The bus seat was sticky. I remember that, and the way sunlight blocked squares on the floor dust.
I was 11, sitting alone. Across the aisle sat Katie and John (whose names have been changed). Blue-eyed, blond and bouncy-curled, Katie was a proto-cheerleader, with a doll-face and all the right logos on her sweatshirts and sneakers.
Katie was laughing at something John had said, and then they both turned to me. “Do you think she’s pretty?” Katie said. I smiled at him, feeling my cheeks pink and hot.
“No,” he said, slowly scanning my face. “You’re ugly.”
This was not the first time that John was mean to me at school. He also pressed wads of gum into my hair (my mother snipped them out with kitchen scissors). In homeroom, he threw tacks at my back. John was shrimpy for his age and always acting out, so later, I told myself his behavior was all about a Napoleon complex, his own fragile self-esteem.
Another boy threatened to murder my kitten, telling me he had a BB gun at home, or that he might tie a tiny noose to our front tree. Kids trailed me on my walk home from the bus stop, yelling at me, pretending they liked me in order to embarrass me later.
The girls made fun of my K-Mart jeans and Keds and hand-me-down overalls. Sometimes, they sneered at the way I talked: I spent a lot of my hours with my nose inched into books’ spines and had a weird vocabulary of mispronounced words. They mocked my frizzy hair and my crooked teeth and how I punched my hand in the air, spring-loaded, when the teacher asked a question.
* * *
As a child, I’d been a fearless know-it-all. In my teen years, I sank into myself. I became defensive and prickly, slinging sarcasm and insults to fend off teasing. Insecurity chewed away my confidence. I began to expect that any interaction with a peer was doomed to end in humiliation.
The world isn’t neatly divided into bullies and the bullied; all victims conceal sins, and all villains carry sorrows and scars.
That’s how I became a girl who prefers corners and leaning on walls at parties, who takes full stock of any conversation before speaking. Comments are carefully spooned out, reactions and counter-reactions measured and evaluated in advance. Even now, every sentence is deliberate.
This legacy has also left me with scars. I am still unearthing the proud little girl’s voice that I lost, the girl who knows she is right and deserves to be heard. I might have been born an introvert, but I wasn’t born shy, or scared.
In this version of my story, I’m a victim, still sorting out the traumas of childhood.
But this isn’t the whole story. More than the tales we tell about others, the stories we tell about ourselves are only half-truths. Sometimes we’re trying to protect ourselves; sometimes we discard memories (purposefully or not) that don’t fit the person we’ve become or would like to be. But there are always traces of editing and rearranging, the fingerprints of time and interpretation.
In narrating my childhood, I forget conveniently those periods when I became a bully myself.
I wasn’t the instigator, but I did tag along when the herd decided to descend on one unlucky kid: the sixth-grader we tormented by spilling rainwater from our boots on her bus seat, the Girl Scout in pigtail braids we tricked into believing our campsite was being haunted by a bloodthirsty bear.
One of my middle school classmates was a quiet boy who wore glasses and a gray sweatsuit nearly every day. We were talking about the Chinese zodiac in class. “I’m the horse,” he said, reading the worksheet. “So I’m attractive and fashionable.”
Another student fixed his sweatsuit with a stinging gaze. “That definitely doesn’t describe you,” she said, in the singsong way that little girls in the suburbs talk. The class roared. I can see the look on his face — surprise and then a crumbling — so precisely, as if I were still in that room, the lunch bell about to ring.
I can’t deny that there’s pleasure in feeling fellowship with a group bonded against a common enemy, however opaque your reasons for that aggression may be. The fact is that human beings relish a witch hunt. We love a mob scene. We can’t wait to lob our frustrations at figureheads.
Most kids, like most people, aren’t ringleaders; they’re just swept up in the clamor and pull of the crowd. They are afraid that if they protest they will become the target instead. Middle schools, full of the vulnerable and shame-faced, are ruled by this fear, and so once was I.
I think often about what else I might have done, my missed chances to act against the kids who tormented me, the times when my integrity — though half-formed it may have been at age 12 or 10 — fell apart when I joined the mob instead of standing up to it.
* * *
I’ve devoted a lot of time to trying to untangle my bullies’ motivations, because it might ease my wounds to know why their arrows were loosed.
Does the boy with the BB gun under his bed ever think back a decade and a half, to when he wanted to use it on my pet? Did it mean something like power to him, to see me cringe and cry? Does John realize how he managed, in three words, to collapse my self-image, and did he win Katie’s approval by doing so? Does the girl of the trilling taunts remember launching them, and does she wish she hadn’t?
I’ll never know the answers to those questions (none of them attended my recent high school reunion), and so the truth is probably best uncovered by untangling my own motives. I knew exactly how much it hurt to overhear a conversation on the stairwell about how “weird” my new outfit was. But I had laughed openly at another kid for just the same reason. It had nothing to do with him, and everything to do with my fears, with the sounds of my classmates’ laughter pressing in on all sides.
The world isn’t neatly divided into bullies and the bullied; all victims conceal sins, and all villains carry sorrows and scars. You won’t be able to avoid being both, though you don’t have to be both in equal measure. You aren’t defined by the gap-toothed oddball that you used to be, no more than the classmates who tattooed those words on your brain space are defined by the rude face they turned on you.
Forgive your bullies, and you forgive yourself, too.