Names have been changed as a long overdue gesture to protect the innocent.
If you could have peeked into the small window in the door of my seventh grade homeroom class, right away, without me telling you, you would have been able to spot the two kids I bullied. You'd see Donny Dizman with his very round close-shaven head in the days that boys were barely out of pompadours. He'd be looking down, rocking in his chair, rocking and rocking, and that's why I nicknamed him Dizzy. And you would have seen Emma Bontes with her wide back and grandmother-style breasts that rested on her desk because of her short torso. Then you'd find me, in pale pink lipstick, my frizzy hair still smelling of the home-straightening product that caused my hair to break off at the scalp, like split beginnings. I'd be craning my neck at them, looking for new material for my torch song. Tip Top bread had just put out a TV ad with a girl named Emily in it. Tip Top, I thought of Emma's breasts right away that made her lean forward even when she was standing.
"Tip Top and Dizzy were sweethearts," I'd belt out in recess, in the lunchroom, in the hallway. "Tip Top gave Dizzy some bread. Tip Top and Dizzy were sweethearts, when suddenly Dizzy said, 'I want your big tip tops, along with your bread.'"
It doesn't sound funny now, but to middle schoolers and with my Fanny Brice delivery, kids begged me to sing it. They would gather round me to listen, cheer me on. And the kids weren't the only ones listening. The teachers heard it too, but none of them told me to stop. In fact, what seems to be unbelievable now, I was once invited into the teacher's lounge to sing my latest Tip Top and Dizzy song for a couple of the staff. Attention from grownups was particularly heady for me.
Listen, you probably hate me by now, but I was a latch-key kid who couldn't join the school newspaper or be on any teams because I had to rush home after school to take care of my little brother, the "messiah" my mother finally gave birth to eight years after I was born. My parents worked seven days a week in their grocery in Arverne, the next two towns from where we lived in Far Rockaway. I was the third daughter born to a man who only agreed to have more children so that he could have a son, someone to say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead for him after he was gone. When I was born, my father said, "Another girl!" and lost his voice for six weeks. Even patches of his beard fell out. He could never remember what grade I was in and didn't know the name of even one of my friends. And my mother, with her bitter life of standing behind the counter in a damp grocery store on swollen legs wrapped in Ace bandages, her most endearing quality was sarcasm. There was a man on our block with bad teeth. "Eighty Green Teeth," she called him. She dubbed my aunt, who was chronically ill, "Sicky Picky."
Years later, when I brought home the 6'4" guy I was going to marry, she called him "The Human Stepladder," and made him climb up to the tallest shelves for things she didn't need. I'm embarrassed when friends tell me the noble things their mothers taught them. Mine said, "You don't like it, shit in your hat and punch it." If anyone, such as Donny or Emma's parents or especially a teacher had called my house to tell my parents what I was doing, my mother probably would have added lines to my Tip Top and Dizzy jingle herself. My father, a legal immigrant who was always afraid he'd be sent back to Russia if there was any trouble, would have given me one of his "beatings that I wouldn't forget." He had earned his money for his grocery by being a middleweight boxer.
As I belted out my Tip Top and Dizzy songs, I never once noticed if it made Donny rock in his chair more or if a tear rolled down Emma's cheek. I couldn't afford to. My attention deficit (not ADD) was as strong as a child with calcium deficiency who would suck on poisonous lead paint to get the nutrient he needs.
When I was 20, I was teetering through Washington Square Park on platform heels when I heard a man's voice scream, "Rochelle Shapiro!" I looked over my shoulder. It was Donny Dizman wearing a Greek sailor hat, a pea coat, and a murderous expression. He began running toward me, his hands in fists. I took off. I had to abandon my shoes to outrun him. Five blocks or so later, a doorman took mercy on me and let me hide, trembling, in the lobby of his building. At first, I was furious with Donny, then the stupid Tip Top song went through my head. I remembered him eating his lunch in class so he wouldn't have to go to the lunchroom and hear my song. I remembered him being late to class so that he didn't have to walk near me. With him bellowing my name, I felt just as helpless as he must have felt back then when I taunted him and he couldn't talk back.
When I could no longer hear him, I stepped outside and looked around. Even though I wasn't sure I'd ever feel safe again, that Donny might dart out at me from anywhere, I went outside and walked, barefoot on the dog-poop concrete (it was the days before poop scoop laws) to a store where I could buy a pair of sandals. My feet were raw, bleeding, but it didn't feel like enough of an atonement.
Recently I thought of looking up Donny and Emma on Facebook to ask for their forgiveness, but I can't face it.
If some adult had only sat down with me and gently explained to me the cruelty of what I was doing, I would have stopped bullying. Even today, when people say to me, "You're a good person," what I did to Donny and Emma comes to mind right away. We have to protect the Donnys, the Emmas, but we also need to keep in mind that the bully is wounded too.