The ringing of the phone made me jump. It was late on a chilly Sunday night, and was I busy fretting over what I’d wear to school the next day. The person calling was a parent from down the street.
“I just wanted to let you know that a minute ago, I drove by your driveway and I saw about a dozen teenage boys out there standing around and your mailbox post was on fire.”
My cheeks flooded red and my heart sank. Not more mailbox stuff again. I had been enduring this for two years already.
“Oh that’s so weird,” I lied. “Thanks for letting us know.”
I choked back tears and tried to sound like I was surprised instead of filled with shame and embarrassment at this unending nightmare.
It was Superbowl Sunday 1997, and while I attended a party of girls, a guy from my class who lived in my neighborhood had hosted a gathering for our male counterparts. His post-game activity was the piece de resistance in his ongoing campaign of bullying: he and about a dozen guys from my class gathered around my family’s mailbox while he doused it in gas, lit it up, and they all watched it burn.
When most people think about high school bullying they think of girl-on-girl “Mean Girls” behavior: gossip, cackling, exclusion. They might think of boys being bullied by boys on the sports field or in the locker room, emasculation for the late bloomer whose puberty timeline doesn’t perfectly correspond with his most macho peers. But rarely does one think of the boy-on-girl type of bullying that I endured as a student in a small New England high school.
During my sophomore through senior years of high school, my mailbox was vandalized, smashed and set on fire with enough regularity that my parents got the local police involved. A classmate of mine gave an in-class speech titled “Name That Spazz” in which a handful of us victims were described in insulting detail, and at the very end, our identities were revealed as the subjects of his “hilarious” presentation.
At a house party, I posed for a joke photo with a male peer, me playfully mugging and lunging toward him and him pulling away from me, only to have a few guys get their hands on the negative, blow it up to 8 ½ x 11 in the school darkroom, make dozens of photocopies, and hang it up in every trophy case on campus.
My sister came back from college to pick me up at school that day, saw those photos, and asked me what was going on. I shrugged, took deep breaths to keep the tears at bay, and tried to act like it was a joke that I was in on when I certainly was not. She had just dipped her toes into the hell that I had to report to five days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
I bore the albatross of "the girl who guys bullied,” and so many guys piled on because, well, it was what so many other guys seemed to be doing. In retrospect, I was the undeserving victim of a toxic cocktail of misogyny and groupthink at its worst.
The lament of some high-school girls is that “boys don’t even know that I exist,” and I truly wish that had been the case. Instead, I lived for years in an environment that I contend is far worse: being actively terrorized by a handful of guys.
My school was small enough that these guys weren’t strangers to me; these were my classroom contemporaries and social peers and science lab partners and neighbors and the guys who my friends liked. When your graduating class is only 95 kids, your options are to either socialize with your tormentors or live in an isolation booth.
Being the subject of bullying is a profoundly lonely experience. No one wants to jump in and help you because it seems contagious. The saddest part is that bullying most often takes place in childhood or adolescence when you are least equipped to identify -- much less process or understand -- these newfound feelings of shame and isolation.
Most nights, I laid my head on the pillow and, after screaming into it and crying, I’d pray that I would wake up and this would all be over and I would no longer cringe at the sound of my own name or feel like I had a target on my back.
“What are you doing at school that is making these guys smash our mailbox every night?” was often the topic of dinnertime discussion in my home. What was I doing? Damned if I knew. Having opinions and quoting Saturday Night Live? Having the dumb luck of living mere streets away from the most sociopathic teenager in my town? Not being a docile girl who “knew her place” and thus came off as a threat to budding misogynists?
In a self-preservation move, I sought out friendship and romance in the town next to mine. The residents over there seemed friendly, and best of all, none of them knew about the legion of guys who were out to get me in the hallways of my high school. But that strategic maneuver only made it worse; suddenly I was a “sell out” and I was crucified for deigning to seek kindness elsewhere. My male classmates wanted nothing to do with me romantically, but they sure as hell didn’t want me finding validation and happiness with the guys from another town. They wanted to control my narrative and their story arc had me stewing in my own shame until the day we graduated.
One friend once suggested that we put dog shit in a bag, light it on fire, and leave it on the ringleader’s front steps.
“You’ll only make it worse. I don’t want to antagonize him,” I responded naively.
Throughout the duration, I didn’t do anything to defend myself. I truly thought that it would only escalate the problem and make me even more of a target. So I played field hockey and acted in school plays and worked on my college applications and tried to act like everything was fine because I was so terrified that it would get worse if I swung back.
Some might claim that this wasn’t bullying, that these were silly high school pranks -- but I disagree. When this behavior continues unabated for years, these aren’t playful antics and there are long-term effects from enduring such a pattern of bullying.
The “It Gets Better” campaign can be applied to any victim of crummy hometown bullying. It gets better because you find creative people and fellow comedy nerds and you discover that a lot of the most imaginative and unique people took it on the chin in stifling hometowns, too.
It especially gets better if you grow up and become a storyteller and standup comedian because you can take your stories and trauma and all those crummy people and put them in your act. You’ve endured years of bullying -- you got brass balls now, kid.