Cruelty, Kindness, and a Middle School Bathroom

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My lips stick out. I’m not sure quite how to describe it; whereas other people’s lips protrude only slightly from their face, mine protrude slightly more. I never really thought about this, until the fifth grade. I was in a play in the nearest big city, Madison, Wisconsin, and a picture of me on stage was taken, put in the newspaper, and then posted on our classroom bulletin board. Since it was a shot of a scene in progress, I was standing in profile. While I’ve always been shy, it did make me feel good (in a blushing sort of way) to have my picture up in the classroom – no one else in my small town class had done something like theater in the city. I didn’t notice the lips.

One day, a girl came up to me. She spoke in that tone of voice that only females can use with each other, the one that’s pretending to give you a bit of helpful information, but really is watching to see how it’s going to unravel you, the tone that sounds both syrupy sweet and hungry. “You know,” she sidled in confidentially, “everyone says you look like a duck in that picture.”

“Oh,” I responded, before getting away, rushing back to my desk and a book. But, the rest of the day, and the days after that, I kept sneaking peaks at the bulletin board and that picture, and there they were – my lips. They did stick out like a duck bill, and suddenly in my mind, they were just as big as one.

Over the years, my lips have been commented on like this by children and teenagers – not with any real frequency, but enough to make me hate them. It was the same with my nose (like the lips, too big) and my glasses. I know I’m not the only one to experience comments like this, and I wonder if maybe other people put this behind them once they grow up; I don’t know because this is the kind of thing I’m afraid to ask anyone. All I know is, I haven’t been able to leave it, partly I’ve always been sensitive, and partly because I’ve gone into teaching, so I haven’t stopped hearing kids say these things.

Throughout the years, not on a daily basis, but again, just often enough to remind me that I don’t meet a certain standard of beauty, kids have brought up my looks. The duck theme is their favorite – my first year of teaching, pictures of ducks with my name next to them were drawn on desks and papers. I’ve heard the word whispered and giggled about. It was the worst this past month.

I was walking down my middle school hallway during my lunch break, and a group of kids were sitting there, theoretically working on a class project. I’d never had them in class, and for some students at my school, if you’re a school employee and they don’t know you, they think that entitles them to treat you poorly. As I approached, I started to hear the not-so-softly whispered “she looks like a duck.” I kept my eyes ahead and started to walk by them. As I did, they began quacking, and when I was finally past them, they erupted into laughter. And suddenly, I wasn’t 31 anymore, but I was 11, in the fifth grade classroom holding back tears.

In my eight years of working in middle schools, my year working with pre-school students, and my many years with elementary school students, the cruelty of kids has never ceased to amaze me. Yet, a the same time, I am constantly humbled by the big-heartedness, the kindness, and the pure love of others.

Shortly after I was quacked at in the hallway, I needed to use the girl’s bathroom. I hate doing this, but it’s well over a minute’s walk from my classroom to the staff bathroom, and when there’s only five minutes between each class period, there’s just not time for this. As I rushed into a stall, some sharpie marker on the doorway caught my eye. Normally, sharpie writing on a bathroom wall will say something like “school sucks” or “I like _______.” This time it said, “you are beautiful, and someone out there loves you.” A few days later, I went into the bathroom, and the next stall over said, in different handwriting, “love yourself.” Another day, on another wall, in pencil, a girl had written “they called me fat.” Next to it, a second girl had scrawled, “because you’re beautiful.”

My whole life, since I was that sensitive elementary school girl, I’ve been wondering about people, and how some turn out to be so heartbreakingly cruel, while others are so heart-wrenchingly kind. I’m not sure what makes the difference. All I know is this story: there are middle school girls who write encouraging messages on bathroom walls, who have probably felt less than beautiful, and are helping to keep someone else going through that pain.  For now, this is enough.

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3 comments

  1. This is amazing, Erin. You radiate beauty. Thank you for sharing your story with us. It’s the best thing I’ve read all day.

    1. Thank you, Heather! That means a lot to me.

  2. Thank you for this heart-felt piece.

    We have become a “bully culture.” It’s not just in middle school, it’s on talk radio and TV, in our churches and our politics.

    Although I believe we share a collective responsibility to educate our children, I am grateful that my grand kids are being home schooled.

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