This post isn’t easy for me to write. It involves regretful incidents in my past, and embarrassing naivety. I’ll be attempting to explain things that no one talks about, things that very few people who haven’t “been there” would understand, at the risk of sounding like an absolute tool.
We live in an era focused on victims, telling their stories and inciting sympathy for those who have been hurt and wronged; but I wasn’t a victim. As much as I aim to support those who’ve been wronged, as much as I want to share my love with schoolkids who are attacked by bullies or otherwise, it would be dishonest of me to pretend I wasn’t ever part of the problem.
I wasn’t a particularly nice person in middle school. Sure, I did what kids that age are supposed to do – I did well in my classes, (mostly) respected my elders, went to church every Sunday. I didn’t skip school, joined the swim team, felt relatively social, and had an air of absolute confidence that even my current 20-year-old self envies. I didn’t have any major, out-of-control problems in my college-educated-two-parent household, and I had every reason to be a good kid.
Strength meant everything to me as I grew up, especially when that involuntary bombardment of pubescent insecurities hit somewhere toward the end of sixth grade. I didn’t understand the emotional changes I was going through, and turned to my own preexisting strengths in an attempt to combat them. I found this strength in good places: my friends and my intellectual skills, my literal, physical strength – I beat out an entire P.E. class in arm wrestling, boys included – and my family.
But I also learned to leech strength from others, to pick on the obvious targets to become empowered in my social circle and feel better about myself.
Part of my “okayness” with all this is that I had never been much of a victim. I’m ridiculously stoic, and from the time I heard that Andy from my 4th grade class called me a fat ogre, I knew how to put any potential bullies in their place, intuitively. It’s nothing anyone ever taught me; I just knew when enough was enough.
“I heard you called me an ogre, and that’s not a nice thing to do. Don’t do that anymore, okay?”
“All right,” Andy replied with a shrug, running off to the monkey bars.
When I heard the bratty seventh grade girls in the hallway giggle and say that I looked like a marshmallow in my new plaid Bermuda shorts, I simply reminded myself that they probably had alcoholic mothers and would likely end up pregnant by junior year of high school. Maybe not the healthiest approach to self-confidence, but no one was harmed in the process, and I left unscathed. I wouldn’t react to unkind words, so unkind people left me alone, at least when I was present.
Not everyone is so weirdly able to deflect insults. It took me a long time to learn that.
I’d like to say it started with “John” and “Bill.” John and Bill were good friends – best friends, even. Both were socially awkward, made my good friend, “Anne,” feel uncomfortable by hopelessly crushing on her, and lacked the confidence to respond to bullying in any constructive way. We made fun of Bill’s alto clarinet and John’s meltdown that resulted in hiding under our science teacher’s desk, yelling at him and everyone else to “go away.” Of course there were also plenty of gay jokes.
We decided that Bill was a pervert when he wouldn’t take his eyes off of Anne’s bikini on swim days in PE, and eventually I came up with the idea (and had support from my friends) to write John a Valentine’s Day candy-gram posing as a secret admirer, asking him to meet at the water fountain after school and ditching him completely. By the end of sixth period we felt incredibly guilty and let him know what we’d done while profusely apologizing, but no amount of damage control could make it okay. We were little jerks.
Later on, as we became even less sympathetic, we decided to target “Sam,” who wore sweatshorts every day. We called him “Sweatshorts” and made fun of his lacking trumpet skills. We locked him out of the band room while it was snowing one day for a few minutes, and incessantly teased him about things that SERIOUSLY DIDN’T MATTER, LIKE, AT ALL.
The worst part of all this was that I thought Sam was our friend. I thought he was in on the joke, that he didn’t mind the teasing. He never seriously fought back, so I assumed he was fair game. No one ever told me that this mindset was horribly wrong. No one assumed the good, smart chunky girl could ever be so cruel. Sam would never admit to being bullied by a girl and her clan of dorks so he never reported us, and we got away with it.
Teachers spent plenty of time teaching us how to deal with bullies, but not nearly enough time explaining what it means to be nice to others. Without my knowledge, I had become a bully, and I took joy in it.
When I made fun of John or Bill or Sam, I did it with my friends. We found common ground in demeaning others, and it made us feel strong and superior. We weren’t the popular kids, at all. We were band geeks before it was cool, honors English students, kids who spent Friday nights at home watching PG movies with our families. When we picked on the obvious targets, the lowest of the low, our own mounting insecurities didn’t seem to matter. We felt great.
You may be wondering why I would bring any of this up. I’d be more than willing to leave my embarrassingly-cruel treatment of others back in middle school where it belongs, but there’s more to the story. The gratification that comes with hurting others is so ridiculously temporary, and I wish I’d known that. If someone had told me back in 2007 that my clique would disappear come ninth grade, that I’d eventually quiet down as I fully realized the extent of my own insecurities, I might have realized how stupid I was being.
My story should end with my getting in trouble, at least mildly disciplined by someone’s mom so that I’d learn my lesson.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, I got away with it, finished middle school, attended a high school with very few people I knew and liked, and got my own healthy dose of painful teenager-self-realization one day when I realized the full extent of what I’d done.
Sam was in my sophomore World History class. By this point, I’d learned to be somewhat of a decent (if not ridiculously shy and awkward) human being, and was able to engage with Sam in mature, thoughtful conversation. We reminisced about our middle school days, and talked a bit about where everyone had ended up after 8th grade graduation. Turns out, he was a pretty cool guy.
It wasn’t long before he started bringing up some of those incidents – the incidents that I still didn’t even realize had hurt him, many of which I didn’t remember happening at all. He reminded me of the name calling, the criticisms, the several nasty happenings, that, to my horror, were often mostly my fault.
As it turns out, we really hurt Sam. He struggled with making friends to begin with. He came home feeling worthless, even self-destructive, after we treated him so poorly. There were days he didn’t even want to come to school because he worried about what we would do or say. His confidence started low, and I took it upon myself to lower it even more just so I could feel superior.
Ouch. Finally, I felt it. It stung to finally feel it, but it had to happen, and I’m glad it did.
“I am so sorry. I had no idea,” was all I could say. I wanted to cry, to give seventh-grade-him a hug. I wanted to slap seventh-grade-me in the face and ask what the hell I was thinking, but I couldn’t. All I could do was offer my sincere apology, and it felt so right to finally be nice to someone.
I finally felt regret, learning that painful lesson that taught me to have the compassion that I, for whatever reason, had lacked during those early formative years. Would it have been better to learn this lesson SIGNIFICANTLY earlier, in the heat of all of it? Probably. But I think I turned out all right.
Today, I try my best to sympathize with victims, but I painfully and instinctively empathize with bullies. I want to tell victims of bullying that things will get better for them, because from what I’ve seen in the grown-up real world, they do. I also want to tell the bullies that things will stop being so great really soon, and that they better get ready for shame, regret, and an ever-deepening pool of low self-esteem, because that high will never last.
What I did to my victims could have been so much worse. I know that. But that still doesn’t justify my behavior. Whether a bully is making fun of a kid’s pants or telling him to kill himself, the urge to hurt is coming from the same place, and it needs to stop. Compassion doesn’t come easily to everyone, but the earlier we can teach it, the earlier we can even convince kids to just ignore whoever they consider weirdos rather than tear them down, the better.
I still have issues, believe me. Low self-esteem doesn’t just go away when you realize you’ve been a terrible person. First, it gets worse. Much worse.
But then something great happens. When you grow up and finally stop worrying about yourself and how you appear to others, you begin seeing the goodness all around you, and take joy in it, without hurting anyone. You can’t begin to feel love for other people until you sufficiently love yourself, and I’m finally, after all these years, starting to learn that. I’ve begun trying to find something good in everyone I know, even those with completely clashing personalities, because they deserve my respect, and I deserve to feel good about humanity. Yes, I’m still ridiculously cynical, but I don’t hate anyone, and that should count as progress.
There are occasionally times that I’m tempted to point out another’s weaknesses to build up my own confidence, but I’ve learned to brush off that urge more and more. I still pit myself against others in imaginary power struggles, but I’m realizing now that there’s not much point in behavior like that. I am me, not them. We’re different – not better or worse. It’s not about being better or worse than your peers anyway – it’s about being true to yourself, and it’s about being kind.
I’m still judgmental. I still take my strength, especially as an independent woman with large biceps, very seriously.
But now, alongside my quietly stubborn tendencies, my utter lack of submissiveness, my firm stoicism and strength-obsession, resides compassion, empathy, and at the very least, an attempt at understanding. Am I still a bully? That’s not my place to decide. But I hope, for the sake of those I’ve wronged over the years, that I’ve sufficiently changed my ways.