I woke up in an unfamiliar bedroom. A few moments after my eyes opened, I realized “Oh right. This is home now.”
We had moved to this basement apartment in Cranford, New Jersey months ago, but it still felt like a foreign place to me. My mom encouraged my brother and I to get ready for school and eat breakfast.
One of the Worst Times of My Life
Around the time I finished brushing my teeth, a sensation crashed in on me as it did every morning. A wave of dread would pass over my nine year-old mind the way freezing cold ocean water would roll over wet sand in the winter, clawing small pieces of it away in the undertow. I was going to have to face another day of school.
Mom packed our lunches into brightly colored plastic lunch boxes. My brother’s had Thundercats on them and I think mine was Transformers. I remember trying to think of a new route to get to school that would allow me to sneak past the playground. My fear escalated as I ran through the numerous times when each tactic had failed. So far, this was routine.
The teachers wouldn’t let us into the building before it was time for home room, and I’d be in trouble if I wasn’t lined up at the door when the bell rang. It was impossible to avoid the other kids, especially Dennis (not his real name) the one kid that seemed to pursue me wherever I went.
When it was time to head out, I sneakily grabbed a steak knife from the silverware drawer and dropped it into my lunchbox.
When the school bell rang, my chest deflated in relief. No one bothered me today. Dennis didn’t seek me out to make fun of my clothes, my shortness, my pointy ears, or whatever else he thought could make me cry. He stayed near the playground this time. I’m safe until lunchtime.
I have trouble remembering the rest of the day. I remember being too scared of recess to concentrate on class, as usual. I remember eating lunch quietly by myself, hiding the knife under my sandwich bag or my fruit snacks so no one could see it. Eventually, a lunch room supervisor saw it and sent me to the principal’s office.
I stuck with the story that I had a serrated steak knife for the sole purpose of cutting my sandwich that was already sliced. I tried, and probably failed, to hold back my tears as I insisted that I would never bring it to school again. The principal took my lunchbox and its contents and said I should come back to the office at the end of the day to bring it home. I assume they called my parents, because I think my mom knew about it when I got home.
“Well, at least I spent recess in the office” was all I could think of as I walked back to class. Unfortunately, rumor had spread from the lunch room that I brought a knife to school. Kids badgered me for the rest of the day asking me why I had it, and teasing me about being a crazy freak. Keep in mind that this is a few years before Columbine, so no one was taking this situation as seriously as they would today.
I sat in the classroom as long as I could after the 3:00 pm bell rang, as usual. After ten minutes or so, the teacher finished packing up her papers and supplies, so she shooed me out and locked up. I went to the office to get my lunchbox back, and the secretary told me to go straight home and not to open my lunchbox until my mom got home.
Even after stalling as long as I could, there were still several kids waiting for me outside the exit. They surrounded me as soon as I got 15 feet away from the door and continued to berate and tease me. Much of it was the normal teasing that I feared and experienced every day, except now they were angry at me too. They called me a ‘psycho’ and I honestly felt in that moment like they were right.
Then I just wanted them to get away from me. In an instant, like something within me had snapped, I swung my lunchbox around in a circle to get space between me and them. I didn’t hit anyone, and I didn’t want to, but the space I made allowed me to start running for the fence.
There was a hole in the fence near the clay courts we sometimes used for gym class. I had used it before to try to sneak around the other kids. My legs weren’t very long, and my bulky backpack full of text books and supplies probably weighed half of my body weight. One of the kids got a hold of a strap on my backpack and I fell to my knees, watching in horror as the rest of the group ran to catch up.
I pulled the knife from my lunch box and showed it to the boy holding me. He let go right away and I started running toward the hole in the fence again. When I got there, it was hard to get myself and all my things through without getting caught by the broken chain links.
I swung the knife at the air between me and the other kids, like someone in the movies might swing a torch at wolves approaching in the darkness. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, but I might have if they didn’t back off. I might have hurt myself or others by accident by bringing it with me in the first place, and I was the most scared I had ever been before.
I ran home in tears. I brought the knife to school to protect myself, but all it did was make things worse. I got in trouble with the teachers, I gave the bullies more ammunition to tease me with, and I lost even more self-respect because I started to believe them when they called me names. Maybe I was psycho. Maybe I was a freak.
I don’t remember what my brother did during any of this. We went to the same school and I don’t remember him being there that day. Maybe I had detention, so he left before me. Maybe he was sick or something. For all I know, he was with me the entire time and I lost him in the shuffle.
After that day, I was never allowed to eat lunch or have recess with the other kids again at that school. I ate my lunches in the principal’s office by myself, which actually suited me fine. I don’t remember what my parents did, but I’m sure it was similar. I was probably grounded and glad to not have to go outside anyway.
There is no good reason to do what I did. I was nine years old at the time and I was under a great deal of stress. My parents had gotten a divorce very recently. I hated that we moved away from my home, my friends and my old school. I never felt comfortable or safe if I wasn’t near my mom.
I went to my dad’s apartment in Linden on the weekends. It wasn’t a very nice neighborhood, but the family upstairs had a son not too far from my age. I felt okay when I was inside the building, but still not comfortable. I didn’t sleep well there. My dad did the best he could to make us comfortable but I was always counting down the minutes until I could get back to my mom’s apartment.
I felt the most vulnerable when I went to school. Several other kids teased and bullied me, and no one else wanted to be my friend or they’d be in the same boat. I remember my teacher being hard on me, but I don’t know if that’s real or if I was just constantly on the defensive.
I rushed anything that meant I couldn’t be left alone. I finished tests first. I volunteered to give my presentations first. I did anything I could to be excused to the back of the room where I could put together the puzzle of all the U.S. states. Sometimes I would read or draw pictures.
Now I Know More
Since then, I’ve met many people that went through similar situations when they were younger. I have several friends that are still affected today by the bullying they experienced as a child. I have very few friends whose parents are still together today. I have dozens of friends that experience depression, anxiety and other common mental illnesses. I felt alone and different when I was nine, but I’m practically the norm now.
Isn’t that a bit horrifying? Schools are full of children being pushed past emotional limits on a daily basis. I went to therapy after the divorce for a while, but I don’t remember it helping much. I’d talk to him in a nice quiet room for an hour and feel fine, then go back to my everyday life — the hard part. It would have been great if someone at my school could recognize a kid in distress and try to help. Having someone nearby that I could’ve talked to everyday, someone that could keep an eye on troubled students like me, might have changed everything.
Today I know what an anxiety attack is. Today I know I sometimes have issues with depression, claustrophobia, and social anxiety. As an adult, I have resources to cope. As a kid — especially a kid whose parents weren’t rich — I didn’t have those kinds of resources. A kid in a similar position today probably wouldn’t either.
Today my therapy sessions are barely covered at all by my insurance, and I pay extra into it to have the higher options. We have people roaming the streets of our gleaming metropolises that we could instead take care of like human beings if our culture took mental illness seriously. The cries for help fall on deaf ears. Stigma and condescension meets anyone sharing their pain.
My life has gotten [much] better, and continues to get better the more I embrace who I am, flaws especially. My anxiety made me feel like I had no escape from my environment, that I was cornered, and that I deserved it. When someone feels trapped, they get desperate. It’s important to intervene so that they don’t do anything rash to themselves or others.
Some kids need support to get over the hump of K-12 schools. That is part of why I support The It Gets Better Project. That is part of why I sympathize with people experiencing inequality and exclusion. That is part of why I root for the underdogs of the world.
Since I was old enough to really think about what happened, I’ve had dozens of questions on my mind.
What if my mom owned a gun? I looked for and found the most deadly weapon in my home, and used it unsafely. It could have been much worse.
What if I was unsuccessful in sneaking by that morning? Kids could have been hurt before school officials even had a chance to do anything.
What if the lunch supervisor didn’t pay attention and find the knife in my lunch box? I could have gone to recess and been confronted at a place and time where I couldn’t just run home.
What if the principal didn’t give the knife back to me? I suspect she was aware of my parents’ situation and didn’t want to blow anything out of proportion. Either that or she truly wanted so very badly to believe that I brought it for my lunch. Either way, I doubt the same thing would happen today.
What if I tripped while I was running with a knife out?
These questions have been going through my head over the decades since. Sometimes I was trying to find someone else to blame. Other times I was looking for ways that it could have all been prevented. It’s easy to look back at the past and draw up a theory for an optimized way to handle everything life hands us, but realistically I don’t think anyone but me did anything explicitly wrong.
Sometimes I extrapolate my own moments of high stress and emotional pain to the other 8 billion people on the planet and wonder how societies even function at all. How fragile is peace and order when a nine year-old boy getting picked on can be the catalyst for catastrophic tragedy?
School violence is occurring all over the country, and has been since I was a boy. I was nearly another story like the ones we ignore in the news every few weeks. I could have been part of the statistics for suicide and school violence. I stood at the edge of a great precipice and stumbled my way back to safety, shaking in a cold sweat. Terrified at my own horrific potential.
This is not a cry for help; at least not on my part.
I don’t intend this article to call for stricter gun laws, battle-ready school admins, or other short-term treatments for the symptoms of mental illness. I want people with mental illnesses to be viewed as human beings that sometimes need help. I want others who have these issues to see others like me, pouring their hearts out in public. I want people like me to feel less alone.
If you have a friend that’s having a rough time, please just let them know you care. You don’t have to be a certified therapist to offer a warm hug and a willing ear, and often that’s all it takes. Everyone has moments in their lives when they’re standing on an edge. Even a small breeze in the opposite direction can save a life sometimes.
And if you suffer from mental illness yourself, reach out. Reach past the stigma and judging faces, because help is on the other side. Talk to a therapist, a family member or a friend. Or if you want to, you can talk to me.