I have had two physical fights in my teens years. One, classically and stupidly over a boy. It was oh so dramatically orchestrated on my part…I wanted it, invited it. The other, well, that one was born out of being bullied by a group of mean girls that I couldn’t avoid. I have had the recent occasion to time travel emotionally to a familiar place that I thought I was done with. A place where who I am, how I look, dress, speak, appear or emote is problematic and causes great angst. My presence is so challenging, in fact, that it led to me being bullied, again, at 48 (ain’t that some shit). This realization pulled me back to a very tender time in my development as a Black girl.
When I was 13, my parents divorced and we moved “home” back to New Bern, NC from Prince George’s County, Maryland where we had lived since I was 3 years old. New Bern is the place of my birth and the place of magical summers laced with playful times with more first cousins than I can count on two hands, trips out of the country and into more country, black dirt, the sweet smell of cured tobacco, mosquitoes singing in your ear as you fell asleep and Vacation Bible School. It is the place my ancestors have called home for over 7 generations so when my mother needed a soft place to land for herself and her girls, we moved. We arrived home and tried desperately to find a rhythm with fewer resources, a much smaller home and all the emotional baggage that kids of divorce often pack up and carry with them from one place to the next. The magic wore off and we were no longer the fun cousins from Maryland. We stood out. We stood out because we looked different, talked different (aka “like a white girl”), walked around looking like an ad for United Colors of Benneton—i.e. looking like a damn Skittle with leggings. In our own way, we gave our sweet Mother (Ibaiye) hell with side eyes, heavy sighs, muttering under our breath and the air of ” I really hate it here” pouring over into every conversation. She was doing the best she could on her salary as a registered nurse and we simply didn’t give a damn.
School was the worst.
After having spent a painfully awkward first year in junior high school in Maryland, I began my last year of middle school trying to balance being unique enough to be cool, but cool enough to be liked. It didn’t work. Her name was Jackie (not her real name) and she rolled with a cast of characters. She appeared to hate everything about me. My classic 80’s mushroom hair cut, my gold metallic leggings, my interchangeable crocodile knock off Izod Lacoste belt (in pink, green, gold, black and blue), my shoes, my voice when I participated in class—my very breath. It finally came to a head one afternoon while waiting to be called for our buses. She strategically sent over one of her minions to goad me. “Jackie thinks you’re a bitch”. I didn’t bite. She came back. “Jackie said your mama is a bitch”, to which I responded like any self-respecting almost 14-year-old would do…”tell her that I said her mama is a bitch”. Jackie’s carefully constructed rues came flying into effect. She sprang out of her seat and a screaming match ensued around who called whose mother a bitch then she did it. She spat in my face. Never mind that Jackie outweighed me by almost 45 lbs, my eyes saw red and I jumped on her. She proceeded to whoop my ass (I said I had two fights, I didn’t say I kicked anybody ass). Every time she slammed me into a desk, the floor or the divider that created the artificial lines of demarcation in our “pods”, I got back up and jumped on her again. I was like a dog with a bone. When we were finally separated by my mother’s high school classmate and taken to the office, folks were whispering around the school, “Billie and Jackie got in a fight. That Billie from Maryland is crazy”. Interesting sidenote….at that time in Craven County Schools, teachers and administrator could paddle a student to discipline them. When we arrived in the office, the principal announced his plan of corporal punishment in addition to 10 days suspension for a fight I didn’t initiate. I informed him that he would have to take that up with my mother and called her at work. I could hear the distinctive clip of my mother’s shoes as I waited in the principal’s office. She arrived both in a gust of fury and mama bear energy. The look on her face was a mix of “what the hell is going on” and concern. She was incredible. She informed the principal that in no uncertain terms that he DID NOT have her permission to paddle me, that I would not be suspended for something I didn’t start and that if he spit in my face, she expected me to knock the ‘shit’ out of him. It was magic. I tried so hard not to smile because I knew she would not be pleased with me, but I felt so loved, protected and seen in that moment. I felt like if anybody messed with me, they would have to answer to my powerful strong mother who sat across from the principal in her nurses uniform looking like a bad ass Florence Nightingale.
So, I feel like it is only fair that I come clean here and this is not easy. I have been a mean girl (and sometimes a mean woman). My mean girl mode was/is much more “nice/nasty” and less full on antagonizing from the inside looking out. I don’t perceive myself to be an aggressive mean girl or proactive calculated bully, but I have a mouth on me and my responses can be sharp and cut albeit laced with honey. As my godsister once reminded me, “sugar covered shit is still shit”. Part of my commitment to the full integration and healing of my avatars for my own liberation, has to do with owning all of who I am, light and shadow. To own and lean into my earnest desire to move from playing at being grounded, powerful, wise and gracious to really embodying those qualities. I also have to acknowledge that the mean girl who resides inside has even bullied me. Her whispers born out of fatigue and self-doubt digs up all the things that she knows will get under my skin and make me second guess myself—“who do you think you are? You will be found out soon enough. You are too brown, too curvy, too gray/old, too much to love…too Billie, too Omi”. When my inner mean girl meets up with adult mean girls in my waking work and community life well, you can imagine my conundrum. What to do? What is the opportunity…antidote?
That’s a hard question to answer right? At some basic ego-driven level you want to say f*ck it and have a “what the hell is your problem” screaming match, but that just is not positive and seriously, if something physical jumps off, I am liable to through my shoulder out trying to pop someone in the mouth. Real talk–the mean girl, the girl, the women who look like me deserve better. I deserve better. We deserve to be seen, held accountable, affirmed, protected and loved. We deserve that same kind of energy that my mother brought into the principal’s office. Energy that says, “I see you and you are not some terrible thing to be discarded or demonized. You are more than enough. You are smart, strong, courageous–divine and you have every right to be here, right now”. I want to apologize as a mean girl to all the sisters I have bullied in my own way. I want to say to the girls and the women who have bullied me, including myself; I forgive you. Each day is a new day to heal the tender places in my body that can awaken slowly— unexpectedly or are jarred out of their slumber. Each day is a new day to silence the ghost that feed the mean girls in our lives with poison and to replace the poison with compassion, truth and understanding. A few days after our fight, Jackie and I had the opportunity to sit down and talk (a request my mother made as a part of our punishment). Jackie expressed that she perceived me as being “stuck up” and I shared that I perceived her as being “hard”. We talked for about 30 minutes about what we hated about school, New Edition, boys and our principal’s odd body order. At the end of our conversation, she told me I had “heart” (aka I was crazy enough to keep jumping back on her when she was clearly getting the best of me) and I shared that I liked her laugh—it made me want to laugh too. We never became close, but we were cool enough to speak to show each other respect and to not get in each other’s way—and at the end of the day, sometimes that is more than enough.