This week I had an unexpected emotional outburst in public. I was on the train on the way up to work from London, tired and possibly quite irritable due to said tiredness, when a phone conversation took an unexpected turn.
“Your face lights up when you talk about secondary school”, they said. I laughed. “Probably because secondary school days were the best days of my life…no seriously- especially in contrast to primary school”. I paused for a bit. “When were your parents going to take you out of that school?” they asked quietly.
And so I casually retold the story. Laughed bitterly that the only reason I was good with words was because I spent playtimes hidden beneath duffel coats in cloak rooms, words my only friends, imagining that the boarding schools in those pages were my school, that I was in fact, not black and awkward and nerdy and different. Really, I was in my final term at a old fashioned English boarding school in the 1950’s, and my name was Sally and I was popular and good at lacrosse possibly even captain of a lacrosse team. Or maybe I was the 11 year old African-American ballet dancer in my favourite book series, hair a little longer than mine tied into a neat bun, feet poised in plies and pirouettes, leaping higher, higher, away from the whispers in the playground and the smirks of the girls who would not play with me.
I did not leave, I said, because when my parents threatened to take me out of school the head teacher panicked and promised to sort it all out, and would I be head girl? My grades were the best in the year and they were already going to ask me before they knew I was leaving. I laughed. They only wanted my would-be-top-notch SATs grades for their prospectus.
I laughed and then I broke. My voice broke into a sob – one week from my 25th birthday and over fifteen years away from any chalk marked playground, I broke. And as tears rolled down my face, I apologised into the silence at the other end of the line. Apologised for being emotional, for being a baby, for still being affected by something so small and silly as another 9 year old not wanting to play with me, something so small and silly as a remembrance of a word or a non-word.
But words are violence. And silence is violence. Sticks and stones are letters and giggles and hushed tones and dirty looks and a party invitation to everyone in the class except you and the other black kid. Sticks and stones are other children calling your brother a black matchbox and you, goody two shoes you, all fury and conflict grabbing blue shirt by it’s scruff, up against a barbed wire fence and then you and blue shirt both get in equal amounts trouble and you are confused. Sticks and stones are a mother loudly exclaiming to other parents that she will have to buy Caroline a new jumper now because you wore it once and the other parents not saying a word.
Do not be ashamed of your hurting parts. Do not be ashamed to use your words as weapons against their violence. Speak your pain and speak your sorrow. Then hold yourself and remember that you are still here. That you can still be happy, hopeful and radiant. That their words hurt them too. And that each of us has a bully inside of us – but we decide each day, each moment whether or not to not use our words as violence.