She knows what it’s like to be at the bottom.
The bottom of a flight of stairs in a snowstorm at a swanky ski town school in Colorado.
The bottom of the school’s social hierarchy as the odd hick in cowboy boots whom no one talked to and no one saved from the boy who pushed her down those stairs.
The bottom of the heap, when no one helped her across the snowy field to the school office, her ankle broken and so swollen and painful by then that her boot wouldn’t come off.
The bottom, when all she wanted was to disappear.
“All I wanted,” she said, “was to die.”
She was 11.
Think of that. Such a young age, and the world was already a dark place devoid of hope, of a belief that it gets better, of trust that the bullies will stop.
Vivian McAlexander is 54 now, and the bullies have never stopped.
But it did get better – because she got stronger. Because she didn’t disappear. Because she didn’t die.
McAlexander, who lives in Socorro now, recently wrote a letter to the Journal after reading about last month’s suicide of Carlos Vigil. Vigil was a 17-year-old Los Lunas boy who seemed to have found a way to rise above the bullies who had tormented him since he was 8 over how much he weighed, what glasses he wore, what lunchbox he carried and whom he loved.
But the hurt that he carried, that he railed against at a youth government conference in North Carolina just a week before he took his life, had finally been too much.
“I’m sorry for not being a person that would make someone proud,” he posted on Twitter on the day he committed suicide. “I’m free now.”
McAlexander read those words, and an old familiar feeling washed over her.
It felt like the bottom.
“Maybe I could have helped him,” she wrote. “Maybe with this letter I can help someone else contemplating such a terrible act.”
We talk on one of her good days, just after she has finished a New York Times crossword puzzle. She finds joy in little pleasures like that, but she knows it wasn’t so long ago when nothing felt joyous.
“They keep wanting to destroy you,” she said of those childhood bullies, many of whose names she still knows. “You feel helplessness. Nothing gives you joy. You feel you will never be happy, that your spirit is broken, raped.”
She was an only child whose father’s jobs as a mining engineer and federal mine inspector took the small family to a variety of towns in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. Some of the kids in some of the towns were more welcoming than others of this booted tomboy outsider; others were downright cruel.
Teachers were sometimes just as bad, never bothering to stop the abuse, she said. One teacher warned her never to take off her boots in class (she hadn’t planned on it) or she’d kill them all with her stench; another chided her for always wearing pants and threatened to show up at her home to put a dress on her, she said.
“It got to where I was afraid to go to school,” she said. “I wanted to die. It broke my spirit.”
McAlexander’s family later moved to Reno, Nev., where she found a friendlier, more open-minded community. She lived there for the next 23 years.
That, her parents’ constant love and support and her own ability to look one of her tormentors in the eye and defiantly fight back – in this case with a soda poured onto the bully’s lap – saved her.
In 1993, she moved to Socorro and a venue that had once caused her such pain: school.
“I loved teaching,” she said of her job at Socorro High School. “I never missed a day there.”
About two years into teaching, she was confronted by what she called a bunch of gang-bangers, one of whom threatened to shoot her.
The threat incited flashbacks to those bullying days and tossed her back to the bottom.
“I found myself at a place I thought I had left long before,” she said.
And then she found herself at the railroad tracks, preparing to hurl herself in front of an oncoming train.
“I realized those scars were deeper than I thought,” she said. “And then I realized that I was better than that.”
That was in 1995. Thanks to therapy and contemplation, and she’s not had a suicidal thought since.
Which is not to say she doesn’t have hard days. She is on disability with a back injury that limits her ability to walk. She lives with her mother and a pet Chihuahua. She lives with the reality that life is not always easy, but it is hers.
“I have faith now that I’m not going to give up the ship,” she said. “I’m too much of a fighter. I’m the victor, not the victim.”
Platitudes aside, she said she wishes she could have helped Vigil but hopes she may in some way help others like him who find themselves at the bottom because she is proof that it’s possible to climb back.
She asks those who see bullying, especially adults, to step forward to stop it and to reach out to the child who is belittled.
And she asks those at the bottom to take one step up at a time. Because there is an “up.” There is hope. There is something better ahead.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.