Kathleen Irene Paterka
When the Teacher is the Bully
“You Are Such a Mess!” I was only 13, a freshman in high school, when my gym teacher hissed those words in my ear. We were alone in the hallway outside the auditorium. I was mortified by what she said. But technically, she was right. I WAS a mess. I was the fat girl, and my teenage years were horrible, especially the hours I spent in gym class. Since puberty I’d been gaining weight fast (I graduated from high school at 300 lbs.), and gym class was torture. My ugly blue gym uniform strained and bulged at the seams, and I was always the last girl picked to be on a team. I was clumsy and awkward, and to say I was socially inept would be an understatement. Plus, I had a nasty habit of biting my fingernails. They were always bleeding.
Yes, I was a mess. A clumsy, nervous mess. And my gym teacher wasn’t helping the situation. All the other female teachers in our school were nuns. Then there was our gym teacher: a tall, thin, strikingly beautiful woman who sailed through the halls of school with a confident air of self-assurance that left me quaking in my size 10 shoes. Normally this powerful woman ignored me, but today for some reason, she’d zeroed in on me in class, giving me (me!) the task of taping posters up directly outside the gym. Now she’d come looking for me, wanting to see if I was finished.
But I hadn’t even started. How could I?
“What’s taking so long?” she demanded. I hung my head and didn’t answer. She grabbed my hand, saw my fingers, chewed down to the quick. Suddenly it was obvious why I hadn’t hung the posters. I had no fingernails to peel back the tape. She tightened her grip, shook my fingers in my face. “Just look at what you’re doing to yourself!” she jeered. “You are such a mess. What is the matter with you?”
“What is the matter with you?”
Fast forward fifty-plus years. Things are different, now I’m an adult. Obviously, I look different. Some of that is due to significant changes I made in my life. I quit biting my nails shortly after graduation; those extra pounds melted away while I was in college. Today I’m at a normal weight, and my clothes always fit. When it comes to my clothes, I’m very particular, insisting that the colors match, that everything fit and look just right before I leave the house. I suffer from low-grade anxiety, and wearing nice clothes help soothe my spirits. My clothes protect me like a suit of armor. “Imposter Syndrome” is a very real phenomena in my world. That feeling of doubting myself; that dreadful despair of knowing I can never hope to measure up to other women; that no matter what I do or how hard I try, how successful I am, I will still always be a fraud.
It’s not true, of course… and you’d think I would have learned that by now. At my age, I should have conquered all my irrational fears. And I do try, I really do. Most days, I’m successful. Some days are better than others. But it’s taken lots of hard work, and years of therapy to combat the low self-esteem forever lurking in the background. To this day, if someone pays me a compliment, I am quick to brush it aside. Especially compliments from other women. I’m never quite sure I should trust their flattery. Do they mean what they’re saying? Or are they saying one thing and thinking the opposite? Are they making fun of me?
“You are such a mess.” My gym teacher’s words were a faint hiss in my ear, but some days they still reverberate loudly inside my head. What was she thinking, saying something like that? Was she having a bad day, and just decided the hell with it, unleashing her frustrations by dumping on me and saying what she really thought? And why would she do that? Our teachers are meant to serve as role models. They help us learn, inspiring us to be the best we can.
But the only thing this woman taught me was to watch my back, to keep my guard up. Her words were vicious and cruel, and I’ve never forgotten them. And when the voices grow too loud, I remind myself that she was nothing but a bully. My writing has been very helpful in combatting anxiety. I also sometimes channel her bullying, and use it when I'm writing about particular nasty characters. It's easy to write about a bully when I think of my gym teacher.
For today, I remind myself, there is absolutely nothing wrong with me. I am doing the best I can, just like everyone else. And that’s all any of us can ask of ourselves, isn’t it? To do and be the best we can be, on any given day. Just for today. And that includes my gym teacher. I googled her before I sat down to write this piece. At the ripe old age of 89, she’s still alive. I hope she’s no longer bullying people. I hope no one is bullying her. And I hope she’s found some peace in her life. As for me, I’m living my life one day at a time, and doing the best I can.
And I am not a mess.