I was bullied as a kid. I went to a small artsy elementary school called “The Alternative School”, and from kindergarten through sixth grade, I was teased, humiliated, harassed, alienated and left out of everything normal and fun. It was mostly other girls who teased me, and occasionally the boys went along with it. But the girls were the worst. They made fun of my hair, my clothes, my weight, my lunchbox and my dimpled chin – anything they could. This was before the Internet, so luckily – save for a few prank phone calls – I was safe at home (gosh, if only HelloGiggles had existed in the ’80s!). My parents were good and supportive and tried to get me to change schools. Every year I convinced them it would be different and that people would be nicer and I would make friends.
It never happened. I spent seven years watching my back, crying at night, faking sick to stay home and relying on my imagination to act as my best friend. It was terrible, (as most things that build character usually are).
Everything changed in middle school. Well, I think there were two things that ultimately made a huge difference:
1. There were 200 new kids for me to be friends with – weird kids, just like me.
2. I developed breasts and with them, a little confidence.
This is the narrative I tell people as to how my bullying ended: Things just changed. I changed. From then on I had friends, boyfriends, was invited to parties, and had a relatively normal adolescence. College was pretty much the same. And even now, at 28 years old, I still generally feel pretty popular. I know that’s not the case for everyone this has happened to, and I do consider myself lucky. I’ve made up for lost time, and Facebook has helped me feel infinitely superior to lots of the girls who wasted their time trying to make my life miserable way back when (yes, I said that). And then one day out of the blue, I received this Facebook message. I blocked out her name and face because this isn’t really about her. It’s about bullies and the bullied. It’s about age and growing up and the experiences we have that make us regret the times we hurt other people.
This is a message every bullied kid should see. Everything Dan Savage and Lady Gaga say is true: it gets better. It gets better because whether you are gay or straight or skinny or fat or Jewish or atheist, or rich or poor, one day (if you want it) you will wake up in your beautiful New York City apartment, next to someone you love who loves you back – and some silly girl from your childhood will have sent you a Facebook message that is 20 years overdue. And if the experience of being bullied has taught you anything, you’re not really going to feel compelled to respond to her.
I mean, why bother? You’re likely going to feel compelled to forward the message to your family who took care of you all those years, because they deserve to see it. And maybe you’ll share it with your friends because they’ll get a kick out of it. And maybe you’ll use it for a blog post or an art piece or a song – you know, some talent you learned while you were isolated and didn’t have any friends for so long. You’ll put it to good use because even though your life is better now, you still have a bruise from where that chair was pulled out from under you all those years. It’s an empathetic muscle memory that reminds you of all the other kids who are still getting picked on every day, and how much it sucks to feel hated when you’re still trying to figure out who you are.
So much is being said about bullying right now – it’s in the movies, on TV, and working it’s way into the political discussion. When I was growing up, there was very little my teachers, the principle, or any administrative person could do to make it stop. For whatever reason, we all felt helpless in helping me. No kid should be made to feel like adults can’t help them. Believe me, kids who feel like they can’t ask for help generally become adults with trust issues.
As proud as I am that I got out, that I moved on and found confidence and happiness as an adult, I get teary-eyed and vomit-feeling whenever I think about all the little Caitlins in small towns all over the country who feel like the only friend they have is the salamander they found under a rock in their backyard. I wish there was a way for it to just end, but I know that half the problem is the adults who are bullies themselves, teaching their kids to be just as mean.
I guess this is the only thing I’d like to say to that woman who bullied me so many years ago: when you have kids, please don’t raise them to be little jerks. It’s the least you can do to make it up to all of us Caitlins out there.