pretending I wasn’t there.  A blend of immaturity mixed with craftiness in a way only high schoolers could manage.  I would have laughed at the ridiculousness of it, if it hadn’t been at my expense.

The moment I had left the classroom, Emma, Madison and Sophia had crowded me into a corner, with another six girls backing them up.  I was unable to squeeze past them without getting pushed or elbowed back, so I couldn’t do much more than lean against the window, listening while eight of the girls were rattling off an endless series of taunts and jibes.  Before one girl was even finished, another started up.  All the while, Emma stayed back and stayed quiet, the slightest of smiles on her face.  I couldn’t meet the eyes of any of the other girls without them barking a fresh torrent of insults directly to my face, so I just glared at Emma.

“Ugliest girl in our grade.”

They were barely thinking about what they were saying and a lot of the insults were wildly off the mark or contradictory.  One would say I was a slut, for example, then another might say a guy would puke before he touched me.  The point wasn’t being witty, being smart or being on target.  It was more about delivering the feeling behind the words over and over, hammering it in.  If I’d had just a moment to butt in, maybe I could have come up with retorts.  If I could just kill their momentum, they probably wouldn’t get back into the easy rhythm again.  That said, I couldn’t find the words, and there weren’t any openings in the conversation where I wouldn’t just be talked over.

While this particular tactic was new to me, I’d been putting up with stuff like this for a year and a half, now.  At a certain point, I’d come to the conclusion that it was easier to sit back and take it, when it came to most things.  They wanted me to fight back, because everything was stacked in their favor.  If I stood up for myself and they still ‘won’, then it only served to feed their egos.  If I came out ahead in some way, then they got more persistent and mean for the next time.  So for much the same reason I hadn’t fought Madison for the homework she had taken from me, I just leaned against the wall next to the window and waited for them to get bored with their game or get hungry enough to leave and go have their lunches.

“What does she use to wash her face?  A Brillo pad?”

“She should!  She’d look better!”

“Never talks to anybody.  Maybe she knows she sounds like a retard and keeps her mouth shut.”

“No, she’s not that smart.”

No more than three feet behind Emma, I could see Mr. Gladly leaving his classroom.  The tirade didn’t stop as I watched him tuck a stack of folders under one arm, find his keys and lock the door.

“If I were her, I’d kill myself,” one of the girls announced.

Mr. Gladly turned to look me in the eyes.

“So glad we don’t have gym with her.  Can you imagine seeing her in the locker room?  Gag me with a spoon.”

I don’t know what expression I had on my face, but I know I didn’t look happy.  No less than five minutes ago, Mr. Gladly had been trying to convince me to go with him to the office and tell the principal about the bullying.  I watched him as he gave me a sad look, shifted the file folders to his free hand and then walked away.

I was stunned.  I just couldn’t wrap my head around how he could just ignore this.  When he had been trying to help me, had he just been covering his own ass, doing what was required of him in the face of a situation he couldn’t ignore?  Had he just given up on me?  After trying to help, in his own completely ineffective way, after I turned his offer for help down twice, he just decided I just wasn’t worth the effort?

“You should have seen her group fail in class just now.  It was painful to watch.”

I clenched my fist, then forced myself to relax it.  If we were all guys, this scenario would be totally different.  I was in the best shape of my life.  I could have swung a few punches from the very start, caused a bloody nose or two, maybe.  I know I would have lost the fight in the end, getting shoved to the ground by force of numbers and kicked while I was down, but things would have ended there, instead of dragging on like they were here.  I’d hurt physically for days afterwards, but I’d at least have had the satisfaction of knowing some of the others were hurting too, and I wouldn’t have to sit through this barrage of insults.  If there was enough damage done, the school would have to take notice, and they wouldn’t be able to ignore the circumstances of a one-against-nine fight.  Violence gets attention.

But things didn’t work that way here.  Girls played dirty.  If I decked Emma, she would run to the office with some fabricated story, her friends backing up her version of events.  For most, ratting to the faculty was social suicide, but Emma was more or less top dog.  If she went to the principal, people would only take things more seriously.  By the time I got back to school, they would have spread the story through the grapevine in a way that made me look like a total psycho.  Things would get worse.  Emma would be seen as the victim and girls who had previously ignored the bullying would join in on Emma’s behalf.

“And she smells,” one girl said, lamely.

“Like expired grape and orange juice,” Madison cut in with a little laugh.  Again, bringing up the juice?  I suspected that one had been her idea.

It seemed like they were running out of steam.  I figured it was just a minute or two before they got bored and walked away.

It seemed Emma got the same impression, because she stepped forward.  The group parted to give her room.

“What’s the matter, Taylor?”  Emma said, “You look upset.”

Her words didn’t seem to fit the situation.  I had maintained my composure for however long they had been at it.  What I’d been feeling was more a mixture of frustration and boredom than anything else.  I opened my mouth to say something.  A graceless “Fuck you” would have sufficed.

“So upset you’re going to cry yourself to sleep for a straight week?” she asked.

My words died in my throat as I processed her words.

Almost a year before we had started high school, I had been at her house, the both of us eating breakfast and playing music way too loud.  Emma’s older sister had come downstairs with the phone.  We’d turned down the music, and my dad had been on the other end, waiting to tell me in a broken voice that my mom had died in a car accident.

Emma’s sister had given me a ride to my place, and I bawled the entire way there.  I remember Emma crying too, out of sympathy, maybe.  It could have been the fact that she thought my mom was the coolest adult in the world.  Or perhaps it was because we really were best friends and she had no idea how to help me.

I didn’t want to think about the month that had followed, but fragments came to mind without my asking.  I could remember overhearing my dad berating my mother’s body, because she’d been texting while driving, and she was the only one to blame.  At one point, I barely ate for five straight days, because my dad was such a wreck that I wasn’t on his radar. I’d eventually turned to Emma for help, asking to eat at her place for a few days.  I think Emma’s mom figured things out, and gave my dad a talking to, because he started pulling things together.  We’d established our routine, so we wouldn’t fall apart as a family again.

It was a month after my mom had died that Emma and I had found ourselves sitting on the bridge of a kid’s play structure in the park, our rear ends cold from the damp wood, sipping coffee we’d bought from the Donut Hole.  We didn’t have anything to do, so we had just been walking around and talking about whatever.  Our wandering had taken us to the playground, and we were resting our heels.

“You know, I admire you,” she had said, abruptly.

“Why?” I had responded, completely mystified about the fact that someone gorgeous and amazing and popular like her could find something to admire in me.

“You’re so resilient.  After your mom died, you were totally in pieces, but you’re so together after a month.  I couldn’t do that.”

I could remember my admission, “I’m not resilient.  I can hold it together during the day, but I’ve cried myself to sleep for a straight week.”

That had been enough to open the floodgates, right there.  She gave me her shoulder to cry on, and our coffee was cold before I was done.

Now, as I gaped at Emma, wordless, her smile widened.  She remembered what I had said, then.  She knew the memories it would evoke.  At some point, that recollection had crossed her mind, and she had decided to weaponize it.  She’d been waiting to drop it on me.

Fuck me, it worked.  I felt the trail of a tear on my cheek.  My power roared at the edges of my consciousness, buzzing, pressuring me.  I suppressed it.

“She is!  She’s crying!”  Madison laughed.

Angry at myself, I rubbed my hand over my cheek to brush the tear away.  More were already welling up, ready to take its place.

“It’s like you have a superpower, Emma!” one of the girls tittered.

I had taken off my backpack so I could lean against the wall.  I reached to pick it up, but before I could, a foot hooked through the strap and dragged it away from me. I looked up and saw the owner of the foot – dark skinned, willowy Sophia – smirking at me.

“Oh em gee!  What’s she doing?” one of the girls said.

Sophia was leaning against the wall, one foot casually resting on top of my backpack.  I didn’t think it was worth fighting her over, if it gave her an opportunity to continue her game of keep-away.  I left the bag where it was and shoved my way through the gathered girls, bumping an onlooker with my shoulder hard enough to make him stumble.  I ran into the stairwell and out the doors on the ground floor.

I fled.  I didn’t check, but chances were they were watching from the window at the end of the hallway.  It didn’t really matter.  The fact that I had just promised to pay thirty five bucks of my own money for a World Issues textbook to replace the one that had been soaked with grape juice wasn’t my top concern.  Even if it was pretty much all the money I had left after buying the pieces for my costume.  My art midterm was in my bag as well, newly repaired.  I knew I wouldn’t get any of it back in one piece, if at all.

No, my primary concern was getting out of there.  I wasn’t going to break the promise I had made to myself.  No using powers on them.  That was the line I wasn’t crossing.  Even if I did something utterly innocuous, like give them all lice, I didn’t trust myself to stop there.  I didn’t trust myself to keep from offering blatant hints that I had powers or spoiling my secret identity just to see the looks on their faces when they realized the girl they had been tormenting was a bona-fide superhero.  It was something I couldn’t help but daydream about, but I knew the long term ramifications would spoil that.

Perhaps most important, I rationalized, was keeping the two worlds separate.  What use was escapism, if the world I was escaping to was muddled with the people and things I was trying to avoid?

Before the thought of going back to school had even crossed my mind, I found myself wondering what I was going to do to fill my afternoon.

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27 thoughts on “Insinuation 2.4

  1. >>I hauled on my backpack again, trying to free it from beneath Sophia’s foot. When it didn’t budge, I left it where it was.

    I don’t like this scene. How can she be that impotent? And I think the leverage is wrong.

      • I think I like Taylor’s casual acceptance of her impotence better than the futile struggles she apparently originally engaged in. It…I don’t know, it seems to fit better with her past characterization, and it definitely fits better with what happens later.

        …If that last bit is spoilery to you, please delete it. I don’t think it is, but my judgement’s been wrong before.

  2. Man I really want her to fight back. I really really really want her to fight back.
    Not meant as a dig on your characterization but that I’m really invested in her character. She has more discipline than I do I would say to heck with lice and given them crabs, or fleas, or bedbugs.

  3. And people wonder how some powered people can go on kill/splatter sprees, this would be one reason why. Nice of the teacher to be the coward and just walk away when he could have helped out.

    • It doesn’t matter when the person been bulled can not state for her own. The teacher make his part, now it is all up to her. You shouldnt interced in a fight in which the person you’re trying to step up for doesn’t want you to do exactly that (because, perhaps, she’s just waiting for you to make it all the better and then blame you when it doesnt. It’s not wrong, but stil…). The teacher, i think, it’s more in touch with the school scenario that she gaves him credit for.

  4. Really liking the story so far, but the way she’s being treated…Are american high schools really that bad? I’m finnish, not american, but in my high school equivalent, the teachers would have come down on those bullies like the wrath of Thor.

    • As a current highschool student, I can imagine it being this bad in some places, but any individual incident of the many she has suffered would be completely outside of what happens at my school. There’s a great deal of fighting, but little of this impotent “toleration.” If someone’s bullying you, you either tell someone or fight back, and the traits of being the sort of person to get bullied, not being the kind of person who’ll fight back, and also not being the sort who’ll just set Administration on them rarely mix.

      • Speaking as someone who went through things a lot like Taylor, this is how high school is pretty often. I knew a girl who went through things like this in grade school. A lot of times teachers just don’t know what to do to help, and so they just let it slide. Mr. Gladly, of course, knows better and should be made to face down Lung while tied up and naked.

        • I think it’s about the same in all countries – teenagers being teenagers, and those who stand out for whatever reason are the ones getting bullied. I experienced similar stuff (nothing as physical, no stupid pranks like the juice thing, but the verbal abuse was unpleasant enough).
          Also, in my experience, gender didn’t make any difference: While the majority of those doing the bullying shared my gender, enough were female – and while you can make the conflict physical with other boys without looking bad, doing the same if girls are involved would be social suicide.

          • and not just teenagers too, in my experience even grade-school students can be bullies, as I was bullied in second year, mostly thanks to being a transfer student with obvious family problems
            teachers are relative too, it’s great to have teachers cracking down on bullies, but my experience shows that the teachers themselves could be involved in the bullying, mostly by obviously holding back on scoring and being picky with the harder assignments

    • Yeah they can be in public schools but private schools are a little different since parents pay a lot more to have there kids go there but bulling like that happens all over America

    • I’m American, graduated HS in 2008. I had a graduating class of about 400, and we were one of the schools of choice (you can choose to go to a public school outside your district, but they won’t bus you in) for students in Flint, MI, which was about 15-20 minutes away. My school had a “zero tolerance” policy on bullying and fighting, but that didn’t mean it didn’t happen, just that people were afraid to stick up for themselves physically because the victim would be punished as much as the bully. As for the more psychological stuff, no proof, no punishment, and Taylor’s predictions for what would happen if she lashed out or went to the authorities are pretty much spot on. American public schools are, for the most part, underfunded, understaffed, and overpopulated. My school didn’t actually have the resources to enforce its policies on the more “minor” bullying, and we were one of the better ones. Not really good, but midrange. The inner city schools were much worse. They were much more concerned about kids beating on each other during lunch or on the bus.

  5. I’m not sure I’m OK with the gender stereotyping here. But then, the main character is…what, 15 or 16? I suppose that gets her a pass. Also, when did this take place? I know with the zero tolerance policies in modern high schools, even guys will almost never punch one another anymore. At least not on school property. In Canada, all that results in is suspension for both parties, no matter who was at fault. The days of schoolyard fights are long over.

    • It must be nice to have only ever visited a suburban high school.

      I coach policy debate at a poor urban high school. I’m only there ~3 days/week after school. Despite that, there’s a fist fight at least once per week *while I’m there*. Several times the principal has cancelled all extracurriculars and closed the school after school hours because there was sufficient problems with fighting that day that they didn’t want to deal with it anymore.

      Contrary to the attitude of the chapter, its not just boys. AFAICT, the girls fight at least as much, if not more so, than the boys. Sometimes students attack teachers. And that’s just the stuff that happens *in the school*.

  6. I like the story so far. With the rationalist perspective, there’s one thing I don’t get. She seems to think pretty far in advance when it comes to her Super Hero career, but she’s not been nearly up to that standard in high school. My following comments are heavily influenced by me not having gone to an American high school, but a Danish one (besides a lot of obvious and subtle cultural difference there’s a 1 year age difference, making the Danes older when they attend).

    That being said, I’m happy you made the correction about the leverage, but I still dislike like:

    “I know I would have lost the fight in the end, getting shoved to the ground by force of numbers and kicked while I was down, but things would have ended there, instead of dragging on like they were here. ”

    – no. Speaking as a guy who was a class A nerd, but also (proven) to be the best fighter in his grade (lots of siblings and kids my age and older in my courtyard), this is not what happens. Or it does, but when it does, it happens when the bullies are already organized (a gang, a football team, etc.). The standard group of bullies (across playgrounds, high schools, secondary schools, the army, primary schools and all kinds of after school institutions (shit, even happened to me once someone tried to rob me)) would react this way:

    Bullies gang up on dude. Dude takes out leader (perhaps right-hand man as well). Nobody wants to be the next in line. Bullies back off. Dude suffers social exclusion (and rumour spreading etc.), but no physical confrontations (at least for a while).

    Now, her imagining this is of course entirely plausible. I suppose she has never actually witnessed a trained fighter being bullied and/or attacked before. I have been on the receiving end (through 3 different schools) until around the age of 15. A new high school meant a fresh start. It also meant I got to see this scenario from outside. I have seen it play out (and stopped it; not a hero – quite a bit of personal satisfaction) quite a few times since then, and I have heard both teachers and kindergarten instructors discuss it. I have asked them about this exact kind of situation, ’cause I was considering pros and cons for teaching my future kids martial arts. Note: if the lone wolf fails in taking down the leader, there’s hell to pay.

    This brings me to the second part. The part I didn’t get. I, and I hope a lot of other geeks and nerds, found other ways to do pay back. Ratting isn’t an option, but letting fools make an ass of themselves, certainly is. Some of these strategies require being an A-student (directing teacher questions to unprepared bullies; esp. useful after group presentations), some of them require both being an A-student and getting your sneaky fox on (my fav. in this is the case we just seen: bully prone to copying other people’s work: have wrong answers on paper memorize/decode the right ones) and others still require a combination of other skills. It can be anything from fucking with someone’s chemistry experiment (chemistry also has a lot of other uses; esp. the use of anything that reacts with water) to getting good rapport with a teacher to abusing rights gained from extracurricular activities to disseminating information to the bullies’ parents about (non-existent) homework (and Taylor is more of a tech than I am: virus?)… Basically a bright mind steaming for revenge, should be able to get a few good ones back.

    • (I’m going to assume you came from EY’s recommendation on ‘Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality’ ;))

      I did a post on this on reddit, a while back, where I got into depth on this subject.

      The core to this is that, yes, you can theoretically apply rationalist thinking to everything, but people aren’t rationalists by default. A preteen loses her mother and finds themselves on unsteady emotional footing, then has her best friend turn on her. Again and again, she goes into a situation where she’s emotionally and mentally drained. By the time she’s finished reeling from the betrayal, she’s partially adapted to the situation.

      An individual can take two paths in dealing with bullying. You can confront it, try to deal with it, make it a problem solving exercise, plot revenge, whatever. The problem with this is that it tends to pull you into a skewed mindset. Teenagers already have trouble framing high school in context with the rest of the world, blowing up minor problems to be earth-shattering. For someone who’s bullied, who takes this tack and obsesses on the subject, it gets even worse.

      Sometimes going this route works out, and maybe you fix the problem if the bullies aren’t particularly persistent or if you find the right opportunity. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and the obsession becomes something scary, and no matter how intelligent you are, your view on reality gets skewed and the situation escalates. Or you start seeing things in stark black and white or good and bad, or you spiral down into a ‘the whole world goes blind’ situation. Tragedy happens, and very often it’s the bullied victim.

      There’s another route that isn’t explored much, because it’s generally not dramatic enough for TV and Movies. This is the route Taylor walks; she turns her mind from the subject, very deliberately drawing lines in the sand for herself. She’s trying to hold on to the perspective that might get skewed if she dwelled on school more than she already was, and we see her teetering on that very brink at the story’s outset. She compartmentalizes, and we see this in how she deals with her dad, how she won’t talk to him about the subject. School life is school life and she’s just trying to weather it and get past it, keeping her eye on a distant goal. Out-of-school life is completely and totally separate, and she won’t spend that time buying supplies or coding viruses.

      • Thank you for a couple of things: first of all taking the time to write a story which I am highly enjoying so far. Secondly so quickly and completely. Thirdly for applying some well-timed deductions leading to a sounds conclusion :)

        I like your answer. It does provide a lot of depth to my understanding of her actions (I have yet to use reddit and I have no idea about how to find your post there). Having been in a similar situation I am probably even more prone to empathic short-cuts when characters react in a way I deem suboptimal. That having been said I recognized the strategy of compartmentalizing; I just don’t find it entirely satisfying. I’ve found that most people have a tipping point – then again, Taylor may be approaching hers (please don’t tell – I’ll probably now in a few hours time; yes, I swallow books). Besides making her costume (which she cannot do all the time due to lack of materials) I also lack an obsession/hobby that could keep Taylor’s mind sufficiently busy outside of school (or inside for day-dreaming). I have yet to meet a single bullied person who didn’t have a thing they spend an awful lot of time on. (this would also provide Taylor with something rather cool: a non-hero skill). The story already mentions books and capes, but I never got the impression that she did this enough to fill out the gap of not having a social life or other hobbies.

        I buy into your not spending outside of school time on school time issues (as you can see, I’m more prone to thinking she’d spend more school time on non-school issues). Perhaps what I am missing is this: Taylor is quiet and keeps to herself. She doesn’t seem to be struggling with any subject. She is on her own most of the time, not chatting to anybody in class, ever. This ought to leave her with a LOT of time in class to think about other stuff and observe. If you go through daily humiliation and spend a lot of time observing/thinking… a way should present itself. Not that it usually helps. Even if the bullies eventually back down, associations to the school and anything related are usually so deteriorated that changing schools is probably a better choice regardless.

        A last thank you: I’m working on a short story involving a character who likes to stay out of the way. Reading Taylor’s story has been a great help trying to get inside this person’s mind and how that mind came to be.

  7. I have no idea how she keeps from using the bugs. One could simply not ask for a better ability when taking revenge on high school bullies. The possibilities are endless…lice, bees- even bites from black widows hardly ever kill people, and many don’t even get antivenom. And they’d have a hard time taking out their misery on her when in the hospital with excruciating pain. Plus, none of these plans would give away her involvement at all…

    On second thought though, I bet Tattletale could easily get rid of bullies. If Taylor just asked Lisa to take a look at Emma and the gang, I bet she could pass along ideas for really devastating insults.

    • I think that, like was discussed above in the comments, it’s about drawing lines. Taylor has a temper, we’ve already seen that much; if she did something, she’d already have crossed her own line, and at that point there would be a lot less to stop her from doing more when her temper flares. If she doesn’t do anything, she doesn’t do anything, but if she does SOMETHING, she might do ANYTHING.

  8. Your ability to make me ‘live’ and ‘feel’ Bug’s pain is both amazing and horrifying.

    It’s so palpable, and I’m so sensitive to negative feelings, I almost want to skip those parts or stop reading altogether.

    But I don’t.

    Taking your reader to a dark place is an art, and you’re nailing it.

    Also the way this highlights the difference between masculine overt violence and feminine stealthy emotional abuse is really eye-opening.

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