My assignment was to write a letter to my teen self about bullying, but I’m no good at writing letters in general, much less to someone who doesn’t exist anymore, so I think I’ll just tell you a few stories instead. Storytelling is something I can do.
When I was growing up, my family moved every year, from first grade through eighth grade. I was chubby and bookish and wore glasses, and I was a total nerd who loved school and reading and getting A’s. My parents were considered “older” for the time (my mom was 35 when I was born, and my dad was 45), so on top of being the new kid every year, I was painfully out of touch with what was considered current.
I remember when I was in fourth grade, I had to ride the school bus with this girl named Antoinette. She was big, and mean, and ruled the bus. In my memories, she’s almost a caricature, but in reality, I was terrified of her. She would put sticky candy in my hair on the way to school and call me all kinds of names. The most terrifying event that’s etched into my memory is one bus ride when she ripped the glasses off my face and held them out the window. There was snow on the ground and I remember seeing all the slush alongside the road, feeling the cold air through the narrow bus window, thinking, “Mom is going to be so mad if she breaks my glasses.”
Looking back, I have some perspective. I’m 36 years old, and losing my glasses wouldn’t have been the end of the world. Antoinette didn’t go through with it anyway: the bus driver yelled at her, and she gave me back my glasses. It was terrifying at the time, because when you’re young, you’re so in the moment, and it’s hard to think about the grand scheme of things when your entire world is one home and one bus and one classroom, and all you hear is girls like Antoinette telling you that you’re a four-eyed fat pig.
Let me tell you another story.
When I was in high school, I went to an all girls Catholic school, where we wore little uniforms and were expected to behave. I was still a little chubby, I still wore glasses, and I still loved school and getting A’s – only this was high school, and the dynamics were different.
When I was a sophomore, I remember befriending a girl named Michelle, who was a senior. Michelle wasn’t a bad kid, but she wasn’t a good kid either. She didn’t have many friends, which probably explains why she was tooling around with a dorky sophomore. At Christmas, all the seniors would pull a name out of a hat to decorate another senior’s locker. They went all out: wrapping paper, bows, light strings controlled by batteries, you name it. One day, Michelle was mad at one of her classmates, a girl whose name I should remember, but can’t. Michelle recruited me to destroy this girl’s locker during my break, which was a time when the seniors would be in class.
I wish I could tell you that I stood up to Michelle and convinced her to settle her differences with this girl. That’s what 36-year-old Brigid would do. But no, 15-year-old Brigid had been listening to girls like Antoinette all her life, and this—THIS—was a chance to finally get back at one of them. I felt big. I felt important.
I destroyed that locker.
I got in a crapload of trouble, too.
I don’t really remember the trouble or the locker or the girl’s name. What I do remember is seeing that girl sobbing on a couch in the guidance office, because she didn’t know who had done it, and she didn’t know why someone would do that to her.
It’s been over twenty years, and I still remember how that felt. I hated it then, and I hate it now. I hate that I caused someone that kind of pain. You know why? Because I knew how that felt. I knew what it was like to have someone target you, to take advantage of you not because of anything you had done, but because the bully just needed to feel powerful for a moment. In that instant, I realized that I had been no better than Antoinette or any of the girls who had stepped on me to make themselves feel better.
Here’s the thing: when someone acts like a bully, it really doesn’t have much to do with the target, and everything to do with the bully him-/herself. Antoinette was poor and heavyset and probably didn’t have many friends in the fifth grade, so she made herself feel more powerful by picking on me and other fourth graders. Michelle and I didn’t feel powerful in high school, so we trashed that one girl’s locker, just because we could.
(I am so ashamed of myself, STILL, that I want to delete that whole sentence.)
While both these experiences sucked in different ways, they were key to making me who I am today. I doubt I’d be half as compassionate if I hadn’t gone through both these adolescent trials (and a bazillion more). It took me a long time to realize that I don’t need to smash anyone else to feel powerful. I can feel good about my own accomplishments. In school, I should have felt proud of my good grades. I should have told Antoinette to fuck off. Now, I feel proud of the books I write. In fact, I have a vivid memory of someone who felt threatened by my writing success making a snarky remark to me in front of a crowd of people. She kind of scoffed, and said, “Yeah, Brigid writes books, but I bet she doesn’t want to say what kind of books.”
I just smiled, and said, “Sure, I do. Who wants to know?”
I pledge to take a stand against bullying each and every day. #One Voice