From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul on Love & Friendship

Spare Change

Life has no limitations except the ones you make.

Les Brown

I’m seated in the back row of Mrs. Andrew’s sixth-grade class. I wriggle tightly in the stiff-backed, wooden desk/ chair combination, which is unfairly constructed for a right-handed world. I hold my pencil firmly in my left hand and try to conform to the ill-fitting desk. I’m not just different because of my anti-dexterity; there are many things that make me peculiar to the world.

First of all, there are my clothes. My dad’s blue-collar salary limits my fashion ability. No penny is spent frivolously. In my family’s nightly ritual, Dad hauls down the four-liter jug from the shelf over the kitchen sink. Into the glass he empties both pockets. Pennies, dimes and nickels sing out the tinkle of a poor man’s wallet. We are a family of coin rollers. My mom’s purse is not filled with singles or tens; it is weighted down by rolls of change, as though she were ready at a moment’s notice to hit the Vegas slot machines. Oh, how carefree it must feel to line your pockets with paper currency as unencumbered as air.

You would think by looking at my clothes that we’re back in 1975. My mom uses words like “retro” to try and convince me that my clothes are cool. Kids at my school shop at thrift stores for cool vintage T-shirts; they buy their jeans at the Gap. But not me. I’m branded with the wardrobe of a victim. It’s like wearing a neon sign that reads: All future psychotics take out frustrations and misplaced anger right here! As you will find in most schools, there is that one classification of child—the bully—who immediately reads the signs and moves in for the kill. Many adults claim that the bully is himself a “victim” of his own self-hatred. However, all this means little to those of us who have been subjected to the bully’s misunderstood and misspent anger.

While in class, it is my sole intention to innocently blend in with the herd—little chance of that. Carefully, I press my pencil against the workbook page. The numbers blur into one huge, fuzzy black caterpillar. My mind is a thousand miles away from these division problems. Instead, I’m thinking about my pencil—of all things. I’m trying to write with it ever so lightly, so I don’t snap the point. A visit to the pencil sharpener would mean a certain run-in with my bully, who conveniently sits alongside it and the exit door. It is only a matter of time before my lead or my bladder give out.

Then comes the moment when I am forced to visit the sharpener. My pencil in one hand, I begin turning the crank. I don’t get very far before his hand reaches out and grabs my arm, spinning me round roughly to face him.

“Going somewhere, Dog Face?”

I try to answer him, but all that issues from my mouth is a tightly choked whisper, “No.”

As if strengthened by my weakness, his laughter becomes the public-address system that calls the others. “Where’d you get that bird’s nest you call hair—the circus?” he asks, pointing to my huge sprouts of long frizzy tendrils. Each wiry brown strand defies entrapment by any elastic scrunchee. “Did you stick your hand in an electric socket, Dog Face?” His comments raise not only the pitch of laughter around the room, but the pressure I feel building behind my eyes. Finally, like an engorged geyser, tears burst forth and the bully’s victory is assured.

Tears are the blood that bullies savor. They’re proof of dominance among the herd. It’s hard to explain how deeply he can hurt me with his simple words. It’s a pain that can choke my windpipes and strangle my heart. He tells me I’m ugly, and inside I agree. Is it possible I hate myself for crying more than I hate him?

I run away from my bully and the laughter, and head for the girls’ bathroom. Inside these walls I still believe it’s possible to wash away all suffering and tears. While water may wash away most tear-stained traces, it can never bathe the anguish that grips so tightly at my heart.

But all this happened to me many years ago, when I was a younger and different person. Now, I’m seventeen and headed for college. In the years since, my dad got a new job, and we moved to another town. I have not seen my bully in over five years, and there have been no other bullies to take his place. I have grown not only outside, but inside as well. In my new school I’ve made friends who accept me, and I’ve grown not only to accept, but even like myself. Though times are better for us financially, my dad still keeps that jug filled with change—just in case. I’m no longer ashamed of my family. Instead, with maturity, I have learned to respect their strength and tenacity.

Now I am standing in line waiting to sign up for classes for my first semester of college. The room is packed with others like me, nervously anticipating what lies ahead: meeting new people, trying a new life on for size. Suddenly, I notice my bully standing in a corner of the room looking as puzzled and threatened as anyone else— but he doesn’t see me. I panic at the sight of him. I recognize the slant of his smile and the furl of his brow. He can still set ripples of acid swirling through my belly.

I can’t believe he’s going to the same school as me. In that short moment, two scenarios run through my mind: I can run over, slap him in the face, shake him and demand to know why he made my life a living hell. But what would happen if I run over and slap him, and then he slaps me back and we both end up getting hauled away by campus security?

This is what really happened: I looked over at him, and then I looked over at the long line for names A to H, and that’s when it hit me. Why waste my time living in the past? That bully was my history, and now it was time to turn toward my future. I couldn’t move ahead until I came to terms with that simple concept. So I got in line and registered, and then I got in the next line, and the next, and the next. This bully meant nothing to my present life or dreams. There was nothing I needed to say to him anymore, because he no longer meant anything to me. He appeared so much smaller to me now. With this realization, my mind’s eye shrank him down further, until there was nothing left of him that mattered now at all.

That day I let go of my bully who, I thought, held power over me for so long, and all it took was a conscious decision to do so. It wasn’t the bully who kept me prisoner—it was my own spirit. I realized that I must live each day in the present, and not allow myself to sink into the murkiness of a lost childhood. Each day is like a brand-new penny, which I value and spend wisely. At night I toss them inside a kind of glass jug in my mind. As they hit bottom they resonate with the splendid tinkling of a life filled with possibilities.

Alyssa Morgan
As told to C. S. Dweck

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