“Jay” (that’s what I’ll call you)–we grew up together. We lived in the same neighborhood. Our mothers had also been school mates growing up in this same neighborhood together. You would think we’d have gotten along a bit better.
But for the most part we just seemed oblivious of each other. We were often in the same classes, played on the same playground, and rode the same school bus home. Back then, we didn’t exactly count each other as friends, but we certainly weren’t at odds. Not then. Not yet, anyway.
Then came the sixth grade and everything changed.
That year “Donnie” was in our class. If you and he had been cast in a movie, the viewer would’ve known from the very first scene which one of you would be the bully and which would be the bullied.
You, Jay, were one of those kids blessed with a fast metabolism and clear skin, even as puberty was kicking into full-swing. You had that perfect blond hair, buzzed into a crew cut. You had a James Dean sort of style: wearing tight black jeans and a plain white t-shirt. You always had on Jordans. I remember that–they were always immaculate and shiny. I never knew how you kept your shoes so fresh looking when you wore them every single day.
Donnie, on the other hand, wasn’t quite so blessed. He had an unruly shock of orange-red hair framing his round, freckled face. He was always a little soft-looking. His jeans always sagged in the rump area (this was, of course, before sagging jeans were in, and even then, they weren’t sagging in a “good” way). He wore heavy hunting boots and wasn’t as easy in front of crowds as you were.
You were the class heartthrob. He was the class joker.
For whatever reason, you set your sights on him. You made him miserable. You tormented him with your taunts, with your insults, with the way you and your friends always managed to snub him on the playground. He was an outcast and you made him a pariah.
But midway through the year, Donnie caught a lucky break. His mother and her boyfriend decided to marry and move to the other side of the county. Most sixth grade kids would be devastated by the notion of moving away from their school in middle of the year. But not Donnie. For him, this was a reprieve he had not expected, but would not let pass him by.
Donnie’s last day was a Friday. Monday morning you had a new target: me.
I don’t know what I did to win your attention. I’ve often pondered it and if I could figure it out (and had access to the TARDIS) I’d skip back in time and change it.
At first, you targeted the obvious and easy about me: My clothes.
Even back then I was not a very girly girl. I was tomboy all the way through. I was not a fashionista or a clothes horse. I don’t remember why I only had a couple of pairs of jeans–it was probably because I was full-on in the midst of puberty, and as someone who started to “develop” early, my body shape was in constant change and flux. Whatever I had acquired at the start of the year probably didn’t fit anymore.
While most girls were foolishly looking forward to the advent of the beauty maintenance requirements most women come to hate, I was fully involved with it. I was shaving legs, hiding my already well-formed bust under baggy t-shirts and crossed arms, and my favorite pair of jeans were a hand-me down pair from a neighbor. They were boys’ jeans; but they hid my hips better than girl jeans did.
While the other girls were still bean pole-shaped and dreaming of curvier days, I was curvy and wishing for a more “normal” shape (whatever that means.)
It was the beginning of a life-long feeling of shame regarding my own body. And you seized upon it.
You made funny of my oversized t-shirts. You made fun of my boy jeans.
And then you moved on to the thing that had been off-limits for my entire school career up until that point, the thing all the other kids had the good taste not to tease: my speech problem.
I was, at that point, in my seventh year of speech therapy. I had come a long way, but still had a lot of work to do. I was self-conscious, despised speaking in front of others, and dreaded having anyone draw attention to the thing that I hated most about myself.
And let’s not forget this was the late eighties. I guess it must have been the ’88-’89 school year. The AIDS epidemic was in full-swing, the general public knew so very little about it, Ryan White had become a national poster-boy for the disease, and reports of violence and brutality were popping up as people lashed out at the dying. Sexuality became a pressing issue as it became the thing to blame.
Our favorite television shows were all airing “very special episodes” regarding AIDS. When I look back and watch these old shows, I am sometimes horrified at how little we knew back then, at the assumptions we made, and the unloving way we reacted (even on sitcoms that were supposed to be reflecting a compassionate reaction).
Our parents’ generation and those older were obsessed about AIDS and sexuality. Their fear was imparted onto us whether they intended for it to be or not. And you responded accordingly.
Suddenly, you felt it was your duty to question my sexuality. Lead by you, your friends hurled all sorts of insults at me: dyke, lesbo, queer, faggot (they didn’t all make sense, but we were kids reacting to something bigger than us, so I’ll allow your ignorance to slide).
Not a day went by that I couldn’t rely on you, Jay, to ridicule the way my Rs sounded like Ws, the way my boot-cut jeans didn’t taper in (as was the style of the 80s), the way I hid my forming body from the world, and what your perceived I must be since I wasn’t fitting into your neat little image of a “girl.”
To say you were the cause of my depression would not be fair. I had struggled with dark moods and depressive episodes since I was very young. Depression has been a constant, relentless force in my life.
But you certainly knew how to punch the buttons. Thanks to you and your cruelty, though, I began to fantasize about disappearing for the first time. I dreamed of running away–living in a barn somewhere in Nebraska and making a living as a ranch hand (I don’t know why Nebraska–maybe for a girl who had never been beyond the Appalachian mountains there was something romantic about living on all that flat land…). But it would be just a few months, after the horrors of junior high began, that those dreams of running away would become more sinister, more dark, and more permanent with the notion of suicide.
I spent many nights weeping myself to sleep. For the first time in my life I would stand before my closet and throw a temper-tantrum because I didn’t have any acceptable clothes to wear. Even when Mom and Dad took me shopping, hoping trendier clothes would bring an end to your taunting, I couldn’t feel any hope that you’d approve. And of course, you didn’t.
For the first time in seven years, when my allotted time to leave the classroom and report for speech therapy arrived, I slunk out of class deeply ashamed by my differences, well-aware that everyone knew I was deficient and that’s why I was being excused.
For the first time in my life I found myself needing to prove my “femininity.” I no longer bore my school-girl crushes on the boy across the aisle silently. Now I had to make sure the world knew I was “in love” with so-and-so.
I found myself playing along with the other girls, even when I didn’t share their sentiments. Suddenly, I thought Tom Cruise was “gorgeous” (but not really). When a poster of Kirk Cameron was being sold at a book fair, I had to have it. To this day I ‘m still not sure if my youthful crush on Kirk was real or just a cleverly role-played infatuation. I think I thought he was attractive… but I just don’t know, anymore.
Everything about my life became one giant insecurity and my reaction to it. Everything became an attempt to foil your plans to hurt me, to prove I wasn’t what you said I was, and to hopefully escape your ruthless bullying.
I have no idea what it was that made you need to single me out. I don’t know what was going on in your life to make you need to harass and hurt other people. I don’t know why you saw the weaknesses and differences in other people and felt compelled to drive a knife in as deep as you could and twist and rip the wound open so that healing would never occur.
Maybe you were being abused. Maybe you were being neglected. Maybe you were silently bearing a terrible pain and insecurity in yourself that you were transferring to people like me and Donnie. Maybe you really were just a giant jerk-face.
I don’t know.
What I do know is that you hurt me more than you could ever imagine.
Your ridicule began to wane in junior high as our paths took separate directions. I was ushered into advanced classes and encouraged to shoot for the stars. You were ushered into the lowest-level courses and encouraged to think about welding as a career (or one of the other career tracks to which they encouraged kids they didn’t think would get to college).
You soon forgot I existed. But what you had begun continued. Some of your friends weren’t so ready to put elementary school behind us and they continued their assaults. They told others. Now kids I didn’t even know were participating.
It wasn’t long before the guy with the locker next to mine, T.P. (yes, his initials are T.P.–I don’t know how I missed that back then), started scribbling “lesbo” and “fruit” on my locker. First in pencil. Then in pen.
And the dark, distressing thoughts lingered in the air. They haunted my dreams. I lay awake at night, composing in my head the suicide note that would make you so profoundly ashamed you’d never be the same again… and would have the added bonus of causing the rest of the students to ostracize you the way you had done me.
By the time we reached high school you acted as though you couldn’t even remember my name. When I decided not to pursue higher math (having reached the top most level required to graduate, but still one math credit shy) I took what we called “bonehead” math. It was stuff that dealt with balancing check books and figuring out basic fractions (which is bigger, 1/2 or 1/3?). It was the easiest A I had ever made. You sat in front of me and nearly every day you turned around and asked me for help on your assignment… but you looked at me as though I was just some hazy memory, as if you couldn’t quite place how you knew me.
I wanted to scream at you, “Don’t your remember? Don’t you remember that everyone in junior high called me a fruit because a vicious rumor you started in grade school? Don’t you know I think about dying all the time, and you are the primary reason? Don’t you know I still cry myself to sleep at night?”
But I didn’t say any of that. I just gave you the answers, not bothering to explain how the answers could be discovered. Every once in a while you would crease your brow and say “Are you sure?”
Of course I was sure. I was tempted to call you stupid. To make fun of you in front of everyone else the way you had done me just a few years earlier. I had an impulse to ruin your life the way you had ruined mine. But I wouldn’t even begin to know how to be that mean. So I just said, “Yes, I’m sure,” and left it at that. You could copy my answer and get an A, or you could write your own incorrect answer and flunk. It was your choice.
Truth is, in our junior year of high school, I was feeling sorry for you. I mean, this math we were doing was the same stuff we had done back in grade school when you first started attacking me. How could you not know how to do it, yet?
I guess on some gut-level I knew that I had known advantages that you never did: My mother was completing her teaching degree and would soon be teaching business and accounting courses. My dad was a math and science teacher. I had help and encouragement I doubt you ever did. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t reduce myself to hurt you the way you had hurt me.
After that, we never saw each other again. Later that year, I attempted suicide. You never even batted an eye.
Somehow I found the strength after that to come back to school, to finish out the last few weeks of my junior year… and I just sort of charged through my senior year without ever seeing or noticing you.
We graduated. Both of us on time.
I went to college. You, I believe, became a welder. I guess you had managed to grasp that math well enough to pass the test… or maybe you just found someone else to copy off of. I don’t know. I don’t really care. You have your life now, and I have mine.
But every so often I’d run into someone who knew you–someone who’d talk about hanging out with you. I had a friend (one I made after high school) who thought you were “hot”. For a while you and she “dated” (I put that in quotes because what you two were doing was not what I considered to be dating).
I was afraid to come to her house if I thought you might be there. She never understood why I’d say, “Jay isn’t around, is he?” when she’d ask me to come over.
I finally broke down and told her. I told her how you had tormented me. How you had been a part of the reason I had taken that overdose back in high school. I told her how you didn’t even seem to remember me, but how you had ruined my life none-the-less. I told her how long it had taken to gain my confidence, to heal, to come to terms with who I am and to stop seeing myself through the lens you set up for me. And I told her how I still hurt. How just the mention of your name made me sick at my stomach.
She wept with me. Not long after that she dumped you. I don’t know if it was because of what I said, but I’d like to think that maybe she saw you in a different light than just the “cute guy in the tight jeans and cowboy boots”.
Years have crept by, now. We’re in our mid-thirties. I don’t even know where you are in life. I heard once you moved to the deep South after Katrina to work as a welder on an oil rig. I guess that’s a good job. I guess I should congratulate you.
I don’t know if you ever married, if you ever had children, if you ever figured out why you needed to hurt people to feel better about yourself, or even if you ever knew you were a bully who tormented people.
But I have come to realize some things about myself in regards to your influence on my life. These things I would like to share with you, now.
First, I no longer feel sorry for you. That’s a big thing. Sympathy was the only thing that kept me from becoming you back in high school, and that isn’t an acceptable reason. That doesn’t make me a good person. And I wanted to be a good person. So I stopped feeling sorry for you and took a long, hard look at you.
Second, after looking at you–at the cruel way you cut a person to the bone with a word, at the struggles you had in school, at the way you didn’t even seem to know the influence you had on the world (good or bad), I realized you really aren’t different from me. Maybe I wasn’t a bully, but I guess we were each terribly broken in our own way, and that brokeness was largely the result of someone else’s dysfunction.
Third, I finally forgave you. I can’t say when, exactly, it happened. All I know is that now, when I think about you, when I hear your name, I don’t feel sick. I just feel like I hope that whatever happened in your childhood to make you who you were back then has changed, that you have overcome it and are now a much better, happier person. I honestly hope only the best for you.
Fourth, the misery you put me though didn’t kill me. I thought it would at times. But it didn’t. And I guess it really did make me stronger. As a minister, I am subject to constant bullying–it’s just one of the professional hazards of this vocation. I would have never dreamed when we were kids that I would actually be in this sort of work, taking the sorts of daily abuse I take. But I take it because I believe that there is a hope in Christ that we–people like you and me–can find healing and wholeness. And if you and I can find peace, I know all the world can come to know peace.
Fifth and finally, you have helped to shape my sense of justice. Justice is a major part of my personal theology. Now when I hear about some kid being pushed to the point of suicide because of the relentless and constant bullying of some other kid–when I hear about gay youth being tortured by their class mates–when I see the pain in the eyes of a girl who finally had too much–I can’t help but think of you. And I know that we aren’t going to set the bullied free from their torment until we set their tormentors free from their need to inflict pain. Bullied kids are oppressed by the maliciousness of others, and bullies are oppressed by the life-circumstances and societal pressures that encourage them seek out the weak and hurt the helpless.
So, Jay, I guess all I can say to you is that I hope you read these words. I hope you see the very real pain you have caused in this world. I hope you are no longer that guy. And I hope that with what is left of your life will be used to make a positive influence in this world. I hope you never know the heartbreak and the agony of wrestling for years with the temptation of suicide. I hope you never know what it is like to be broken that way. I hope you never have to hurt so badly. But if you ever do, I would be willing to help you. So please reach out.
With all Sincerity,
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