I know everyone has an awkward phase around 13, but mine was on another level. I was a recent transplant from Kentucky to Southern California. When I greeted my classmates with a southern "Hey, y'all," I got a Valley Girl "Uh... yeah, hi" followed by an eye roll.
My outfits were about 10 years behind the current fashion, and my mother was very eager to catch me up. She wanted me to "stand out," so she bought me Esprit clothing. There was one particular outfit, and — I kid you not — it was a long, bright-red shirt with green polka dots, paired with green and purple polka-dot leggings. The crowning jewel to this outfit, and anything else I wore, were bright-yellow Danskin high-top sneakers.
My fate was sealed. There would be no mercy.
I knew I looked stupid, but there was nothing I could do about it. At least I had friends, though — at first. One was a girl, Amy*, was nice to me. Until she wasn't. Suddenly, she decided to not be my friend anymore and teamed up with a girl who looked like a taller version of her, Erica*. They were friends with a girl named Lily*, who became their "leader."
Every single damn day, these girls would surround me, not letting me run from them. They told me how much they hated me and how everyone else hated me. They would pull random kids aside and make them say they hated me. They would follow me to class.
Soon, I became the kid you didn't want to hang out with unless you wanted to be branded a loser. When I would sit down at a desk, any kid that sat in front, behind, to the left and right of me were encouraged to get up and sit somewhere else. My worst nightmare then was when the teacher said, "OK, everyone get a partner." I ended up as the teacher's partner, or with some kid who behaved like Simon of Cyrene over being paired with me.
During lunch, those girls would chant, "WE HATE TAMI!" while I walked by. The only place where I could catch a break from these bullies was the library, but eventually, I had to leave and face them.
That was the year I first attempted suicide. I remember telling a girl next to me in class I wanted to kill myself; she told the bullies as if that was funny, and the bullies said I should, because if they were a loser with no friends, like me, they would kill themselves.
Recently, I decided to find the bullies on Facebook. Even though the thought of them makes the kid in me want to hide in the library again, grown-up me had questions. Why me? What was it about me that made me seem like such an easy target? What did they get out of it? Why did they like terrorizing me? What made them think it was OK? What was going on in their lives while they were bullying me? Are they sorry? Do they have their own kids now, and if so, has they changed how they feel about bullying? I could go on and on.
I decided to contact the leader, Lily, first. When I found her Facebook profile, I just stared, completely frozen. Suddenly, I was transported back to seventh grade. I was 13 again. She still looks the same: hard eyes, thin eyebrows, and a big, wide smile that I usually saw when she was humiliating me. She's all grown up now. Married with kids.
I stifled a yelp. But I couldn't stop the tears that had started gathering in my eyes. It's been 29 years, but the wounds feel just as fresh as yesterday. But I decided to start a dialogue.
I simply typed, "Is this Lily from Newman* Junior High, 1987?"
I got back a prompt, "Yes, it is!"
Well, I just dove right in:
"I don't know if you even remember me, but I'm Tami. We went to junior high and high school together. I was wondering if you could help me with something. I have been doing some writing about bullying, and I am trying to find out why I was targeted. I'm also very curious about the kids that were teasing me. I just thought maybe you'd like to offer your opinion about this. I'm not angry about what I went through as a kid anymore, and I've done a lot of internal work to forgive myself for not standing up for myself. I'm just curious about your side of the story. We've had some distance with time and life direction. I am actually shaking as I am typing you this note! Thanks for reading."
I sat there and cried after I hit "send." I wish these girls could understand that how they treated me has permanently affected my life. I have an anxiety disorder that gets triggered when I am in public. I have struggled with suicidal thoughts and have made a few more attempts since then. I had PTSD that would force me to relieve the trauma. I gave up dreams I had because of fear of public ridicule.
It took decades for me to like myself again, because after these girls moved on, I became the bully — to myself. I wish they knew that. Yeah, I know they were just dumb kids then. But even at that age, they knew right from wrong. And if they didn't, the staff at the school should have done more to stop what happened. I reported it several times. All I got was, "Ignore them."
I got a response from Lily after a few days. It read:
"Of course I remember you. I am so sorry you endured abuse from your peers. I honestly do not have any recollection of such treatment to you. I do remember people making not nice comments about you being different. (Different how, I do not know.) Why you were targeted, I am unsure. I just think that kids can be mean. They always seem to pick the weaker ones. I am so sorry it has impacted you all these years later. Once again, I am truly sorry for any pain I caused you. I think you are doing a great thing dealing with this and bringing it out in the open. I feel honored that you felt safe to approach me. I hope you are doing well and are happy. Keep in touch."
I stared at the screen. I blinked. She doesn't remember?! Funny how for one person, something will be life-changing, and for another, it doesn't even form a memory.
I read Lily's response to my husband and asked him what he thought. He paused and said, "Sounds like she's ashamed." I thought the same thing. In a roundabout way, she did acknowledge her treatment of me, even though she denied remembering.
I reached out to another bully and never even heard back. That silence says to me, "I'm too ashamed or afraid to talk to you" or "I simply don't care." The silence is an answer; not the one I was hoping for, but an answer nevertheless.
Since one bully supposedly can't remember, one couldn't give enough of a crap to reply, and the third one I can't even find, I will have say what I need to say to myself — to answer my questions myself.
I don't know why you girls picked on me. I don't know what you got out of it, if anything. But now, you mean nothing to me. All the years, fears, and nightmares you gave me, I am leaving behind. If you think about those times and have regrets, I don't care anymore. You just don't matter. This kid you picked on was — and still is — pretty awesome. She did eventually pick herself up, dust herself off, and learn to love herself. I now have kids that I'm raising to stand up for other kids that get bullied, and I am teaching them to love themselves so that they won't have to deal with the kind of crap you put on me. All this pain you caused I now drop at your feet. I am walking away.
I really didn't need to hear from these bullies. I had the answers already. What happened to me shouldn't have happened. But it did, and I survived it. I am now thriving. I am a good person, a loving person, a person who deserves love back — especially from myself.