Bullying (or, nolite te bastardes, etc.)

I’ve written on here about some of the less-than fun stuff I went through as a teenager, but I think that last night was the first time that I’ve ever publicly referred to it as bullying. And now I kind of want to talk about it?

A little bit of background:

I’d had the same group of friends throughout most of elementary school. The five of us had been pretty tight, spending every recess and lunch hour together, pairing up for science projects and book reports. On the weekends we would force our parents to shuttle us around the city for various playdates and sleepovers.  I’d known them for so long that I couldn’t imagine ever not being friends with them.

Then, one mid-day recess in seventh grade, my friends told me they had to talk to me.

We sat in a circle on the schoolyard pavement, near the edge of where the grassy field began. It must have been October or November, because I remember that the sky was grey and there was a chill in the air. My friends started out by saying that they’d been talking about me, and had realized that they collectively found me annoying. They told me that they’d come to the decision that they didn’t want to hang around with me anymore, and asked me to stop joining them at lunch and recess. I tried to argue with them, then tried to bargain, but it was pointless; their collective mind was made up.

Basically, they broke up with me.

What had already been a difficult year went from tough-but-manageable to downright miserable. Even before I was de-friended, I was already being picked on by my classmates for my bad skin, the way I dressed, and the nerdy things I liked. Now, not only was that all still happening, but I suddenly had no one to protect me, and no one to tell me that I wasn’t an ugly pathetic loser.

As the year went on, the kids who made fun of me became braver, making more and more publicly humiliating comments about me. One kid said that I didn’t need to use whiteout, because I could just use the pus from my pimples – the teacher laughed at that along with everyone else. Another kid wondered aloud why my clothes were so terrible, since my father was a lawyer and could almost certainly afford something better than ill-fitting sweatshirts and track pants. Boys from my class prank-called me in the evenings, pretending to ask me out – then repeating everything I’d said on the phone the next day to the rest of my class.

I didn’t tell my parents what was happening because I was embarrassed, although they must have noticed that I wasn’t being invited to my friends’ houses anymore. I didn’t want them to know how much of an outcast I’d become at school, because it seemed like it was mostly my own fault for being unlikeable. Anyway, I reasoned, even if they did know, what could they do?

When I started high school, I chose a school that almost none of my classmates were going to. The only person from my class who was coming with me was the girl I’d become close with in 8th grade, so that was fine. I figured that this was the perfect chance to start over. No one at this huge new school knew me, or knew my past; I would walk through those front doors in September as whoever I wanted to be.

I didn’t get to start over, though. Does anyone ever really get a fresh start? I still had all the problems that had led to being teased in the first place: bad skin, the wrong clothes, and geeky interests. Even worse, the last two years had left me with zero self-confidence, which meant that I was constantly second-guessing myself. Because of this I had a hard time making friends, and when I did I was clingy and jealous. I was even more of a mess when it came to boys. Boy, was I ever.

Bullies can smell a victim, and I was soon back to being the butt of the joke. I went to an arts high school where I majored in dance, and the girls in my dance class were saccharine sweet to my face (most of the time), but made fun of me as soon as my back was turned. By the end of the year I was so tired of it that I transferred out of dance class and instead majored in visual art, where I was surrounded by pretentious art school kids, stoners and comic book nerds – on the whole, a much nicer group.

I don’t mean to make it sound like I was totally friendless. I mean, yeah, I had people that I hung out with – a pretty big group of friends, actually. But even within that group I was teased. Early high school was pretty much just as shitty as late grade school.

My later high school years were better, and the same goes for university. I moved out east for school, made some great friends, and became the stunningly self-confident adult you see before you today. Things are mostly totally fine now. I am mostly fine now.

What’s strange is that now I’m friends on Facebook with a lot of the people who made me miserable (maybe some of you are reading this now – hi guys! kind of awkward! sorry!). We’ve never talked about or even acknowledged what happened; after half a lifetime of not knowing these people, we mostly just “like” each others’ statuses and comment on photos of each others’ kids. Initially, I felt awkward having them back in my life, mostly because I worried that they were still judging me and still finding me wanting, but now we’ve settled into a sort of comfortable camaraderie, reminiscing about our collective school days as if we’ve been friends all along.

Maybe they’ve forgotten what happened, or maybe it just never seemed like a big deal. Maybe they feel bad.  Maybe I’m the one with the problem. Maybe they were right, and I am a pathetic loser. Maybe they were dealing with their own stuff at the time and didn’t realize how much it sucked for me. Most likely it’s a combination of most of the above.

I find that when I talk about what happened, I use a lot of euphemisms; I’ll say that I went through a tough time when I was younger, or else that I had a bad year the year I turned 12, or any other number of variations on the same thing. I’ve been hesitant to use the word “bullying” when talking about my own circumstances, for a couple of reasons:

1. Was I even bullied? I mean, yes, I was teased, but does that count as bullying? When does it cross the line from normal kid behaviour to bullying? Or is bullying so pervasive in our culture that it now seems normal?

2. Weirdly, I feel anxious about what the people who are my friends now will think of the fact that I was such a loser. There’s a part of me that thinks that they’ll start to reconsider our friendship, start to notice all of the less-than-stellar components of my personality.

3. Saying that I was bullied is admitting that I also became a bully later in high school. I made fun of people, talked behind their backs, told secrets. I was even party to making a girl cry in 11th grade chemistry class. I was mean, and I liked being mean.

I do think that it’s important to start a dialogue about this, especially in reference to the first point. In the wake of Jennifer Livingston’s on-air response to an email criticizing her weight, in which she refers to the man who sent her the email as a bully, there has been a lot of discussion about what qualifies as bullying, and whether or not it was the appropriate word to use in that instance. David Dickson, chairman of the Bullying Prevention Initiative of California, says“Bullying, normally, is what someone, in a very mean spirited way, continually and on a repeated basis, does to another person, typically in a social setting in front of other people…It was a stupid letter he wrote, but he commented privately.” 

Now, I’m not an expert on bullying, and none of the definitions that I’ve found online have really been satisfactory, but it seems wrong to ignore this entire discussion just because what happened doesn’t fit Dickson’s fairly narrow definition of what bullying is. Whether or not the letter sent to Livingston was public, it was certainly hurtful and unnecessary, especially considering that she’s likely spent a lifetime of facing comments like that. Also, it sucks to have a so-called bullying expert be so condescending and dismissive, especially when bullying in our culture is so often dismissed as kids just being kids (or, in this case, fat ladies just being too sensitive).

Maybe Dickson wouldn’t consider what I went through to be bullying. I mean, sure, it was public, and it was often mean-spirited, but maybe it wasn’t very mean-spirited, or maybe it wasn’t repeated or continual enough. Maybe it was just teenagers being dicks to each other, and I’m just an oversensitive lady-type. Usually writing things out here makes them clearer (and hey, it’s cheaper than therapy), but this time it just makes them seem murkier and more confused. Was I the one with the problem? Were they the ones with the problem? Was I undeserving of friends? Am I still?

What I do know is this: I’m tired of pretending that nothing happened, and I’m tired of feeling like I did something wrong and have something to hide. I’m tired of waiting for all of my friends to discover that once-upon-a-time I wasn’t cool, and then to high-tail it out of my life – so take that, brain, a pre-emptive admission of uncoolness. Most of all, I wouldn’t want any other kid to feel as shitty as I did.

So yeah. Can we talk about this?

Me at age thirteen, centre, with my cousins and sister.



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