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'I was crumbling on the inside'

Excerpted from In My Skin: My Life on and off the Basketball Court by Brittney Griner with Sue Hovey. Copyright © 2014 by Brittney Griner. Published by itbooks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers and reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

I WAS A MESS OF emotions in middle school. I could see my classmates were finding their place in the social structure, but I felt adrift, alone, scrambling to figure it all out. My dad wanted me to live inside a glass box, tucked safely away inside our house, exposed to nothing, including the typical interactions kids need. I rebelled by acting like a fool at school, desperate for attention. And as the months passed, I realized I was different from other kids in more ways than one.

The teasing and mocking, the verbal bullying, began some time in sixth grade. I was at Humble Middle School now, with lots of new faces, and I was at least a few inches taller than most girls in my class, but not developing in the same ways they were. I felt like a physical misfit, my body flat and thin, my voice low-a combination that gave my classmates all the ammunition they needed. Most of us were always testing each other in some way, teasing, making cracks, the typical kid stuff at that age. But as we settled into our surroundings, the interactions grew more cruel.

Soon enough, I became a regular target.

The first time it happened, I was walking with a friend between classes. The hallways were flooded with kids, all of us buzzing as we scurried around like animals freed from a cage. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, one of the Cool Girls was standing in front of me. I could see her friends gathered off to the side, watching, as if they had all been talking about something. Then this girl started patting my chest. I always wore really plain clothing, like a white T-shirt without any graphics on it, and my hair was pulled back in a tight bun. Instinctively, I stepped back, startled and confused. She immediately turned to her friends and said, "See? I told you. She doesn't have a chest!" Then they all walked off, laughing, and I heard one of them say, "She must be a boy. She's not really a girl."

This kind of thing started happening all the time. Somebody would come up close, in my space, and call me names. They'd say things like "What are you, some kind of freak?" Or they'd walk by and say to each other, real loud, "Better watch out-she'll make you gay!" They were constantly making fun of how I looked and dressed, how I walked and talked. I'm not sure I can express exactly how I felt in those moments, because I usually went numb. When you're on the receiving end of insults every day, they chip away at your self-esteem. No matter how much you try to ignore it or tell yourself it's just kids being stupid, you can't avoid the pain that comes with it. You get to a point where you imagine everyone is looking at you and thinking there's something wrong with you. Whenever we had class changes, I would walk with a friend, never alone, always on the lookout for certain girls who made it a habit to harass me. It was almost always girls. I would try to duck them, just get to where I was going as fast as possible, but when somebody got in my face, I got mad. I'd push the girl away and keep walking, as the anger rose inside me. And then I would often act out later in the day, saying something rude to a teacher or cutting another kid down with a nasty comment. It became a terrible cycle, how I passed along that meanspirited behavior, ruining someone else's day to match what was happening to me. It was like a twisted game of Pay It Forward.

During those years, whenever I imagined my future, I pictured myself enlisting in the military after high school. College was just something that other people did; it wasn't part of my plan at all. And sports weren't a factor for me yet. I started dabbling with soccer and volleyball in seventh grade, but the only thing I knew about basketball was that my sister SheKera had played it in high school. I wanted to follow in my dad's footsteps, and that started with joining the military, just as he had done when he was eighteen. After I served, I would pursue a career in law enforcement, same as him. (People might find this hard to believe, but I still think about becoming a police officer someday, when I'm done playing hoops for a living.) The point is, there was nothing going on in my life forcing me to focus on my behavior, to make me think about how my actions in middle school might affect my future.

Quite honestly, I viewed what was happening at this time-all the confrontations, the emotional beating I was taking, the tough exterior I was developing-as preparation for the military and police work. There's not a lot of clearheaded thinking when you're in sixth grade, especially when you're carrying around so much anger.

I began to think the only way to make it all stop was if I forced kids to stop, if I made them see I was ready to fight anyone who cut me down; then they would leave me alone. Obviously I realize the flaws in that thinking now, but at the time I thought it was absolutely necessary I be seen as someone you wouldn't want to mess with. The tougher I seemed on the outside, the less likely it was that anyone would see how I was crumbling on the inside. So I allowed my anger to get the best of me.