For the first few years of my life no one was mean to me. I had siblings, but they were old enough to find me charming for at least the first four years. I was used to older kids being helpful, so the first time I was treated badly by one was very upsetting.
The first memory I have of this kind happened when I was about four years old. It was my one and only visit to any kind of jail. It didn’t seem strange to me that we were there. We were visiting a relative who I knew and loved, and I had no conflicting thoughts about it. I think sometimes as grownups we are unaware of how children take things at face value. I had consequences for my actions all the time as a way to teach me how to behave as an adult- so I would learn, and never have to experience serious adult consequences like jail.
In my four-year old mind, my relative must surely have been sorry and wouldn’t make that mistake again. I held no judgment. I couldn’t wait to visit, and was extremely thrilled to be patted down and searched by guards. Also, I had been promised another child my age would be there, and we would be outside by a play area.
And it all came true. There was a nice little boy my age, and we did have fun on the playground….until some bigger kids came.
At first they seemed nice. They talked to us, and I trusted them the way I trusted most other older kids. We were excited when they offered to play on the teeter-totter with us. They had us both sit on the same side, and they promised to push us up and down.
You might already know where this is going.
They just wanted to drop us. We were little, and these were the big teeter-totters, so it definitely knocked the wind out of us and sent us away in tears. It hurt, and I can still remember the sound of them laughing at us. We spent the rest of the visit in hiding, terrified of what those kids might do next.
This was new territory for me. It hurt my feelings, and I felt like I might even be in danger. Big kids were the worst, and this wouldn’t be my last experience. Once I started going to school, the school bus was full of big kid bullies.
I used to sometimes get off the bus with a boy my mom watched. We had a little bit of a walk to get to his house from the bus stop, and some high school kids also got off at our stop. They thought it was funny to scare us by chasing us half way home. We dreaded it. We were running for our lives. Once, one of those kids picked me up and held me upside down. I had no idea what they were capable of.
My own bus was no better. At Christmastime, my bus driver sent giant candy canes to the classroom of three of us kindergartners who rode his bus. It was the biggest one I had ever seen. My friend ate his right away, but I wanted to take mine home and show my parents.
On the ride home from school I sat with my sister on the bus. One of the junior high kids stole my candy cane out of my backpack. He asked if it was mine, and my sister told him to give it back. He threw it on the ground and stepped on it. I was devastated, and he made fun of me for crying over a candy cane. I was too shy to say anything to the bus driver. I am sure he would have given me another if he knew.
And it wasn’t just big kids. I was afraid of the garbage man, too. He told me he was going steal my bike. Every Thursday morning one summer I had to get up early and guard my bike. I am sure the garbage man didn’t think twice about why I was standing outside every time he picked up the trash at our house, because he kept telling me that it was a good thing I was there or else he would have taken it. I believed him, and I hated him. He probably thought I just enjoyed his visits.
I wasn’t a stupid kid, I was just a kid. I had almost zero life experience. And I wasn’t taking any chances.
It’s no secret that I struggle to understand Teghan’s brain. But the truth is, I have trouble relating to any five-year old brain. I have lots of memories from my own experience. Some things had no impact on me whatsoever. Really, children deal with the big stuff better than adults do. Real drama is pretty black and white, because they have little experience to clutter up their feelings on things. They think about things, but they don’t have the baggage yet to over-think things the way we do.
On the other hand, the misunderstandings are out of control. Lack of experience also leaves them with a lot of unknowns- and that leads to fear. It’s hard to wrap my mind around some of the things I was once afraid of, or situations I didn’t know how to handle.
I needed to learn at some point that big kids couldn’t always be trusted. I should have told that high school boy I didn’t want to be picked up. I should have told the bus driver. I should have told my own bus driver about the candy cane. Because, really, I just wanted my candy cane back. I should have slept in on Thursday mornings. That garbage man wasn’t going to steal my bike. If he did, we would know where to look first. And my parents probably would have bought me another one. A better one.
I learned all that eventually. I didn’t need these “villains” to not exist, or to not say and do stupid things. I needed the experience, because it is part of life. I am not saying that bullying is okay. I have never experienced the kind of bullying that affected my life in any serious way. This isn’t about bullying at all- it’s about the impact of initial life experiences on a young brain. It’s an extra obstacle to consider while I try not to screw my kid’s head up too much.
But I cannot deny that my own memories stayed with me for a reason. Those high school kids who chased us weren’t always mean to us on the bus. I think they thought they were being playful. We weren’t so sure; and that uncertainty caused me a lot of stress. I started worrying about it before I even got on the bus. I am sure those older kids had no idea what they were doing to us. If I was mistaken about their intentions, what kind of anxiety is Teghan carrying around?
What if I had to ride that bus every day? And….what if those kids actually did mean us harm? What would that be like, day after day? I don’t know. That’s never happened to me. If it happened to Teghan, would I know about it?
I think about the time we took Teghan to Bounceland for an autism family night. She was playing in the preschool area, and had finally gotten up the courage to go into one of the tunnels. When she had been gone too long, I walked around the back of the play area to look inside for her. I found a pile of kids yelling, and Teghan’s feet sticking out from under the group. That image still haunts me. The kids took one look at me and fled- except for one little boy. He was sitting on top of Teghan, too focused on wildly slapping her across the face. I had to go inside the tunnel and physically remove him from her.
Let’s not talk about the fact that I saw the boy’s sister run to their father and explain what was happening as I was climbing into the play area. Or that once I removed the boy from my child, his father picked him up and ran before I even had a chance to get Teghan out of the tunnel.
I have never seen Teghan look so scared. She held onto me and cried longer than she ever has before. She had never been treated that way, and she didn’t understand. The worst part is, I couldn’t do anything to help her understand. I can’t have a conversation with her, or find out how she feels about anything. And the answers I offer can’t possibly make sense to her.
Maybe I am over-thinking it. Maybe my experienced, over-thinking ways are the reason I hold on to those childhood memories. But I don’t think so. What I think is that Teghan will hold on to that memory of Bounceland- probably forever. It will be one of many experiences she carries with her for a lifetime. Just like me. Just like all of us. But I’m okay; those memories are nothing more than things I can remember.
So what will these memories mean to her? Thankfully, the answer to that has not been written yet.