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embracing our worst selves

i was bullied when i was in school, between about the ages of nine and thirteen and it was hell.

i've never said that before, or at least i've never said it in exactly that way. i've told people that i was 'unpopular'. i've joked about my outcast status in retrospect and wear it as a badge of honour. i've laughed it off as a sign that i felt superior to those people who made me miserable. i've spoken dispassionately about that period of my life as being uninteresting, an empty space before i started going to a school large enough and diverse enough that i was no longer an obvious target. i've talked about other students being mean to me. but i'd never called it bullying.

at the time, calling someone a bully would have been laughed at, because it was assumed that children being mean to each other was just something that happened, something that toughened you up for the rest of your life, but something that was no big deal. bullying now is understood as something serious and potentially dangerous, something that needs to be addressed. but at the time, i didn't say anything because i didn't have a good word to apply to what was going on. i didn't have a word that conveyed the helplessness i felt being tormented for simply being.

even since we've come to understand bullying as something pernicious, though, i've been reticent to apply the term to my own experience for one reason: part of me still felt ashamed for what had happened and for how much it had hurt me.

when i was nine, i changed schools. i'd done that before, but in this case i ended up going to a very small school in a wealthy area alongside the children of the city's best-known families in a city where being well-known [for the right reasons] was important. i can see how i was an easy mark. i was an only child. i already had trouble relating to other children, having been raised mostly around adults. i was clumsy and bad at sports. my parents were divorced at a time when that was still relatively uncommon. we were well enough off, but i wasn't rich like most of the kids in my class and at the same time i lacked the toughness and defiance of the poor kids that garnered them some respect. almost from the day i was at that school, i drew insults, mockery and a few blows for no reason that i could figure out. at that point, i still thought that children needed a logical reason to be cruel to one another.

the bullying wasn't constant. it would be every day for a few months and then it would unexpectedly stop. sometimes, a couple of the people in my class would behave like my friend, inviting me over for lunch or after school and i would be lulled into thinking that the worst was behind me. then after a couple of weeks, i would suddenly be cast out again and shamed for the things they'd managed to find out about me by winning my trust. i'd fall for that trap every time and it made me furious with myself- i'm still furious with myself as i'm typing this and these are events that happened thirty years ago. i just wanted someone to connect with. what's worse, i knew my mother, still regaining her footing after taking the leap to divorce, wanted me to fit in. neither of us understood why i couldn't succeed socially when it was so damned easy for other people, but i couldn't. it was my fault. i was weird.

most of the violence wasn't physical. i did get punched in the face once or twice and on one occasion got pinned down while another girl yanked my skirt over my head in a show of power, but for the most part what i experienced was being derided, insulted, threatened and made fun of every time i spoke, moved, or even made eye contact with another person. so i developed the habit of doing everything i could to become invisible. i stopped speaking in class, stopped participating in anything outside of school, stopped trying to engage in any way. my grades dropped and i got in trouble from my mother and my teachers. i just wanted them to leave me alone and let me be invisible because if they would stop acknowledging my existence then other people would too and then the abuse would stop. that's a heavy thing for a kid to think- that they want to stop existing- but i did. i thought about it all the time.

i wasn't a saint, either. i'd pick on others when i perceived a weakness because i felt like as long as i could do that, i could tell myself i wasn't at the absolute bottom of the heap. but it didn't take me long to figure out that wasn't the case. eventually, my social catatonia stopped that reflex too. [i'd like to say, on the off chance that someone who was the object of my unkindness reads this, that i've continued to feel guilty over all the intervening years.]

as for the people responsible, there were a number of them. different people at different times took thier shots at me. some were boys, but most were girls, since social groups tended to fall along gender lines. some were worse than others. one of them- one who made an art of friending and un-friending me before mark zuckerberg was even born- perversely morphed into a sort of friendly acquaintance by high school and we've even reconnected through facebook. she'd probably be surprised to know that i still think of her primarily as someone who bullied me in elementary school. people who are cruel don't remember the damage they do.

i've no idea what happened to any of the other principal offenders. well, that's not quite true. i've researched a few of them on line just to see what might have become of them, but most seem to have disappeared. i like to think of them trapped in miserable, unfulfilling lives, as petty as that is. i know i shouldn't, but i do. childhood bullying is the sort of thing you have to get over and, for the most part, i have. i'm not the most social person in the world, but i'm a far cry from the girl who wanted to disappear. my life started to improve in high school and has, in a gradual way, continued to improve ever since. but that doesn't mean that i've forgotten what happened, or that i don't feel that little flutter of fear in my heart when i think back to that time.

that last paragraph doesn't speak well of me. i'm admitting up front that i'm vindictive, that i wish harm on people for what was more or less average behaviour. and now i'm going to make that worse: when i was in high school, the father of one of my frequent elementary school tormentors- whose incredible popularity made her a particularly feared enemy- faced a family crisis. her father committed suicide. i distinctly remember feeling happy that she'd had some pain in her life, without an iota of human empathy. how horrible is that? i hadn't even spoken to her in years by that time, but the fact that she'd lost her father at a difficult age gave me some sort of pleasure, because she had been unkind to me. i'm telling you this so that you have the opportunity to decide that you can't sympathize with my mindset and walk [or click] away before i get to my ultimate point.



yesterday, i heard that a twelve year old took a sawed-off shotgun to school in roswell new mexico, injuring two fellow students before he was talked down by a teacher. i've no idea what happened to drive this kid over the edge. twelve is awfully young for a full-blown mental disorder to present, although it's a possibility. but the kid's statement that the day of the shooting would be the first day he had ever looked forward to at school makes me think it was something else. nothing has come out to clarify what the young shooter was thinking, but i feel like it could be that he wanted to hurt people who had hurt him. and what's worse, i understand the sentiment.

i am in no way condoning what happened. i'm not a monster, just a very flawed person. school shootings are a tragedy. and that's all the more reason to look at what makes them happen. sympathize with the victims who did nothing that warranted being shot, yes and at the same time, recall your own mindset if you were bullied. were you angry? did you wish that you had some way to level the playing field? you probably did. and if the torment was bad enough, you probably fantasized about how it would feel to translate your emotional pain into your aggressor's physical pain. because at the time, you likely didn't see a way out. you may have dreaded every coming day for the sameness it would bring. because you were a kid and you didn't have experience to fall back on to reassure yourself you were strong enough to pull through. we're so used to thinking that we got through it and turned out fine that we've forgotten that it's ok to acknowledge that you had some pretty dark times or violent thoughts. and acknowledging them is part of what will help other people understand that those too are normal and that while being bullied can leave some long term scars, it doesn't have to be a matter of life and death.

for the record, i think i've made it clear that i think the accessibility of guns to the american public is insane. and certainly, our increasingly claustrophobic, feudal, disconnected and paranoid society is likely to produce some poisoned apples. but part of dealing with the horror of kids killing kids has got to be letting others know that the impulse may be a sadly common thing and that the path through hell doesn't need to end with a corpse. that means that those of us who have shrugged off our childhood horrors need to stop pretending that everything was fine because we didn't kill others or ourselves and ignoring what pain we went through, because doing so leaves the impression that our experience was better, that it was easy, which gives a troubled person reason to feel more isolated.

as someone who is not a parent, i don't have to face the awesome work of having to prepare another human being to deal with these challenges. but as someone who's gone through it, i'm willing to speak up and say yes, it absolutely sucked and yes, i wanted horrible things to befall the people who hurt me; that it was bad enough that part of me still likes to think of horrible things befalling them. but the fact is that i've had a crazy, fun, frustrating, exciting, confusing, infuriating, happy life and that wouldn't have happened if i'd given in to my legitimate anger back then. i would have been trading all of the things that i've gained since- basically all of the amazing things in my life- to make a point to some asshole who wouldn't even remember my name a few years later. as bleak as those times were, what's happened since has made them worth surviving for me. and as for the bullies? they don't matter.

Comments

Subway Dreaming said…
Thanks for sharing that.
Kate MacDonald said…
It actually felt good to share. Thanks for reading!
Bellyhead said…
Kate, I appreciate the openness & bravery in writing and posting this. Although I tend to comment on beauty (and maybe postal woes), I enjoy so much of everything else in your blog.
Kate MacDonald said…
Thanks Belly, your comments on any subject are always welcome :-)

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