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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dear Bullies:

To All the Bullies I Knew in High School:

The first two years of high school I spent mostly in fear, sadness, and desperation because I was bullied by the same group of girls almost every day. Junior high was the same, but not quite so bad. It was more like training for the real thing.

Bullied. It seems so odd that there is so much focus on it now. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad people are recognizing it and trying to stop it. I'm glad kids are more aware of it and that schools say they will not tolerate it. But when I was in high school, bullying was just part of life. It was something we had to deal with in order to grow. We were going to grow up and have to deal with difficult people all the time, so we better get used to it. Boys will be boys and girls can be vicious. Well, being harassed and embarrassed on a daily basis did not make me better at dealing with difficult people, it made me terrified of confrontation.

In junior high, when I was 12, it was a group of three girls, who, for whatever reason, decided they hated me. As I recall it was because one girl liked my "boyfriend" and her friends supported her. They spread rumors that I was a slut and had already lost my virginity, they said I was stupid, they told people I was a bitch, they confronted me several times face-to-face and said they were going to beat me up. They never touched me, but I lived in fear that one day, when I was walking home alone, one of them would be there to punch me in the face, as she so nastily put it. I still remember all their names, but the main girl, the girl who was jealous of my boyfriend, my friends, my hair, I have no idea what, her face is burned into my mind. Her thin lips pressed into a sneer and her eyes glittering with hate. Because I was 12 and such a threat to her world? In oft repeated chat short form, WTF? 23 years later, I picture her face and I start to shake a little while I write this entry. I never told my mom, I never told any teacher. I just went to school every day with a knot of fear in my stomach hoping it wouldn't be too bad that day.

And it wasn't all bad. I had great friends who supported me, promised they would have my back if any of those girls so much as touched me. But who are we kidding? They were as powerless as me and they couldn't be my bodyguards. Thankfully, because the mean girls were a year older then me, they eventually graduated to high school and the next year I found myself in with the toughest group of kids in the school. They were from an area of town were poor kids and rich kids mingled together but all had various difficulties at home which meant they adopted each other as brothers and sisters. My own home life was great, my parents were still married, we lived in a nice house, we had everything we needed, but I was still welcomed into the group. Into the fold I went and I finally belonged somewhere. I didn't even need to be tough to be friends with them, they liked me because I was nice. And they were tough enough that I was protected by their reputation. No one was going to mess with me when I ran with a bunch of tough kids like that.

Then I graduated and went to high school. We'd moved in the meantime and I was starting at a school where I knew four people out of 1500. Again, I didn't belong and it wasn't long before some girls sniffed this sad fact out and began to pick on me.

All you want to do in high school is blend in, be cool, have a group to hang out with and just get through it. Some people even manage to have some fun. I wasn't a joiner, I didn't go in for clubs or sports, but I managed to make a few friends. Some of them I'm still friends with, incredible as that seems. I met a guy, we started "dating." I wasn't on anyone's radar and life was pretty good. My family had moved to a farm, so we were kind of isolated, but I had a horse and I loved the country. School was a place to go to see my new friends, hear the gossip and just hang out between classes. Lessons didn't really factor in.

Then, one day, it all changed. I knew that there were a couple girls in grade ten who didn't really like me, they gave me dirty looks in the halls and I always felt like they were whispering about me to each other. I laughed that off as vain. After all, who was I but a silly little niner of no import to them? They probably didn't even know who I was I told myself.

I went to a party one night with a few friends. I wasn't an isolated loner, a geek with no friends, a psychopath in the making, I had friends, I got invited to parties. Some people might even remember me as being popular. But this one party, this one night, there was a girl there that I knew didn't like me. She was one year older than me and for whatever reason I never learned, she had decided she didn't like me. I wasn't really concerned. Honestly, I don't like everyone I meet, I don't expect everyone who meets me to want to be bosom buddies, but I thought I could win this girl over. And then that undercurrent of hate I was starting to feel at school would dissolve and I wouldn't have to worry about it anymore.

So I smiled at her. I thought, hey, I'm friendly, I've made friends here, I can make this girl like me. Every time I caught her looking my way, I offered her a small smile. I thought I was making headway. Then a friend of mine (who was in this girl's class) came over to me and said, "Megan, you know I like you and I'm not saying this to be mean, I'm just relaying a message for your own good. Meangirl just said if you smirk at her one more time, she's going to come over and wipe your stupid smile off your face. So, you know, just don't look at her anymore, ok?"

I still remember the shock and outrage I felt as my friend said this to me. I was trying to be NICE! I was trying to be FRIENDLY! And this girl thought I was smirking at her? Taunting her? I look back at that night and cannot recall a time that my intentions were more thoroughly misunderstood. And I've been married for 12 years and had plenty of those head-shaking fights where you just think, Really? You honestly think that's what I meant? And the added insult of being told to "just not look at her anymore"! Who the hell did she think she was, telling me where to look? But at the same time, it scared me. I didn't have my tough friends to back me up anymore and I didn't want to push the issue. I really can't stand fist fights, I've never been able to handle the idea of them in real life and the thought that someone wanting to smash their fist into my face scared the hell out of me.

So that was the start of it. Soon I had a new group of three girls harassing me. They spread rumors about me too and taunted me, yelled at me in the halls. One of the worst insults was a nickname they gave me that followed me for the next year and a half, until I moved away and left the school.

"Hey Booger! Hey, yeah, I'm talking to you bitch," they laughed as I walked by. I could feel my face turning scarlet with embarrassment and confusion. Booger? Why were they calling me Booger? Gross! I remember looking around to see if anyone else had heard. Of course they had, lots of people were staring, a few were laughing, some were just looking away from me in embarrassment. These three girls kept calling me Booger and it took six months for me to find out why. It was as simple (and embarrassing) as talking to a boy one day who noticed I had a booger in my nose and he went and told a bunch of people about it. Word got back to those girls and they gleefully called me Booger for the next year and a half. They probably still call me that, I have no idea. What I do know is that 20 years later I am ridiculously conscious of what is going on in and around my nose at all times.

Another day, the three of them fell in step behind me as I was walking to class and starting talking about that new bitch, you know, Megan? Yeah, what a little slutty bitch she is, if I ever catch her alone, she better watch it because I'm going to kick her ass into next week. She's fucking dead if I ever see her outside of school, what a fucking slutty whore. She's so fucking high on herself, but she's nobody, she's nothing. And I walked in front of them, my books clutched to my chest, my head down so no one would see the tears in my eyes. I didn't turn around and yell at them, I didn't stick up for myself. I just cried silently to get to class. I couldn't even duck into a washroom to avoid them, because what if they followed me in and really did start hitting me? I pictured myself with a cut lip, a blackened eye, sitting alone, bleeding, in the bathroom after they left. Definitely not an escape plan.

And so on it went. Every night I would lie in bed and think about those girls and what I would say to them if I were brave enough. I wished that my old, tough friends from junior high were around to protect me. I knew that I would never stick up for myself, never speak out, that I would walk through the halls with them yelling "Booger!" and laughing at me and I would never tell on them. It might surprise you to know I never once thought of telling a teacher or reporting them to the principal. It was my problem and I had to deal with it. It didn't matter that I was too frighten. My fright was just another problem I had to deal with and get over. I didn't tell my mom, or my dad. I might have mentioned it, but I know it never turned into a big deal, that my mom never called the school to discuss a bullying issue. We talk about it now. My mother and I. She's a teacher now, at the same junior high I attended when I was 12. She says she had no idea that I was being harassed like that, if she had known...well, what would she have done? Probably nothing, because back then it was just something you put up with. You think your kid is exaggerating. Like, but mom! EVERYONE has these jeans! Parents didn't get involved like they do now, they weren't aware of just how badly bullies affect kids. My mom says if it was happening now, she would never let it slide, that she'd be calling the school, the parents. But that is now. Back then, I just cried myself to sleep each night and dreaded the arrival of the school bus in the morning. I went to school in total dread of what horror this new day would bring.

I spread it around that I was a pacifist. That I never fought and I didn't believe in fighting. My reasoning was that it would hold the fist fights at bay because not even a mean girl is going to throw a punch at a pacifist. Pretty much the most cowardly thing you could ever do is hit a person who has told the world they would not fight back. It was the only thing I ever did to defend myself. And in the process of telling people I was a pacifist, I realized I was. I would never hit another human being in anger or participate in a fight. Quite honestly I thought fist-fighting was vulgar and low-class and I was above it all. Okay, so maybe when the mean girls accused me of walking around like a snotty shit, they had a slight point. Still, I stand by that opinion. And I still don't like fights.

That was grade nine and grade ten wasn't much different. The taunts continued. The threats rang out. The name Booger followed me everywhere. At a time when all you want to do is blend in and be accepted, being called Booger doesn't exactly help.

In the fall of grade ten, one of the girls approached me at a party. She had been in a terrible car accident that summer, one in which she had almost died. As I recall, her neck or back had been broken and while she could walk, she had to wear a halo that had been surgically screwed into her head to keep her spine from shifting. I guess this accident had opened up her heart and mind and she came to realize what she had done to me the year before was incredibly unfair. She came up to me and said, "I'm sorry about all that shit I said to you last year. I can't speak for the other two, but I need to apologize to you. Things are different for me now, I realize how short life can be and I don't want to have regrets. I get it if you hate me, but I'm sorry and I won't be mean to you anymore." It took a lot of guts for her to say that. She could have just ignored it all, maybe stopped participating in the bullying, but essentially just ignore me. But she didn't. She had the guts to admit her complicity and apologize for it. I've always admired her for that and we became friends afterwards. We don't talk much anymore, but she's on my Facebook and if anybody asked, I'd say she was a friend.

Unfortunately, her apology seemed to fuel the fire for her two friends. They still hated me and still threatened me on a daily basis. I learned to avoid them, to take different routes so I wouldn't run into them on the way to class. One day, the ringleader, another girl whose face is burned into my memory even 20 years later, sent a message through a friend of mine to meet her in the stairwell near the gym. Ironically, it was the same friend who warned me at that party a year before that I better stop being so damn nice and watch my back. I didn't want to meet this girl, I was imagining her punching me, finally, after all those threats, but I didn't know how I could avoid the confrontation. My friend urged me to go, said she'd be there the whole time and that it would be better to just face it. If I ran away, which I dearly wanted to do, I would be branded a coward and things would never get better. So I went. And I stood there, mute, nodding my head, tears streaming down my cheeks as this girl started yelling at me in front of about twenty or thirty other kids. She told me what a stupid little bitch I was and who the hell did I think I was, walking around like I owned the school when it was pretty clear that everyone hated me. Did I see the people standing around? Every one of them hated me and wanted to see her kick my ass once and for all. I was nothing. I was nobody. I was a loser and if I kept walking around like queen shit, she was going to punch me in the face enough times to wipe that stupid fucking grin off my face. That I would need a fuck load of Tylenol to ever get my smile back.

I just kept nodding, agreeing with her, hoping she would finish up soon so I could flee back to my small group of friends. What hurt the most wasn't the threats of hitting me. It was the realization that all those people sided with her, that they hated me too. I never thought I was popular, or that everyone loved me, but to realize they hated me? What had I ever done to them? Dated a boy they liked? Laughed too loudly in the hall? Looked at them wrong?

Finally she was done. And I turned around to leave and realized my small group of friends were immediately behind me, ready to punch HER in the face if she touched me. I don't condone violence and especially not men hitting women, but when my guy friend said he was just waiting for her to throw a punch so he could hit her back (knowing I wouldn't), even the pacifist in me hugged him hard. I was only 15, sue me.

A miracle happened that afternoon. That girl's friend, someone who had not been part of the threats and taunts, came up to me and said, "I want you to know, what she said to you it wasn't true. Everyone there was hoping you'd lay her out, shut her tough mouth up for once. What she just did was really uncool and I want you to know I don't agree with her. Good for you for taking it and then walking away. Maybe she'll finally leave you alone." She had never stuck up for me before, but I guess her friend had finally taken it too far. People were starting to see that I was being bullied and that it wasn't cool. They started telling her to lay off, the shut up. It didn't change her feelings towards me, she still gave me dirty looks, still yelled, "Hey Booger!" occasionally but she didn't try to confront me openly anymore. Mostly it just got ignored.

Then I moved away and started at a new school. This school was a lot bigger and in a lucky coincidence, one of my best friends had also moved and would be attending the same school. At least with her by my side and a sea of students around me who didn't know about the booger, I could finally blend in and just be a high school student. I was never harassed at this school. No girls ever decided that they were going to kill me. No one threaten me or made fun of me. I never, to this day, found out why that girl hated me so much. It was something I wondered about incessantly because if I could have changed it, so she would leave me alone, you can bet I would have. But she never told me. As far as I know, she just hated my face and wanted to break it.

My story isn't that bad. I know the bullying that goes on inside and outside of school is so unbearable for some kids that they choose to take their lives, rather than live with the torment. I didn't contemplate suicide as an escape. But I can understand why a person would because the constant fear and sadness that I lived with for 18 months was humiliating and exhausting. And I can honestly say it has scarred my life because I will never forget it. I still shake to remember those days, some worse than others, when I would walk into school, my stomach in knots because I was terrified of what fresh hell my tormentors had in store for me that day. The nights when I couldn't sleep because I was lying in bed, imagining my ultimate payback, my revenge, crying because I knew it was a lie and that I would just put up with it, day after day.

It hasn't made me stronger. I still shrink from confrontation. Even in safe environments like the classroom, I have panic attacks speaking out because of what others might think of me. In the moments after I've confidently given my opinion in front of 50 other students, my hands shake and my heart wallops in my chest. I don't want to be special and I don't want to stand out. That is what bullies took from me, even if they never actually hit me.

My daughter told me today this kid has been bugging her at school. She considers him a bully. I told her how I was bullied, told her some of what those girls from so long ago said to me, to my friends, to their friends. She looked at me with round eyes and asked me what I did. I told her I didn't do anything, that I cried to sleep at night and was scared to go to school. She asked me if I would tell one of my teachers if someone was bullying me and I told her that was what she was supposed to do, or come to me like she had. She said, "Yes, but mum, what would you do NOW? Would you tell your teacher if someone was bullying you?" No sweetie, I'm a grownup now and I have to deal with it myself if it happens.

I didn't tell her that being a grownup doesn't help. But now I have my own kids to worry about and I have to have a talk with my kid's teacher about this bully. Even though the idea makes me shake and my hearts begins to wallop.


Anonymous said...

Soo heartwarming <3 i hope you confront your bully!!

Anonymous said...

Bullies are dicks, but that's because people are viscious and cruel, especially when young. Been on the receiving end of that bullshit, but never again. I'm glad you can reflect on these shitty memories to help your little girl. Stay strong - you have it in you. SC