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by Julia Pritt

Running was a big part of my elementary experience—usually in the form of races from the lunchroom to the blue ladder. In my kindergarten eyes, it was a large and stable thing to behold, whether looking from a distance basking in its glory, or being at its top breathing in fresh air. On many instances, my journey to this coveted spot was interrupted by an array of classmates who took it upon themselves to enlighten me. One boy in particular decided it would be fun to berate me with gags about my mom. Ranging from fat jokes to ones based on her so-called lack of intelligence, which I supposedly inherited. Thankfully, he added an extra level of class by saying “Yo’ Mama…” before each dig.

These digs had slipped into conversation various times before, so I was used to the continuous unwanted attention, whether it was from his unrelenting comments toward my mother, or from other members of my class and their thoughts on me. I didn’t care about whatever my place was on the social ladder. At that point in my life the only ladder that mattered to me was one of blue: place to listen to music as I read, or take friends for secret conversations. Up there where most were too afraid to climb was the only place at that school I felt comfortable.

I made an effort to ignore the sly comments and the added background noise of chuckles from my friends. Ignore the feelings it aroused. The thoughts it stirred. I opted to find sanctuary at my blue ladder. However, one day at the bottom of this metal beast, the attacks just continued with more ferocity. My chosen path of disregarding the boy and his Yo’ Mama jokes did not seem to be working, so I responded with a couple snarky comebacks of my own. From years of reading, I had developed quite the vocabulary—which was extremely convenient to whip out at a moment’s notice. This was one of those times. My cleverly composed threats of what he would face if he decided to continue on the road he had become so comfortable on did not seem to influence him.

I walked away, digging my heels into the mulch with each step, my tiny hands balled into fists with white knuckles at my sides. This is when I heard the last line I could bear. The cherry-on-top of the overflowing sundae of my mental state. It was the same as all the others he had thrown at me, with one important change. Instead of attacking my mother, he went after my grandmother.

At this point, I did not let him continue. After her name slipped out of his mouth, I spun my six-year-old body around, bolting toward him. I sprinted, zigzagged, and leaped my way at him as he maneuvered around the playground equipment to get away from me.

After running in circles for an eternity, my asthma-infested lungs needed a break. I was not alone, though; I could tell by the sweat-soaked hair sticking to his face that he needed a break too. Soon, I found myself standing on the other side of a balance beam, while he hastily sucked air down his throat. As he stood up from his crouched position, wiping the sweat off his hands onto his baggy jeans, I expected to hear an apology. Instead, what came from his lips ripped through my ears, freezing my whole body.

“Guess you couldn’t get me.”

Then instinct ensued. My arm shot out, gripping the neckline of his faded grey shirt, twisting it to encase my fist in the material to give myself a better hold. A hold I used to pull him up and over, across my body, and as far as I could pull him. As I watched him soar through the air, time seemed to slow before me. I saw the horrified faces of my classmates gradually shifting to bulging eyes and opened mouths. Regret soiled their faces for sticking around to see the show. My gaze moved from their faces as soon as I heard the thud of his body hit the earth.

Embarrassment spread through my chest and into my cheeks stinging with redness. I rushed over to him, kneeling down to see his face more closely, asking if he was okay. No response. The question came out so fast, I did not even stop to think why I wanted to know. The goal of my outburst was to scare him into stopping. Even though it had ended, I could still hear his words in my mind. He had etched them there to stay. The hurt he inflicted lingered, so why was the guilt of hurting him so instant and all consuming?

I did not have time to find out. A whistle blew and everyone headed back inside, running and chatting toward the doors—except me. I was slowly walking back to the building with my face sunken, eyes fixated on my shoes, where my gaze stayed throughout the rest of the day.

When bedtime came, I laid squished in between my collection of pillows, staring at the ceiling, going through my bully encounters for the day, thinking of minor adjustments—what I should have said, followed by endless questions of the meanings behind the words. Endless questioning of what would have been better for me to say. An infinite search of the meaning behind each word, each laugh.

The more I replayed it in my mind, the more I understood that the bully in this situation was me. There was no blue ladder in the darkness of my room. No sunshine to distract me from my pain. Nothing but thoughts I had held in throughout the day.

I had learned long ago not to cry in front of others. A foolproof plan to keep me from ending up with a wet face at school or unleashing my troubles to my mother, whom I couldn’t bear to tell. So, I tried to cry, something I hated doing. Crying was physical proof that I had lost, and the bully had won. It gave them satisfaction to know their words wounded me. Which is why I had learned to hold it in until I was alone in the dark, so that even I couldn’t see my tears.

I could feel the wrongness of my actions with my entire body, not only because I had been the bully as well as the victim—and still lost—but also because the dryness in my eyes kept me from letting out my feelings of frustrated confusion. The more I held in the sorrow, the less the tears came. Eventually they stopped coming all together, leaving me a bottle filled with the tears I refused to shed. So I let my lids droop and let the stillness of my room consume me into sleep, knowing that tomorrow I would have to start the battle again. Except this time I was determined to stay in the shadows where I belonged. Being a target suited me better. I was not fit to be a bully.

Julia Pritt is the daughter of an Army officer and Desert Storm veteran (father) and and an English professor (mother). She is a longtime member of West Virginia Writers, Inc., and she has served as an intern at their annual conference for the past five years. A West Virginia native, she has been winning awards for her writing and artwork since elementary school.

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