Bullied into a Sense of Humor (Part I)

Back in grade school, I denied my parents were immigrants. I hungered to be
“all-American.” At the time, being all-American meant having peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches instead of my embarrassing homemade bread and sliced brisket. Wearing white blouses with circle pins on the Peter-Pan collars instead of a handmade gingham dress. I didn’t want to stand out. Standing out meant being teased.

1I was born in America, but was called names because I didn’t speak English well, because I wore funny clothes, and not long after, because I could read (accent and all) before others and because I knew my multiplication tables early and could figure out long division. Being smart didn’t earn respect, it earned ridicule.  I learned to tone it down.

But not enough. One day in second grade a boy behind me on the slide pushed me from the top. My head banged against the stairs and again on the ground and I was out cold for 10 minutes.


Mercer Street (NYC) playground, with the same slide I remember. This one was from: http://sohomemory.com/2011/04/16/promises-promises/

I was sent home, the teacher telling my mother that “he was only playing” and “your daughter must have said something he didn’t understand.” It was a small town in Texas and kids of immigrants weren’t welcomed then anymore than they are in Arizona today.

By the time second grade was over I had formed these beliefs:

1. Being smart is not a good thing unless you can do someone else’s homework and keep quiet about it. There will be no thanks, just retribution if you tell.

2. You do other people’s homework in the girl’s room or stay in from recess and do it in the coat room. If you don’t finish it, you will be tripped on your way to the blackboard. Or stabbed with a pencil in the lunch line.

3. When the teacher notices that a lot of kids seem to suddenly cross their sevens and catches on, you will be blamed by both the teacher and the kid whose homework you did. Avoiding notice is better than being found out as smart.

As I went on through school, many of the things other kids thought were hilarious were strange to me. I never understood physical humor. Cartoon figures slipping on a banana peel always made me worry that they were hurt. Pie-in-the-face didn’t look funny, it looked scary and I thought of food waste and clothes washing, not humor.

The phrase I came to associate with bullying (which I truly thought was my fault because I wasn’t American enough) was “you don’t have a sense of humor.” I believed it;  in  my America, other people made the rules I didn’t understand.

Over time, although I grew up in America, I came to realize that your DNA decides your humor, your esthetics and your taste in art. I tried hard to love early-American furniture, pine paneling and the desirability of going to college to find a husband while having a “safe” backup-career.

Still, every time I tried to fake it, I made a big mistake that created a tendency toward casual self-destruction.

inwiththeoldil_430xN.154208439It took years to trust myself, to realize that getting tripped while going to the blackboard or stabbed with a pencil in the lunch line was a punishment I could survive, but denying who I was simply left me trying to be something I could not sustain. It took years to figure out who I was, make some changes to heal, and become who I was: overly sensitive to the idea of fairness, committed to social justice, and an outsider artist.

And my sense of humor reflects that. I still don’t laugh at other people’s misfortune, fiction or not. I love word humor, clever endings, the underdog doing something surprising and winning.

But every time someone says, “You don’t have a sense of humor,” I smell the whiff of intolerance cloaking the heart of a bully. There is no one sense of humor that is OK, but anything that belittles, shames, or hurts others isn’t funny. Not to me.

Tomorrow: Part II, Saturday’s incident that triggered a lot of thinking.

-Quinn McDonald is still trying to balance her own sense of humor with a big sense of fairness. She is, not surprisingly, the author of The Inner Hero Creative Art Journal.




54 thoughts on “Bullied into a Sense of Humor (Part I)

  1. I live in a complex for the elderly and disabled. Recently we’ve had a spate of bullying (yes, bullying can occur among adults) that landed one woman in a local psych hospital. It is cruel, it hurts, it is a sin, and it’s wrong. Bullying is never OK, and it’s not OK to laugh at others’ misfortunes. Quinn, I’m so sorry you’ve gone through this

  2. You misunderstood my comment earlier about the bully becoming the victim. What I was trying to say is that, for example, in domestic violence when a woman gets a restraining order when she had been beaten, family members and others will often feel sorry for the husband. Also, when a woman charges a man for raping her she is blamed for ruining his life and he becomes the victim in the eyes of the people around them.

  3. Oh dear! Yes! The teacher who doesn’t have to mediate in a situation because the victim is conveniently to blame (twice bullied). The parent who was bullied and is a bully and teaches their child to be the same before they hit school. The child or adult that can only feel better when someone else feels worse. The adults who litter their speech with senitments that let children know they aren’t good enough just as they are. That feeling of not fitting because you’re an individual and you pay for it every day. And don’t get me started on the subtle art of gender related put downs! There could be an example ridden rant right there but I choose where I put my energy and I’ve given up pushing water uphill with a rake. Ranting won’t change even one of the bullies but perhaps the odd perfectly timed, face to face comment may make them stop and think.

    As a child I hung out with other ‘misfits’ and longed to fit while at the same time seeing that this ‘in’ crowd were pretty strange because they didn’t use their own brain and seemed to be latched into some collective one. Their tastes and behaviour seems to be dictated by a tribe mentality and even now a high level of blind obdedience scares the hell out of me.

    Yes, on behalf of a classmate who was not even a friend, I stood up to a bullying teacher at 14 and while it got me into a power of trouble, I knew I was right. Now my job entails standing up for the needs of students for whom equity in the education environment is nigh on impossible to come by and I reckon I would have stood up for you. I didn’t and don’t suffer fools, and bullies are thoughtless fools, and there are, unfortunately, a lot of them about at every level of society. (Just the fact that society has ‘level’ predisposes the less moral or ethical to bullying.)

    • We start practicing early what we want to carve out of life. You did a great job. You would have been a powerful friend to have in grade school–or anytime. I stood up to teachers, too, and yep, “a power of trouble” indeed. I’m so glad we met here.

    • On a totally unrelated note: I was mesmerized by the ” pushing water uphill with a rake” line. I wanted to do something with it. Write a novel, have a site, something. I searched for the term and someone has already done that! Go figure.

  4. You just told my story! There is a twist, I was born in the US and I still was not American enough! I was smart and that was my big fault.

  5. I think most kids are picked on at some point in their lives. I remember being called names or being made fun of because I was so skinny and gangly. I had a 1st grade teacher who wouldn’t let me use the restroom so I had to sit back down at my desk and proceeded to wet my pants, right then and there. She then made me get on my hands and knees with a bucket and a sponge and clean the floor in front of the entire class. And my sister was so ferociously mean to me, when I was little, that it’s not worthy of discussion.

    I mention these things not because I’m trying to compare or “one-up” but because I learned valuable lessons from these incidents. I learned to play well by myself when other kids didn’t want to include me at recess. In turn, I enjoy my own company to this day and don’t need to be entertained by others or constantly “on the go.” I learned to stand up for myself when someone (my 1st grade teacher) treats me badly or doesn’t do the right thing. I also became the strongest and most responsible child in my family, thanks in part to my mean sister.

    I’m grateful that these negative experiences strengthened me and gave me a positive mindset in later years. Same with you, Quinn…you have accomplished so much, have an incredible sense of humor, are one of the strongest women I know and one of the most enjoyable people to be around!

    • I have long been grateful that my treatment, education, and parents acted like they did because it made me the person I am today. Thank you for saying I am strong–not a “good” trait in a woman, but one of the best ones to have. You and I learned the same lessons, and I totally agree that kids torture each other until they are socialized–or until they become torturing adults. But I know there are others, who didn’t make it, who weren’t strong enough.

  6. Your little gir sounds like mine. I was not an immigrant but changed grammar school 3 times. So I was unknown. Switched to public high school with a whole new set of stuff. Years later when my little sister had one of my classmates as a teacher in HS. She was wearing a hand me down dress that had a burn hole. And that teacher said “do you smoke?” Sister (10 years younger) said no, the dress was her older sisters. Teacher said something like Dee was always a bad student and a smoker and she hoped sis didn’t follow my influence. I was furious and planned to go to principal to complain and confront teacher. Bully in HS and bully as Home Ec teacher 16 years later! I calmed down and discussed with sis and we dropped it. But, like now, it makes me mad. I was always against injustice. We were lower income in a wealthy area. It always shocks me when people are so thoughtless.

    • My heart breaks thinking that adults can be so thoughtless. How cruel is that and what good did it do for the teacher? Read tomorrow’s blog post, in which I did NOT drop it.

  7. I wasn’t bullied at school but some close relatives used to like to tease me when I was a kid and a teenager. If I didn’t like the teasing I was told I had no sense of humor so your comments on ‘no sense of humor’ hit home with me.

  8. Thanks, but I think I’ll do something more enjoyable. Sticking my finger in an electrical outlet, petting a porcupine, taking a bath in itching powder…something along those lines.

  9. OH, Quinn, I recognize SO many things about your experiences in school and thank you for your brilliant insightful writing about it now. Being a Smart Girl was so painful. I can’t say I was bullied directly for it, but more chastised and excluded. The times certainly did not support us. In 8th Grade i won that year’s History Award (test score and interview) to be given out at graduation. BUT….the teachers and administrators on the selection committee sat me down and told me directly, “You won. But we’re giving it to “JS” because he’s a boy.” And for some reason I just shrugged my shoulders in easy complicity. Of course I should defer and not demur! It is just flabbergasting to me now.
    On another note, I never knew you immigrated here. I am curious from where? What was your first language?

    • Oh Liz, how infuriating to me. I know it was the times but still, we haven’t com so far from that and seems some regression going on. Ugh!

  10. Its amazing how much bullying goes on. though there are campaigns against it (even at the school where I taught… ) I felt I was bullied by other teachers. One teacher even said she wished people would be sarcastic back to her instead of being hurt. imagine that. I am very sensitive to bullying because of a very harsh parent.

    • I think the bullying campaigns don’t work for the same reason “zero tolerance” for anything doesn’t work. Behavior is taught at home, and when the parents want to be their child’s friend, they can’t be a parent who hands out discipline and responsibility.

  11. Your post was a great piece of writing today, Quinn. The story covers experiences that open raw places for me that have been covered “nicely” to meander along the trail; journal writing this past season has allowed for some good exploration of these very issues about which you described. It was through my writing that I found the understanding of just why going to a 50th high school graduation gathering was not calling to me three years ago….and the 55th now being planned has, as well, no draw whatsoever. The history cannot be covered over nicely, yet the who I am today has little desire to stir up unpleasant memories in a public setting. The journal is my place for that….writing heals ever so much and serves to guide the steps on paths of joy and ever so much delight. Thank you for today’s words and so many other posts that stir the processes of going forward with good, healthy, happy and peace-filled steps. Much appreciation for you and your words, Quinn.

  12. I’m so sorry that you were treated that way. I have found that those bullies from childhood have carried over their unpleasant ways into the corporate world. Their methods may have changed to less physical intimidation but the psychological abuses are still going strong.

    • You are right. Which is exactly why I am going back into the corporate world as a trainer. My writing courses are doing well, now I am going to bring in an Innovation and Change course (with creativity hidden inside). I need to go back for all the resilient, creative people who are being squashed by the American business model.

      • Love that you are doing that. I had a life changing diversity training at my old job. Amazing what can be done. I did notice management was not required to attend. I say start with management.

  13. I am so sorry you were treated that way. That is not supposed to be the American way!!! I think the teachers were very much at fault. I hope you can forgive them (kids ) for not being raised better. That is not the way I was brought up in Ohio.

    • We are doing the same thing to Bowe Bergdahl today–rushing to make up stuff about a story we have no information on. I forgave the kids a long time ago. They made me the resilient, deal-with-it-all kind of person I am today. But it took me a long time to be OK with being an outsider. Now that my art is outsider art, I feel more connected.

  14. I’m so glad you’ve shared this story. Just yesterday I was introduced to a website called The Microagressions Project. http://www.microaggressions.com The comments by your 2nd grade teacher after you were pushed from the slide are aggressive to say the least! So grateful your inner hero is alive and well.

    Also, on another note, so sad that I was, once again, unable to join you in beautiful Madeline Island this year.

  15. wonderful! i also find most forms of “humor” to be nastiness encased in ‘teasing”…..and like you, feel for the object of the humor. i think that may be called “empathy”

  16. I relate, too. Many of the same experiences in elementary school, same conclusions drawn within my own mind, same withdrawal into myself for many years. I still encounter a lot of “What’s wrong with you, it’s just a joke! Lighten up!” responses to my failure to think slapstick and pranks are funny. It’s so good to be reminded there are others who feel similarly.

  17. A society that focuses on force to the exclusion of most other aspects of experience, yet propagandizes individuals to reject evolution. It would be ironic if that weren’t a three-syllable word.

    • I just don’t get the whole rejection of evolution, the people who are science deniers. And there are a LOT of them here. It doesn’t make sense to me in any way at all. Sure, question what you don’t understand. But don’t reject something simply because it is science.

      • If you start admitting that smart, educated people can figure things out and make a difference, you diminish the power of sheer brutality. And when brutality-derived fear is the driving force in your society and the source of your own status in it, you can’t abide rationality.

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