I recently posted a photo of my sister and I on Facebook. One of the first comments it received was from X: “I love this! You two look great -- exactly like I remember you!” This is deeply unremarkable, except that X is the person responsible for making my life a living hell during junior high. I got the friend request from her while I was on my way to meet a couple of girlfriends for happy hour. By way of greeting, I said in my most dramatic voice, “Check this out: I got a friend request from my bully today.” We spent the evening discussing the many puberty-era humiliations we’d each endured, which proved more unsettling than one might expect, given we’re now thirtysomethings. (On the upside, at least there were cocktails.)
I spent several days deliberating, but then I thought to myself, "Oh screw it, that was 20 years ago," and clicked yes. And then I got a very nice note from X, saying how it was so great to connect again and it seemed like I had a very fun life and wasn’t that wonderful. This did not make me feel good, or particularly bad. It simply felt weird. Deeply, deeply weird.
My junior high years were as awful as they could possibly be—and anyone who’s been through junior high and lived to tell about it knows that this is saying something. X and I had been pals since she’d showed up at the neighborhood pool after moving to town the summer before second grade. Once the school year started, we were thrilled to realize we were in the same class. As we grew, X became a bit of an alpha girl, and I—I guess I was a little immature, a little un-savvy, a little too sensitive -- too something, certainly. What she told me, on a near-daily basis, was that I was ugly. Too ugly for words. Too ugly to live.It wasn’t just her, either. There were days X would craft great, elaborate plots, whisper campaigns in the literal sense, and each member of our little clique would come up to me individually, one after the other, to tell me how ugly I was. Or that I smelled. Or that I walked like a freak, or that my voice was strange or that I made a weird face when I wrote, or that my lips were too fat or my legs were too thin. I thus became the rare junior high school student who hated recess. I got good grades: good grades were for geeks. I made the team: she didn’t really want to play, anyway. Any possible thing one might hate about oneself, she ensured that I would, indeed, hate about myself. Every day was torture, whether the torture was outright or not: for years of my life, I greeted each day with dread. And yet, I continued to count her as a friend. I don’t know why. Perhaps I was behaving as anyone in an abusive relationship might: for someone as awful and disgusting as I was beginning to believe I was, I suppose I felt lucky she’d have me. X moved away before high school, so I was spared any more of her near-daily assaults. But I’d learned the lesson she’d been intent on teaching me. For years after that, I hated myself. I tried to starve myself into invisibility. I believed I was the world’s ugliest human being; repulsive, repellent, totally unworthy of friendship or love. I think about it now—having realized that I am not actually ugly or smelly or in possession of a freakish gait, and rather pleased to be smart and athletic—and the hurt and dread is as raw and visceral as it was all those years ago. It is physical: a hollow in my stomach, a weight on my chest. I used to feel humiliation recalling all of this—like I’d somehow deserved to be bullied as I was—but now I just feel a swelling sadness for that kid I used to be, who believed this mean girl was her friend. My thoughts about her are more complicated now that we’re “friends.” She’s a mother—and even worked as a teacher, from what I’ve gathered. Sometimes I wonder if her daughter is a bully, too—or if she’d let it slide if she saw it happening in her classroom. I wonder what she’s like with her girlfriends, now that she’s all grown up. She has only the nicest things to say to me now, though our communication is strictly restricted to the bizarro world of Facebook. I don’t post stuff often, but when I do, X can be counted on to comment, and without fail, her comments are very nice. She has a photography business and frequently posts her work; it’s quite good. She posts a lot of selfies. She posts quotes from Rumi. How can this be the same person who seemed to live to make my life miserable? (And what kind of bully reads Rumi?) And why on earth did she seek me out, all these years later? She’s never apologized, never acknowledged her cruelty. I wonder if she even remembers; I wonder what she tells herself about who she was and how she acted back then. I wonder if she’s sorry.
Whenever a bullying story is in the news, my heart breaks a little -- for the bullied kids of today, and for the bullied kid I was. And I can't help but think of X, and wonder what she thinks about the news, and whether she thinks about me.But I guess it doesn’t matter. It was so long ago -- I’ve changed, presumably she has too. We’re grown, each of us living happy-for-the-most-part, healthy lives. And I believe that having endured what I did made me, in some ways, a better person. I’m compassionate and I’m strong. And most importantly, I’ve learned a thing or two about who I call a friend (as opposed to a “friend").
Follow me @Shannon_BKelley.