I remember with clarity my excitement to begin Kindergarten. For years I had walked down the hill alongside my mother and my two older sisters and my dog. By the time I was five I was used to the morning commotion in the McDermott’s driveway. The same mothers, the same children. Belly’s growing and shrinking, including my own mother’s. The sound of the bus coming around the corner, the lineup of the children, and the air of importance carried by Bus Patrols, who were in Fifth Grade and wore a bright orange belt. It was a big deal.
I began Kindergarten without trepidation. It would be a half day, in the mornings. My sister Anna was in fifth grade and she was a patrol, and so I don’t remember ever being in a state of confusion in the mornings, not on the first day or any day after that. People asked if I was a boy or a girl, and I told them happily, “I’m a girl! My name is Emily.” Happy days were ahead of me. I could feel it. I was finally riding the bus.
I did look like a boy, too. It was my Father’s rule that we, all four daughters, have bowl cuts until we reached an age where we could keep our hair tidy, or until our begging for long hair subdued his iron will. He could not tolerate unkempt hair, and my little sister Alice’s perpetual rat’s nest was a constant point of agony for him. Usually, it was around first or second grade, for all of us girls, that we were allowed to grow our hair out. So in kindergarten, I definitely looked like a boy.
In fact, as little girls, my Father treated us as if we had no gender. We did yard work and wore boys clothing and boys shoes and had short hair and he encouraged the sciences and insisted we be tough outside, in sports, and when we played with our friends. Had he been able to say to us something like, “Don’t cry, crying is for girls,” I am sure he would have. He showed open dislike for our dolls and all of the frivolities associated with girlhood. I remember when I was a young girl I watched him snatch a pair high heels from my oldest sister, Eva, who was becoming very beautiful. He walked out the front door, and threw them on the roof. Eva chased him into the street, screaming to no avail. And I took note.
Our father was not the type of father to tell us we were pretty, and we didn’t wonder if we were. None of us were then, or ever have been what people call Daddy’s Girls. We were not his little girls. We were his children, and until, one by one, the four of us grew out hair, we actually looked like his sons.
In some ways it probably could have been easier. My little sister Alice and I used to put leggings on our head to pretend we had long hair. We would arrive at the dinner table and our older sisters, Anna and Eva, would mock us. The elastic waistband from the leggings would leave an imprint across our foreheads, just above our eyebrows. It was so easy for Anna and Eva to mock us, being older–they were allowed to grow out their hair.
But ultimately, as I will illustrate in the story below, I appreciate my Father’s unwillingness to treat his four daughters as if they were defenseless little girls in need of his protection. Our vulnerability was not a topic of discussion, ever, as much as I can remember. We were protected, indeed, but not because we were girls, because we were children. Without brothers I assumed this was just how it was with every father and his children, which is probably why, when I started kindergarten, I assumed I was completely equal to boys in all aspects. And it was on the bus that I learned I had made a grave mistake. Boys were wicked. And in turn, I would need to become more wicked.
The bus to kindergarten every day was uneventful, as was kindergarten itself. But at lunchtime I got on the bus to go home because back then in Arlington, kindergarten was a half day. Before writing this, I imagined there were about twelve kindergarteners on the bus ride home every day, but now that I think logically, it must have been around eight. Either way, I was the only girl on an almost empty bus, my older sister was not there to watch over me, and I was bullied.
One of the boys was a best friend from preschool, Chris. Some afternoons he defended me, quite heroically, in fact, sometimes even standing between me and the aggressors, physically protecting me with his body. Other afternoons he joined in with the other boys and taunted me. Whatever he decided to do seemed arbitrary, and I learned quickly not to count on him. He was useless to me.
It started off with them teasing me and calling me names and me ignoring them. My sisters had done worse. Then two boys decided to sit near the front and put their backpacks across the aisle. They held them tight so I couldn’t pass. I insulted them and stepped on their backpacks and walked off the bus. The days went on and they rarely left me alone. They would insult me and I would insult them back, sometimes worse I think, judging by the faces of the remaining boys that told me I had won the exchange. Ignoring them got harder, and I started to talk back more and more. They would throw something at me and I would spit at them and then hide behind the tall seat of the school bus. They became increasingly violent and I responded with threats on their lives. Once I got a bloody lip. My mother saw. She called the school. Nothing. I responded to their violence with my own violence and I only ever remember being afraid of getting in trouble. I knew that I was stronger than each of those boys and faster, but outnumbered. One day I bit one of them, and attacked another in his seat like a wild animal. I punched back, sometimes landing. I climbed over, and even under the school bus seats to get away. I hid from them, and then I would pop my head up when they drew near and spit in their face. It was chaos.
I’m glad I fought back, and just as they never got in trouble for what they did, I never got in trouble for fighting back, which for me, was perfect. I didn’t want my parents involved because they couldn’t do anything for me on the bus, and looking back I’m sure those little boys didn’t want their fathers involved either. My father would have been proud of me fighting those boys, day after day. And even though I dreaded getting on that bus, I was never scared. I knew they were all fools, and I have no memory of wanting their approval; I wanted to be left alone, and when we fought, I wanted to win. I also rested in the fact that each of those boys, alone, wouldn’t have dared to come near me, and that I had instilled a sort of fear in them that was only diminished by the presence of the other boys.
The boys to me, all looked the same. Even Chris, who was once my friend, blended in with the other boys now. They were an amalgamate of wannabe Power Rangers and I hated all of them indiscriminately. Sometimes I leaned my head against the window and listened to their disgusting voices in the background, insulting me, and I held back tears and watch the fog from my breath on the window grow and shrink, grow and shrink. Ignore them, I told myself. I closed my eyes, trying to make my thoughts louder than their voices. Then I would feel something hit my head. A paper ball perhaps. Maybe a marble. It hurt. I turned around, and they had me surrounded on all sides. And I turned wild.
I made one of the boys cry. I will never forget it. I was terrified I would be in trouble, that he would run home and tell his mother. I don’t remember if it was my words or my hands, but I myself had never cried on the bus, even when my lip was made bloody and once my nose, too. I saw his tears as a betrayal of the war they had forced me to be part of. A couple of the boys started to tell me I was going to be in trouble, and all of a sudden some of the boys jumped to my defense, saying, “He started it! He got what he deserved!” I felt I had gone too far, that I should have tried harder to ignore them. Remorseful, I wasn’t. Scared of being punished, definitely.
But after that day the bullying stopped, and I never got in trouble. It turns out the boys were ashamed of telling their parents that a girl had made them cry. In the next days, one by one, the boys approached me to form some sort of alliance, perhaps to be my friend, perhaps as a treaty, perhaps a sign of respect. I don’t remember much of that–only that it stopped and getting on the bus every day became less painful, and that by the end of the year they were all my friends. I considered kindergarten to be a huge success, and I was very much excited for summer, and after that, starting first grade, and maybe, just maybe, growing my hair out long.