Words can wound. They can hurt and leave scars that never seem to fade. I have suffered almost all my life because of words and I also want to make my living by these same things. Ironic, isn’t it? My first memory of words being hurtful was when I heard a teacher refer to me as “colored.” I didn’t understand the implication at the time as I am very light skinned and pale to boot, but I knew from her inflection, her tone, that “colored” was not good. This was in the early Eighties and I must have been in Kindergarten or First Grade. Now, while my mother is White and of European ancestry, my father is from India-Pakistan. Now, was it right for this teacher to refer to me so? For that time and for her, yes it was. Doesn’t mean that I didn’t feel it’s implications. After all, there were parents who refused to let their children play with me because I was “that colored girl.” And I had a teacher who refused to let me go to the bathroom, thereby forcing me to wet myself, because I, as a “colored girl”, had outperformed the other children on some test or something or other. While that happened 30 years ago now, and no longer hurts, the scar remains. But Time moves forward, different town, different school. In the late Eighties to early Nineties, I was still “colored” by some of the older teachers, but some were referring me as “mixed.” I still don’t understand how one can be described as a baked goods or cooking term, but at least the effort was made.
This doesn’t mean that words stopped being hurtful. New words were used; Camel Jockey being a particular favorite for some odd reason. Odd in that those children didn’t understand why I continually pointed out to them that unless one went to the zoo, camels don’t roam the streets of Pakistan. Yet, it still hurt. Some told me to go back to were I came from, which is problematic since I was born in the United States. Can’t really go back when you are living about 2 to 3 hours from where you were born. Turban lover was another one, which still perplexes me. As far as I know, no one in my immediate family is a Sikh or has ever worn a turban. Somewhere in this mix, I became friends with Anneliese. I really thought we’d be friends forever. Naiveté is something I still have and cherish. Now, while she did become friends with me, I was not aware of how she routinely made fun of me and encouraged the bullying behavior in middle and high school. Again, words hurt. I never knew, of course, until last year when our friendship of over 20 years had finally disintegrated into thin air, how cruel, how petty she was in our youth and how petty she still is in many ways. I have never understood how one can profess friendship yet not only encourage a bully to harass your “friend” in high school, but stand by that same bully years later. Did it hurt? This ending? Absolutely. I’d be lying if I said I was not affected. I still am in many ways. I now question every little thing she ever said to me, every little nuance she made. It taints memories that were once comforting. It also made me very aware of how little I truly knew about her.
I never knew, for example, the deep hatred and jealously she had towards me for having a Master’s Degree. She would constantly bemoan to me how cruel it was that while she got married and had a child, I got a degree. Yes, life was truly cruel to her. She’s been lucky enough to never want for lack of male companionship while I was stood up for Prom. She could eat anything and still retain her fairly slim body while I have always struggled with losing weight since I was eight. How cruel life was that she’s been married (twice) and has had a lovely little boy. The agony-the abject horror of her life! I shudder with the fact that she’s not been saddled with over 100K in student loan debt and could not only afford to purchase a house and a newer car, but have a job that allows her husband to pursue his dreams of a higher education. Clearly, her life has been the stuff of Gothic novels a la Anne Radcliffe or Wilkie Collins.
Yet I had to work my way through Junior College and give up my dream of becoming a Paleontologist (because I cannot live without a shower or flushing toilets). I worked for a year, had my identity stolen and had to put off attending a four year school for another year because of it. At that same four year school, was subject to being ignored for almost an entire year by fellow classmates (most of whom are now very dear friends because I do forgive). Yet I was threatened to be beat up by others on-line (yes, cyber bullying back in the day-2005- and nothing was done about it then). Yet I survived. Worked again and then went on to UIUC where I was told on a weekly to almost daily basis my first year in the MFA Costume program that I should kill myself. By the head of the program too. Very, very wounding. I still suffer from that and will suffer from it for a long time yet. No teacher should ever, ever, be that cruel, that demeaning to a student that they are in charge of. The saddest part is that no one in that department cared. The Head of the Theatre Dept left and was replaced-both men didn’t care. I told a teacher that I trusted and while he was shocked, he did nothing and since leaving that school, has never contacted me to see how I got on. The Graduate School, alas, could not do anything because it was up to the Theatre Head, who, as I stated previously, didn’t give two figs if I left on my own accord or in a body bag. Needless to say that I was “told” to leave the program. Mainly because my “depression” had no place in Theatre, but also because Helene (the head of the Costume program), would refer to me as a “Dirty Paki” and didn’t think my “kind” had any business in Theatre. Again, words to wound, to hurt. Helene is a White South African, which needs no explanation as to why she hates “coloreds.” Yet, I never officially left that program. I worked in the library, took classes, and applied to other schools.
Anneliese never knew what I suffered at UIUC because I never told her. Also because she didn’t want to hear it. Most conversations always revolved around her. In fact, many of the people I met at that school (especially the students), don’t know and this will come as quite the shock. So I went on to Kansas State, which wasn’t bad. But words, they still hurt. And bad experiences can follow one like the plague. While Dana wasn’t as cruel as Helene, she also didn’t care. Her focus was on the other grad student-no one else mattered. Well, almost no one. If Ryan came anywhere near her, she fluttered like a teenage girl with her crush (Ryan was a former student). Now, things weren’t all fun and games. After all, Dana would repeatedly comment on how “blind” I must be because of my thick lenses. Trust me, if I could have afforded the ultra thin lightweight ones, they wouldn’t have been so thick. Pardon me for having an astigmatism in both eyes. And, of course, my appearance. I just wasn’t as “cute” as the other grad student and was told this by Dana and the Shop Manager, Melissa. Everything I wore was “wrong.” My hair, my makeup (when I wore any), my jewelry, was wrong. My sewing skills were “atrocious”, but only if Melissa knew it was something that I sewed. Fun fact: if I sewed a garment and gave it to an undergrad to pass off as their own, the sewing on it was usually said to be fine to excellent. And many things were sewn by me, but I could never acknowledge that I had a hand in it. If I turned that same garment in…unacceptable. Perfection was expected at all time from me and only me, even though fabric, being malleable, isn’t prone to perfection in any way, shape or form. As punishment, I was forced to scrap off gum and other disgusting items off of the shop floor with a razor. Or cut loads and loads of cardboard strips (half of which Melissa deemed to be no good and were then, promptly, thrown away). So, words continued to hurt. But at least at this school, I refused to stay silent and got support from teachers who actually cared. Doesn’t mean that I am still not suffering. Don’t take my nonchalance manner for face value. The scars are still there.
So, what is the point of sharing all of this? Well, because I want to share it as it’s time. Plus, not only did I loose the friendship of someone I never once questioned, I also had to distance myself from others who are still dear to me, or were at some point in my life. When someone decides that it’s funny to joke about people like me being thrown into internment camps or having to register, it’s truly not funny. And it hurts so very, very much. When a cousin has become so radicalized that he defends the murder of Syrians by Assad because Assad is better than Isis, it’s shocking, painful and I have to distance myself. I have to because not only are his words disgusting to me, they make me weep at his foolishness and ignorance. I’ve had to end friendships with people who have threatened to have me deported for defending religious freedom and tolerance. And Time and Time again, I’ve had people, mainly men, inform me that if I lost some weight, I’d be attractive. Since I’ve lost close to 40 pounds, pray, tell me when this attractive feature is supposed to occur? Is there some sort of secret button or lever that appears on my person that I can activate? Again, words.
As I stated before, words can wound. They cut better than any knife and when they wound, they truly wound. Words can be used for good. They can and I know they can. But when you use them to hurt, it’s abuse. And having been subject to such abuse for too long, I will no longer tolerate it in my life. I started to be selfish in regards to my feelings in 2016 and I will continue to be so. Will this be easy? Not at all. And this may be one of the most personal blogs in a while since I want to stick to pleasanter things like writing and research. But once in a while, I do have to comment.