06/05/2013 05:43 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2013

Bullies and Bras

In America, I have noticed, bullying is generally thought of as something that happens between kids -- in the school yard, online... basically, in places where adults aren't around. But when I look back on my own experience as a child and pre-teen who was bullied after moving here from another country, it occurs to me that the adults in my life -- even those who loved me -- played a part in it too, whether subtly or directly. I'm not trying to point a finger or lay blame; certainly I think (or at least I hope!) these adults didn't mean to hurt me. But their naivete, and also their attempts to keep me naïve, only fueled my abuse, and sometimes I just want to reach back in time and say, "What were you thinking?!" Since that's not an option, I'll simply share my experience and thoughts, with hope that it will help others not make the same mistakes the adults in my life did -- and spare some kids the pain I went through.

In the late 1960s, when my family moved from Aleppo, Syria, to a suburb outside of Detroit, I was the only person in my class who was dark haired and spoke no English (only French and Arabic). Desperate to fit in to this new culture I understood almost nothing about, I counted on others to teach me -- and was gullible when it came to listening to them. One day, sitting in my fourth grade classroom, I had to go to the bathroom, but I still wasn't sure how to ask. Another girl saw me squirming, and she whispered to me what words to say. Relieved and grateful for the help, I raised my hand.

The teacher -- not my regular teacher, but someone new who didn't realize I spoke virtually no English -- called on me. "S'il vous plait," I said, "jump out the window!"

The kids around me snickered. The teacher frowned. "What?" she said.

I repeated what I thought I was asking -- please, I need to use the bathroom.

Again, the kids laughed -- louder this time. The teacher began to grow angry.

I asked again, increasingly desperate. Once more, the same thing happened. Finally the teacher, red in the face, ordered, "Go to the principal!"

That I understood. Sad and frustrated, I stood up to obey -- and the floodgates opened. I pissed my little pants running out of the room, the puddle of pee following me straight to the bathroom as the laughter of kids echoed after me.

The school called my mother and told her I'd had an accident; when she arrived -- thinking, not surprisingly, that I'd broken a limb or needed to be hospitalized (I was completely accident prone as a child )- -she was so surprised I'd only peed myself that she laughed, then hugged and kissed me with relief. But for me, of course, it was no laughing matter. I was called pissy or piss pants throughout the whole next school year.

When something as traumatic as this happens to a kid, she just wants to forget about it -- to put it behind her and move on. I know I did. But for some reason, my parents thought it was cute and funny to bring it up once in a while -- as did, even worse, my regular teacher, using me as an example of why it's important to learn to communicate properly. "Remember when Rayya had an accident in class because she couldn't ask nicely for what she needed?" she'd ask, launching into a lecture on how to request something politely. I don't think she was being intentionally vindictive any more than my parents were trying to be mean, but her reminder to the class only made me relive the whole horrible incident -- and renewed it in the minds of my classmates, who then teased me anew for days.

The following year -- late in fifth grade -- I got my period. I was busting out all over by then, but no one in my family seemed to notice. My mother was never eager to get me into a bra or have the period or sex talk with me; in Syria, the culture had been much more closed off, and girls never really asked about sex until they were ready to get married, or close. Even at puberty most girls were told that it was a hormonal change that happened, which allowed you to have babies, but not much more because premarital sex wasn't ever on anyone's radar. My mother had been raised with "good manners," and she was shy about that sort of thing; even my sister, seven years older than I was, didn't really talk to my mother about these things. What's more, I was the youngest of four, not to mention a girl, and I'm sure my mother wanted to keep me innocent as long as possible. The result was that I knew almost nothing about puberty or reproduction, and all the other girls I knew did. And I didn't have a bra. And I needed one.

So one day, as I walked home on the periphery of a group of cool girls, the blonde haired, blue-eyed ringleader, Pam, looked at me and said, "Do you know where babies come from?"

By this time I was picking up English pretty well, although I still had a heavy accent. "Yes," I said.

"Where?" She turned to face me, her blue eyes glinting.

"I know," I said. "Do you?" I knew by this time not to let my vulnerability show at any cost.

Pam laughed. "She doesn't know," she said to her friends.

"Well if you know, why don't you tell us?" I retorted.

"They come from your vagina," she sneered.

I must've looked like a puppy with his head half-cocked while he listened to a strange sound. I knew that this word meant my private part, but not much else.

They all started laughing. "Your V-A-G-I-N-A," Pam said, in such a cloying, high-pitched voice that I wanted to reach over and crush her vocal chords. "And why don't you wear a bra?" she continued. "Can't your mom see that you need one? Oh wait, that's right, you're still pissing your pants!" Everyone laughed. "Maybe you're too young for a bra, big bananas!" she said.

The name stuck. That's who I was until the end of junior high: Big Bananas.

But when I went home and told my mom that I needed a bra, she and my sister gave me patronizing looks. "Oh habibity (my love), you're still too young for a bra," my mother said.

"Mom, they're calling me Big Bananas!"

"That's because they're jealous of your beautiful body." She smiled lovingly at me.

Why is this so often the answer from parents when their kids are being picked on or bullied? I guess Psych 101 would teach us the answers if we took the time to break it down and think it through, but when you're a kid, that's not what you need. You need your parents to hear you. To listen. These kids already thought I was a freak from a freaky family that ate weird stuff and dressed undeniably strange. Now, on top of that, my mother wouldn't listen when I said I needed a bra? Maybe parents can't bear to think of people actually hating their kids, or even being mean to them. Maybe it's simply an unbearable thought, but it happens, I can assure you.

I cried and begged until she gave in. One afternoon, when I came home from school, she called me into her room upstairs. She unwrapped the bra from the tissue around it and handed it to me. "Here you go Rayya, your first bra," she said. "Try it on and let's see if it fits."

It was black, which I thought was super cool. I quickly ripped off my shirt and tried it on. It fit perfectly. I looked at myself in the mirror that sat on her dresser and twirled around, elated. This is it, I thought. They can't make fun of me now. I have a cool new bra that fits my boobs.

My mom was welling up, filled with emotion at giving me this simple and fundamental article of clothing. "Do you like it?" she asked.

"Yes, Mom! Thank you! I love it." I fell into her with a big bear hug. "But why are you so sad?" I asked, after a moment.

"Because this is it, habibity. You are now a woman."

Although I loved how grown up this sounded, it made me very nervous. If being a woman meant babies and vaginas, then I wanted no part of it. "Mom, do babies really come out of your vagina?" I quickly asked, feeling that this was the perfect moment.

She let go of me. "Who told you this?" She looked stunned and accusatory.

"Pam Madlock," I said.

My older sister happened to walk into the room at that moment, and the glance that she and my mother exchanged was secretive and conspiring. "Who is this Pam Mad...?" my mother asked her.

"She has two older sisters, in junior high and high school," my sister said.

"Is it true?" I asked. "About babies and your vagina?"

"No!" my mother said, after a moment. "Of course not! Babies grow in your stomach."

She said this matter-of-factly, and then she got up and left the room, my sister trailing behind her.

And that was it. There was no sex talk or explanation about my anatomy to enlighten me so that I didn't have to look like an imbecile at school. By trying to keep me young -- for myself or for her -- my mother did me an enormous disservice. She kept me naïve. Stupid.

I was briefly bummed out, but then I remembered and cheered up fast: I still had my beautiful black bra. I set it on my dresser as if placing it on an alter. My sister moved it to my dressing chair, but I kept moving it back to the dresser, where I could see it through the mirror as I lay in bed.

The next morning couldn't come fast enough. I jumped out of bed and put on the outfit I'd already picked out, my beautiful black bra underneath. Then I left the house with a skip in my step that I hadn't felt before. As I walked up to the group of mean girls at the playground, I was smiling like times just got better.

"Look, she's not bouncing today," said Lori, one of the girls who tormented me on a daily basis.

"Your mom finally bought you a bra?" said Pam. "It's about time, big bananas!" They all laughed.

"I can see your bra through your white shirt," said Lori. "Is it black?"

I was so excited that I shook my head yes.

They all broke out in laughter. "Your mom bought you a black bra?" sneered Lori. "Doesn't she know black bras are for hookers?"

I wasn't sure what a hooker was, but judging from the waves of laughter that broke out, I was certain it was nothing good. Plucked to the core, I walked away as fast as I could. Nothing made sense. I loved my bra, but now I wanted to rip it off.

When I got home that day, I lied and told my mom that the bra hurt me, and could she please get me a different kind -- a white one, because I didn't like the color showing through my blouses. She blinked, surprised, then said, "Sure. Okay." And that was the end of my beautiful black bra.

Looking back, I realize there are worse things in life than being teased or bullied as a kid. But not many. Besides causing turmoil, humiliation, and pain, these incidents leave an imprint on how we relate to people, who we trust and how open and vulnerable we can be in relationships. People I know who were bullied live with it forever; they never fully forget it.

I don't have children myself, and I know I never will, but if I did (as with my sister's kids), I would tell them exactly what they need to know about themselves and the world, in as timely a manner as I could -- and even sooner, if they happen to ask. My kids would have an arena to discuss situations with me, and I would encourage them to talk out their problems and try to understand their position. I would not tell them how they should feel or do feel, but instead would let them tell me. It may not stop them from being bullied at school, but at least they'll know they have a safe place at home where people would listen and take them seriously. Is this easier said than done? Probably.