Right before Valentine’s Day, my orthopedist decided that I should be hospitalized for tests. I’d been having crippling low-back pain for several weeks and the rest, pain medicine, and muscle relaxants he’d prescribed were not making me feel any better. I spent a week in the hospital undergoing a variety of tests to rule out structural abnormalities, cancer, and any other problems that could be causing the pain. They never found anything. The ultimate diagnosis: acute stress. The year was 1983. I was eleven years old.
This is the story of me and my bullies. All these years later, a whole lifetime, and I’ve already used half a box of tissue preparing to write about it. I was just a little girl, deserving of love and protection, like every other child, but I didn’t know that. I thought I was different: unworthy, flawed, and fundamentally unlikeable. My bullies, and the adults who allowed their behavior to continue, taught me lessons that I’m still unlearning nearly 30 years later.
Full disclosure: I am changing names for obvious reasons. Also, emotional pain and time have worked together to make my memory pretty hazy. This is a true story to the absolute best of my ability.
When I showed up at Madison Middle School in August, 1982, I was scared. And while I think that probably every 6th grader at Madison was scared that day, I was unique in my level of terror. We’ll get back to the reasons for that later, but for now, just know that I was shaking in my summer sandals like there was a salivating tiger on my left and a tsunami wave rolling in on my right.
I went to my classes and listened to the rules. So many rules! Do you remember how it was, how they threatened you and swore that they wouldn’t help you no matter what, because for God’s sake you’re not babies anymore and if you think this is like elementary school then forget about it and do you have any idea what it’s like in the REAL WORLD?!? Well, do you? Rules for the bathroom. Rules for the lockers. Don’t be late. Don’t forget your book. Always have your paper, your pencil. Don’t chew gum, don’t talk, don’t run (but don’t be late!), don’t eat, don’t swear. Do your homework; no, not like that! Put your name here, the date there (write it out), the period number in that place. Use pencil, no always use pen, no never use pen. That’s the wrong paper! Did you write in your book? Put a cover on it!
Here’s what I heard: Shut up, sit down, and if I never have any reason to notice you, or even glance in your direction, then you’ll be just fine. Teachers have no niceness to share; being ignored is the best you can hope for.
I was all alone. The Albuquerque Public Schools have a different system now, whereby all kids from several elementary schools feed to one middle school, and then several middle schools feed one high school. Not so back then. My elementary school fed four middle schools, with just a tiny handful of us going from Zuni to Madison. There were no familiar faces around me; I was surrounded by strangers in every class. My family might as well have moved across the country over the summer.
There were seven class periods per day. My 6th period class was PE. I had kind of looked forward to “changing out” because it seemed grown-up, something that you saw in the movies. Obviously I had a warped sense of what’s glamorous! And thus we arrive at problem number 1, the first thing that my bullies found to target about me: no breasts. I mean none. Nada, zilch. I didn’t know it then (and would have been devastated if I had), but I was still a year away from any action at all in the puberty department. But to be honest, I might as well have been wearing a big ole’, flashing neon sign on my head that said Pick on me! I am your willing victim!
I always had a hard time making friends, had struggled socially from the very beginning. My parents like to tell the story of my first day at pre-school. There was a one-way mirror so parents could observe, and they were stunned by what they say: me, a little girl who would not stop chattering, ever, while at home, sitting quietly and observing the other children. Silent. I was always terrified in social situations, and so excruciatingly sensitive to every perceived slight, even at that young age, that I usually believed that everyone around me hated me.
As I moved through elementary school, every year the kids were a little less tolerant of difference, a little less willing to befriend, or at least leave alone, the shy, awkward girl in the corner. Complicating matters was the fact that I was very intelligent and had a huge vocabulary for a child my age. This was probably due to the fact that my parents were both well-educated and used their own wide knowledge of words when speaking to me. I used my big words and that, coupled with my shyness, earned me a reputation as “stuck up.” It’s laughable, now, that I was accused of being the very thing that I’m most NOT. All I wanted was some friends, some kids to talk to me and play with me at recess.
The most ridiculous piece of this particular part of the story is this: my second grade teacher told my parents that I would have more friends if they could make me stop using so many big words. True story, and a damn sad example of an “educator.”
I always managed to make a few friends, but never more than 2 or 3 at a time, and I was consistently a target of teasing by the girls in my grade. The worst bullying I endured while I was a student at Zuni happened when I was in 3rd grade. Two 5th grade girls started to mess with me on the bus every day on the way home from school. They spit in my hair, over and over, all the way home, to the point that I arrived home with saliva dripping onto my shoulders.
Gross, right? Here’s what’s grosser: the bus driver either didn’t notice or didn’t care, because she never said a word. Neither of my parents called or went to the school to insist that something be done, nor did they ever (not once) drive me home from school to spare me the torment. No other child on a bus jammed full of students ever tried to intervene. Only my little sister, in kindergarten at the time, tried to defend me.
I was in third grade in 1980, so 30 years ago now. I still remember the names of both those girls, can still feel the hot shame that nested behind my face when they taunted me and spat on me.
My elementary school experiences had primed the pump; I was more prepared for my middle school bullies than I was for middle school literature and science.
There were three of them: Kathy, Karen, and Tanya. I don’t know if they knew each other before 6th grade or if they fell together that year, but they joined forces and made me their common enemy. It was a campaign of terror that, while not unique to middle school girls, is certainly most common among them. Virtually all of it happened in the girls’ locker room, though they got away with plenty out in the open, during PE class. Our coach joined in just enough to make it clear that he wouldn’t be a source of support.
The details are lost to me. There was lots of name-calling. I know they snapped my bra strap plenty, after I begged my mom to buy me one so I could keep my non-breasts covered. They pulled my ponytail hard, so that my head snapped back and hurt my neck. Mostly, though, they relied on the name-calling and the taunting, and I almost never answered them. I just took it, because I believed it was mine to take.
By Halloween, I was in agony all day, every day, dreading 6th period. I cried every evening at the dinner table with the misery of it all, and my parents tried to be sympathetic. Eventually, though, they were annoyed, then angry, at my inability to resolve the situation. They encouraged me to fight back, to punch or kick or hurt the girls to make them stop. They sent me to a counselor in hopes that she could convince me to fight back. No luck. I was far, far too afraid of authority to do any such thing.
How afraid of authority was I? In three years of middle school, I was never (not ever, not even once) late to a class. I was in agony from a full-to-bursting bladder at least once a week, but I would not risk being late to class by using my 5 minute passing period to go to the bathroom. At Madison, the lockers are in long halls that are kept locked except before and after school and before and after lunch, so we had to make sure we had everything we needed as there was no running to a locker between classes. One time (ONE TIME) in 3 years of middle school, I forgot one of my books. (Funny how pain makes some memories fuzzy, and leaves some of them so sharp.) It was my English book, the class I had right after PE during 6th grade. I was shaking and sweating through 5th and 6th periods because of forgetting that book.
And my parents and my counselor wanted me to punch someone?
I went to the school counselor for help. She decided a session involving Kathy, Karen, Tanya, and I was in order, so that we could air all of our grievances. Clearly, the school counselor had a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the situation. She saw a conflict among peers, when in fact it was a victim/perpetrator situation. We sat in her office and the three girls told me all the things that disgusted them about me. (I don’t remember most of what was said, but I do recall that one of my facial expressions was a problem for them.) Thus emboldened by quasi-approval from a school authority figure, the girls re-doubled their efforts.
Sometime shortly after the New Year, my mom and I were at the grocery store when I turned to see Kathy standing next to her own mom’s grocery cart. She squinched up her eyes and pulled a disgusted, I-smell-something-nasty face. I yanked my mom’s sleeve and whispered, “That’s one of them, one of the girls from PE!”
We finished our shopping and when we got in the checkout line, my mom went to speak to Kathy’s mom. No big surprise here: the next day I caught hell. Karen and Tanya were furious that I got Kathy in trouble and tripled their harassment, stealing things from my locker and encouraging other kids in our PE class to join them in harassing me.
Eventually, the stress took its toll and I landed in the hospital. The back pain was so bad that I couldn’t sit or bend over. Except sometimes I could. The pain was not constant, and I have never admitted this to anyone, ever. I felt guilty about that for many years, but not anymore. I didn’t know how to communicate my anguish, didn’t know how to get the adults in my life to hear me, and letting them believe that the pain was more than it was was the only way I knew to get any relief. I missed two weeks of school and it was pure bliss, like taking off a 200 pound backpack I’d been staggering under for 6 long months.
Note to parents: if your child is so stressed out that he or she is in the hospital to rule out spinal cancer, something is deeply wrong.
I walked into the girls’ locker room on my first day back to school and Kathy turned to Karen and Tanya and, sneer on her face and disgust thick in her voice, said, “Look who’s back.”
I made it to the end of 6th grade. I faked sick a few times, though I never refused to go to school. My parents did not express any sympathy or take any action on my behalf. Once, my dad said to me, “If this is the way you act at school, it’s no wonder you don’t have any friends.” My mom got angry at the dinner table several times, saying, “Can’t we ever talk about anything other than you and your problems?”
And so, by the time winter became spring, I had learned my lessons, and I had learned them well.
What my bullies taught me:
I don’t matter. My suffering is not important.
I am socially unacceptable, worthy only of rejection.
I’m weak, a loser, destined to be a social bottom-feeder, or worse, absolutely alone.
The best I can hope for, in my relationships with others, is to be left alone.
I am a fundamentally unlikeable person.
What the adults taught me:
I’m unworthy of help.
To identify or talk about a problem is to whine or feel sorry for myself.
When I ask for help, I will not get it.
The way other people behave toward me, no matter how bad, is my fault.
I am a fundamentally unlikeable person.
I was never again bullied the way I was in 6th grade. There were some girls here and there, throughout 7th and 8th grades who taunted me, and I never had many friends, but that sort of systematic torment was over. But any social confidence I may have had (did I ever have any?) was shattered. Throughout the rest of middle-school, I went to the library during lunch rather than risk rejection in the cafeteria. Books, always my favorite escape, became even more important to me. I tried to hide, to blend into the background. I hated myself, hated everything about my life. I had increasingly frequent episodes of depression, but I had learned by then that there was no help, and so I just showed up and went through the motions until I could get back into my books, back into the quiet solitude of my bed.
High school was better. Much, much better, in fact. I never had any social confidence, didn’t make friends easily or feel comfortable with people, but I had some friends. Kathy, Karen, and Tanya all went to the same high school and, amazingly, I never had a class with any one of them. I saw them sometimes, in the commons or on the walk across campus, and the dominant feeling I had when that happened was fear. I hated myself for that fear, hated that I was still so weak, but I couldn’t shake it.
Since I’m eviscerating myself in public here, I’ll tell you the truth: it’s still my dominant feeling. When I am with people, no matter where I go (even online), I expect to be rejected. I assume that you will hate me, that you will seek to avoid me, that you hope I won’t bother you by trying to talk to you. Every expression of acceptance is a surprise to me. I want people to be nice to me, but I never expect it. I expect people to reject me; I hope they will leave me alone. Niceness doesn’t really factor into any of that.
Understand that I’m not laying any of my present emotional landscape at anyone’s feet except my own. They (the bullies and the adults who didn’t stop them) taught the lessons they taught; I chose which lessons to learn, which lessons to carry with me into my adult life. My struggle to let go of all of that is mine and mine alone. There are connections, of course. The lessons I learned helped me choose my first husband, an unkind and critical man who I believed was the only one who would ever want me. But ultimately, that choice was mine; the connections to my bullies are not causes.
I went about living my life. Sixth grade was a painful memory. In my early twenties, I thought about that year a lot and wished for the chance to do it again, to stand up for myself, to bring my adult strength to a child’s situation. But as my own children approached the age I was when I was abused by my classmates, my thinking changed.
I started to recognize that Kathy, Karen, and Tanya were little girls, too. They were so large in my memory, so much more powerful than I was, that they had become something other than children for me. They were just as young as I was, caught up in personal turmoil about which I know nothing. Why did they do what they did? I don’t know, but it seems pretty unlikely that they were bad kids whose parents didn’t care what they did. In fact, I’d guess that Karen and Tanya’s parents would have punished them for such behavior just like Kathy’s mom punished her. I think they were probably very nice girls from their parents’ perspectives. I think they would have been shocked to find out what their daughters were doing at school.
As I came, over several years, to this new perspective, my anger at the adults involved grew. How could they just let me suffer that way? And of course I know how, in a rational, removed sort of way. They didn’t know what to do; they didn’t know the breadth and depth of the problem. They’d been conditioned to believe that, unless there is physical aggression that leaves marks, the problem isn’t significant enough to warrant any real attention.
But past rational, past the adult-me who is raising children and sometimes making big mistakes and who understands that shit happens and you can’t always fix it, there is an eleven year old girl in a blind red rage. I was a little girl. The coach, my parents, the school counselor, they were adults. Their responsibility, first and foremost, before anything else, was to keep me safe. And they failed. They failed big.
In my adult life, I’ve had almost no contact with any of the people with whom I went to school. I didn’t go to any of our reunions, didn’t call or write, didn’t even exchange Christmas cards. Finally (finally!), as I moved deeper into my 30s, the pain of those years started to recede. Sending my eldest to 6th grade was indescribably gut-wrenching, but for the most part, I didn’t think about it much anymore. Although I’ve always been afraid that my children would bully or be bullied (I probably wouldn’t handle that very well.), they’ve been much more confident than I ever was. We still live in Albuquerque; my kids are students in the same school system in which I was educated, but things are different now. They take bullying more seriously.
Last year, I joined Facebook. While I was skipping sleep in that first week, hunting down old boyfriends and making sure my kids weren’t posting their phone numbers for all the world to see, I found all three of them: Kathy, Karen, and Tanya. For weeks, I thought about contacting them, telling them how much they had hurt me. I would see their names show up in comments to mutual friends and it was like a tiny stab. I turned it over in my mind, even starting, then discarding, a few messages.
Ultimately, I decided not to do it. If the first lesson my bullies taught me was “I don’t matter,” how bad would it hurt if the message I got back said, “I have no idea who you are. What the hell are you even talking about?” I knew that would hurt more than I could bear, so I gave up on the idea.
On March 24, the day before my birthday, a message from Kathy showed up in my Facebook inbox.
I’m at a loss to describe what happened to me in that moment. I was sobbing and shaking before I finished the first sentence. How can a wound that old still be so tender? I can’t answer that, only tell you that it was.
Far from forgetting me, she remembered 6th grade often. These are her some of words:*
My oldest kiddo is ten and we just had his parent/teacher conference this past week. At every conference since he was in kindergarten, his teachers always comment about how accepting he is and how he goes out of his way to be kind and be a good friend to all of his fellow students. And while that is nice to hear about my child, it always makes me think of how I treated you and how for a very long time I have wanted to find a way to get in touch with you to tell you how sorry I am.
Not forgotten. NOT a person who doesn’t matter. Me, worthy of consideration. Me, worthy of the time it took to write a thoughtful, heartfelt apology.
I lay awake all night that night. I thought of nothing but Kathy, and 6th grade, and the other girls, Karen and Tanya, for several days. The letter turned my world inside out, brought me to my knees, and when the storm had passed, a Kathy-shaped piece of pain rose out of me and floated away, and in its place? A new friend. Kathy and I have exchanged more than a dozen messages since that first day and with every message, we’re a little more comfortable, a little less tentative and nervous. I giggle and joke and call it my Facebook miracle, except it’s not really a joke at all.
Recently, bullying stories have been all over the news, stories of girls who ended their lives because of abusive treatment by their peers. For all the anguish I experienced during 6th grade, when I came home from school, the taunting and teasing stopped, completely, until I went back to school. Back then, we didn’t even have cordless phones and answering machines, much less internet and text messages. I can’t imagine I would have survived if Karen, Kathy, and Tanya had had 24/7 access to me.
I’ve long wondered why they did what they did, but even Kathy doesn’t know:
“For many years now, I have questioned why I treated you so horribly when we were in school together. And as much as I’ve thought about it and as much as I’ve tried to figure it out, honestly don’t know why. Maybe peer pressure of trying to fit in, maybe joining in with others so that they wouldn’t pick on me, or maybe I was just a horrible, horrible person. Maybe all of the above. But whatever the reason, it does not change the fact that I was wrong to treat you the way I did. I want you to know how very sorry I am. I know I caused you tremendous pain and suffering because of my actions. I want you to know that my apology is sincere and heartfelt. From the very bottom of my heart, I am so very sorry for the abusive way I treated you when we were in school.”
Parents, talk to your kids about bullying, because any child can be a bully. Any child can get caught in the swirling social morass of middle and high school. I don’t vilify my bullies anymore; we were all little girls. We were children who, lacking adequate supervision and guidance, found ourselves tangled in a situation that got too big for us. Adults should have saved us, and I do mean us, not me. I suffered from years of shame; Kathy suffered from years of guilt. (Perhaps Tanya and Karen have suffered, too, though I don’t know.) Adult intervention could have protected us all.
Know what your kids are doing at school, how they’re treating other children, and find out what their school’s bullying policies are. Find out if they follow those policies, how they are enforced, and what the grievance procedure is. If there isn’t a policy in place, or if the policy is inadequate, work with some other parents and pressure the school to change it.
And if your child is being bullied in school, do not wait, do not hesitate, do not be scared. Just make it stop. Find a way. I can’t tell you how to make it stop because every situation is different, but if you need the courage to confront the school, you email me and I will pep talk you to the moon. As parents, keeping our kids safe is job one. You can do it.
Because honestly? I would have been better off if my parents had done almost anything, up to and including letting me hang out at home and read books all year. Academically, I learned something between nothing and absolutely zero that year. How could I have learned? That’s like locking someone in the tiger pen at the zoo and insisting they write a 2,000 word discourse on surplus transfer and the birth of capitalism.