People who equate truth with fact are missing the point.

The Lessons My Bullies Taught Me

Right before Valentine’s Day, my orthopedist decided that I should be hospitalized for tests. I’d been having crippling low-back pain for several weeks and the rest, pain medicine, and muscle relaxants he’d prescribed were not making me feel any better. I spent a week in the hospital undergoing a variety of tests to rule out structural abnormalities, cancer, and any other problems that could be causing the pain. They never found anything. The ultimate diagnosis: acute stress. The year was 1983. I was eleven years old.

This is the story of me and my bullies. All these years later, a whole lifetime, and I’ve already used half a box of tissue preparing to write about it. I was just a little girl, deserving of love and protection, like every other child, but I didn’t know that. I thought I was different: unworthy, flawed, and fundamentally unlikeable. My bullies, and the adults who allowed their behavior to continue, taught me lessons that I’m still unlearning nearly 30 years later.

Full disclosure: I am changing names for obvious reasons. Also, emotional pain and time have worked together to make my memory pretty hazy. This is a true story to the absolute best of my ability.

When I showed up at Madison Middle School in August, 1982, I was scared. And while I think that probably every 6th grader at Madison was scared that day, I was unique in my level of terror. We’ll get back to the reasons for that later, but for now, just know that I was shaking in my summer sandals like there was a salivating tiger on my left and a tsunami wave rolling in on my right.

I went to my classes and listened to the rules. So many rules! Do you remember how it was, how they threatened you and swore that they wouldn’t help you no matter what, because for God’s sake you’re not babies anymore and if you think this is like elementary school then forget about it and do you have any idea what it’s like in the REAL WORLD?!? Well, do you? Rules for the bathroom. Rules for the lockers. Don’t be late. Don’t forget your book. Always have your paper, your pencil. Don’t chew gum, don’t talk, don’t run (but don’t be late!), don’t eat, don’t swear. Do your homework; no, not like that! Put your name here, the date there (write it out), the period number in that place. Use pencil, no always use pen, no never use pen. That’s the wrong paper! Did you write in your book? Put a cover on it!

Here’s what I heard: Shut up, sit down, and if I never have any reason to notice you, or even glance in your direction, then you’ll be just fine. Teachers have no niceness to share; being ignored is the best you can hope for.

I was all alone. The Albuquerque Public Schools have a different system now, whereby all kids from several elementary schools feed to one middle school, and then several middle schools feed one high school. Not so back then. My elementary school fed four middle schools, with just a tiny handful of us going from Zuni to Madison. There were no familiar faces around me; I was surrounded by strangers in every class. My family might as well have moved across the country over the summer.

There were seven class periods per day. My 6th period class was PE. I had kind of looked forward to “changing out” because it seemed grown-up, something that you saw in the movies. Obviously I had a warped sense of what’s glamorous! And thus we arrive at problem number 1, the first thing that my bullies found to target about me: no breasts. I mean none. Nada, zilch. I didn’t know it then (and would have been devastated if I had), but I was still a year away from any action at all in the puberty department. But to be honest, I might as well have been wearing a big ole’, flashing neon sign on my head that said Pick on me! I am your willing victim!

I always had a hard time making friends, had struggled socially from the very beginning. My parents like to tell the story of my first day at pre-school. There was a one-way mirror so parents could observe, and they were stunned by what they say: me, a little girl who would not stop chattering, ever, while at home, sitting quietly and observing the other children. Silent. I was always terrified in social situations, and so excruciatingly sensitive to every perceived slight, even at that young age, that I usually believed that everyone around me hated me.

As I moved through elementary school, every year the kids were a little less tolerant of difference, a little less willing to befriend, or at least leave alone, the shy, awkward girl in the corner. Complicating matters was the fact that I was very intelligent and had a huge vocabulary for a child my age. This was probably due to the fact that my parents were both well-educated and used their own wide knowledge of words when speaking to me. I used my big words and that, coupled with my shyness, earned me a reputation as “stuck up.” It’s laughable, now, that I was accused of being the very thing that I’m most NOT.  All I wanted was some friends, some kids to talk to me and play with me at recess.

The most ridiculous piece of this particular part of the story is this: my second grade teacher told my parents that I would have more friends if they could make me stop using so many big words. True story, and a damn sad example of an “educator.”

I always managed to make a few friends, but never more than 2 or 3 at a time, and I was consistently a target of teasing by the girls in my grade. The worst bullying I endured while I was a student at Zuni happened when I was in 3rd grade. Two 5th grade girls started to mess with me on the bus every day on the way home from school. They spit in my hair, over and over, all the way home, to the point that I arrived home with saliva dripping onto my shoulders.

Gross, right? Here’s what’s grosser: the bus driver either didn’t notice or didn’t care, because she never said a word. Neither of my parents called or went to the school to insist that something be done, nor did they ever (not once) drive me home from school to spare me the torment. No other child on a bus jammed full of students ever tried to intervene. Only my little sister, in kindergarten at the time, tried to defend me.

I was in third grade in 1980, so 30 years ago now. I still remember the names of both those girls, can still feel the hot shame that nested behind my face when they taunted me and spat on me.

My elementary school experiences had primed the pump; I was more prepared for my middle school bullies than I was for middle school literature and science.

There were three of them: Kathy, Karen, and Tanya. I don’t know if they knew each other before 6th grade or if they fell together that year, but they joined forces and made me their common enemy. It was a campaign of terror that, while not unique to middle school girls, is certainly most common among them. Virtually all of it happened in the girls’ locker room, though they got away with plenty out in the open, during PE class. Our coach joined in just enough to make it clear that he wouldn’t be a source of support.

The details are lost to me. There was lots of name calling. I know they snapped my bra strap plenty, after I begged my mom to buy me one so I could keep my non-breasts covered. They pulled my ponytail hard, so that my head snapped back and hurt my neck. Mostly, though, they relied on the name calling and the taunting, and I almost never answered them. I just took it, because I believed it was mine to take.

By Halloween, I was in agony all day, every day, dreading 6th period. I cried every evening at the dinner table with the misery of it all, and my parents tried to be sympathetic. Eventually, though, they were annoyed, then angry, at my inability to resolve the situation. They encouraged me to fight back, to punch or kick or hurt the girls to make them stop. They sent me to a counselor in hopes that she could convince me to fight back. No luck. I was far, far too afraid of authority to do any such thing.

How afraid of authority was I? In three years of middle school, I was never (not ever, not even once) late to a class. I was in agony from a full-to-bursting bladder at least once a week, but I would not risk being late to class by using my 5 minute passing period to go to the bathroom. At Madison, the lockers are in long halls that are kept locked except before and after school and before and after lunch, so we had to make sure we had everything we needed as there was no running to a locker between classes. One time (ONE TIME) in 3 years of middle school, I forgot one of my books. (Funny how pain makes some memories fuzzy, and leaves some of them so sharp.) It was my English book, the class I had right after PE during 6th grade. I was shaking and sweating through 5th and 6th periods because of forgetting that book.

And my parents and my counselor wanted me to punch someone?

I went to the school counselor for help. She decided a session involving Kathy, Karen, Tanya, and I was in order, so that we could air all of our grievances. Clearly, the school counselor had a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the situation. She saw a conflict among peers, when in fact it was a victim/perpetrator situation. We sat in her office and the three girls told me all the things that disgusted them about me. (I don’t remember most of what was said, but I do recall that one of my facial expressions was a problem for them.) Thus emboldened by quasi-approval from a school authority figure, the girls re-doubled their efforts.

Sometime shortly after the New Year, my mom and I were at the grocery store when I turned to see Kathy standing next to her own mom’s grocery cart. She squinched up her eyes and pulled a disgusted, I-smell-something-nasty face. I yanked my mom’s sleeve and whispered, “That’s one of them, one of the girls from PE!”

We finished our shopping and when we got in the checkout line, my mom went to speak to Kathy’s mom. No big surprise here: the next day I caught hell. Karen and Tanya were furious that I got Kathy in trouble and tripled their harassment, stealing things from my locker and encouraging other kids in our PE class to join them in harassing me.

Eventually, the stress took its toll and I landed in the hospital. The back pain was so bad that I couldn’t sit or bend over. Except sometimes I could. The pain was not constant, and I have never admitted this to anyone, ever. I felt guilty about that for many years, but not anymore. I didn’t know how to communicate my anguish, didn’t know how to get the adults in my life to hear me, and letting them believe that the pain was more than it was was the only way I knew to get any relief. I missed two weeks of school and it was pure bliss, like taking off a 200 pound backpack I’d been staggering under for 6 long months.

Note to parents: if your child is so stressed out that he or she is in the hospital to rule out spinal cancer, something is deeply wrong.

I walked into the girls’ locker room on my first day back to school and Kathy turned to Karen and Tanya and, sneer on her face and disgust thick in her voice, said, “Look who’s back.”

I made it to the end of 6th grade. I faked sick a few times, though I never refused to go to school. My parents did not express any sympathy or take any action on my behalf. Once, my dad said to me, “If this is the way you act at school, it’s no wonder you don’t have any friends.” My mom got angry at the dinner table several times, saying, “Can’t we ever talk about anything other than you and your problems?”

And so, by the time winter became spring, I had learned my lessons, and I had learned them well.

What my bullies taught me:
  • I don’t matter. My suffering is not important.
  • I am socially unacceptable, worthy only of rejection.
  • I’m weak, a loser, destined to be a social bottom-feeder, or worse, absolutely alone.
  • The best I can hope for, in my relationships with others, is to be left alone.
  • I am a fundamentally unlikeable person.
What the adults taught me:
  • I’m unworthy of help.
  • To identify or talk about a problem is to whine or feel sorry for myself.
  • When I ask for help, I will not get it.
  • The way other people behave toward me, no matter how bad, is my fault.
  • I am a fundamentally unlikeable person.

I was never again bullied the way I was in 6th grade. There were some girls here and there, throughout 7th and 8th grades who taunted me, and I never had many friends, but that sort of systematic torment was over. But any social confidence I may have had (did I ever have any?) was shattered. Throughout the rest of middle-school, I went to the library during lunch rather than risk rejection in the cafeteria. Books, always my favorite escape, became even more important to me. I tried to hide, to blend into the background. I hated myself, hated everything about my life. I had increasingly frequent episodes of depression, but I had learned by then that there was no help, and so I just showed up and went through the motions until I could get back into my books, back into the quiet solitude of my bed.

High school was better. Much, much better, in fact. I never had any social confidence, didn’t make friends easily or feel comfortable with people, but I had some friends. Kathy, Karen, and Tanya all went to the same high school and, amazingly, I never had a class with any one of them. I saw them sometimes, in the commons or on the walk across campus, and the dominant feeling I had when that happened was fear. I hated myself for that fear, hated that I was still so weak, but I couldn’t shake it.

Since I’m eviscerating myself in public here, I’ll tell you the truth: it’s still my dominant feeling. When I am with people, no matter where I go (even online), I expect to be rejected. I assume that you will hate me, that you will seek to avoid me, that you hope I won’t bother you by trying to talk to you. Every expression of acceptance is a surprise to me. I want people to be nice to me, but I never expect it. I expect people to reject me; I hope they will leave me alone. Niceness doesn’t really factor into any of that.

Understand that I’m not laying any of my present emotional landscape at anyone’s feet except my own. They (the bullies and the adults who didn’t stop them) taught the lessons they taught; I chose which lessons to learn, which lessons to carry with me into my adult life. My struggle to let go of all of that is mine and mine alone. There are connections, of course. The lessons I learned helped me choose my first husband, an unkind and critical man who I believed was the only one who would ever want me. But ultimately, that choice was mine; the connections to my bullies are not causes.

I went about living my life. Sixth grade was a painful memory. In my early twenties, I thought about that year a lot and wished for the chance to do it again, to stand up for myself, to bring my adult strength to a child’s situation. But as my own children approached the age I was when I was abused by my classmates, my thinking changed.

I started to recognize that Kathy, Karen, and Tanya were little girls, too. They were so large in my memory, so much more powerful than I was, that they had become something other than children for me. They were just as young as I was, caught up in personal turmoil about which I know nothing. Why did they do what they did? I don’t know, but it seems pretty unlikely that they were bad kids whose parents didn’t care what they did. In fact, I’d guess that Karen and Tanya’s parents would have punished them for such behavior just like Kathy’s mom punished her. I think they were probably very nice girls from their parents’ perspectives. I think they would have been shocked to find out what their daughters were doing at school.

As I came, over several years, to this new perspective, my anger at the adults involved grew. How could they just let me suffer that way? And of course I know how, in a rational, removed sort of way. They didn’t know what to do; they didn’t know the breadth and depth of the problem. They’d been conditioned to believe that, unless there is physical aggression that leaves marks, the problem isn’t significant enough to warrant any real attention.

But past rational, past the adult-me who is raising children and sometimes making big mistakes and who understands that shit happens and you can’t always fix it, there is an eleven year old girl in a blind red rage. I was a little girl. The coach, my parents, the school counselor, they were adults. Their responsibility, first and foremost, before anything else, was to keep me safe. And they failed. They failed big.

In my adult life, I’ve had almost no contact with any of the people with whom I went to school. I didn’t go to any of our reunions, didn’t call or write, didn’t even exchange Christmas cards. Finally (finally!), as I moved deeper into my 30s, the pain of those years started to recede. Sending my eldest to 6th grade was indescribably gut-wrenching, but for the most part, I didn’t think about it much anymore. Although I’ve always been afraid that my children would bully or be bullied (I probably wouldn’t handle that very well.), they’ve been much more confident than I ever was. We still live in Albuquerque; my kids are students in the same school system in which I was educated, but things are different now. They take bullying more seriously.

Last year, I joined Facebook. While I was skipping sleep in that first week, hunting down old boyfriends and making sure my kids weren’t posting their phone numbers for all the world to see, I found all three of them: Kathy, Karen, and Tanya. For weeks, I thought about contacting them, telling them how much they had hurt me. I would see their names show up in comments to mutual friends and it was like a tiny stab. I turned it over in my mind, even starting, then discarding, a few messages.

Ultimately, I decided not to do it. If the first lesson my bullies taught me was “I don’t matter,” how bad would it hurt if the message I got back said, “I have no idea who you are. What the hell are you even talking about?” I knew that would hurt more than I could bear, so I gave up on the idea.

And then.

On March 24, the day before my birthday, a message from Kathy showed up in my Facebook inbox.

Gobsmacked.

I’m at a loss to describe what happened to me in that moment. I was sobbing and shaking before I finished the first sentence. How can a wound that old still be so tender? I can’t answer that, only tell you that it was.

Far from forgetting me, she remembered 6th grade often. These are her some of words:*

My oldest kiddo is ten and we just had his parent/teacher conference this past week. At every conference since he was in kindergarten, his teachers always comment about how accepting he is and how he goes out of his way to be kind and be a good friend to all of his fellow students. And while that is nice to hear about my child, it always makes me think of how I treated you and how for a very long time I have wanted to find a way to get in touch with you to tell you how sorry I am.

Not forgotten. NOT a person who doesn’t matter. Me, worthy of consideration. Me, worthy of the time it took to write a thoughtful, heartfelt apology.

I lay awake all night that night. I thought of nothing but Kathy, and 6th grade, and the other girls, Karen and Tanya, for several days. The letter turned my world inside out, brought me to my knees, and when the storm had passed, a Kathy-shaped piece of pain rose out of me and floated away, and in its place? A new friend. Kathy and I have exchanged more than a dozen messages since that first day and with every message, we’re a little more comfortable, a little less tentative and nervous. I giggle and joke and call it my Facebook miracle, except it’s not really a joke at all.

* * * * *

Recently, bullying stories have been all over the news, stories of girls who ended their lives because of abusive treatment by their peers. For all the anguish I experienced during 6th grade, when I came home from school, the taunting and teasing stopped, completely, until I went back to school. Back then, we didn’t even have cordless phones and answering machines, much less internet and text messages. I can’t imagine I would have survived if Karen, Kathy, and Tanya had had 24/7 access to me.

I’ve long wondered why they did what they did, but even Kathy doesn’t know:

For many years now, I have questioned why I treated you so horribly when we were in school together. And as much as I’ve thought about it and as much as I’ve tried to figure it out, honestly don’t know why. Maybe peer pressure of trying to fit in, maybe joining in with others so that they wouldn’t pick on me, or maybe I was just a horrible, horrible person. Maybe all of the above. But whatever the reason, it does not change the fact that I was wrong to treat you the way I did. I want you to know how very sorry I am. I know I caused you tremendous pain and suffering because of my actions. I want you to know that my apology is sincere and heartfelt. From the very bottom of my heart, I am so very sorry for the abusive way I treated you when we were in school.

Parents, talk to your kids about bullying, because any child can be a bully. Any child can get caught in the swirling social morass of middle and high school. I don’t vilify my bullies anymore; we were all little girls. We were children who, lacking adequate supervision and guidance, found ourselves tangled in a situation that got too big for us. Adults should have saved us, and I do mean us, not me. I suffered from years of shame; Kathy suffered from years of guilt. (Perhaps Tanya and Karen have suffered, too, though I don’t know.) Adult intervention could have protected us all.

Know what your kids are doing at school, how they’re treating other children, and find out what their school’s bullying policies are. Find out if they follow those policies, how they are enforced, and what the grievance procedure is. If there isn’t a policy in place, or if the policy is inadequate, work with some other parents and pressure the school to change it.

And if your child is being bullied in school, do not wait, do not hesitate, do not be scared. Just make it stop. Find a way. I can’t tell you how to make it stop because every situation is different, but if you need the courage to confront the school, you email me and I will pep talk you to the moon. As parents, keeping our kids safe is job one. You can do it.

Because honestly? I would have been better off if my parents had done almost anything, up to and including letting me hang out at home and read books all year. Academically, I learned something between nothing and absolutely zero that year. How could I have learned? That’s like locking someone in the tiger pen at the zoo and insisting they write a 2,000 word discourse on surplus transfer and the birth of capitalism.

For more information about bullying, go to Stop Bullying Now!

* * * * *

I want to thank my lovely, generous Twitter friends who supported me while I wrote this painful story. I couldn’t have done it without all of you cheering me on and reminding me that I’m a bad ass who can keep writing no matter how hard I’m crying.

And Kathy: thank you. From my toes to my head, thank you. I know you feel guilty, but hear this my friend: I forgive you, wholly and completely.

*I’ve included portions of Kathy’s message to me with her permission. Because for all the painful lessons I learned from my bullies, I also learned this one: It’s important to play nice.

There’s a follow-up to this post here.
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119 comments to The Lessons My Bullies Taught Me

  • I used my big words and that, coupled with my shyness, earned me a reputation as “stuck up.” It’s laughable, now, that I was accused of being the very thing that I’m most NOT.

    I could have written that. The bullying I experienced never was as extreme as yours, but I had a few people who picked on me literally from first grade through eleventh grade.

    And now (as I’ve mentioned on twitter) my daughter is being bullied. I’m not going to get into it all, as I’m going to hijack your comments otherwise. It’s hard, though, as having this happen to her is bringing back a lot of really awful times I had as a kid.

    Thanks for writing this.

  • This was really brave. I have some my own horror stories from those years, not from bullying but other issues, and your story felt so familiar. I am so terribly sorry for the trauma you endured, and am thankful for your honesty in sharing it with us.

  • You are SO lucky. I had a near identical experience to you, even though I grew up in the UK. I ended up getting beaten severely for no reason by another girl when I was 11. Last year, she sent me a friend request on Facebook, and I approved it thinking she’d say.. I don’t know, hell, SOMETHING about what had happened. Nothing. It wasn’t even important enough to remember. Not to her, anyway.

    Bullying ruins lives. It’s not dramatic. It’s just the truth. All these years later, I still respond to conflict the same way I learned to in junior (middle) school. By being afraid.

  • this…wow. so incredibly brave of you. i work for a non-profit called imatter for kids where our mission is to empower our children to learn how to deal with bullying…http://www.imatterforkids.org and http://www.imatter4kids.blogspot.com and i wonder if it’s ok to link to this post. pls, let me know if it’s ok.
    thank you,
    melissa
    http://www.rockanddrool.com
    http://www.imatter4kids.blogspot.com
    i’m @rockdrool on twitter and @imatter4kids
    this is NOT spam. i promise!!

  • Adrienne, this post is amazing. I had started typing a huge long comment, then accidentally closed the window… but I will put it all down tomorrow.

  • Thank you so much for posting this. You are so incredibly brave and talented!

    I think many people will relate to your story. God bless you for sharing such painful memories in order to open everyone’s eyes!

  • Wow. That was amazingly well written and quite a compelling story. I was reading it on my little ol’ iPhone and had to go to the laptop so I could comment right after I read it.

    First of all, I can feel every bit of emotion in that story. Like some of the other commenters, I can relate to a LOT of what you have said. Not to your extreme but enough to know that old wounds run deep.

    I was a Middle School teacher for a year and a half. I picked that age because it is so tough and it is so critical in our kids’ development. It’s the hardest job I ever had. I saw the same things going on except this time I was the Cheerleader for the Underdog. I defended the meek as much as possible. Sometimes – not so successfully. My worst days were when I felt like I didn’t have a “safe” classroom in every sense of the word.

    And as for Facebook, it’s a very odd bird. I find I can reconnect with kids that I knew and find out that as adults we are very much alike. But harboring feelings from our school days makes us very sensitive even to the behaviors on FB. I know because I still feel sometimes the sting of rejection when I’m sure it’s in my mind.

    I think the best point you made is this…the things we do, no matter how big or small, have an impact on other people’s lives. You never know how or why it will impact somebody so make it count.

    Thanks so so much for sharing it.

  • 6th grade was my worst year too. I am so glad to hear that Fadra, above, taught middle school, that there are teachers who remember the minefield and want to go in and help.

    Love the image of the “Kathy-shaped piece of pain” floating away.

    Thank you for facing your fear and sharing this. It will strike a chord with many.

  • Oh, my gosh. Parts of this I could have written. I was tormented by two girls when I was in sixth grade. It was horrible. But worse was moving to another state, walking into school the first day, and finding that several people developed an instant antipathy for me. That year was pure hell. Culminating with the theft of one of my textbooks that I had the great joy of paying for (and getting grounded because of the loss of, from my dad’s perspective). My parents never tried to help me and never believed I was being harassed. The whole situation was horrible.

    Thank you for posting this.

  • Wow.

    I, too, could have written most of this.

    Thank you so much for your courage and bravery in sharing your journey. You are amazing. Your family is lucky to have you.

  • What a brave post. Thank you for being so honest. You were failed by the adults.

    And I don’t know what it is about girls… but we hurt each other so severely with words.

    I faced the reverse of your bullying. I was bullied for having breasts and being pretty. Boys showed me attention and regardless of how unwanted it was I was called a “slut” at 13. Before I’d even kissed a boy.

    I was strong and I fought back. But it still changed me. I don’t trust people all that often and still feel an emotional disconnect. I erected walls around myself so it didn’t hurt and despite years going by those walls are hard to remove. I would never go to a school reunion either. Despite being relatively popular at high school.

    Maybe the next generation will be kinder to each other, because their parents learned so much from their bullies and they pass the real lessons on – because what I learned from my bullies is that there are no words that it is acceptable to call another person. And that everyone deserves a chance.

  • Thank you so much for writing this.

    I cried so hard reading this. It’s like you were speaking for me in parts.

    My experience was quite different in a lot of ways. However the feelings, especially the ones about expecting to be rejected and being surprised when anyone is kind or interested, are the same.

    Thank you for your vulnerability. It must have been so hard to write this and even harder to share it with the world. You are so brave.

    Thank you again.

  • Stephanie

    Thank you for this brutally honest post – I’m sure it was really difficult to write it all out and share it with the world, but what a way to emphasize how vigilant we must be for our children!

    Although I didn’t experience anything nearly as horrible as what you described, I remember every single incident of taunting, and it was only pretty recently (I’m 40) that I was able to get some of your perspective (the fact that we were all young – and that I really have no idea what those people were dealing with at home or in their own lives to make them behave like that).

    It’s so horrible that children face these sorts of situations but heartening to know that people are sloooooooooooooooowly starting to take note and realize how much work the schools need to do to prevent this behavior and protect their charges!

    I’m so glad to hear you were able to get some closure with at least one of the three (so much so that she is willing to share her words with everyone). I feel sure that your sharing this story will touch a lot of readers.

  • Adrienne, I never had any idea. I always thought you were my friend’s cool older sister and I thought you were super-nice. I certainly liked you! I’m sorry you went through that but thanks so much for sharing your story. If I ever find out my son was a bully …

  • YOU ARE SO BRAVE. Really, thank you for your honesty and awesome strength. Very glad to have found your blog 🙂 xoxox.

  • Sean

    Thank you for sharing your story with all of us. It is a shame that you had to go through this at the hands of a few monsters and adults who could care less.

    Growing up I was always a small child which was odd because I come from a family of Irish giants. All through early years of school I was the object of torment because I was an easy target. The teachers knew what was going on and they just turned a blind eye. I think they actually enjoyed watching children torture other children. I just learned to keep a low profile and avoid being in a non public space.

    My mom was not from this country and did not get all of the peer pressure and fitting in. My younger brother and sister were able to benefit from my life lessons and had a better time at school.

    By the time I hit the 9th grade I was still small. As the year progressed I started putting on some mass. By the time I returned for the 10th grade I was 6’2″ and over 220 lbs. Most of my class mates were not even close to my size. The bullies were afraid and wanted me to be one of them – never. I spent the rest of my time in high school thumping the bullies who where were flipping books and giving the little guys a bunch of crap.

    I just loved how everyone would circle around the bullies and some scared kid and not step in to stop it. I guess they thought it was better to see someone else get a beating than themselves. I always stepped in and stopped it. I was bigger than everyone else and I knew what it felt like to be that kid. It was strange I found some of the teachers liked that I was going after the bullies.

    I became the protector of the weak and the meek. I only wish you had someone to stand up for you and let you know that everything was going to be OK, that nothing or no one would hurt you.

    Later in life after college I joined the military as a special operations solider. I had a strong desire to protect those who could not protect themselves.

    I think the problem is that the parents in this country do not care. They act like this is all just part of growing up. Parents need to be held legally and financially accountable for the damage that their children inflict and maybe then they will pay attention.

    My wife and I teach our son to be kind to people, animals and bugs.

  • wow lady. thanks for being so open and honest. there are parts i could have written myself. my bullying forte was for being “fat” and i must say, no matter how thin i may get, i will always ALWAYS have those bullies voices in my head telling me i’m not good enough, even if my own voice tells me i am. even though many of them did late apologize, the pain still lingers.

    it was brave of you to post this. you did an amazing job and please know, you are loved.

  • Reading this just opened up the floodgates. I can distinctly recall when I got slapped across the face by a girl in the locker room who sneered that I was “stuck up.” I was even more shocked by her words than by my stinging cheek. Stuck up? Me? Quiet, smart, shy, awkward me? She had no idea. It never occurred to me these traits could (and would) be seen as threats to my classmates.

    I’m so glad that you have had the chance to heal some of those wounds.

  • Wow, although in a totally different part of the world, and luckily never having been bullied, i feel for you very much.
    i try to raise my kids in a good way and i just cannot believe your parents reacted the way they did. Have they read your post?
    Power and good luck to you!!

  • Squid

    Thank you for not only sharing your harrowing story but reflecting on it, and in doing so giving today’s kids some tools for possibly avoiding getting into similar situations. Some kids just don’t know they have the right to ask for help, or stand up for themselves — not until they hear stories like yours.

    With gratitude,

    Shannon
    http://www.canisitwithyou.org
    http://www.squidalicious.com

  • Thanks for posting this – I think every parent should read it. I still hold a lot of anger towards a boy who bullied me and I really need to let it go.

  • I was in counseling to deal with the impact of bullies by the time I was in 4th grade. Without the foundation of confidence I got from that and from the actions my parents took on my behalf to help me learn how to cope in the world, I do not know what would have become of me. Parents have a responsibility to protect their children and also to teach them to be kind. You touch on all of those big truths here. But I’m sorry you had to be so hurt to learn this. It wasn’t fair.

  • I have tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.

  • I am blown away by this whole post. First, thank you for opening up those old wounds and sharing them with us, for exposing yourself to those memories again. You are so right, the adults in your life failed all of you, and shame on them for that. But, I have no doubt, that this story will make a difference. This story will make adults who read it now sit up and take notice. Is their child a bully? Are they being bullied? Thank you for that. And your new friend? I couldn’t be happier for you. I’m so glad she reached out to you, and I’m so glad you found it in your heart to forgive.

  • me.

    This should be shared with every parent and teacher on the PLANET!

    Please know that I will carry this life lesson with me as I raise my girls. Your story has positively impacted lives.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Imagine me stammering, stunned almost wordless. Your comments are all so generous. And sad. So many, many people hurt by other kids.

    And you know what? Yes, this was hard to write. It was even harder to press “publish.” But every time I put something deeply personal out there in the world, most of what I get back is this: “Me, too!” It constantly reinforces my belief that nothing heals like true stories.

  • Laura

    I just found the link to this post through a twitter post; I don’t know anything about you other than what you wrote in this post.
    But I want you to know this about me: I’m currently in the faculty of education, on my way to becoming a teacher. Your post brought tears to me, and I will make every possible effort to be the teacher that you never had. A teacher who will stand up for her students rather than joining in (or ‘saying’ that bullying is fine because of not taking action against it).
    Thank you for being so courageous in sharing your story. I wish this wasn’t your story, but since it is, I hope that your sharing will make it possible for other children to have a different ending.

  • I was bullied in school too but not to the extreme that you were. At the time I didn’t know that anyone would treat another person like that. I was naive. You are a big person for forgiving your tormentor. I wouldn’t have been able to do it. I would have torn into her. But that’s just me. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Mab

    Even if I wasn’t bullied to the point you were, I recognized myself in your words, me, little french girl living in Europe. I have experienced another kind of bullying: loneliness. Utter, complete and total loneliness.

    When I was 16, we moved in Portugal because of my dad job. But even if I was going to the french school, I was the only one in my class who didn’t speak portugese, while *everybody* else spoke it (professors and hall monitors included, even if the classes were hold in french). So they simply let my on the other side of the road. Nobody would translate anything to me, they wouldn’t include me in anything…I’ve never experienced such loneliness in my whole life. I even though about killing myself. Fortunately, my parents send me back in France, and even if I didn’t make any friends back there, at least I was in my country, and I could live my life outside of school.

    It was 5 years ago, and now I’m 21, but I’m still dealing with the consequences of this period, and sometime it’s really hard (I’m struggling with depression and mood disorders since then)

    Thank you so much for sharing those painful memories with us, and I hope it had helped you feel better. (and please forgive my crappy english ç-ç)

  • Adrienne, Your post was beautiful.

    Ok, here goes. I was an extremely sheltered child, with a lot of emotional issues and an anxiety disorder. My parents enrolled me in a small private school. It worked pretty well until about 5th or 6th grade. Then I became the low one one the totem pole. Since it was a small class, slumber party invitations were mandatory. I remember one, after all the other girls had started to hit puberty, where one of the girls decided it would be fun to undress and compare development. I still remember them pointing and laughing at me. I didn’t have the same kind of systematic cruelty or violence that you experienced, but it was insidious enough. Much like you, my parents, at a complete loss for what to do, having never experienced the same thing themselves, ran out of sympathy.

    But here’s the worst part of the story. About midway through our sixth grade year, a boy I’ll call Tim arrived. Tim’s parents put him in private school, because they thought the extra attention would do him (and his behavioral issues) good. Tim became the new low man. The worst, most shameful part of the story is this: I turned on Tim too. Filled with relief that I finally wasn’t the lowest outcast of the school, I did what everyone else did – I picked on him without mercy.

    What’s so frightening when I think about it was how little space separated me and my tormentors. We were no different, really. Just scared, stupid, poorly supervised kids. I think a big part of compassion is the realization that we aren’t really very different from anyone else.

  • Anonymous

    Adrienne, I just discovered your blog. I’m sitting here crying.
    I was always the brunt of every bad joke in grade school. I felt shame and humiliation that undermined my self esteem. At home? A bi-polar abusive mother (beatings were the manic upside) and a high functioning alcoholic father who turned a blind eye; effectively throwing me under the bus. From the outside our family life was a version of Dynasty – huge homes, Rolls Royce in the drive, private yachts, jewels. Privately, it was hell. There was no safe haven for me.
    I’m 49 now, coming into my own but sometimes the insecurity seeps through. Not often. It took me years to realize that I was smart, athletic, talented and NORMAL. A rocky path but I covered it.
    Big hug to you for your blog. Big hug to you for the little girl you were. Big hug to you for being able to overcome and forgive. And, lastly a hug to the bully who came back to say she was sorry – that was huge.

  • thank you for writing this
    your compassion and perspective
    is graceful
    you are amazing
    just thank you thank you thank you

  • Meredith

    god, this was stunning. terrifying, horribly, heart-wrenching, tear-required and stunning. i’m so very sorry you had to face this in your life, and i wish you nothing but sweetness and light. thank you for your courage in posting this and sharing with us.

  • I hate what you went through, but I was deeply moved by what you wrote about it.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this. Middle school girls are the most vicious, ruthless people on the planet. We ought to be sending them to fight in Afghanistan. I bet they’d have the Taliban on their knees, crying about their ugly hair.

    I went through it too, 20 years ago. Would you believe it was in a rural Maine school with 10 kids in my class (5 girls, 5 boys)? I knew those girls my whole life. High school was significantly better, mostly because I didn’t care when they ganged up on me anymore.

    The facebook angle is the most interesting to me. I’ve been friended by all these middle/high school people who I either hated or just thought were assholes. Turns out they’re okay. It’s healed a lot of those old wounds for me to be able to see that they are just flawed human beings who were never superior to me, ever. I didn’t go to my 10th high school reunion, but now I think I might go to my 20th. We’ll see. That I’m more successful than most of them helps too.

  • Amy

    Your story is incredibly touching. I could have easily been you I was a shy little bookworm sure no one in the room would like me for a 1,001 reasons and parents who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand my issues. Luckily I went to small private schools until 3rd grade where I was kept fairly sheltered. Your story made me appreciate my big brother even more than I already do he is the opposite of me with a big and outgoing personality. I entered public school in 3rd grade and it was a huge culture shock for me without my brother I have no idea how I would have navigated it. If someone had spit at me on the bus he would have had my back and would not have allowed the situation to continue. I made my group of friends through him, his friends’ younger brothers and sisters even his friends once girls were no longer icky to them. He created a group I could be safe in and it gave me enough confidence to have my own group when we weren’t in the same school. I wish I could share my brother with your younger self so you would have had someone in your corner. My parents made me feel unworthy of help from them but he never did and to this day my brothers is the shoulder I cry on and who ask for advice.

  • Anonymous

    Just to tell you how much your post touched me and even if not to such extend, how much I recognize from my own feelings in yours.
    And how much I want to say to you: you are a lovely likeable talented worth-knowing person and you deserve to be protected.
    And I would like to add a big thanks to Kathy, who acknowlegded the wrongness of her doing & apologized to you; because even if she had been wrong, she had the courage to assume it & contact you to apologize, and it gives hope in human beings.
    All my love

  • Maren

    Another thank you from me. I was a smart bookish girl bullied by boys, also starting in sixth grade. As with you they found a superficial characteristic to pick on, but with me it was buck teeth, and they called me “Moron” instead of my real name. It sounds so stupid now but I think only those of us who’ve experienced it know how much it hurts, even years later.

    In some ways I was luckier than you–it was about ten years later, and my parents did everything they possibly could to try to stop it, including home schooling me for part of the day. But in the end I really think it was books that helped me the most too. (I’m a librarian now!) An apology from any of my bullies would mean a lot though.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for writing this. I read it on Jezebel and nothing I have seen there has touched me in the way this did. I can relate so much on so many levels and I just cried as I read it. I’ve gone through the whole having former bullies friend me on Facebook… they pretend like it didn’t happen, so I do. I’ve told my boyfriend the stories of things they did to me, and he always ask why I’m “friends” with them then. The truth is I detached myself so far from the things they did and how hurt I was that I don’t even think about it. It wasn’t until now, reading this, that I realized how much it still hurts when I *really* think about it.

    Though I know others will say it, I’m so incredibly sorry that you had to go through this as a child, and I can fully relate. None of us should have had to go through it. Thank you again.

  • Anonymous

    This reminds me so much of my own life. For years, every day, unremittingly, I was told I was ugly, I was spat at, belittled, harassed– what other words are there for this? In the hallway, at lunch, in class, on the bus every day. My parents, like yours, did not understand, did not fight, and left me to it. It was like being in prison– no way out.

    What does that do to someone? I know I’m still living my life certain no one understands me, that no one sees I’m good enough– that people’s feelings about me are my fault and that I’m responsible for the actions of others.

    And the thing is, that I wasn’t any of those things. I was shocked when I got to college that I was suddenly surrounded by positive attention– many guys in my circle asked me out, and I realized, with shock, that everyone thought I was pretty. I was equally shocked that there were large groups of people who liked me, wanted me with them. That there were intelligent, kind people who simply enjoyed my company. I realized I had left this island where up was down and black was white, and had entered a much brighter, more reasonable Real World.

    It’s like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. I’m out, and yet still, in my mind, I played by the rules of the cave I’d come out of– I still feel torn between these two worlds. I have no idea how to reconcile my feelings about it or repair it.

    One of the worst of the bullies friended me on Facebook, and I curiously accepted. In a post in response to the bullying in the news lately, she talked about how kind she was in school– overtly– on her page, and that she was one of the good kids who fought against bullying. She must not remember– how can that even be?

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for pointing out the damage that adults do by ignoring it, or by telling kids their whiners if they need to talk about their problems every day, or believing that it’s our fault (“well, then stop being weird” has stuck in my mind eternally – I love my parents, but their failure to recognize that I was not so strange is probably why I’ve moved across the country and tell them I can’t move back because I’m completely misunderstood on the East Coast.) I barely made it through middle school bullying, and part of that was because every time my mother suggested a psychologist, it was as a threat rather than a suggestion that I get the help I needed.

  • Anonymous

    Your story totally knocked me out. I just wept for you.

    Clearly, you write beautifully. Have you ever thought of taking your story to the next level? Writing a book, perhaps for the young teen genre. Helping them understand the misery they are causing?

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for writing and posting this story. I can relate to your experiences, however mine were not as severe. I remember the rumors, name calling, and social isolation. What helped during that time period was a few of my teachers really believed in me. It is so important for both kids and teenagers to have someone there for them!

    I am sorry you had to go through such a painful time. Hopefully, bullying will be less wide spread in the future.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Adrienne,

    I don’t know “Kathy” or her motivation for reaching out and apologizing to you after all those years (12 steps?), but if one of my childhood tormentors contacted me in this manner, I would be very suspicious. I also endured similar bullying experiences (although not enough to send me to hospital, I must admit), and the only thing that helped me to endure it was the knowledge that I was cut out for bigger and better things in the world (as were you; if we weren’t, no one would have paid attention to us one way or the other), and that the students and teachers who tormented us both did so because both were afraid of being put in the shade.

    If any parents of a bullied child are reading this, I hope they realize that the problem is with the school, and not their child. In addition to taking the steps Adrienne outlined re confronting the school, I would add this. The loneliness your child is experiencing because of bullying will not be erased by any efforts on her part to “fit in” or “make nice” with the other kids. What she can do, however, is use that time to find something that she is good at and enjoys doing. At the very least, she will get a head start on the 10 000 hours needed to become a master in her chosen field, and leave her former tormentors in the dust. In this way, she can be more than the sum of all the humiliations she suffered in childhood. Living well is the best revenge, after all.

    I did just that. My life is very good these days. Former classmates can Google me if they want to see what I’m up to. I’m not interested in being part of their Facebook collections; their profiles, more often than not, show that their best days are long behind them.

  • Anonymous

    Wonderful, yet very painful post. I’m so sorry you had to go through what you did. I was also bullied, though over a longer period of time and not by such a select group of people. My family also did nothing to help and actually did more to justify the bullying than anything. Your mention of your father telling you why you didn’t have friends after acting “like that” was said to me by my family many, many, many times. I was also accused of being too sensitive, making too big of a deal out of something, and of whining/tattling. I once went two days without talking to my family just because I couldn’t think of anything to say that wasn’t “whining.” (By the way, no one noticed when I stopped talking.)

    I was fortunate in that I did make some good friends who have become like a family to me. And an unexpected bonus of being emotionally abandoned by my family is that I learned to be very independent in pretty much all areas of my life. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but when you know no help will come, you figure out how to do things on your own a lot quicker.

    My husband – who had some equally tough times with peers – and I hope to raise our son with more understanding than we had. I’m glad you got through what you did, even if it wasn’t without its heartache. Thank you so much for sharing your story. 🙂

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you for this amazing post.

  • Anonymous

    I find it hard to believe that the bully emailed you to apologize. Bullies rarely do so, and it’s just too perfect an ending.

  • Thank you.

    So much of your story could have been mine, but I’d never have been brave enough to share, especially about how much those things still affect me years later.

    I think you’ve helped more people than you can know by sharing this, and I really appreciate your emphasis on the adults in these situations. Years later it isn’t those girls I am angry at. It’s the adults at both school and home who tried to minimize the situation or convince me I was at fault that had the most lasting negative effects on my self-worth.

    So again, thank you more than I can say.

  • Anonymous

    Are you me? This was almost exactly like my experience in middle school, except it was more of social isolation than anything. That part about not feeling like you matter rings so true. Even to this day, I still think that I don’t matter and many people have proved that they don’t care about me. Being treated like dirt by people I thought were my friends, being excluded from get-togethers because I’m “too weird”, people ignoring me on purpose, you name it.

    Bullying taught me the same things it taught you: that people don’t like me, I don’t matter to anyone, I’m going to end up alone, and that I’m just a drama queen who talks about her problems to make people feel sorry for me, even when my problems are legit. It was one of the worst realizations that someone can ever make.

    The scars are still there and they still hurt, but they’re getting better. I’m finally getting more confidence in myself and I try to remind myself that even if I don’t matter to other people, I matter to myself.

    Thank you for writing this. I can’t express my gratitude the right way, but I can’t thank you enough for speaking up.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for sharing this. It brings a tear to my eye at work. I was the awkwardly tall, beanpole girl in middle school, so girls taunted me for lack of a chest and boys teased me for being a gawky giant…I also fall into the category of having the best friend who developed into the beautiful popular girl and turned against me, using all of my weaknesses that she knew so well to tease me (even worse and more painfully) with the rest of them. Turning to a few of the nerdier activities (choir and theatre) led me to some of my saviors, and still current dear dear friends who all experienced some level of hurt from the “cool” kids.

    And bravo for being such a forgiving person…if “the ex best friend” came to me today to apologize for her wretchedness all through middle school, I hope I would have your strength and goodness.

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