Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Bullies

pic here

I wrote an essay here on my blog a long while back called Nobody Wins.  It is a small part of the story of the bullying I endured from elementary school through my early teenage years.  My friend CW shared a call for stories on the topic of Justice and Mercy in a literary publication called Segullah and this essay immediately came to mind.  On a whim I decided to submit it for consideration.  I cut and pasted it from my blog, made a few adjustments and sent it in.  I had forgotten about it when I received an email from Segullah letting me know that my essay was accepted as a part of their Spring/Summer 2012 issue.

I was speechless.  Having something I wrote published somewhere besides my blog was a dream come true!  I worked with a great editor who asked me lots of tough questions and brought out more detail in the big picture of the story.  There were times that I wanted to quit writing because the memories of being bullied were terrible to endure again.  However - if you know me, you'll know I'm not a quitter.  And I don't like to do things halfway.  And I didn't want the bullies to win. 

So, here's my story - all of it.  I hope that no one I know has ever had to endure such pain.  If you take the time to read the whole thing, I'd love to hear what you think.

Many, many thanks to Segullah for helping me with the editing process and making one of my dreams come true.

***

Remembering


I stood at the sink watching my kids play flag football with the neighborhood kids.  It was a warm summer day, and a welcome breeze wafted through the kitchen window along with the kids’ banter.  My enjoyment of the scene suddenly turned to shock, however, when one boy yelled at my oldest son, Allen, “You’re such a STUPID sissy! You can’t even catch a ball!  We don’t want you on our team.”  He pushed my son and shouted, “LEAVE, you big IDIOT!”  Allen made it to our back steps before he let the tears come. 

I couldn’t breathe.  My head clouded and my heart ached as painful memories bombarded me, overwhelming me with almost-forgotten sadness, hurt and anger.  I stormed out my back door and yelled at the boy, “What right do YOU have to kick Allen out of the game?  You are playing in his yard!  I will not tolerate any form of bullying or name-calling here.  You are never welcome to set foot in our yard again!  YOU leave!”  The boy continued to stand there and look at me with a smirk on his face.  

This added fuel to my already burning fire. “If you do not remove yourself from our property NOW then I will call the police and have them remove you!  LEAVE!”  It was not my proudest moment.  But the boy did finally leave, while all of the neighborhood kids stared at me in amazement—or was it fear?  Feeling my own tears coming, I quickly escaped into the house and locked myself in my room.  What was wrong with me?  Why couldn’t I just clear the events of the past from my mind?  It disturbed me that these memories still evoked such strong emotions, tethering me to the insecurities of my younger self.   

***

When I was in the sixth grade a small group of girls found me in my reading corner during lunch. "You better look out after school, Helicopter Head," they taunted me, using the cruel nickname they gifted me on the first day of school, mocking the braided ponytails I wore so proudly.  I will never forget the words one of them spoke. "Haddas is going to wail on you for bagging on her." 

Haddas?  The two of us had never even spoken to each other.  She was a tall, gangly girl with the kind of hair and face that left you wondering about her gender.  Like me, she was quiet and kept to herself.  I hadn’t ever noticed her until a few months earlier when I watched the bullies target her.  I was sitting on a corner of the bleachers by the baseball fields when I saw her enter the schoolyard gate.  A light fog still lingered over the grass.  She was carrying a plastic bag in one hand and a backpack over her shoulders.  The group of girls who liked to torment me stopped twirling on the bars and walked towards her.  She tried to change her course but it was too late.  

The ringleader tore the plastic bag from Haddas’ hands and threw it on the ground.  I could hear their laughter.  Haddas looked past them as they jeered.  Taller than most of them, she stared right over their heads as if they didn’t exist.  I wondered if this tactic was effective and wished I knew how to help, but I remained frozen in place.  The girls continued to taunt and laugh until they became bored by her lack of reaction.  Haddas picked up her plastic bag, shoved it into her backpack, and headed toward the school.  I saw they were coming in my direction and scrambled into one of my standard hiding places beneath the bleachers.  I caught snatches of their conversation as they walked past—“only losers shop at Kmart.” I never noticed Haddas again until the day that we were pitted against each other.

I had never been in a fight before. I had often heard the whispers throughout the day or the chanting of "fight, fight, fight" when one erupted, but I had never imagined myself in such a predicament. I lived to be invisible.  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 had deterred the crowd and prayed silently as I made my way through the neighborhoods.  Rounding the corner just a half block from the middle school campus, I heard the footsteps behind me. They were deliberate, coming fast. 
My tormentors corralled me back around the block, into the waiting crowd. A wide circle formed around me and Haddas, and I noticed something familiar in her eyes—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 felt heat rising over my face. Eyes on the ground, I tried to keep my shoulders steady as I cried silently, knowing I could not escape my fate. "Get up!" the crowd yelled at me.  But I just sat.  Already an outcast, I could not bear the thought of being known as a crybaby too.

"Get up!" the crowd chanted as I looked to Haddas. Her eyes still reflected fear. I decided my best option was to run. I grabbed my backpack, stood, 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.

I dreaded going to school the next day. I fretted all night. I debated faking sick but knew that would only buy me a day, maybe two. I determined that my best option was to follow my normal routine and do my best to remain invisible.

I tentatively walked toward my middle school that morning, alone as usual, and frightened.  I had dressed in neutral colors, hoping to blend in with the walls. At first I thought it was working. But eventually I realized that, actually, no one cared. The excitement was over, the whole thing forgotten.

But I didn't forget.  I cannot forget every time they threw my lunch onto the school roof and laughed as they dared me to tattletale.  I cannot forget being reluctantly chosen last for every kickball game.  I cannot forget how I changed the way I dressed, the route I walked to school, even my posture—all in an attempt to make myself less noticeable.  I remember every name of every bully, every malicious word and cruel action targeted at me.

I’ve heard that forgiving and forgetting go hand in hand, but forgetting has not been easy. Years after junior high, as I sat in my locked bedroom after throwing my son's bully out of our yard, I realized I had not yet forgiven or forgotten.
***

I guess that’s why, a couple of years later, I put so much thought and time into finding the right outfit and hairstyle for my ten-year high school reunion.  I don’t know why I was so nervous.  Unlike middle school, high school held some great memories for me.   

My husband and I walked into the hotel, and I searched for familiar faces.  I visited with old friends from choir, drama, and cross country.  But as the music grew too loud for my taste and the dancing started to get crazy, my husband and I drifted out to a grouping of loveseats near the bar.  That’s where I saw her—my middle school tormentor, the ringleader whenever I was bullied.  She was with her old high school boyfriend.  Neither wore a wedding ring.  Their slurred speech and exaggerated movements suggested too much alcohol.  

She wore the same cocky smirk, and just one glimpse of it made my stomach turn.  Her laugh instantly transported me back to sixth grade.  The fear I had tried to forget for so long quickly resurfaced.  I grasped my husband’s hand tighter.  He wouldn’t let anything happen to me.  Then I got angry. 
Look at me! I wanted to shout.  I’m happily married, have a beautiful family and a wonderful life.  But you?  You’re still stuck in the same old rut.  You’re the same person you were in high school!  What a sad life. 

I felt embarrassed even as I thought it. How could she still have this power over me?  Why does she still make me so angry? Had she even thought about me since those horrible days so many years ago? 
I distracted myself by sitting down to visit with another classmate.  While he and my husband talked, I said a silent prayer.  Please, Heavenly Father, I prayed, help me push these thoughts from my mind.  Help me get past these feelings of anger and hate.   I dared to look again over to the place where she stood near the bar.  

My thoughts began to change direction.  Why was she still with her high school boyfriend?  I wondered. Maybe she never had the confidence to move on.  Or maybe he was the only man she ever felt loved her.  Perhaps she didn’t grow up in a loving home.  Maybe the way she had treated me reflected childhood pain of her own.  

A quote I’d read somewhere ran through my mind, “A human being is nothing but a story with skin around it.” For the first time, I began to see her as a real person, with her own struggles and sorrows. Her life may look nothing like I imagined that night, but opening myself to the possibility that she had challenges of her own changed things for me.  In that moment, the slightest feeling of forgiveness moved into my heart.   I never spoke to her that night.  I don’t think I could have if I tried.  But those junior high memories, while still vivid, did begin to lose a little of their power over me.

***

Over time, more portions of forgiveness have come.  I have found that the only way to make room in my heart for forgiveness is to release some of the anger and hatred.   Memories can make that hard to do.  Sometimes I wish I could forget, but I’m not sure I ever will.  I have hope that those memories will continue to lose their power, that their ability to hurt me will keep fading.  In the meantime, my heart has made progress in other ways: it’s become very soft toward others who don’t quite fit in.

My kids have inherited that softened heart.  Allen, once called a football “sissy,” grew into a young man who notices and stands up for underdogs.  When he was in the sixth grade, his teacher called me to tell me about something that had happened at school.  Some of the kids were making fun of a boy who mentioned that he wanted to be a paleontologist when he grew up.  They joked that he would never be friends with anyone but the dinosaurs.  My son piped up and said, “Knock it off, guys.  Joey is my friend.  And someday you’re all going to wish you were nicer to him when he’s your boss.”  The teacher thought my son had all but committed social suicide but was amazed to watch how, over time, some of the other boys brought Joey into their circle.  They learned to appreciate his quirkiness because Allen stood up for him that day.  These are the kind of stories that bring me happiness and even healing.  These are the stories that I love to remember.  

19 comments:

Brown Thumb Mama said...

First, congratulations on being published!! What a great accomplishment.

Second, I'm so sorry that you had to experience such awfulness. I wish we had lived closer...I was a social outcast too, but at least we could have been together. :o)

I recently wanted to jump through the computer and strangle Facebook when it suggested one of the "mean girls" as a friend. I'm also still working at releasing the power they held over me. Good grief!

Teachinfourth said...

Gerb,

I can't tell you how proud I am of you - not only for enduring and rising above, but for sharing your experience with the rest of us.

You, my friend, are amazing.

Kristin said...

Beautiful essay Gerb. Congratulations! It is so true that some of the most beautiful people are those that have endured some ugly things. You are a beautiful person Gerb and you are teaching your children to be beautiful people too!

Sabrina B said...

Wow! Well written. Any bullying story is hard to hear/share. Thanks for sharing your story.

Mindy said...

Truly a powerful piece. I was touched as I read of your experiences and what you learned and continue to learn from them. How you used those things you faced to help you become the caring and sensitive person you are today.

Thank you for sharing those painful memories so that others can take inspiration from you.

Petersons Blog Spot said...

Wow, to realize that you had forgiving to do must not have been easy. I remember the bullies in my life and I don't think I ever thought of forgiving them.


Well done.

Maleen said...

I would never have guessed you had gone through things like that. You seem to have risen above it. But I'm sure the memories will always be there, even if the feelings associated with it can change over time.
I am very impressed that you shared and that your writing was appreciated and published. That is great. And it will help others. That is important.

Anaise said...

Great job!

Gina said...

You, I love.

You are a fabulous writer. Your words draw me in and create a world that I nearly think I was there to experience. You deserve to be published. So happy for you.

And, typical you fashion, the story is more than a story. Lots of deeper meanings and lessons to learn. Thank you for sharing something so personal to you.

Chip said...

Through tears and joy, I have one simple comment.

Remembering, like most other blessings, can serve as a gift or curse depending on how we use it within our moral agency. Thank you for reminding me why I have never been ashamed to be known as Gerb's little brother.

Love you!

laura said...

Amazing. Wow. You are one strong woman and wonderful mother. Thanks for your example.

Amber said...

WOW, what a beautifully written essay! I felt myself clenching the whole time as I read your painful memories. I went to the same middle school and was also bullied in the 6th grade. It happened so much more than I thought. Thank you so much for sharing your story!

Amy Long said...

Such a powerful story. Incredibly well expressed and well written. And you deserve to have nothing but pride in how you've made your life today and your wonderful family. My regret is that I didn't know you were there hiding under the bleachers or I would have joined you...strength in numbers, no? How can middle school be filled with so many of us lonely people who think they don't fit in and who, somehow, never manage to realize that everyone is feeling the same way? Give yourself a 28-year-belated high five from me for being so courageous!

1littlemom said...

Great job Gerb. You have always been a shining example to me of love and acceptance. Your friendship got me through many a dark day in high school. Thank you. Now on to enjoying the lives we work so hard to create...yours sounds awesome. xoxo

Anonymous said...

You were right, this is a sad story. I thought back about the times I was bullied. Nothing as bad as your experience.
The painful part is thinking about when I participated in being mean to a girl on the way home from middle school once. It still hurts to think about it. I hope to be able to seek this person out some day and apologize.
Meanwhile I'm trying to teach my kids to always be kind and loving.
Thanks for sharing your story.

♥Miya said...

I'm Teachinfourth's little sister. This is such an amazing story. It is inspiring to see how you've grown and been able to forgive those around you now that your life has changed for the better. I hope I can reach that level of forgiveness in my own life someday!

Gerb said...

Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful, supportive comments. It means so much to me!

Rachel said...

I'm so proud of you Gerb for writing this!

Painful memories....... this story mirrors so closely to my own......

I wish I could say it is all in the past but even as an adult, I've endured some of the same tormenting in my ward.... so dumb!

Unknown said...

Beautiful, Gerb. Absolutely beautiful! -Jen