Trigger Warning: This content inlcudes suicidal ideations, depression and bullying.
We were all sitting on the carpet as my fifth-grade teacher handed out ziplock bags to us. I plopped my Cam Jansen books into them, waiting for my turn to use the sharpie. It was time for reading class, but it was the end of the month which meant we got to pick new books to read. We all sat, some criss-crossed-apple-sauce, while others laid on their belly, giggling and whispering to each other.
“I can’t wait to read the next book of The Magic Tree House!”, my friend whispered next to me, eagerly pushing her collection of finished books into her bag.
I smiled and nodded, thinking about the next book I should read. My cousin said I shouldn’t read Judy Moody anymore because they’re too childish for my age. Are Judy Blume’s books any good? I felt a tap on my shoulder and saw Martin reaching out his arm to hand me the sharpie.
Are they going to be hard to read? I hope not. Maybe I should stick to Cam Jansen, I wondered as I neatly wrote my full name on the bag, a small heart on top of the i. I softly blew on the wet ink so it wouldn’t smudge and closed the seal.
Suddenly, a hand snatched the bag from my hands and threw it on the other side of the room, startling everyone into complete silence. My teacher stood beside me, no room between my small body and her long legs. Everyone was quiet, staring at me and back at her and back to me again.
Her blond curls sat against her red face, eyes sneering at my curled up body. She said nothing as she walked quietly to her rocking chair. She sat down, mumbling words I couldn’t understand to herself, crossing her legs and slowly leaned back to rock the chair.
“You think you’re special, don’t you?”, she laughed. I furrowed my eyebrows in confusion, trying to understand what I did wrong. “I know you think you’re better than everyone. You want attention.”
Some kids began to laugh under their breath, boys elbowing each other and covered their awful smiles. She looked at them from the corner of her eyes and formed a small smile at the corner of her mouth, as if their laughs fueled her even more.
“Did I tell you to write your FULL name on that bag, Miss Fabliha Anbar”, emphasizing on my name with a lace of taunting and mockery. “You think you’re all that, but you’re not. You’re not special.”
I wish I can say that I spat up a snarky comeback that bit her in the ass as I popped my hips with a smirk on my face, kids applauding and chanting my name while she sinks into her chair. But, as much as I wanted it to, my life was not a Roald Dahl book. I couldn’t use my telepathic power to magically throw our class pet chameleon at her face. I couldn’t turn her into a rat (even though she did kind of look like one) and trap her in a water jug. I was just a kid that did the terrible mistake of writing her full name on a ziplock bag.
Children seek trust from their authorities and believe that they’re the ones that would guide them and protect them. Teachers are usually the second adult you meet in your life. The first adults are your parents and relatives. Parents traditionally have the moral responsibility for the social, emotional and intellectual development of their children, but as a society, we rarely talk about the imprint that teachers have on our adolescence. But why don’t we?
I attended a top tier gifted and talented middle school that is well known in the tri-state area. However, being a 13-year-old that was juggling with problems going on at home, severe bullying, trying to understand puberty and hard-hitting depression, I did not do well at school. Actually, that is an understatement. Every day from 6th grade all the way to 8th grade, I went home with my school bag filled with letters from my teachers explaining that I was failing all my classes and I could potentially be left-back. I wasn’t always a bad student. I did pretty well in elementary school and was known as the star student every year. I joined all the programs and clubs my school had to offer and was always the teacher’s pet. I was a happy kid. But life took a turn in middle school for a questionable number of reasons, when it suddenly transformed from Junie B. Jones sequels to The Series of Unfortunate Events.
Every day, I sat in class, hair unwashed, with a bite of a donut for breakfast sitting in my empty stomach, and a notebook barely filled with notes. Most of the time, I just stared at the white walls. I never misbehaved or acted up nor did I ever disrupted the class but I just sat quietly and stared. The words on the chalkboard turned into one big blur and voices around me distorted. Every minute would pass by as each thought of wishing I never existed passed. Some of the teachers I had never directly said or did something horrible to me, but they allowed the torment I faced on a regular basis from my peers to continue. It was complete isolation on both ends.
Multiple teachers throughout those three years witnessed other students spewing out nasty names.
There was one distinct moment, out of the hundreds, that I will never forget. I was walking down the hallway from the bathroom to lunch when a boy in my class came up to me with a bright blue brace covered toothy grin.
“Can I ask you a question?” he said.
“Me?” I said.
“Yes, you. Who else?” he said.
“Ok. Go ahead”, I said.
He looked back at the entrance of the lunchroom, a group of boys hovering behind the door, hands covering their snickers and snorts. Then he said it.
“How many months are you in?” The boys jumped and collided into each other, some rolling on the floor from laughter.
“How many months?”
“Yeah…like how many months are you pregnant? I mean you gotta be pregnant, right? Or are you just really fat?”
I stood there and watched the group of boys who I barely recognized laugh and laugh and laugh. The boy with bright blue braces turned around, proudly stomped away and was welcomed into the group with high fives and arm punches. And I stood there as they all pridefully walked backed into the lunchroom, telling everyone what had just happened.
Head faced down, I turned around, and decided to continue eating my lunch in the bathroom and added another tally of the times I ate my lunch in the bathroom that school year. 56. As I turned away from the lunchroom, I saw my math teacher standing there, his hands filled with calculators and papers. We stood there briefly until I realized he had been in the hallway long enough to have seen what just happened. He quickly looked at his watch and continued to walk down the hallway, as if nothing happened. As if a group of teenage boys didn’t ask a fat girl if she was pregnant.
I wondered many times after I graduated, why a single teacher never asked me if I was okay. If there was something possibly going on that made me do so terribly in school. Why I sat there at my desk, quietly accepting the notices of academic failures, with my head faced down every class. Did they think I was lazy? A failure that couldn’t be bothered to change? I still wonder.
But they couldn’t possibly know what I was going through, right? With hundreds of students to look after every day, it’s hard to keep up with everyone, which is understandable. I mean, I should’ve just told them what was going on, right? Except I did. I told my clueless guidance counselor and teachers that I was dealing with something and that every time I breathed, it felt like a stone was stuck in my lungs. How every day I woke up, I wish I didn’t. How every day, I stood in the train station on my way to school and wondered if I should walk into the tracks. But nothing had changed. And nothing had happened. They knew what was going on. And not a single how are you or are you okay was ever asked in my three years of middle school. 540 days. Just head shakes whenever I told them I didn’t have a project to hand in and disappointed yet expected sighs when they flicked my test filled with red marks at me.
According to Dr. Alan McEvoy, author of Teachers Who Bully Students: Patterns and Policy Implications, he surveyed 236 students and 93% claimed that they experienced bullying from their teachers. He explains,
“Teachers who bully feel their abusive conduct is justified and will claim provocation by their targets. They often will disguise their behavior as “motivation” or as an appropriate part of the instruction. They also disguise abuse as an appropriate disciplinary response to unacceptable behavior by the target. The target, however, is subjected to deliberate humiliation that can never serve a legitimate educational purpose.
Students who are bullied by teachers typically experience confusion, anger, fear, self-doubt, and profound concerns about their academic and social competencies. Not knowing why he or she has been targeted, or what one must do to end the bullying, may well be among the most personally distressing aspects of being singled out and treated unfairly. Over time, especially if no one in authority intervenes, the target may come to blame him or herself for the abuse and thus feel a pervasive sense of helplessness and worthlessness.”
McEvoy also explains throughout his essay that an overwhelming feeling of paranoia and anxiety is built up by the student who is being bullied. The victim starts to feel self doubtful and believes everyone is against them. I remember feeling as though the entire school hated me. I often complained to my friends, who was at the opposite ends as they were favored by the teachers that tormented me on a daily basis, about what I was going through.
We were all walking home together from school.
Layla*: I love math class so much! Ms. Georgie* was so funny today. Ugh, she’s my bae.
Stephany*: What the fuck, how could anyone like math? You’re annoying.
Layla: Come on! How could you hate it? Especially her, oh my god. She’s amazing, I love her so much.
Stephany: If you love her so much, why don’t you suck her ass?
Me: I feel like throwing up whenever I walk into trig. I think she hates me. She laughed at Mona’s* joke when she called me stupid.
Layla: I still love her. She’s really nice, you just have to get to know her!
Me: No thanks.
Stephany: Fabliha. You have to stop thinking everyone is after you. It’s seriously annoying.
*Names have been changed.
I wasn’t the only one that was pushed around by these teachers. I noticed that they usually targeted students that were quieter than others or had fewer friends. They wouldn’t dare to even look at a student who was loud, verbal or popular. They knew who they could go up against. But of course, no one ever questioned them. Not the witnesses, and definitely not the victims. Teachers come with authority and at the end of the day, they’re the ones that would write our final grades down. They’re the ones that would send our recommendation letters to colleges. That was their weapon. And I mean, even if I did complain to the administration, who would they listen to? The teenager or the adult?
I had the worst attendance in high school. I was absent almost every week from freshman to senior year. And every spring, when my depression usually was at my worst, I refused to go to school or to even get out of the house. I would always be absent for about two weeks. My parents reached out to my teachers every year explaining my issues with my mental health and my principal notified everyone. But nothing changed. And nothing had happened. They knew what was going on and not a single how are you or are you okay was ever asked. Just head shakes whenever I told them I didn’t have a project to hand in and disappointed yet expected sighs when they flicked my test filled with red marks at me.
When I was a junior, my depression had completely overpowered me. The suicidal thoughts wouldn’t pass by. It would stay inside, engraved into my mind. And it showed. I would twitch from anxiety every now and then. I wouldn’t shower for days at a time, and a white flim of dried up saliva sat on my lips as I would always nervously lick them. My skin looked like it was rotting as I barely washed my face. It would hurt to smile. I was hurting. Every day when it was time for trig class, and I knew I had to face her again, my body would shake and my voice would tremble. I couldn’t understand or process why I felt that way. Maybe it’s because of what’s going on at home. Maybe it’s because my classmates won’t stop bothering me. Little did I realize that the biggest tormentor in my life was my own teacher.
However, things did finally did change that year despite the fact that I wanted to fucking die. A new guidance counselor was hired. Ms. Franqui was the person I ran to whenever I had a panic attack. She calmed me down, gave me some water, some savory snacks and told me to breathe.
“In……and out…..in…..and out”, she soothed.
The room smelled like incense sticks. The walls weren’t white like every other room and didn’t make me feel like a prisoner. It was lavender, covered with posters that had cheesy inspirational quotes on them. On the center of the round table where we usually sat, a small bottle was filled with rose petals and essential oils. Then she would say,
“Are you okay? What happened?” That was the first time anyone had ever asked me that. And suddenly, I felt as though I wasn’t alone. That someone actually cared. Her calming voice and tender hands had stuck with me. All she ever did was be polite, but it still made a huge impact on me. I wasn’t used to this feeling that a teacher actually cared and listened to what I had to say. I felt paranoid that she would stop being so nice to me as I went to her room often, my face and uniform shirt soaked with tears and sweat. But she never stopped. She would stay through the panic attacks even though she had hundreds of papers to fill out and deadlines to meet. She stuck by me.
On days she was gone and periods when she had meetings to attend, I was lost. I was again lost in a jungle where teachers would prey off my vulnerability. But another teacher had entered my life. An English teacher, Ms. Liimatta. She wasn’t trained like my guidance counselor to give out advice and neither was it her job to listen to me since she wasn’t my teacher at the time. But she would quietly listen to my complaints as she graded her papers and gave me her wisdom. She wouldn’t make me feel stupid about what I was going through. She didn’t taunt me or make me feel guilty. With her calming voice and gentle eyes, she told me everything was going to be okay. And even though her words didn’t technically change my situation, I felt more at ease. All she ever did was listen and sit there, but everything had changed. The nauseous feeling that overwhelmed me when I entered the school hallways had significantly decreased as I had two teachers that stuck by me. Slowly and surely, I started to attend school more. I started to participate more and got my shit together.
All I needed was simple gestures of quiet smiles and nods. That was all.
While I was in school, I never really understood that what I was dealing with was abuse. I always thought that I deserved the treatment I was receiving because of my academic failures. I let their torment convince me that there was something wrong with me, because why else would they taunt me? When I looked at other students who were constantly praised by those teachers, I would tell myself that it was because they were ‘prettier’ or ‘smarter’. That they were everything I was not.
I look back at my past and think of my 10-year-old self. I think about that little girl, her body curled up on a toilet in the bathroom, quietly crying to herself. Then I realized that she deserved none of this. That she was just a little innocent child who didn’t deserve to feel like her body was going to fall apart whenever she walked into the classroom. She didn’t deserve to anxiously wonder until her fingers felt numb if she should ask her teacher to repeat the directions. She was just an innocent child who had the rude awakening at a young age that the world had some horrible people. I was just an innocent child that didn’t deserve this.
And they were fully grown adults who lived long enough to understand what it felt like to be in pain.
I sit on my bed, sometimes criss-crossed-apple-sauce, or sometimes laying on my belly, and remember that the way these authorities treated me is not a reflection of who I am. I am a conglomerate of the souls of my ten-year-old self, my thirteen-year-old self, my sixteen-year-old self, and my present. I’m allowing them all, my all, to coexist with one another. My heart is covered with ugly bruises, some larger and throbbing more than others. Sometimes the pain is too much that it feels like it’s going to collapse. But there are handmade band-aids holding it together, and I remember that even though the wounds are overwhelming, that it’s still pumping. It’s still working. And that I’m alive.
I managed to get through all their torments and all their abuse and still come out alive. So I sit here, criss-crossed-apple-sauce, with a ziplock bag filled with journals on my lap, knowing that I am more than the abuse I faced.