I didn't remember her name until a few days ago when something triggered the memory of a day in the 6th grade that had long been pushed into the farthest recesses of my mind. I went to my old yearbooks and found her there, frozen in time. As the details simmered about in my mind and certain specifics began to rise to the surface, I could vividly recall how each of my senses played a role. I could feel the fear, the uneasy rhythm of my breathing. I could almost even hear the squeak of my blue Kangaroo sneakers on the wet pavement.
I'm not sure who put her up to it. All I remember was that some of the so-called "popular" girls had decided to instigate a fight after school. Someone told Haddas that I had been making fun of her accent or her clothing or some such lie and convinced her that a sound beating in the ball fields after school was the only way to resolve it.
A small group of girls found me in my quiet corner during lunch, my own hidden place behind the Resource Center where I would sit and read by myself. I will never forget the words I heard which caused me to jerk my head up and wonder why these girls would come to find me.
"You better look out after school, Helicopter Head," they taunted me, using the cruel nickname they had gifted me on the first day of school because of the braided ponytails I had been so proud of. I will never forget the exact words which were spoken just then... "Haddas is going to wail on you for bagging on her." Stupid, silly sixth-grade words that have remained etched in my memory. They snickered as they turned and left me there, paralyzed.
I had never been in a fight before. I had often heard the whispers among kids throughout the day of a fight that would take place or the chanting of "fight, fight, fight..." on the playground as one erupted during recess but I had never imagined myself in such a predicament. I lived to be invisible. I kept to myself whenever possible. How had this happened?
By the time the school bell signaled the end of the day, I had formulated a plan. Rather than walking my usual route home through the baseball fields I was going to take a longer route, one which kept me in neighborhoods with plenty of homes, where traffic was busy. I stayed in my classroom as long as possible and then made my way towards the front of the school.
To my dismay, it had started to rain. People would not be out in their yards today.
Still, avoiding the fields seemed to be the best plan. I held on to the hope that the drizzle from the heavens had deterred the crowd from waiting for me to show up as I made my way through the neighborhoods, silently praying that all would be well.
I was rounding the corner just a half block from the middle school campus when I first heard the footsteps from behind me. They were deliberate, coming faster, and I knew almost immediately that I had been followed in my attempted escape.
My tormentors corralled me back around the block, into the waiting crowd. A wide circle was formed around Haddas and myself and I noticed something in her eyes that was familiar... fear. "I don't want to fight you," I told her. Everyone laughed as if I had just made a joke. For a moment I thought that she might agree with me, call the whole thing off and let me leave. But instead, she stepped forward and pushed me to the wet grass.
I started to silently cry, knowing I could not escape my fate. "Get up!" the crowd yelled at me, but I continued to sit as I tried to gain some composure. I was already an outcast in the eyes of those gathered here, I could not bear the thought of being known as a crybaby as well.
"Get up!" the crowd chanted as I looked to Haddas. Her eyes still reflected fear. I decided then that my best option at this point was to run. I grabbed my backpack and quickly turned just as someone shoved her toward me. We both fell, face forward. The crowd cheered, but I jumped to my feet and ran.
My legs carried me past the fields, through the chain link fence that surrounded the school and almost to a safe haven behind a cinder block wall before they gave out on me. I collapsed to the ground beside a parked car as great, heaving sobs escaped me. Why were they doing this? What pleasure was there in forcing two frightened social outcasts to come to blows with each other? I did not understand and was not sure I wanted to. I only knew that it was terribly wrong for anyone to have to endure the anguish and torment brought on by bullies.
When my sobs had ceased, I wiped the tears from my face and stood to make my way home.
I dreaded going to school the next day. I fretted and worried all night about what would happen when I returned to this place I was quickly learning to loathe. I debated faking sick but knew that would only buy me a day, maybe two. I determined that the best thing to do would be to follow my normal routine and do my best to remain invisible.
I tentatively walked towards my middle school that morning, alone as usual, and frightened. I remember how I had dressed myself in neutral colors that day, hoping to blend in with the walls and be unnoticed. At first, I thought it was working. But eventually I realized that the fact of the matter was that no one cared. The excitement was over, the whole thing was forgotten; it was almost as if it had never happened.
But I didn't forget. I will never forget.
I remember how those same girls mocked me years earlier when I had been so excited to wear my brand new, homemade clothes to school and again when I wore my shiny black church shoes because my tennis shoes no longer fit.
I remember every time they threw my lunch onto the roof of the school and laughed as they dared me to tattletale to a teacher about it.
I remember being reluctantly chosen last for every kickball game played during P.E., being banished from four-square and jump rope and a turn on the swings at recess.
I remember being followed and mocked as I walked home from school and every pebble thrown at my backpack.
I remember changing the way I dressed, the route I walked to school, even my posture - all in an attempt to make myself less noticeable to these kids who sought out targets for their cruel words.
I remember how excruciating it was to endure such intimidation and loneliness.
I may have forced the memories of this part of my childhood into places which are far-reaching, but I haven't forgotten.
I remember every name of every bully, every malicious word spoken and cruel action targeted towards me.
I like to think that I am a more kind-hearted, sensitive and loving person because of all I was made to endure. I am doing my best to raise kids who have the self-confidence to avoid being prey for bullies but also the courage to look out for and befriend those who are not so fortunate.
As I come to the part where I attempt to draw a conclusion with this post, I'm not sure what to say or what point I'm trying to make. However, it has been good to work through the memories and release them from the place I've kept them locked up for so long.
In my adult life I am saddened to see that bullying continues. Sometimes it is in the form of power over another, sometimes it is evident in the cliques which, despite my advancing age, still exist and exclude others, but most often I see bullying in the words people choose to use as weapons against another. Words are not as innocent as people may think. They are powerful.
In one final attempt at closure, I would like to add something for all of my childhood bullies who will never read this and never care...
I don't know what you may have endured or why you gained such pleasure from the anguish you put me through. I hope you look back on your childhood with regret towards your actions - but regardless of any of that... I can honestly say that I forgive you.
But I will never, ever forget.