David & Goliath
My grandfather, on my mother's side, immigrated to Canada from Italy in the 1950's. For years I thought I was Italian until one day my Mother explained that her real father (who was Danish) had died when she was seven and that Ralph was actually my grandmother's "companion". At seven I had no idea what a "companion" was, nor did I care. All that mattered was whether I would inherit his talent for cooking and gardening. As a child, Italy seemed like a mythical land filled with beautiful palaces and amazing desserts.
When I finally had the opportunity to visit the land of my adopted grandfather's birth, I made it a point to seek out all the places I'd heard about as a child. So it happened that while I was in Florence, standing in front of the statue of David, I was suddenly reminded of an episode in grade 9 when for three solid weeks I was bullied by a fellow student three times my size.
In the Old Testament, the story goes that David, who is just a boy, takes down the 6'9" Goliath with nothing but a sling shot after King Saul, supposedly over 6' himself, is too afraid to challenge the giant on his own. As I stood there examining the statue, I couldn't help wondering why Michelangelo had sculpted the boy to be so huge when Goliath was the giant? At 17 feet, David stands three times larger than an average man. Is his size a metaphor for his bravery?
Growing up, I never considered whether I was brave or not until the summer before my thirteenth birthday when my parent's separation marked me (at least in my mind) as an oddity. I was the first one I knew of to come from a broken home, and to me, this was a truly embarrassing fact. I was ashamed of what I perceived to be a major failure on the part of my parents, and worried that everyone would think less of me because of it. I wanted my family to be idyllic and though they were far from that, at least while we were all under the same roof, I could pretend. To save myself the embarrassment and shame of having to explain to kids I knew why I was no longer living at my old house on Belmont, and instead in an ugly apartment building across town, I opted to attend an all girl’s Catholic high school where I would be a complete stranger. For almost three months, I lied about where I lived. I pretended the apartment building I walked to every evening after school was where I babysat someone's kid. I never let on that my parents weren't together or that I was struggling with the reality that they were headed for divorce.
Catholic girl's schools, I soon discovered, harboured two types of young women. Those who longed for small classroom education among a female community of likeminded individuals, and those whose parents were forcing them to attend a school they hoped would reform them. Possibly attending Catholic school was a last resort ordered by the court. In any case, I was soon the target of gang terrorism brought about by answering questions in class – namely in English where I seemed to excel in understanding Shakespeare. Somewhere between The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet I became the object of abuse. Short and peculiar, I was an easy target for a small but imposing group of girls who were significantly bigger and louder. The leader of this particular gang of delinquents was an overbearing, unusually tall girl named Susan Podansky. Susan had thick brown curly hair and a large set of yellow teeth that filled her face when she smiled. Not that her smiles were warm and generous. When Susan smiled, there was foreboding in the air. She reminded me of the witch in Hansel and Gretel licking her chops as she prepared to eat everything in her wake. Her neck was thick, her hands were large and her voice was low. “Guess who’s going to die tonight?” she’d whisper in my ear as I scurried from Math class to Science. The whole time I was dissecting my frog I imagined my innards splayed across the grass beyond the school.
It occurs to me now, many years later and infinitely wiser, that there was nowhere for Susan and her gang to actually pommel me. The school was small and well supervised and the yard was too. Unless their aim was to be caught, there was no way they could beat me up and get away with it. At the time, this logic escaped me. Instead I cowered in classrooms, stayed late for extra help in things I was already excelling at, and volunteered for everything from library duty to bible study. If something needed to be scrubbed, painted, sorted or filed, I signed myself up.
There were rumours going around about Susan and her gang. They set fire to garbage cans. They stole from variety stores. One of them had a friend who’d been decapitated on the roller coaster at Crystal Beach. Each story was more shocking than the one before. What started out as careful avoidance, turned into full blown terror.
Ironically, I’d known Susan in grades 3 and 4 when I had attended Holy Family elementary. I was not Catholic, but the school was close to our house and my mother deemed it more convenient than the public school that was a good deal further away. My parents were never concerned about what rubbed off on us. During the day I learned about the Virgin Mary and the Holy Ghost and after school my mother played Rock and Roll albums and allowed me to read, Mad Magazine, and Creepy comics. Susan had been in my class back then. She was already bigger than the rest of us, but harmless. Once she even invited me to her house. I remember her mother was pleasant enough as she cooked something in the kitchen that smelled foreign and delicious. Most of the kids at Holy Family were Irish or Italian, but Susan was Polish. To me that made her exotic. But then again, I was the daughter of Wasps attending a Catholic school. Everything was exotic to me. In the two years we shared a classroom at elementary school, we’d never clashed. In fact, in a childish act of solidarity, we both called Mrs. Flint, a substitute teacher, Mrs. Flintstone behind her back and were called to the office. We were equally contrite and it was never spoken of again. What prompted this new vitriol, aside from a seemingly innocent love for Shakespeare, I’ll never know. Whatever it was, her threatening demeanour was scary and all consuming.
At home, my mother couldn’t help but notice that I was at school later than usual. I’d enter the hallway out of breath, eat dinner, then retreat to bed. After a week of this she coaxed the truth out of me with cupcakes and before I knew what I’d said, she was on the warpath. This was exactly what I didn’t want. I’d been warned by Susan that if I snitched on her, she’d make my life even more miserable. I begged my mother to leave it alone, but she was determined. Having lived with an abusive step-father for a time before Ralph, bullying wasn’t something my mother tolerated.
The next day I was called down to Sister Rita Mary’s office where two seats were arranged in front of her desk. I could see from half a mile away that large head of messy hair belonging to Susan. I timidly entered and sat down next to her. Sister Rita Mary smiled, “It’s come to my attention that there has been some nuisance between the two of you.”
Nuisance? Between the two of us? I could see where this was heading.
“It’s my belief that you just don’t know each other well enough, so my solution to this misunderstanding is to arrange for you to sit next to each other in all of your classes from now on.” Then, with a smile on her face she dismissed us from her office and closed the door.
Susan grinned, “This oughta be fun,” she announced. “Guess who’s gonna have a funeral?” And then she galumphed off to class.
Sitting beside Susan was excruciating. In math she broke my pencils. In English she poured ink on my assignment. But it was art class where she really crossed the line. I’d been working on a painting for several weeks and had almost completed my masterpiece when she and her gang “accidentally” spilled paint all over the canvas. “Oh, sorry!” she feigned, and then left me to absorb what had just happened while the teacher insisted I stay and clean up the mess. Two other girls in my class – Vicki and Sarah shook their heads in disgust. “This can’t continue.” they stated. “That girl has to be stopped.”
“I agree,” I muttered as I crawled about the class on my knees cleaning tempra paint off the floor, “But how?”
That afternoon at lunchtime the three of us hunkered down at a table in the cafeteria to eat. No sooner had we settled when Susan came bounding over, knocked my tray off the table proclaiming me a moron and warning, “Better watch yourself tonight.”
I could feel my face flush and the bile rise in my mouth. I’d learned one thing from comic books, and that was how things were never what they seemed. The meek were often strong. The strong were often scared and bullies could be undermined. Before I knew it, Sarah was standing.
“What did you say?” she asked her.
For a moment I saw Susan blanch. She was shocked. This was unexpected. All she could manage to say was, “What?”
“You heard her, " Vicki demanded, also now standing. They looked like two Davids' to Susan's Goliath.
"What's wrong with the baby?" Susan taunted, "Needs other people to stand up for her?"
"No," I said rising to my feet, "I can stand up for myself."
She hesitated. Everyone was looking at us. Even the lunchroom nun was staring in disbelief.
“You'd better watch yourself.” Susan growled just low enough for my table to hear.
“Or what?” I asked
Susan just stared at me.
“Or what?” I repeated, “You’ll kill me? Beat me up? Hit me? Bury me? Why wait until tonight? Come on. Get it over with. Do it. Come on. You want to hit me? Hit me.” I was on a roll. Words were ammunition from my slingshot and I was on the attack. Next thing I knew, Vicki and Sarah chimed in.
“Yeah,” they echoed, “You wanna fight? Let’s fight.”
Susan blinked. The cafeteria was eerily quiet. All eyes were on us.
“You’re not worth it,” Susan grunted, as she backed out of the lunchroom alone. And that, was the end of that.
For a moment, I felt 6' tall knowing that I had faced my biggest fear and somehow come out the better for it.
Vicki turned to me, "One Goliath down." she smiled. "Listen, I'm having a sleep-over this Friday. Ask your parents if you can come?"
This was the moment. If I could stand up to Susan, I would finally have the courage to say, "Just have to ask my Mom. My folks are separated."
I waited for the judgement that never came. Instead she simply said, "Cool. I'm adopted. Come by at 7:00."