Not long after I started at a new school in the 4th grade, I became the target of bullies. I walked the few blocks to and from school and a group of kids, small at first, began following me home. The boys would walk at a distance behind, talk at me and call me names. Girls joined in. Soon they added tossing small rocks in my direction, not quite hitting me. The more I ignored them, the worse it got. Eventually the rocks came harder and the bullies got bolder, got closer, and started putting their hands on me. They had a favorite grass hill, out of sight of the school, where they could shove me off the sidewalk and watch me tumble. When I finally got scared enough to tell, my grandmother came to school every afternoon and waited to walk me home. At the end of that semester we moved and I began yet another new life.
Fast forward 40 years. Last week I was in the lounge at the gym, reading the paper before working out, when a woman I don’t know very well sat down and started railing about the election. Our inept president and his wasted stimulus package! Freeloaders taking advantage of the system and getting healthcare! Bootstraps! She kept on and when I didn’t respond she leaned in and said with condescension, Don’t tell me you support Obama. Do you know what he’s doing, running up the debt? Do you want to live in a socialist country? My husband’s a doctor and Obama is going to ruin our lives. You know he’s going to drain your bank account, right? I tried ignoring her. She got louder, more condescending. I finally put down the paper and left, with her still talking, and me feeling bullied right out of my chair. Bullied not for the first, or the last, time this election season.
I find myself wondering what my reaction could have been, what I could have said. Maybe I could have started with yes, I support the President and I supported TARP and the auto bailout and I’m glad the people who work for those auto companies still have jobs. Or maybe that I am a patriot who tries not to cry every single time I hear the national anthem and God Bless America, not matter who’s singing. Or that I support Obamacare because I grew up without healthcare and did not have my first physical or go to the dentist until I was in my 20′s and I remember what it feels like to be in constant fear of a broken arm or bad flu. That I’m thankful for Planned Parenthood, who gave me a free exam and birth control pills when I was 16, no questions asked. That for a number of personal reasons I can’t relay in a soundbite, I believe in gun control and equality and gay marriage and stem cell research and a woman’s right to choose, whatever her choice. That my single mom and I were once those “freeloaders” who needed social services and food stamps, for which we were both thankful and embarrassed. That I was the girl who quit the basketball team and cheerleading before the season started, not because I was too cool (as the bullies said) but because our bank account could not afford the uniforms and my teenage self would have died if anyone knew that. That I am eternally grateful to the anonymous family who used their bank account to pay my private high school tuition, including books, for 4 years running, without ever once meeting me or asking to see my grades (which were often dismal) — I believe these people saved my life. That even though I can now afford this fancy gym membership, I remember how impossible it is to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you can’t afford boots.
We all have our life experiences, and those experiences shape our politics. I am comfortable with my belief system. I read the daily news. I read Maureen Dowd on the left and Peggy Noonan on the right. I follow local, state, and national policy. I feel informed. Taunting me and talking down to me do not further my understanding. Taunting me and talking down to me make me afraid. I feel the rocks. I fear what will happen when we get to the grass hill. And my grandmother is no longer here to walk me safely home.