I cut a bitch once.
And by "bitch," I'm referring to a ten-year-old boy.
It was 1990 at a small public elementary school in Newport Beach, California. We were in the fifth grade, seated in rows of school desks with faux woodgrain table tops. The metal feet of our chairs slid easily on the carpet's worn surface, and that particular day, two of my classmates decided that kicking my chair around during class was their activity of choice.
They were both boys. One of them, Ryan, was always messing with somebody or another. He wasn't the brightest student, though he was very devoted to his role as the Class Asshole. (Classhole?) He was the instigator on this particular day. The second boy, Loren, was a smart, nerdy, schlubby kid whose parents worked in brain research. He was sometimes the one being teased, so maybe he was eager to seize the opportunity to be on the other side of the equation.
I was a quiet student who followed the rules and liked to finish my work on time, not known for being a distraction in class. But this day, we had a substitute teacher. She didn't know us very well, and she was a stickler for the rules. The boys knew this and took full advantage of the situation. They kept waiting for her to turn her back to the classroom, at which point they'd kick my chair into the aisle between the desks. It was perfectly timed so that when she'd turn back to face the class my chair would be in motion, without any evidence of who'd done the moving. It looked like I was moving the chair myself, and our sub was becoming frustrated with me for causing a disturbance. Embarrassed and red-faced, I was too mortified to speak up and explain what was happening. No one else in class spoke up for me, either, though I'm sure it was apparent to everyone besides the teacher that I wasn't moving my own chair. The two boys thought it was hilarious, getting bolder in their timing, causing me to get in more and more trouble with the increasingly irritated teacher. I finally spoke, weakly, trying to explain what was happening. But it was no use. The boys denied it, putting on a believable show of innocence, and the teacher glared at me with intent. I felt abandoned, unprotected and unbelieved. The message was clear: I was alone.
It was time to take matters into my own hands.
Looking back now, it's not surprising that I would stand up for myself. I'm a do-it-yourself kind of girl. When I'm faced with an insurmountable problem, I find a creative way to solve it. When I was pregnant with our daughter, I became disillusioned with the hospital birth environment, so I changed course and hired a team of home birth midwives at 32 weeks along. When it came time for her to enter kindergarten, I toured a number of local schools and felt that the school system's reliance on standardized testing was damaging to a rich learning environment (plus I did my research and learned that an early emphasis on academics is bullshit), so I created our own private school in order to teach our kids at home. Later, dissatisfied with what our local homeschooling groups had to offer, I started my own.
And as a preteen in the 1990's, a time when multiple ear lobe piercings were the coolest, a girl I admired at school had two piercings on one side, and I was determined to have the same. My mom was a firm no on the topic, so I was left to contemplate a life with only one piercing in each ear. It didn't take long for me to decide that I would die if I couldn't have another piercing. So one morning I waited for her to leave for work, which gave me a short window of time to grab that particular bull by the horns. It took two ice cubes, a sewing needle, some rubbing alcohol, a strong will, and twenty sweaty minutes. But I prevailed, heading off to school that day with two piercings in my left ear, triumphant. Of course, it became infected almost immediately and I had to take out the earring so it could heal; but my mom got the message, loud and clear. Once it was healed up, she took me to get it redone by a professional (read: a slightly older teenager with a shitty mall job who'd been armed with a piercing gun and entrusted with the ear lobes of eager preteens). I also figured out how to get a tattoo without parental consent when I was sixteen years old. But that was a mistake: sixteen year olds aren't legally entrusted to make permanent decisions about their body for a lot of very good reasons, so I don't count that one as a win. Still, I'm very good at getting what I want if I've decided it's worthwhile, a trait that my friends and family have become all too familiar with.
But in 1990, none of those things had happened yet. Nobody knew what I was capable of, myself included. I was about to find out.
Looking around at my school supplies for something that could be weaponized, I didn't see much that could be of use. I eventually noticed that my pencil sharpener housed a tiny metal blade secured by two even tinier screws. Using the sharp end of my compass (which, in retrospect, would have made an excellent weapon), I turned the screws counter-clockwise to release the blade. I palmed it in my hand, waiting for the right moment. Adrenaline was pumping through my system. The next time one of the boys kicked out a leg to move my chair into the aisle once again, I would strike.
The teacher turned around to write on the chalkboard, and I knew what was coming. I didn't care which boy got it. Loren kicked out at the legs of my chair, and I struck like a rattlesnake. I sliced that bitch right in the thigh.
It wasn't much of a cut, because I didn't really want to hurt him. It was a shallow wound, not much worse than a fingernail scratch. But Loren reported me to the teacher, whose mouth dropped right open. She stared at me, unbelieving. She wasn't mad, exactly. But it was obvious that she Didn't Get Paid Enough For This Shit. At a loss for what to do, she sent all three of us to the principal's office.
I'd never been to the principal's office before, and I was terrified. I sat alone in a plastic chair while the principal spoke with the two boys, waiting for my turn. I was sure that I'd be sent home, or punished in front of the class, or otherwise reprimanded. But when my turn came to speak with the principal, he was kind to me. He asked me what happened, and once I had given him an honest account of the situation, he said that he was sorry that the substitute teacher hadn't kept the two boys from bullying me. He wanted me to think about my actions, emphasizing that violence is never the right answer, but that was all. He sent me back to the classroom to finish the rest of the school day. I left his office in shock, having expected something much worse.
As for the two boys, they'd both been sent home with an assignment: to think about what they'd done, and then write a one-page paper about why they shouldn't have done it.
Justice had prevailed.
I was incredibly lucky that I'd had such an understanding principal. As a modern parent with children in a public elementary school, it amazes me that an incident involving a razor blade (even a pathetically small one) didn't result in a suspension or even an expulsion. It happened just four years before the Zero Tolerance policy was signed into law in 1994 by Bill Clinton as part of the Gun-Free Schools Act. Nobody knows whether or not the policy has been effective at preventing school violence; but it's been very effective at causing students to drop out of school at higher rates and contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. It's been wonderful for disproportionately punishing black, Latino, and other children of color (especially when the police are called by the school). It's also been great for meting out harsh punishments for laughably minor incidents. A second-grader was suspended in 1997 because the pocket watch she brought to her school in Alexandria, Louisiana had a tiny 1" knife attached to it. It had been her grandfather's, and she wanted to show it to her classmates. In 1996, an 11-year-old girl was arrested and suspended in Columbia, South Carolina because she had packed a knife in her lunchbox so she could cut some leftover chicken with it. The girl brought it to her teacher's attention because she hadn't wanted to get in trouble. That same year, a 13-year-old in Humble, Texas was suspended for bringing a bottle of Advil to school. It was found in her backpack by a drug-sniffing dog while she was in gym class. She was an honor student. Also that year, a 14-year-old was expelled for "distributing drugs" after she gave her friend a Midol tablet. The friend who'd received the tablet was suspended for nine days, though it was only recorded in her permanent record as a three-day suspension because she agreed to go to drug counseling. Midol contains caffeine and acetaminophen. More recently, in Loveland, Colorado a seven-year-old boy was suspended in 2013 for throwing an imaginary grenade on the school playground. He was pretending to be a hero and "tossed the nonexistent weapon at imaginary evil forces in a box in order to save the world." He didn't actually throw anything. Earlier that year, a five-year-old girl was suspended in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania for talking about shooting her friends with a toy princess Hello Kitty bubble gun. She was suspended for ten days, though the school later shortened it to two, downgrading the offense from a "terroristic threat" to a "threat to harm others." She'd told her friends at recess, "I'll shoot you, you'll shoot me, and we'll all play together." She was waiting for the bus after kindergarten; she didn't have the toy with her at the time.
Considering that I actually cut someone with a real blade, it's astounding that I wasn't suspended or worse. According to the California Department of Education's Expulsion Matrix, I easily could have been expelled. I still feel shame about it, and I sometimes wonder about the boys who were involved. Did it leave a scar? Did they talk about me afterward? Do they even remember me at all? What did their parents think? Did Loren cry when he went home that day? I remember Loren as the Bitch Who Got Cut. But does he remember me as The Bitch Who Cut Me?
I'll never know, but I'll tell you one thing: nobody ever kicked my chair again.