The Black Girl Nerd Chronicles: Episode I
Welcome Back to the Black Swan Diaries! We've been gone for a minute, but now we're back with the jump off. I'll explain where we've been pretty soon, but I wanna jump right in to new stuff. For a primer on my experience with bullying and more on my life with mental illness, click here to read Waving Through a Window.
I used to read the Dictionary for fun.
At age 5.
I'm not kidding.
Growing up in my house, there was always thinking to do.
Always something to learn.
Always something new to be discovered in the chords of a song, the pages of a book, the folds of the newspaper.
In the car, we’d listen to Shakespeare on Tape and classical music, jazz standards and classic R&B. Around the dinner table, we’d discuss current events, and I’d read aloud to my parents from the Washington Post. I can remember being so excited when my Dad would bring home two issues of TIME magazine - one for him, one for me. Daddy would quiz me on Black History, and Mom would help me memorize the poetry of Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni.
We would walk to our neighborhood library, Mom pulling me there in my wagon, and our combined effort would be necessary to pull it back to our house, books spilling over on every side. Everywhere I went, adults praised my parents - "She's so smart!" "She's so well spoken, surely she's older?"
School came naturally to me, for it felt so much like home. An environment full of learning, new things at my fingertips, an intellectual adventure with each new day. It seemed, however, that my preference for books and desire for constant intellectual adventure drew a rather large target on my back.
Instead of goofing off during class, I wanted to pay attention. I loved to learn, and I wasn't shy about it. I was the kid who always reminded the teacher that we’d had homework due when she forgot, always remembered that we were supposed to have a quiz, always remembered when a report was due. Annoying? totally. But I took that Sunday School lesson about honesty seriously, and plus, I loved to do schoolwork and I loved to learn. At recess, I’d stay inside and help grade papers. My intent was two pronged - to be helpful to my teachers, whom I often adored, and to escape the cruelty of my classmates.
One day at our Christian school, a boy called Marcus Pilgrim told me that out of all the girls in the whole world, I was so ugly and so fat he wouldn’t ever touch me, even with his manhood (yes, his genitalia).
Everyone laughed. We were 8 years old.
I was awkward because of the Asperger’s. Bossy and obsessive because of the anxiety. The smartest in the room by a mile, but loved only by my teacher. Chubby, bespectacled, and pigtailed, called “Porky Pig”, "Fatty", "Ugly", "Mutt" on the playground.
Even now, looking back all these years later, most details are hazy. The incident with Marcus stuck out because that was the first time I allowed myself to cry in front of my classmates - even at 8, my self-esteem was in the beginning stages of what would be a total erosion. I feel as though I'm looking into a smoke-filled room, fearful of what might jump out at me from behind the heavy curtain.
The truth about childhood bullying is sobering, and only recently have we begun to truly uncover the lasting effects of that kind of trauma: childhood bullying has been linked to PTSD, Anxiety disorders, and Depressive disorders in adulthood. And guess who has been diagnosed with two of those three illnesses?
Right here, ya girl.
Looking back now, I remember having that dreaded thought for the first time: I don’t belong here. No one likes me. I should go away. No child should ever have those thoughts - for it is so often those thoughts that form the basis for depressive disorders and suicidal ideation later in life.
No matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, the kids at school continued to treat me like dirt. I took candy to school, hoping that giving it away would win me friends. I was nicer than necessary, so that they would be nice to me. And yet, I would go home crying almost every day, insults and epithets hurled at me nonstop, from boys and girls alike. There was only so much comfort that could come from the arms of my parents - loving though they were, their advice always involved me growing “thicker skin”, as though I were a snake, enabled by nature to shed the heartache and the pain and simply grow my own joy anew. All these years later, I don’t blame them, but I think we all know that that wasn’t the correct answer.
Unable to express how lonely I truly felt and wondering why I was being treated so harshly by my peers, I retreated further into books.
Despite all the harshness I faced daily at school, I could run home escape into the pages of a book, their smell familiar and warm. I lost myself most often in historical fiction, or fantasy; in the space of a heartbeat, I could be miles, nations, centuries, light years away from the pain I was feeling on an everyday basis. Like a balm on my wounded heart, the written word cooled the hot, desperate ache of loneliness and self-hatred that I was too young to be feeling. In these stories I was a benevolent queen, a warrior princess, a sage woman, an alien...the places, times and characters came alive for me. I fell headfirst into Tamora Pierce, soaked up more Shakespeare, crashed through Libba Bray and JK Rowling, devoured the Royal Diaries and My America series...so many more names and authors have been lost to time, but they live on in my patchwork heart, the words the thread that stitched me back together.
The older I got, the more my love for historical fiction and fantasy intensified, extending to television and movies. My Daddy introduced me to comics, both DC and Marvel, and he'd let me stay up and watch Justice League with him. He was the first to tell me about a new Batman movie. But, for as much as he loved cartoons and superheroes, his favorite gifts to give me were always the wise words of Black women from generations before me in music - Jazz. My mom patiently spent hours in bookstores with me, sharing her favorites with me as I grew older. I had constructed myself a world in which the written word was King, be it sung to life onstage or laid down on paper.
And though these pieces of escape served me quite well, I was coming up on other, more serious issues.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: I’ll talk about the downside of being a nerd, and the (other) insult that changed the course of my intellectual journey...
Only + Always Love,