April 24, 2013

On the receiving end of bullying

My last post discussed how I picked on a classmate when I was in elementary school along with an apology that I hope reaches out across the years and miles. I never realized how devastating it can be to be the target of someone's hostility until a few years later, when those same shoes were on my feet.

It was my ninth grade year, first year in high school. My junior high years had been a little bit of a rough transition from the comfort and security of elementary school. In our district, the three small towns came together in 7th grade in one building. So I went from 30 some students in my grade to about 150. That was the same year my parents began their divorce proceedings. It was a difficult and awkward time fraught with uncertainty. But I made a new friend who had just moved to our town, and we began to hang out at each other's houses. My friend came from a very large family and her house was always such fun to visit. The hustle and bustle of a large family just made me feel completely welcome amidst the chaos that was unfolding at my own home. My new friend and I met on the school bus and for the next two years spent a lot of time together.

When we got to high school, we didn't have as many classes together and we drifted apart. To this day I don't exactly know why we stopped doing things together, but we did which is fairly typical of friendships at that age. Around that same time, though, her older sister apparently decided it was time to voice her dislike of me, often and loudly. We still all rode the same bus but didn't sit together anymore. I don't know if I inadvertently did something to offend my friend or if the older sister never liked me and had her chance to speak up, but wow did she. I've gone over it a thousand times in my head, wondering what I may have done. It took me years to realize it wasn't me, but instead just a very angry young woman.

She would get on the bus and if I was on the aisle, she'd shove me as she walked to the back of the bus. I began to cower against the window. She would talk really loud about how much she hated me and laugh at me when I would either try to stand up for myself or goad me into responding if I ignored her. Meanwhile, the girl who had been my friend would just sit and snicker while her sister picked on me. I didn't know what to do or where to turn. There was nothing I could do to get her to just leave me alone. She was so mean and cruel to me. I'm not sure why nobody else spoke up unless they were afraid she would turn on them next.

At school during our lunch period, after we finished eating, we would usually go sit in the gym and watch the intramural basketball teams play. I was sitting with a group of my freshman friends and she was walking into the gym. As she walked by, she stopped to shove me and push her way through to the upper bleachers. She looked at me and sneered, "Get the hell out of my way." I mustered a courage that to this day I don't know where it came from, but I said, "Why don't you make me?"

It was the wrong thing to say. She slapped me across the face so hard I still feel the sting. It happened so quickly that not all my friends even saw what she did. I sat there in the bleachers with my eyes welling up with tears. I don't know why she hated me so much. I tried to act dignified and sat there for a few minutes stunned, until I trusted my legs to take me to the restroom where I could splash my face and try to gather my composure before I went to my Latin class. The bullying didn't really end, but I did my best to avoid her the rest of the year. I rode the bus in silence and ignored her. At the end of my freshman year I moved away to another state, which solved my own bullying issue by attrition. I wasn't there for her to bully.

When I look back on that now, I still am not sure exactly what the solution is. Ignoring her didn't help, standing up to her didn't help. I think she was just mean and probably felt safe picking on me because she knew how to get inside my head from all the time I spent with her family.

I think the best thing we can do on that end is to instill a strong sense of self and confidence in our own children. Make sure they understand that when someone is mean to them, it's usually more about that person's own insecurities than anything. When someone behaves in a way that makes no sense, it's not really about you, but them. I also have wonder if I had pointedly asked her in front of witnesses, "Why are you picking on me? Why are you so angry with me?" I wonder if I had put her on the spot and forced her to answer why she was behaving as she was if it would have diffused the situation. But then again, as I said in the previous post, there is no good reason to bully someone, ever.

At any rate, I will say that it didn't truly damage my esteem or have any lingering effects. I will admit, I looked her up and saw her face all these years later. That was when I wondered if I had asked her those questions what her answer would have been. I wonder if she's happier today than she was then. She looks much prettier than she did then with her scowl and mean words. I wonder if she regrets or even remembers that she was so mean to me. Makes me want to confront her, in a way.

Or maybe not. Maybe it's best to let sleeping dogs lie.

If you'd like to be part of the solution, I urge you to sign this anti-bullying pledge. I am being compensated to promote the Words Hurt campaign from TakePart.com. If I reach my signature goal, I will make a $50 donation to the National Suicide Prevention league.

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