51: Monkey Arms

51: Monkey Arms

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive for Kids

Monkey Arms

Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself.

~Harvey Fierstein

I couldn’t wait to go to school that morning. I was wearing a new short sleeved, lacy blouse under my tunic and I was dying to show it off. It made me feel so grown up and feminine, so much older than my eight years, and I wanted everyone to see and admire my pretty shirt.

I heard the laughter before I rushed through the gate. I followed the sound to find my classmates standing in a circle. At first I thought someone had brought in the year’s first skipping rope, but as I approached, I saw that a girl who sat next to me in school was standing in the middle, surrounded by some older kids.

“Monkey arms,” someone shrilled. “Suzanne has monkey arms!”

The voice belonged to a boy named Norman. His twin sister Maryann echoed his chant. I ducked into the crowd quickly, not wanting them to notice me. They were the “rich kids”, the ones everyone looked up to, yet also feared. They always bullied the poorer students, and I was one of those.

I peeked over someone’s shoulder to find Suzanne hugging herself and crying. I saw that she was wearing a blouse similar to mine, but even from where I stood I noted that her arms were indeed quite hairy. I felt my sympathy rise. My first instinct was to reach out to her, to protect her.

“Monkey arms!” Norman jeered again. “Your momma’s a gorilla and your daddy’s a baboon!” he mocked.

He looked around with a malicious grin to see if everyone was impressed with his insults. His eyes settled on me angrily. I stared back. He nudged his sister, and Maryann followed his glance.

I wanted to say something that would defend Suzanne, but my mouth went dry. The other kids began to parrot his nasty words. I was the only one who hadn’t joined in, and Norman glared at me threateningly.

I was young, but I knew how things worked. If I didn’t go along with him and Maryann, I would become their next target. Everyone always followed their lead — or paid the price.

Norman continued to stare me down. I knew the taunts were growing louder, but they were drowned out by the sound of my hammering heart. He stomped towards me and grabbed my arm, his fingers pressing tightly into my skin.

“You must be related to Monkey Arms,” he hissed. “You have a chimpanzee haircut. I’ll bet your mother cuts it because you’re too poor to afford a real haircut.”

I lowered my eyes in mortification. My mother did cut my hair for that reason, just like she cut her own, my three brothers’ and my father’s. When I looked up again, I noticed some of the kids had turned their attention to us. I panicked. If I didn’t distract them, Norman would start making fun of me too, so I did the only thing I could think of.

“Monkey arms!” I yelled, breaking away from his grip. “Suzanne has monkey arms!”

Within seconds, Norman went back to ridiculing Suzanne again, mimicking her twisted, miserable face, and pretending to wipe tears from his cheeks with his pudgy hands.

“Boo-hoo-hoo,” he snickered. “Wahhh.”

When Suzanne tried to escape the tight circle around her, he barred her way. She ran to the other side, only to have Maryann stop her. Finally she came my way.

“Block her,” Norman yelled, and to my shame, I did, shoving her back. She looked at me pleadingly, her cheeks wet, her eyes red and puffy. I turned away so I wouldn’t have to see her pain, wishing the earth would swallow me up. Just then, the bell rang. Relieved, I tore off to line up with my class.

Everyone seemed to forget the episode — everyone except me. I could see that the twins were already teasing another small kid, grabbing his schoolbag and tossing it back and forth while he tried in vain to get it back.

Once we were all in class, I pretended to be absorbed in my math book to avoid Suzanne’s sad face. From the corner of my eye, I saw her fighting tears all morning, yet I said nothing to her. Instead, I remembered all the times she’d shared fresh cookies with me at recess, or slipped me a new pencil because mine was too short to write with and I couldn’t buy another until my father got paid.

Finally it was time to go home for lunch. I dragged my feet to return to school after eating the cheese sandwich my mother slid my way before hurriedly going back to her many chores.

When class resumed, Suzanne wasn’t there. Instead of the usual reading lesson, our teacher, Mrs. Brennan, tapped her desk with her ruler and began to speak to us in serious soft tones.

To her credit, she never once singled out any of us who had taunted Suzanne earlier that day. Instead, she quietly explained how cruel it was to tease someone about something they had no control over, whether it was a large nose, big ears, a handicap or anything else they could not change. She pointed out that we could no more help the way we were made than we could stop the sun from rising.

As she continued to give examples, my throat constricted with shame at the way I treated Suzanne. I wanted to tell her I was sorry. I promised myself that I would apologize the very next day, and vowed never to let anyone bully her or me again.

Suzanne didn’t return to school. A week later, we heard she went to the hospital the day of the schoolyard incident. She’d slashed herself horribly while she was trying to shave her arms with her father’s razor. Not only were her arms scarred for life, but she’d severed some veins and almost bled to death before her mother found her.

The day we started summer holidays, I finally gathered my courage and walked to Suzanne’s house to beg forgiveness. I found the house empty. A “FOR RENT” sign hung in the window.

I never saw her again. Years passed. I tried to find her, but my efforts were fruitless. As an adult, I even tried Internet searches with no results.

I still have the last pencil she ever gave me. I keep it as a constant reminder that ugly words, once said, can never be unsaid, and that wanting to be part of the crowd is only a good thing if the crowd itself is a good one.

That was the last time I ever succumbed to peer pressure, and I never again ridiculed anyone about a flaw or handicap.

Suzanne will never know that she made me a better person. Whenever I find myself about to criticize someone, I remember a helpless little face streaked with tears, and I bite my tongue. If only I’d bitten it then. If only I could have found my sweet little classmate one more time to say the words that really mattered: “I’m so sorry, Suzanne.”

~Marya Morin

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