Today the members of teamTEENauthor are blogging on this topic: Bully. To see other posts on the topic, check the links at the bottom of the page.
As I contemplated this post, spent a while thinking about what story I wanted to tell. I have no shortage of stories about awful things I saw my schoolmates do to each other. For several years, I had some painful things said to me on a daily basis. But it became clear to me that those were not the stories that I wanted to tell. Instead, I want to tell you about Jennifer.
In seventh grade, Jennifer and I were in several of the same classes. We sat together; we ate lunch together. Soon we started hanging out after school–we walked to the grocery store for sodas and candy bars. I hung out at her house with her and her brother. We watched movies. We had sleepovers.
And then, probably three weeks before the end of the school year, I stopped talking to Jennifer. We still traveled in the same social circles. I still saw her plenty at school. But I wouldn’t look at her. I wouldn’t speak to her. I acted as if she wasn’t even there. Jennifer acted bewildered around me, like she couldn’t figure out what she’d done, but she never struck back at me. Then the school year ended; I wrote the word “Rat” over the lower half of her picture in my year book. I asked to sign her year book, and when she reluctantly handed it over, I wrote, “have a nice trip, see you next fall.” I was guilty not only of petty spitefulness but also a painful lack of originality. I ignored Jennifer into summer break. And before the beginning of eighth grade, she moved away. I never saw her again.
I couldn’t tell you exactly why I did it. I could tell you about how seventh grade was a really lousy year for me. I could tell you about how I felt powerless, and so I wielded ugly power in a place where I had control. But it isn’t an excuse. There is no excuse for what I did. She called me her friend, and I hurt her. I knew it was wrong at the time, and I did it anyway. Plain and simple, it was a shitty thing to do.
Here’s the thing–I’m pretty sure Jennifer’s life was already difficult. She lived with her mom and her stepdad and four or five older step-siblings. I hung out at her house quite a bit, and I don’t remember meeting her parents, step or otherwise. I remember my mom saying years later that she thought the kids there were raising themselves. With only my thirteen-year-old perceptions to look back on, I’m not sure how good or bad the situation actually was. But I do know this: I made Jennifer’s life worse, when, as her friend, I should have been making it better.
Was I a bully? I never hit Jennifer. I never threatened her. I didn’t say the awful things to her that some of my classmates said to me. But I remember talking about aggression in a child development class. Some people believe that school-aged boys are more aggressive than girls, because boys are much more likely to hit each other. But it isn’t true. Girls are just as aggressive, but we wield emotions instead of weapons. We tear each other to shreds with the power of our relationships. A boy might say he’s going to hit you, but a girl will withdraw her friendship. It might not be physical, but it’s just as aggressive and harder to see. While I know that people can be classified as bullies based on a longterm pattern of persistent behavior, I think for many of us, bully is a shadow that passes over us. It’s an ugly, dark shadow, and I wish I’d never passed under it.
The next year, eight grade, was my last year of middle school. Friends drifted, other friends moved away. I ended up with no friends for quite a while; I ate lunch alone. I didn’t find another group of solid friends at school for two years. For those years, a part of me believed I was doing penance for what I did to Jennifer. To be honest, a part of me still does.
I think this is what I really wanted to say: Jennifer, I’m sorry. If I could change it, I’d undo what I did. But since I know that’s impossible, I hope for this one thing.
I hope I’m not a memory you dwell on. I hope you have forgotten me.
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