All that stuck to my mind was, I wasn’t a likeable human, and if I wasn’t careful, I’ll get beaten up for being me.
Many things trigger me on the Internet, and usually I stay away when they come, or keep quiet, or try not to see it or talk about it. I call it a trigger fast. #Justiceforsylvester got to me deeply. This one triggered me, and I’ll be having nightmares of being back at high school, having that hollow dark feeling follow me into my waking moments, resitting and failing exams, if not for the sleeping meds I’m on.
I’ve talked about the effects of bullying on one of my vlogs. It was mostly directed to parents, families and care givers on what to notice when their child was being bullied. What to do, how to help. Today I feel a compulsive urge to share a personal bit.
It was 1999, we just moved from Lagos to Ijebu-Igbo, because my father got the call, from God, to go found a church there. I didn’t really notice I didn’t have friends till my brother died. It was just after primary school. He was 10. It was hard taking in his death, we had sibling rivalry and I thought it meant I hated him and therefore my hate killed him. There was no grief counselling back then. No one to tell me I was wrong, till I started therapy years later.
As a result of this whole event, I got into JSS1 three weeks late into the term. I started getting popular for being able to answer questions in class, that kind of stuff. And at the end of that term, I came first in class. At the beginning of the next term, teachers went on to use me as the model kid for the rest of my classmates, never letting my peers forget I was better than them; resuming 3 weeks into the term and still thrashing their ass. I didn’t realise that it was a set up. Or not. That was when I really started noticing I didn’t have friends. You see, my brother had always been my cover, my big bro, my protector, so he let me share his friends. So it didn’t help that being on my own, I’ll spend all break time crying behind the class building, or in the toilet, writing poems and singing mournful songs about him. About how tense it was at home. I was a pretty weird kid, no doubt.
My life was a real life story from all episodes of 13 Reasons Why on Netflix. The nasty rumours? They were endless. I had a cousin join the school who I was close to. They said we lied about being cousins as an excuse to sneak around to have sex. Minus the molestation, I gave myself the target of leaving high school without a boyfriend or losing my virginity, yet, still in my corner of the world, I was the biggest school slut. The number of boys who’d claim to have gotten into my pants? A lot. I couldn’t even let myself get too close to a boy so they won’t start another rumour. How hypocritical I was acclaimed to be? How could I be a preacher’s kid and know all the lyrics to Beyoncé or backstreet boys. How dare I love circular music! I was a fake!
The loneliness did something to my brain, to my soul. The sting of betrayal. When you finally think you have a friend but they switch to the other side and start bullying you too. I’ll get super excited when I found someone who genuinely liked me but somehow, they’ll hear a rumour of something really bad I said about them and they’ll cut me off coldly. Why did people hate me to the point of sabotaging my life this much? Why did they dedicate their lives to me being alone? I couldn’t sit with them, with anyone. I wasn’t as cool as them. I was the nerd who represented the school in competitions all the time and usually brought home the prize. I read all of Shakespeare work by the time I was 13, and won best student in something every term, especially English and literature. I carried the dictionary around and learned a new word everyday that I’ll happily use on everyone. It was something I learnt from one of the seniors I liked who stopped liking me. So maybe I was indeed being too much of a nerd. They’ll fling my books and bag across the room, or into the garbage. They’ll hit me with their shoulders when they pass by me, slam whatever I was carrying in my hands to the ground. They’ll laugh when I walked into the classroom. This loud wicked cackle. They’ll use my sweater or jacket to clean the black board. They gave me horrible nicknames over the tiniest thing. The first one ever was “Lagos girl”. I was a popular stench. I was a crime.
All that stuck to my mind was, I wasn’t a likeable human, and if I wasn’t careful, I’ll get beaten up for being me. And I did get beat up. Over my sharp mouth. I wore a scarf the whole week at home so that no one would notice my swollen head. The craziest part was, it wasn’t just my peers, many teachers didn’t like me too! I’ll get punished for wearing “adult looking earrings” I used to wear my sisters jewelries and some of the female teachers had the same types. I was a regular topic in staff room because they always heard rumours about me and gobbled them up as fun. I’ll get sent to the staff room or principal’s office, because my socks were longer than usual or my hair was not neat enough. I had colour-4 looking natural hair and they always called my hair dirty. I started having stretch marks at 11 or so, they’ll laugh at my dirty skin, they said it was all the sleeping around that caused it. I wore a skirt way below my knees to save myself the stares.
I wasn’t invited to a lot of school parties. All I knew was school and home. Daddy was strict on that so it didn’t help. I had one teacher though, Mr. Ashaye. If he wasn’t older he’ll have easily been my best friend. He was the English teacher, a gentle soul. He’ll shield me as much as he could, and when I got into senior class, he pushed me to be the library assistant/prefect. I’ll spend break time in the library and read. I read a lot. He gave the compilation of all works of Shakespeare to read. He was just so kind, he never let my sparkle die. I’ll never forget that.
The greatest embarrassment I had to face, was at graduation, when i thought it’ll be over. I was going on 15, I still had a lot of that bubbly spirit left, I was ready to go off and study law. Be a justice fighter. I had my name on a lot of prizes and I was supposed to be the valedictorian. But it became like a nightmare, except it was real. The school owner called me out on the stage, welcomed me, introduced me. Then he proceeded to publicly shame me in front of the graduating set, students, parents. He said I was rude, a truant, and didn’t respect the value the school stood for, all through the time I was there… especially for wearing the wrong colour of suit to graduation and so I didn’t deserve to get any prizes. Not for all the school trips I’ll go on, all the quiz competitions I won, the one I froze mid-debate speech and beautifully recovered from and still came in second. He said I didn’t deserve any accolades, and he sent me off the stage and off the school premises, everyone booed me out. I wasn’t even 15, and I was a pariah.
My bullies sent me off into the world, feeling like everything was wrong with me, I was the reason I couldn’t be loved, and that I deserved every bad day of my life. They reinstated in my mind over and over again; nobody will ever love you. I asked someone after graduating, why he thought everyone didn’t like me. He said it was because I spoke too much English, and acted like I better than everyone else. I was an “ITK” (I too know) and nobody liked a show off. Having an out of body experience for me was as basic as looking at how people saw me, didn’t like me, and how I saw me, and saw a cute girl that should get a lot of love. I could not reconcile myself with who I was and what was being said about me. My mind was split. Was I seeing myself wrong? If a whole lot of people said I wasn’t loveable, then there definitely must be some truth to it! I deeply wanted to belong. To be loved. Even bad people get loved. Even if I was bad, was I that bad? Was there nothing redeemable about me? But I survived.
I spent years in university trying to shrink myself. Trying not to be identified as the nerd. Trying to people-please my way to acceptance. Trying not to relive the agony. I didn’t escape successfully. I still got my ass thrashed by several group of girls several times before my 4 years of university elapsed. You see, in my search to belong, I constantly inserted myself into spaces I didn’t fit, pretended I fit, and acted like I fit. Of course it wouldn’t work. I was awkward af. But I survived then too.
I didn’t take my own life like Hannah did even though it was my utmost desire in life everyday. None of the beatings could have led to death like poor young Sylvester. But I didn’t know that it’ll be among the traumas I’ll have to face for the rest of my life. That I’ll be spending hours in therapy just getting told over and over that nothing was fundamentally wrong with me. That I’ll be hoarding validation everyday of my life and maybe I’ll die if I didn’t get it. That sometimes life is cruel and your pure soul can get tainted and crushed by it, even if you didn’t do anything to deserve it. That people project their unhappiness and trauma on to people with my personality type. That my happiness could be seen as annoying. That I could one day get over my social anxiety, and social maladjustment. That I don’t have to be an extrovert or performative, and it’s okay too if people don’t like me.
I’m relearning what friendship could be like, how to give love and receive love without fear of betrayal, rejection or abandonment. I’m learning how to not only survive, but to thrive.