Confessions of a former school bully
If you met me today, you would probably never guess that I used to be a bully. Today, friends, family, and acquaintances would describe me as someone who is shy, and almost kind to a fault. But the truth is, when I was in elementary school, I made several kid’s lives a living nightmare. And I almost didn’t learn my lesson.
We hear a lot from the bullied, but we seldom hear from the bullies, which makes sense. Being bullied is a painful experience, and one that too many people experience in school. Being a bully means you were the bad guy. I try to open about my bullying past, because I think admitting to having been a bully and discussing it really important. It is easy to believe that only ‘bad seeds’ can bully. It is much harder to accept that former bullies walk among us, or even worse, are us.
Because of this stigma I notice that most former bullies stay quiet about their past, afraid of how it will reflect on them as a person today. Even now, writing this article, I have problems reconciling my past cruelty and my present self. I consider myself a good person, but I also know that from ages six to nine I was really awful to a lot of kids, and in doing so changed their lives negatively.
I grew up in a small town so for the most part I know that the people I hurt are doing well today. But for some, I have no idea what happened to them. I could easily never talk about that chapter of my life again, and I don’t think anyone would hold it against me. On the other hand, I also know not being honest about how I was and what I did is insult to those I hurt. Even if they are doing all right today, they deserve better than that from me. So, my name is Scarlet Meyer, and I’m a former bully.
Growing up, I was a habitual troublemaker. I would often do things like coax my well-behaved best friend to run away from school with me at recess, and then run away from the bench when I was put in time out. I once pretended that I saw a bear outside so I would see what would happen when my mom called 911 (a really annoyed policeman showed up to our door, in case you were wondering.) On a separate occasion (for no reason) I lied about a friend bringing a knife to school and almost got her suspended. I don’t know why, but didn’t have a clear understanding of rules or consequences at this age. I thought I could do or say anything. And it wasn’t because I was having trouble at home: I had two wonderful parents who were bullied themselves as children, and were totally flummoxed by what I was doing. I got talked to, and I got punished for my bad behavior. The consequences just went right over my head.
At age six this disregard for others translated into me bullying three kids in particular. One kid was a year younger than me, and two were best friends who were in my grade. I remember spotting the youngest kid, Zeke*, and picking on him out of nowhere. I was showing off to a friend, and saw that he had gotten a lei from a Hawaiian day he had in his classroom. I promptly ripped it apart. For the rest of the year I would routinely call him names and generally make his life suck when I saw him. The two best friends I knew from my classroom. They were Sandra* and Greg*. Greg was incredibly sweet and kind to everyone he encountered, and had a speech impediment. I made fun of him mercilessly for both things. I made fun of Sandra for being friends with him. I teased them so badly that Sandra stopped hanging out with Greg to avoid getting picked on.
Looking back on it, the connecting factor to all this bullying seems to be showing off to others. I wouldn’t pick on someone if I was alone, I would only do it if I was in front of classmates. I wasn’t smart enough to articulate it at the time, but I remember a feeling of acceptance from the other kids when I bullied others. I felt validated and powerful. I figure that’s all the reason you really need to do anything at that age. I do remember getting in constant trouble for my behavior, but as usual it didn’t mean much to me. If I sat on the bench for ten minutes I could go run around and be a jerk in 11 minutes.
In second grade I got my very first girl gang. We thought we were simultaneously witches, the Spice Girls, and the Spice Girls’ children in a heady cocktail of make believe and kid delusion that probably explains why the Salem Witch Trials went on as long as they did. This is around the time I learned how to swear and flip kids off. I was mean to three new kids. I would do things like swear at them, flip them off, or scratch them with my nails for no reason. I think it had a lot to do with the new added layer of insecurity of self-awareness. I knew I wasn’t the coolest kid in the class, and I knew that my friends and classmates opinions of me changed like the tide. I was also starting to be aware that I was chubby, and that other kids were skinny. I knew that boys had crushes on other girls, and definitely not me. My only appeal seemed to be that I could be funny, I could be mean, I was crazier than anyone else, and I still was not afraid of consequences. Bullying for me was becoming a desperate thing I would do to stay ‘cool’ to my friends and classmates.
But all of this was starting to catch up with me. One day I made fun of a little girl playing where I would usually play on the playground, and later that night she was over my house for dinner. Her dad was the new school principal, and my mom was the PTA president. I think this was the first time I ever felt afraid that being a jerk was going to catch up to me. At this point I still didn’t feel remorse for making fun of her, but I was scared she was going to tell her dad. In between dinner and dessert I quickly whispered to her like a tiny Frank Underwood, “I’m sorry I teased you earlier. I didn’t know who you were.” For reasons beyond me, she accepted my apology. A few weeks later, I spit on my best friend’s older brother while I was riding in the car with her family. This is the first time I remember a peer not thinking my bullying was cool. She was obviously mad at me for spitting on her sibling. Her mom was even angrier. So angry, that she turned the car around and dropped me off from the play date early. I got in trouble, but as usual, I didn’t understand why I should change my ways.
In third grade, I was my jerkiest yet. I only picked one kid to bully, but I went all out to the point of no return. This girl’s name was Sally*. She was really sweet, and I was incredibly cruel to her. She had this habit of doing anything you suggested, so I would often lie and tell her that boys had crushes on her she should go kiss them. She would run off and go try to, and the boys would always react with yelling and cootie talk. When I wasn’t sending her into awkward situations, I would call her names and belittle her at any chance I got. I would call her fat. I would hide her stuff.
The irony of all this was at the time of all this I was reading Judy Blume’s Blubber, a book about the consequences of bullying. I loved it, and re-read it several times. All the morals and important parts just went right over my head. I didn’t connect my behavior with that of the bullies in that book. I thought somehow my behavior was justified and not as bad as the bullies in the book. Which I now know, with my adult wisdom and education, is typical abuser behavior. Yikes.
I remember during this time being very self conscious and insecure. I was overweight, and I was struggling in math. I would try to make fun of myself before others could. I remember once jumping on a scale in the classroom and yelling something to the effect of “look at me! I’m so fat!” Everyone laughed, at the time I thought with me, now I know it was probably at me. When being funny or self-deprecating didn’t work to rectify my self-esteem, I’d make fun of Sally instead. One day after school I hid her backpack in the girl’s bathroom, and kicked her in the butt when she tried to open her locker. The only catch was that this time both our moms were there for parent teacher conferences. I tried to lie and joke my way out of what I was doing, but they were on to me.
I was grounded with a capital ‘G’, and my mom was livid. Not only had my mom been bullied most of elementary and middle school, but she had a reputation for standing up to bullies. She too spent a lot of her younger years sitting in ‘time out’, but it was because she was fighting off bullies who were making fun of her best friend. My mom was beyond pissed upon realizing the full extent of what I had become. She made me get in the car and took me for a ride. We drove for a while, and then I started to recognize the neighborhood from birthday parties and playdates past. We were going to Sally’s house. We pulled up to her driveway, and my mom walked me up to Sally’s front door. We knocked and Sally’s mom answered. My mom told me it was time for me to apologize. I asked Sally’s mom where Sally was. Then my mom threw a curveball at me. She turned to me and said, “You’re not apologizing to Sally, you’re apologizing to Sally’s mom.”
I was completely out of element. I had never talked to a parent about teasing their child before. I knew how to face teachers or my parents, but how did I face the parent of a child I had hurt? I took a deep breath, and told Sally’s mom everything I had done wrong. I looked her in the eye and apologized for mercilessly bullying her daughter all year. Much to my surprise, Sally’s mom accepted my apology. I was so overwhelmed that I started to cry. Even more surprising, Sally’s mom hugged me and comforted me. I started to cry even more. As a little girl I was so struck by her forgiveness. I had made her daughter’s life a living hell. I was expecting to get yelled at and derided, and deserved just as much. But instead she forgave me. And that completely destroyed me.
After that I stopped interacting with my classmates. I mostly kept my head down and went home every day. Come fourth grade I was a completely different kid. I was shy, I spent most of my time reading, and I only had a few friends. But I was kind. I got bullied a lot after that, but I never bullied anyone ever again. Sandra and Sally eventually became my friends. Sally went on to be one of the coolest kids in high school and didn’t give me a second thought. I kind of prefer it that way. Sandra and I are still tight, but she’s made it very clear I was a big jerk in elementary school.
Looking back on this, trying to pull out some wisdom from the chaos of my younger years, I would say that kids don’t bully in a vacuum. There’s always a reason, and if they’re still doing it they think they have something to gain from it. From my experience all kids deal with insecurity and peer pressure, no matter what. Most kids internalize it or deflect it. Other kids, kids like me, decide to lash out at others and become bullies. That’s why it’s incredibly important for bullies to be held accountable. Bullies depend on the quiet and secrecy of others. Taking that away from them will help make them stop, and hopefully put them on the road to being a decent human being. That’s what happened to me, anyway.