When I was a kid, I was bullied.
I can’t remember when it started or why, but it lasted through most of high school.
I guess it was because I was different somehow.
I never wanted to go to school. Turned around and walked straight home on my first day of kindergarten. I like to think I didn’t want to be put in the proverbial sandbox with everyone else.
My earliest recollection of school-ground confrontations was getting into a fight with a girl named Norah. She was tall. From Kuwait I think. We were in grade 5 at the time, so what, 11 years old?
It was winter. I remember this because she had these massive Kodiak boots on her feet and she hoofed me one right in the gut. That was the beginning and the end of that confrontation.
I don’t know why we got in a fight that day, it could very well have been my fault. I don’t remember much about Norah either except that, in grade 8, she got her period. I know this because I told her she had it, not to embarrass her but to help her. Kinda like telling someone they’ve got spinach in their teeth, something I still do.
Between grades 6-8 and into the first part of high school, I never knew from one day to the next if the girls were going to welcome me or shun me. One minute they wanted to be my friend, the next I would learn that I had done something horribly wrong, like wear the wrong jacket, and would no longer be able to hang out with them.
Ridiculous isn’t it?
On days like this, I’d go hang out with other people, usually with the boys. Shoot hoops, shoot the shit, or play catch with the Indian rubber ball. Remember those? Even though I could throw and catch pretty well, I still went home with the occasional bruise or black eye.
But it was the invisible injuries that hurt the most, the day-to-day torture of never knowing if I was going to be liked or loathed by the so-called “popular girls”. And at that age, we often aren’t strong enough to simply walk away. We want so desperately to fit in, so we put up with a lot of crap.
It didn’t change much when I got to high school. Despite my tight curly afro, shiny new braces, and pink converse shoes I did make some new friends and even attracted the attention of a star football player, but he refused to let on that he liked me in front of anyone else.
I also made friends with the class president. He was in grade 13 and I was in grade 9. He sat behind me in typing class. I thought he was sooooo smart and popular and good-looking. Ok, I’ll admit it, I had a crush on him, swooning a bit each time he talked to me in the hall. We ran into each other years later and he asked me on a date. Turns out I had left my crush behind in those high school halls and that he wasn’t my type after all.
Isn’t it funny how the tables can turn over time.
I got to know a lot of the older students and, once my little sister arrived on the scene, was meeting the younger ones too. My parents were very social people, they played a lot of sports and my dad sat on all sorts of boards and committees so they were out a lot.
This meant my sister and I threw a lot of parties. We used to joke about this whenever the 11o’clock news came on and posed the question, “It’s eleven o’clock, do you know where your children are?” For us it was, “It’s eleven o’clock, do you know where your parents are?”
It was dangerous when my sister and I threw parties because often the entire school was represented in some shape or form, from a trumpet-playing member of the band to a teen gang member with beer and cigarettes in hand.
Years later I ran into an old classmate at a nite club. He said, “I had such a crush on you in high school.” I promptly responded with, “But I was such a geek”, to which he replied, “Ah yes, but you were the cute geek who knew everybody.”
Funny, because I still got bullied.
One of my friend’s older brothers put my coat up the school flagpole once. He also cornered me one day and spit on me repeatedly. Sadly, he eventually killed himself playing chicken with a train. Turns out he was a very troubled soul.
One of the neighbourhood Mom’s even warned my mother about me. I was about 12 at the time and she suggested that I was a slut because I was hanging out with her son and all the boys. Was it my fault that most of the kids in the neighbourhood that were my age were boys?
That was the same year two of those boys showed up on my doorstep and asked me to go out with them. I said, “Sure, where are we going?” and they said, “Oh, no, we want you to be our girlfriend.” Things were so innocent back then.
As for the girls, they still played ping-pong with my emotions, liking me one day but not the next. They would invite me to sleepovers and later prank call my house, spread rumours about me, or leave nasty letters in my mailbox.
So I got bullied. Maybe not as much as Suzie or Billy, and certainly not out there in cyberspace, but sticks and stones were still thrown at me while my coat flew at half-mast and I wiped spit from my eyes.
What I wonder about now are the bullies. Not my bullies. I feel no sense of hatred or contempt, sadness or judgment. In fact, while back from university one year I ran into one of my tormentors at a party. She approached me hesitantly and said, “I’m really sorry about….” At the time, I was indifferent. Told her not to bother, that I’d forgotten about it, that it was water under the bridge. Today, I might just say thank you and leave it at that.
So what I wonder about now are the bullies. Why do they feel the need to be so cruel, so violent, so seemingly brave and yet so cowardly? Why are they so full of anger and fear? What’s going on in their world?
Growing up, I had problems. What kid doesn’t? I felt misunderstood and I was angry. I even used to throw things and have always felt a close affinity to the scene in Rebel Without A Cause when James Dean’s character yells at his parents, “You’re tearing me apart!” But overall, my life was good and while I wasn’t always well behaved, I never felt the need to bully anyone.
I had lacrosse tournaments and band practice; my typewriter and my job at the local grocery store; parents who took care of me, and friends who liked me even on the days I wore the wrong jacket.
I’m not saying the bullying didn’t hurt me. It did. The way I was treated affected me, hurting my self-esteem and causing years of emotional trauma and self-loathing that I was not always aware of. And it takes a lot of time and hard work to heal. But it also contributed to who I am today. And I like who I’ve become. Looking back on it some 25 years later, I still think I was one of the lucky ones.
The way I see it now, it’s the bullies who seem to have it bad. I mean that’s an awful lot of energy to expend hating someone one minute and liking her the next. Running coats up flagpoles, writing nasty letters, working so hard to make someone else’s life miserable. Who were they learning this from, what voices were they listening to, and didn’t they have anything better to do?
I remember going to see one of the plays put on at William Head Prison on Vancouver Island and being in awe of some of the talent amongst the prisoners performing. I wondered how their lives had taken such a turn and, had they been given other choices or found themselves in different circumstances, whether their lives could have been different somehow.
I also had the opportunity to spend time with Reena Virk’s parents while living in Victoria. Reena was brutally beaten and murdered by her peers when she was 14; a most extreme case of bullying. Two convictions were made.
The Virks forgave one of these “bullies” after he visibly showed remorse for what he had done. They went to meet with him in prison. They sat across the table from the boy who helped kill their daughter and wished him well for his future. Amazing.
I think the Virks recognized that this was a boy, a troubled human being, and that by showing him compassion he would perhaps be permitted to move forward in his life in a more positive way. And I know that this was also an important part of their personal healing process.
So how do we help the bullies? Because something must be going terribly wrong for them, don’t you think? Maybe if we spent some time with the bullies, listening to their stories, offering them different opportunities, nourishing their inner light, they’d stop being bullies. Maybe they’d see that even with our differences, we really aren’t so different; that we are all connected. Kill ‘em with kindness, as the saying goes.
Maybe I’m being naïve, but it’s worth a shot, isn’t it?