By Chloe Hollingsworth
When I attended North Hills “Christian” School, I was, by all accounts, a very strange child. Like many children – though this was never acknowledged – I had imaginary friends; I generally preferred the company of books to that of my peers; I had a sense of humor that others didn’t understand, or said was too “mature” for a kid of my age. At any given time, I could count the number of people at that school I called friends on one hand. The rest of my peers, and even some of the teachers, bullied me relentlessly, day in and day out, and this went on from the time I started preschool there to the time I finally escaped at the end of eighth grade; in light of this, and of the turmoil that characterized my home life, it’s no small wonder that I felt the need to keep largely to myself, to try to keep myself safe as best I could. The imaginary friends of my preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school years treated me better than almost anyone at school did. Middle school was even worse, and no one seemed to question whether my deep depression, hardcore goth phase, and plummeting grades were caused by the bullying I endured, by the fact that I was harangued about everything from my dark and curly hair to my sizeable vocabulary, by being called “witch, “vampire”, “demon”, “she-devil”, “monster”, “freak”, and so on every single day I went to school for as long as I could remember, rather than the other way around. It got exponentially worse when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder – wrongly, as it turned out, because apparently ADD, the onset of puberty, and a life chock-full of chaos look exactly like bipolar disorder to a psychiatrist who either doesn’t know what she’s doing, has a quota of prescriptions to fill, or both – because then they started calling me “crazy” and “psycho” and trying to trigger an “episode” in addition to everything else. I was bullied for sleeping in class, too, but sleeping in class was little more than a desperate attempt to escape my surroundings. Had it not been for the aforementioned handful of friends I had, I very well might have ended up on the national news for committing suicide, a sort of proto-Phoebe Prince.
Many times, I was either sent to Richard Porter’s office for having reacted badly to the ceaseless bullying, or I went up there myself to plead with him to make it stop. Each time, he made it very clear that he thought I was wasting his time. He told me I needed to “grow a thicker skin”. He often insinuated and sometimes said outright that it was my fault the kids (and some of the teachers, too) were bullying me, which is called “blaming the victim” in common parlance: they did it because I reacted, he said (never mind that I had already tried ignoring them, and all it did was make them try harder to get me to react, because it was like a game to them); because I wasn’t trying hard enough to be “normal”; because “kids will be kids”. He once tried telling me that Michael Jackson was bullied because of his high voice, and he went on to be a superstar, so all I had to do was persevere and I’d be just fine. It took all my willpower not to laugh in his face, knowing that Michael Jackson was an international superstar at the age of five, when all children have high voices, and the only person who could have been conceived of as bullying him was his father. Nevertheless, the parallel he accidentally drew between school bullying and domestic abuse was more accurate than he seemed to ever realize: both experiences scar the soul for the rest of one’s life.
In the seventh grade, I was sexually harassed by a group of four boys. It happened in Bible class – the very height of irony – and the teacher of that class watched it all from less than five feet away and did nothing, even when I begged him to make them leave me alone. After that class let out, those boys went on to our next class, P.E., loudly boasting about how they had humiliated me with descriptions of me and their ringleader engaging in degrading sexual acts and gotten away with it. I raced up to Porter’s office in tears and all but demanded that something be done. His response was to half-heartedly promise to deal with the situation and tell my parents to keep me at home the next day so I could “recover” – using that exact word, in the same manner you would when a kid has a bad cold. I went home that day with the distinct sense that he hoped I would get over it soon enough, just like every other time I went in and out of his office, for any reason.
The next day, as my friends told me when I returned, Porter went around to each class and explained to the students why they shouldn’t sexually harass students. According to every report I heard, he made no mention of the fact that it wasn’t what Jesus would do, but he made every mention of the fact that the school might get sued. Now, schools typically don’t get sued by the parents of victims of sexual harassment unless the administrators actively avoid rectifying the situation. Porter’s concern for the school’s finances, and not victimized students such as myself, made it clear to me that he was either too lazy or thought it too beneath him to actually deal with such a problem, or indeed any problem of harassment or bullying; his preferred method was to sweep it under the rug as soon as possible and pretend it never happened. (Of course, part of the problem in his mind might have been the fact that I was a girl. After all, it was well-noted that when students were caught engaging in sexual activity on campus – a blowjob in the parking lot, heavy petting in a janitor’s closet, whatever the case might have been – the boys involved might have gotten suspended, but the girls got expelled.)
I am far from the only former student of what I refer to these days as North Hell who was treated callously by Porter. I don’t have to think very hard to come up with a list of fellow North Hell survivors who have similar stories of him treating them as if the awful things they endured there didn’t matter, and in many cases, even forcing them to stay in those highly unsafe situations. Unlike me, some of them did attempt suicide as a result. To this day, I’m not sure why I never attempted it myself; I certainly thought about it several times a week, one of the myriad ways I fantasized about escaping North Hell.
When faced with an instance of bullying, Porter often liked to claim that there was nothing he could do to stop it. Meanwhile, in my freshman year at St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School, the bullying started up again there. It was quiet, most of it done on a now-defunct Internet forum and in whispers behind my back just close enough for me to hear, but I’d had enough for one lifetime already. I went to the then-dean of SPSV and explained the situation to him. His response was to promptly call in every student we knew had been doing it and tell them to either knock it off or get suspended – and if it happened again after that, expelled. If anyone ever said cruel things about me from that moment until the end of high school, I never heard a word of it. The same school that many teachers and administrators at North Hell loved to say was full of “false” Christians who were “idolatrous” and “no better than pagans” demonstrated more Christ-like love and compassion toward me than the so-called “Christian” “Family of Love” on Admiral Callaghan Lane ever did. Perhaps Dr. Porter should consider taking a few lessons from my former dean about how to handle cases of bullying before attempting to get elected to a school board.
Compassion for children, even “the least of these”, should be a prerequisite for being involved in their education in any capacity. Richard Porter has demonstrated time and time again that he does not possess this quality. Why, then, should he be given even more power over the children of Vallejo than he had before?
Note: All opinions expressed in the “Primal Scream” column are those of the writer and not necessarily those of the Vallejo Independent Bulletin.