Bullying. It’s a hot topic across the nation. Children and adults harm themselves and others as a result of it. Teens are killing themselves over it. And, to read the papers you’d think it was a new phenomena.
Not so much.
A couple of days ago my sister stopped by the house to drop something off and was approached by a “bald middle aged man” who tried to sell her insulation. When she told him that this is actually her father’s house, he looked stricken.
“No, I’m the oldest sister.”
“Oh.” He looked troubled. “Will you give VJ a message for me?”
Of course she agreed, and this is the message, more or less, that I got:
“I was a bad kid. Not just naughty, I mean I was really, really bad. I tormented VJ when she was little. I mean, I stalked her. Looked for chances to scare her or make her cry.” At this point he apparently looked up at my sister, who’s a lot more forgiving than I am, with big brown puppy eyes. “Will you tell her I’m sorry? I really regret the way I treated her back then.”
My sister didn’t even have to tell me the boy’s – man’s – name. I knew from the word torment exactly who she’d been talking to.
Danny was a couple years older than me, and from the time I was old enough to ride my big wheel down to the end of our block he made my childhood a living hell. Danny looked for chances to scare me? He succeeded. Like, paralyzed, peeing myself scared. And not just occasionally. It was a daily occurrence.
One memorable interaction was when Danny cornered me about five houses away from my house to tell me all about his new aluminum baseball bat. It was blue. He told me about how much it was going to hurt when he used it to hit me again and again and again. Another time, when I was a little older, maybe ten or so, I fell off my bike just around the corner from his house. I lost about a two by four inch swath of skin on my left arm, and it hurt more than anything I’d ever experienced. I remember holding my breath, trying hard not to cry or scream, even though my arm was a slick of blood and felt like it was on fire. All I could think of was getting away from Danny’s house before he saw me and took advantage of my being hurt to hurt me even worse.
This is stuff that happened thirty, thirty-five years ago. I thought I’d forgotten it. All it took was my sister’s sympathetic face and the words “I could tell he was really ashamed of himself. I felt bad for him,” and it all came back like it was yesterday.
Even as I type, I feel the lump in my stomach and my ears are trying to buzz. My breath wants to come too fast, and I might as well be five again and looking for somewhere to hide until the coast is clear.
I guess this trip down memory lane could fall under two categories. There’s the, yes, bullying today seems more extreme and damaging – mostly because we now have video phones and youtube and cyber-bullying, so there’s more outlet for it, and because the results are splashed across the headlines for all to see… but that’s just perception. Bullying was around thirty-five years ago, and fifty years ago, and a hundred years ago, and will be around a hundred years from now. And it was every bit as hurtful and damaging then as it is today.
And that’s the second “moral of my story.” That kind of damage doesn’t go away. Oh, it fades over time. It gets buried under more recent victories and defeats. But the petty – and not so petty – cruelties children subject each other to never disappear entirely. They help to form who we are, how we look at others, and how we see ourselves. And, clearly, it doesn’t take much to bring that hurt back to the surface.
I’m glad I wasn’t home to see Danny. I’d like to think I could have been all magnanimous and accepted his apology and offered to reminisce over coffee, but as I sit here with my stomach churning with acid, I know that’s not how it would have gone. I can’t really say what I’d have done, to be honest. I’m glad I didn’t have to find out, though, because the thought of it makes me feel ill.