An Open Letter to my Childhood Bully

“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.

Congratulations.

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,

Amanda

This post is a part of the “Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project

I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.”  

25 thoughts on “An Open Letter to my Childhood Bully

  1. I never realized, Amanda. Never knew about the suicide attempt. But, I was oblivious to most things back then. You were always so nice. Quiet, but nice. I don’t remember if I ever did or didn’t participate in bullying you, but I know I was prone to “following the pack” back then. If I did, I am truly sorry.

    • Steve–I know we all had our insecurities in high school and we all made our way through high school trying to survive in our own ways. I know that at times, even with the lessons I had learned after years of being bullied, I chose to be silent when I saw other people suffer because I didn’t rock the boat. I can certainly understand “following the pack” attitude because I did it, too. But you were certainly never one of the people who caused me pain–I want to assure you of that. Our paths didn’t cross until high school, and by then the bullying had more-or-less come to an end. Statistically, people are more likely to commit suicide when they are beginning to feel better, not when they are at their lowest point with depression, and that was certainly true of me. Thanks for your kind words and God bless!

    • Time to take a step back and look at myself. Shit that is a strong message. I hope the guy gets the chance to read this… If anyone knows him Email it to him. Payback from Wayback

  2. Wow! I don’t know much else to say but wow!!

    I know you and I were never the best of friends. You were so smart. Math came easy to you. Writing witty essays about everyday life that made Mr. Morgan swoon came easy to you. I was so jealous of that!! I was so jealous of you and Jason Martin. Both of you had the brain I wanted, but it wasn’t as easy for me. If I knew now…right?

    I remember people being mean, it happened to me too. But, when I think about the girl, Amanda, that I graduated with, I don’t think about her wardrobe or the way she said her “r”, I think about her laugh. The way it filled a room and was so highly contagious that no one was safe from it!!

    You are a gift and I am glad that, even though it is just through the world of Social Network these days, you are part of my life and memories! Big Hugs to you!!!

    Tauletha

    • Oh, Tauletha, I wish math had come easy! LOL. The truth is my poor father, a math/science/physics teacher, spent hours sitting on the couch next to me, suffering through my temper tantrums, and patiently teaching me the SAME thing over and over and over. That’s why I decided not to go any high than Algebra II. Once I realized that was as high as I needed to climb, I jumped ship! haha. Writing did come easy, and I think that had a lot to do with my childhood speech problem. Communication was so much easier on paper than it was face-to-face, so I developed pretty strong writing skills early in life.

      It’s funny, though–how we looked at each other back then. I always thought you were the one who had it easy. You made new friends so easily, always had that knack of striking the perfect balance between being “trendy” and being uniquely you at the same time… heck, I was even jealous of your name! Do you remember how many Amandas we graduated with? But there was only one Tauletha! Junior high/high school would have been so much easier on all of us if we had known just half of what we know now about ourselves and about each other. We all had our insecurities, we all had our hangups and we all managed to get through a difficult time in our lives with different survival techniques. If the younger generations can hear just a fraction of what we are trying to say, I think we’ve already done them a great service!

    • Thank you. It is cathartic getting it out there. I sometimes look back and wish I could’ve dealt with it more head-on at the time. I used to be flabbergasted by the way you confronted so many of those things at the time. At the time, though, it was just easier to retreat into the things that I thought would protect me (my heterosexuality, my mainstream Christianity, etc…) I hope you know that the courage you demonstrated back in school has stuck with me–I’ve never been able to forget it–and it’s kept me thinking and reassessing things. The only reason I stand behind the new civil rights movement now is because people like you lived a testimony of love and compassion at the time. I know that back then, you and I often butted heads over religion in journalism class–but those moments stuck with me and I’m a better person and a better Christian now because people like you didn’t let me off the hook easy! Thank you for that!

      • Thank you for sharing your letter – I was bullied as well and continue to struggle with the impacts. I’m slowly letting go of long held hostility towards the bullies and all those who did nothing. You so eloquently described “the pain” we all share and which blurs the lines between the bullied and the bullied. What happened was wrong but it doesn’t define the victim or the perpetrator – only love ceases hatred.

  3. Amanda – It always amazes me to discover how much in common I have with others… particularly with life events that seemed, at the time, like I was the only person on the planet experiencing them. My bullies names were Susie and Phil, “new” kids in 7th grade who bought themselves acceptance with my humiliation. Though I never attempted suicide as you did, I thought about it long and hard and the legacy of adolescent bullying shaped my life personally and vocationally in ways similar to yours. Forgiveness is quite the victory and relief in circumstances like this. Glad you’ve found it! Thanks for sharing yourself and your story this way. This is powerful stuff… especially as it demonstrates how what is most difficult in life can ultimately be used by God for good if we let it. Blessings!

    • Thank you! As hard as school was for us, I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it is for kids these days. At least when I went home I could disconnect from it all. I would head straight to my bedroom, close the door, climb into bed, pull the covers up over my head, and forget the world existed for a while. With the uber-connectedness of the world today, though, kids are able to do that as easily. I guess that’s I will feel so motivated to use this hyper-connectivity to get a message of hope and healing out. Thank you for sharing your story, too! Every one counts because with everyone brave enough to admit they have dealt with the same things (in our own different situations), people who are currently struggling know that they are not alone.

  4. Very heartfelt and moving, Amanda. Forgiveness for those who hurt us is the greatest gift we give ourselves. That forgiveness allows God to show us ways to help others who hurt. Thank you for your testimony! Peace!
    Paula

    • Thank you for your kind words, Paula. You are right, forgiveness is the greatest gift I gave myself. For years I couldn’t forgive “Jay” and the anxiety, hurt, and distrust stuck with me. I haven’t forgotten the pain, and never will. But now I can finally see him as a human being, too… and that’s a step in the right direction.

  5. Wow! I don’t know what to say. Your story touched my heart. I was one of the kids that was invisible. I had good friends, but feel I was forgettable. I tried to stay out of the way, but I like other people went with the crowd. What my friends were doing, I probably did too. I remember being bullied for many things, like you I had speech problems. I had trouble with “R” and “S” , thank God, my name didn’t have one of those letters. I had a name that was easy to make fun of, I’ve grown to love my name now, but then, I would’ve loved something simple and plain. It took great courage for you to write this, and I commend you. I hope whoever “Jay” is and wherever he is, that he’s learned from this experience too. Everyone focuses on the bully as a horrible person, but there’s a reason for their behavior. And I can honestly say, I never looked at it that way.

    • It did take me a long time to see “Jay” as a person. I can remember being so angry after high school that his life seemed to be going so easy. All I could see was a terrible person who had all the breaks in life. I think that’s why I was so happy my friend dumped him. I realize now that he had his own challenges and that he was acting on them in the only way he knew–most likely it was the only way he was taught to handle his problems–and I can see him a new light. It isn’t just me who needed to find healing–he did too. I hope he has.

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  7. Amanda, thanks so much for sharing this story. It was very moving and thought provoking.

    I had never really thought about how much pastors experience “bullying” on a routine basis…or at least I had never thought of using that term to explain the behavior we often face. But it is so poignant and fitting. I will be reflecting on that one for quite a while.

    • Scott, I actually struggled a bit over using that word, “bullying”, in relation to what we pastors experience… I finally decided it fit because I often reflect on the years of pain I experienced with “Jay” and the process of healing that eventually came when I am trying to navigate the sometimes choppy waters of ministry.

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  9. Amanda, thanks so much for sharing this personal, intimate essay. It resonates with all of us. I was never the popular kid in school, but I wasn’t at the bottom, either. Unfortunately, I was bullied, and I bullied others I considered below me. I will regret it all my days. Now, as a teacher, I try to be alert to bullying in school and stop the cycle. I am concerned that you feel bullied now in the ministry. I hope you can rise above it as you did in school.

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  11. Thank you for sharing your story. It is heartwrenching and eye-opening at the same time. I, having bloomed early, was subject to torment in middle school. It lead to a life long issue with weight and food. Although high school was a much better experience for me, I could never let it go and I never felt the need to forgive or understand until I was raising a special need child that had to deal with tormentors of his own.

  12. I obviously missed this blog post!! I have always enjoyed reading your work and have come to really like knowing I can ask you questions when I struggle with spiritual items. I am searching my memory bank and cannot recall noticing a speech issue with you. Perhaps you had learned enough tricks of the trade to disguise it. This post makes me admire you even more. You have such an incredible way of looking at events, both good and bad. You embrace the fact there’s so much to learn from life. I’m so sorry you experienced any of these awful things. If I ever had the opportunity to defend you and did not, I am sorry. I hope neither I nor any of my friends added any your grief. As always…. I look forward to your posts….. Lots of blessings and rainbows!!

  13. I am 52 and am just beginning to have the need to write things down, openly and honestly. I am so proud of you for getting this out. Down on paper, so to speak. Not that it will help much, but nothing in school has changed for the better for ‘the targets’ of like. I was victim to bullying for years and growing up west of Los Angeles in the 70’s, this included so many different types of bullies. So very glad you got through that. My best wishes for you in all you do.

    • Thank you so much! I’ve read through several of your posts and really enjoy your blog as well! Keep it up, because the work you are doing is very important!

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