The first idea the child must acquire is that of the difference between good and evil.
I learned my own capacity for evil when I was 10 years old. Kids aren’t born civilized, so I get that I was a little barbarian, but this was different.
My fifth grade year was unmitigated hell.
It started innocently enough. I went home with another girl and, as far as I could tell, we had fun. I learned a few things about her — she was adopted, like me and she was smart, also like me. She wasn’t a pretty child — sallow and witchy-faced, like a Halloween crone in her larval form, but then, I wasn’t that cute either, lumpy preadolescent that I was. Never mind her name — this was almost a half century ago now, and she’s not here to defend herself.
I was surprised that she invited me. I was profoundly socially awkward and I had one friend who lived too far away to visit without a lot of prearranging.
The next day at school, this child attacked. In fact, she didn’t just attack individually. She actively recruited other kids who had already long been bullying me – generally derogatory names and shunning – and organized them.
My life, agonizing as it was with dislike from immediate and extended family, had just taken an exponential turn for the worse.
From this girl-child and a few of her cronies, her organized attack expanded and grew more complex. She got both fifth grade classes involved. Entire herds of fifth graders would approach to taunt me and then whirl as a group, turning their backs on me and running at speed from the ghastly horror that was one puzzled, devastated 10 year old girl.
It was the final straw and I collapsed. Schoolwork became impossible. Never any good at linear math, I stared at the problems and felt my despair rise until it devoured me. “I CAN’T!” I wailed as I dissolved into a puddle and sobbed in full view of my tormentors.
The word “can’t” became my mantra. If I couldn’t be loved at home, if I was hated by every kid at school but one (who had no idea how to help me, although she tried), if I couldn’t do the simple math that all the kids did so easily, then every fear I had that I was worthless had to be true.
It took this level of devastation for my parents to finally notice, but notice they did. Being the people they were, they took me to the shop to be repaired. The nice, detached people in the clean white coats gave me an EKG to make sure my brain functioned properly and an IQ test to see if the calibrations on it were correct. They came back with the news that my brain was organically in order and (I was to learn in high school) that I was officially a real, live genius, much good as that did me (although it may help explain the social ineptitude).
The end result was a prescription for Librium (with which mother threatened me for years thereafter if I got upset — “Do you need a PILL?”) and an appointment with a counselor.
The counselor was the only good idea in the entire mess.
His name was Mr. Stanley Carton, he was a social worker and he was young – even at 10, I could tell. His voice was gentle and instead of sitting in a huge chair at a distance, he sat in a kid chair (folded himself into it, actually) so that he did not loom.
I loved him.
This was 50 years ago, so details of what we discussed are lost, but this I remember vividly. He listened. He really, really listened. He liked me, too. He didn’t like me just because he was paid to, either. You can’t fool a kid – I knew he liked me for real and it was such a revelation. Such an unusual occurrence. Miraculous, really.
I went to him for at least five months, and he listened and told me that I was amazing and smart and that I could grow up to do or be absolutely anything. After constantly being called an idiot by my father, to hear that I was all that to somebody who had no ulterior motive to say so was staggering.
I know this is a long back story, but I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.
It was spring and the torture was still going full swing, although slowly, with Mr. Carton’s help, I had begun to function again. (The Librium did not help. The only thing it did of note was, when they had the dose set to high, make me sob uncontrollably for hours with no reason I could give. My mother made them lower it.)
I was in the bathroom, in a stall, when my bully and two of her cronies came in. I finished my business quickly and came out to wash my hands. They turned and stared at me, the familiar sneers twisting their ever-so-sweet little faces. (Do please note that, to children, other children are full sized people and there’s nothing cute about them.)
Remember, too, I knew a few things about this girl.
Suddenly I stood tall and stared at her, a surge of coldness suffusing me to the core. I felt my face harden; I don’t know what she saw in my eyes, but all three of them stopped moving.
“Your father doesn’t love you,” I began. “Oh, he wants to. Sure he does. But who could?
And all those trips he takes? That’s to get away from you. And those presents he brings? Well, he feels guilty because you are his kid, but no, he doesn’t love you. Otherwise, why would he leave all the time?”
Her face washed with dark crimson and crumpled as the tears sprang forth. She hauled back and slapped me, hard, across the face, screaming, “My father does too love me!”
And then she ran full speed out of the bathroom, her cronies gawping as she fled.
And just like that, the hell was over. I had broken her power, right in front of Minion 1 and Minion 2. Her days as the Power of Evil were done.
Of course I was relieved when it all stopped. And you’d think that I would feel good about it. I had won. The trampled rodent had reared up and roared and the lion had run screaming.
I kept seeing her eyes, her face. I had put that look of utter desolation there. I had taken her secret fears and made them real — and it broke her. (Here’s a secret — abused kids have to learn to gauge their abusers very acutely and, in the process, we learn to read your secret fears with razor accuracy. If we don’t use them against you, it’s because we choose not to.)
She had absolutely perpetrated an enormous, child-level evil on me. No doubt. And in response, I had perpetrated a psychologically sophisticated, adult-level evil on her. I would be surprised if she hadn’t needed years of therapy after that. It was just as bad as if I had been an adult, taking on a defenseless child and grinding her under my heel.
I never could do it again. Not on that level. I slipped once, in a minor way, under extreme provocation, and was ashamed of myself. Fortunately, the person in question wasn’t bright enough to understand the extent of what I said to her.
I have lost so many arguments I could have won, had I wanted pyrrhic victories that would have left a person’s world — and our relationship — nothing more than a tiny heap of dust and ash. Instead, I have worked hard to learn to communicate in a way designed to make progress in the relationship. After all, isn’t that what disagreement is for? Two people coming together to work to a point of agreement and evolution in their dealings with each other? I don’t always succeed, but I won’t rip you to bleeding pieces and walk away, self-righteously telling myself that you deserved it.
I did that once. Never again.
This is dedicated to J.A.M. You weren’t a great kid and what you did to me was incredibly mean, but what I did to you was worse. I hope you’ve thrived.