Knowing Who You’re Not

I was thirteen when I found out that I apparently wasn’t who I thought I was.

I remember sitting in the dinning hall at summer camp, six to a table on picnic style benches, back to back with the half-dozen at the next table. The fork being dragged along my back, twisting into my bra strap, trying to get enough hold to release the elastic with a snap, was distracting me from my dinner.

Then, I heard it. The taunt, whispered so the counselors wouldn’t hear. “Surrey girls are sluts.”

I whipped around to face the girls, any advice about ignoring bullies gone from my memory. “Excuse me?”

I wish that I could say that my tone of voice shocked the girl into dropping her fork or something as theatrical, but I can’t. All it did was make her laugh.

“Surrey girls are easy.” Alice’s damned Cheshire cat had nothing on her smile. “Everyone knows it.”

She was clearly wrong on that one. The thirteen year-old who had never even kissed a boy when the deed wasn’t preceded by an “I dare you” – but was apparently the camp slut (her word) – didn’t know.

I couldn’t have possibly known that I was a slut since I, you know, I wasn’t. Thirteen year-old me didn’t have an issue with that word like the adult me does, but I knew that no matter its connotation, the meaning of the word could not have possibly applied to me.

That was only the first thing that my benevolent bullies taught me about myself that week. I also learned that my city was apparently one small change higher than pond scum on the evolutionary ladder. I learned that people from my city were all uncultured and ill mannered. I learned that we were ignorant and lazy. I learned that “the further you get from Vancouver, the worse you are,” as these girls put it.

But there was a flaw with their analysis. I wasn’t using utensils as teenage torture devices, calling others names, spreading rumours, or flirting with the cute guy from Chilliwack. They were.

And they were from Vancouver.

I could see the hypocrisy. I mean, if I was one step up from pond scum, I don’t even know what that guy from Chilliwack should have been according to their logic, but it couldn’t have been appealing. At any rate, I knew that they were full of it.

Were there rude, dumb, lazy people having a lot of sex in Surrey? Probably. But I wasn’t one of them, so I didn’t associate myself with their stereotypes. I had a hard time matching these generalizations with most people I knew, even as the negative comments came more frequently and from more prominent sources throughout the years. I knew who I was – or at least who I wasn’t – and I wasn’t going to change just because of their comments.

But I’d had thirteen years to figure out who I was without the influence of stereotypes in my face on countless mediums. Now, I’m not one to say that the media is wrecking kids these days, but I do sometimes wonder about the effects of its ever-present commentary. The news reports published before all the facts are in, the memes, the videos, and the social media posts, all with the potential to propagate stereotypes.

The teens I teach are bombarded with so many messages about where they’re from and what type of person grows up there that I worry they’ll start to embody the negativity.

But I stopped worrying a little today.

My school received some unexpected publicity. Negative things were said about the city, the school, and its students.

And the kids think it’s bullshit.

They don’t like how they’ve been presented; they don’t see themselves or their school in the same way that the outside world chooses to see them. They know who they’re not, and they figured it out in spite of constant media bombs trying to tell them otherwise.

Bullying may have moved from forks and camp dinning halls to social and mass media, but not everything has changed. Teens aren’t weak. They aren’t mindless and malleable. My job would be a lot easier if they were. But they’re their own people. They form their own opinions, and they might just give you a word or two about what they think of yours.

I just hope they do it in a way that makes somebody, somewhere, drop their fork.