Things are taking a big 180-degree turn on the blog today. There will be some very harsh language, and some of what you’re about to read may be triggering if you were ever bullied or harassed. Fair warning. Laughs and warm feelings will be thin on the ground today.
Today on Twitter the talk turned to bullying. You hear a lot about bullying these days – much more than you ever did when I was a kid. There are anti-bullying days at school; websites; call-in shows; the “It Gets Better” videos. There’s all kinds of words getting spread around, and yet it doesn’t seem to be doing any good. Kids are still getting bullied. The bullies are still getting their behaviour excused by their parents and the school system. There are still children who don’t feel safe in their own school, in their own neighbourhood.
I don’t have the answers. Bullies are a huge trigger for me, because I was bullied, and badly, for most of my public school career. My immediate reaction on hearing about bullies is a strong desire to bring back corporal punishment. This is not productive.
I could go on and on about the many times as a young kid that I was bullied, picked on, made fun of – and how none of those kids were ever punished for it. But I won’t. Those times made me feel bad, and just made my inborn desire to please everyone even worse, but they never made me feel unsafe. (Well, once. A neighbour girl five years older than me used to chase me home from the bus every day, and that scared the bejesus out of me. One day my younger sister – stronger and more fearless than me – suddenly rose up righteous and started chucking rocks at her. It worked.)
The one time I really and truly was afraid that I would be badly hurt was in high school. And what made it so terrifying was how ever-present my bully was; the only safe place was inside my own house, and just talking about the word ‘bully’ today brought it all flooding back.
Blogging as therapy! Maybe if I put it down here, it will finally be behind me.
When I was in grade twelve a girl two years younger suddenly developed a deep & abiding hatred for me. I found out because someone at my bus stop told me one morning in Very Hushed and Dramatic Tones:
“Melissa doesn’t like you. She says she’s going to kick the shit out of you if she ever gets the chance.”
I remember being really surprised, and also not terribly frightened, because she didn’t look all that tough to me. I did ask why exactly my very existence made her want to pound me, and all I got in response was “she just hates you. She says you should know why.”
To this day I’m not sure what exactly it was; I think it was about a guy I dated very briefly – we’re talking a month here – and it ended badly. And she thought he was just the bee’s knees, so maybe she thought by publicly dissing me it would attract him? That’s my best theory, and yet it is so thoroughly idiotic that I have a hard time believing it.
In any event, there was a continual low-level of harassment for weeks – hearing her mutter “bitch” and “skank” when I passed her in the hallways, continued threats of an ass-kicking passed along at second-hand, braying donkey-laughter following me off the bus. Finally one day she said something and I turned around, frustrated beyond belief, and said “fine, Melissa. FINE. You want to beat me up? Come on and just do it. I’m sick of your shit. You can even have the first punch, you fucking bitch.” (Which, admittedly, not nice or kind or constructive.)
Anyway, she backed off. I was taller, heavier, certainly stronger, definitely older, and like many bullies she was a paper tiger. I figured that was the end of it.
And it would have been, except for her on-again off-again boyfriend, a giant moose of a dimwit named Ted.
Ted wasn’t even supposed to be at our school; Bridgewater had two high schools, one for the country kids and one for the town kids. He was in the town school district, but his parents were convinced he was a Genius and also a Special Snowflake, and our school had a stellar reputation for academics so they applied to transfer him.
Ted was an asshole. In my experience, really big guys go one of two ways; they are either well aware of their strength and try not to hurt anyone, or they use it to intimidate whenever possible. He was in the latter group. He had a big mouth, talked shit about everyone, and yet when called on his prickishness would always get this innocent-as-a-lamb look on his face and say “aww, I was just jokin'”. Delightful human being.
He really had the hots for Melissa. Worshipped the ground she walked on. She knew it, and she used it. When she was too afraid to follow through on her threats, and saw that I wasn’t scared of her, she wound Ted up like a jack-in-the-box and aimed him squarely at me.
And thus began the scariest couple of months of my life. The same whispered name-calling and threats in the halls sound completely different when coming out of a six-foot, 200+lb man. They were always sexual in nature, of course – “cunt”, “tuna-pussy”, “whore”, “dyke”. And it was constant. I think he learned my class schedule, because he was always always ALWAYS waiting just outside the door.
Then it started happening outside of school, too. One night I was at a gig downtown when a rock hit me in the back of the head; I jerked in surprise and when I looked behind me, there were Ted & Melissa, laughing hysterically. I went home and cried.
It all came to a head one afternoon when I opened my locker – and taped inside, dangling from the shelf, was a braid of human hair. It was the same colour as mine. I have no idea where they got it from, nor do I know how they figured out my locker combination. I stood there, my skin crawling with revulsion, my bladder heavy. I felt violated. And terrified. I took the braid and went straight to the principal’s office.
Discipline issues at my high school were handled by the two vice-principals, with the 900+ student body divvied up between them by alphabetical order. Mr. Jackson was responsible for me, and it was to his office that the secretary took me that afternoon. I told him the whole story, right from the beginning, as the braid of hair lay on his spotless desk blotter between us. When I got to the rock-throwing incident, he opened a jar on his desk and wordlessly offered me some candy.
When I was all talked out, he asked if I could be in the room while he talked to Ted. “You don’t have to,” he said, “and you don’t have to say anything. But sometimes it’s harder for them to lie when you’re looking right at them.”
I didn’t really want to be there – but I knew if I left, I’d never be free of him. I agreed to stay.
He got the secretary to call Ted down. When he sauntered in and saw me there, he paused for a half-second, then finished the walk across the room with his trademarked “who, me?” expression. He sat down and reached for the open candy jar on the desk – Mr. Jackson pointedly moved it out of his reach, and commenced the most beautiful dressing-down I’ve ever seen in my life.
At one point, Ted tried to deny all of it. The reply? “Ted, you are only in this school because your parents think you’re smart. I haven’t seen any evidence of it yet, whereas I know Hannah, and I know that she is an important part of our school community. If I hear of you bothering her again – anything at all – I’ll revoke your transfer.”
And that was that. All the fight went out of him. He slouched in his chair and just like that, he was a paper tiger, too. As a last twist of the knife, Mr. Jackson offered me the candy jar again before shooing me back to class so he could “deal with Ted”.
The harassment did stop, after that. And life went on and high school ended, and I never saw Ted again. Melissa lives in Halifax now, and I see her around sometimes. She was briefly part of a small Maritime blogger group on Facebook I was a part of, four years ago. I’ve never spoken to her. I still can’t forgive her for what she set in motion. Sometimes I wish I was brave enough to confront her, but then I think what if she doesn’t even remember what I’m talking about or what if she denies everything or what if she starts bullying me again, via the internet?
And I remind myself to breathe. And I teach my children to be kind, to stand up, to never try to make themselves feel big by making someone else feel small. And I defend myself when I’m attacked. And I try not to let the mean mommies grind me down.
Maybe we all need to share our stories. Instead of just telling our kids “oh, bullying is wrong” we tell them how we know that. We tell them what we did to make it better, to make ourselves safe. Or we tell them what we wish someone had told us.
And when they have their own stories, we listen.