Live Through This

An Earnest Attempt to Humanize Bullies, Part 4

Former bullies talk it out with their victims.

Kelsey and Rebekah

Sometimes we’re bullies because we don’t know how to deal with our own weirdness. In fifth grade, I was mean to Rebekah because she couldn’t hide hers. We were in a small, magnet class of brainy fourth and fifth graders that had only five girls. Because being in a class for “gifted” kids was like walking around with the word LOSER tattooed onto your forehead, I tried to spend all of my lunch and recess periods with kids from outside of our class. On top of that, my mom had been battling ovarian cancer for several years so I was left alone to figure out how to imitate “normal” girls. I formed a tiny gang with some girls from outside the class, and begrudgingly invited two other “magnet” girls. Rebekah was one of them.

That year, my mother passed away, making me more certain than ever before that I was a big, obvious, abnormal freak. I needed to do something drastic before people caught on so I called a bathroom break conference for four of the five girls. I decided that Rebekah, who wore long pants even in the summertime, had frizzy hair, and wasn’t allowed to watch MTV, should be ousted from our group. Everyone seemed to agree.

We confronted Rebekah later that day and I’ll never forget the way her face changed from shocked to pained to furious. She heaved at the ground the kickball she had been bouncing just minutes before. We didn’t talk for the rest of the year. In ninth grade I tried to apologize. I sent her a Myspace message explaining how I had been acting out of pain and anxiety, “not on the outside, but deep, deep down where it hurts.” She told me she felt bad for having held a grudge for so long, but made no mention of the rest of my message. That was eight years ago. Before I interviewed Rebekah, we talked for two hours about college, our futures, our hometown, and our families. I’ve never felt closer to her than I did as we discussed our nerdy aspirations and our lost friendship.

KELSEY: How do you remember middle school?

REBEKAH: In middle school, you start to realize that everyone is very different. You’re so aware that people are segregated by so many things—whether it’s race, or gender, or ability, or who’s preppy and things like that. And it’s really tough. But at a certain point you realize that everyone’s too concerned with themselves to really pay attention to you.

KELSEY: Do you remember what your biggest insecurities were during those years?

REBEKAH: Well, I thought I wasn’t enough of a girl. Growing up with a mother who was not really feminine, I didn’t have many female role models. At that age, “female” meant “Barbie doll” and so I resented the fact that I didn’t have anyone to teach me how to do my hair pretty or tell me what clothes to buy. I was really sensitive to, you know, what being a girl should mean and what I should wear and who was getting attention from boys and who wasn’t even though we had no idea what that meant yet. I think I had this impression that that was the key to my difficulties with friends and the reason why boys didn’t like me. I thought I wasn’t enough of a girl. We didn’t realize it at the time, but it was totally a status symbol. Some girls’ moms would shop at Limited Too and let them buy clothes with those brands or wear lip gloss— you remember I wasn’t even allowed to wear shorts to school? That lasted through high school. It felt like it was mostly about clothes and about not knowing what to do with my hair.

KELSEY: Was there ever a time you felt like you were doing it right?

REBEKAH: I don’t think there was. And so when I went to high school, I started rebelling. I was this punk, goth-y girl who wore oversized shirts. And when I wore makeup, it was the opposite of what those other girls looked like. Rather than trying to fit in and still standing out, I thought, “I’m going to make myself stand out, and it’ll cushion it a little bit.” And I pretended at the time that I was doing it because I thought it was cool, but looking back, I think it was more like, I can’t do that, so I’m going to do the opposite.

KELSEY: It can be really terrifying to spot a difference in yourself at that age, but was there anything that you remember feeling glad about?

REBEKAH: I started playing the drums in middle school and thought, “Yeah, this is going to be my thing.” I also did musicals, even though I never got main parts or anything. I think magnet classes were sort of like that for me for a while. I was so proud of being a part of this special school until I started to realize that people were judging me for it. They’d look at me like, Oh, you’re smart? So I’d say something like, “I’m in this class, but it’s stupid.” But even being in a class as a fifth grader with a bunch of fourth graders who were so talented, it was hard not to feel like I didn’t measure up.

KELSEY: What really sticks out to you as a an example of being bullied?

REBEKAH: Specifics are hard for me to remember at this point. This is going to sound terrible, but I feel like I really did block out so much of fifth grade from my memory. I remember someone in our group of friends telling me that a decision had been made that we could no longer be friends. They were straight up honest about it. Then I remember you being gone one day. I think you were out sick. I hung out with all of those girls again at recess, and I thought, “Yeah! Just like old times!” Then you came back the next day, and I realized I should go sit back with the fourth graders.

I actually have more of a memory of being the bully. This boy in our class, do you remember Stevie?* I think he looked at me like I was his tormenter. He said I kicked wood chips at him or something, on the playground, and I thought, “That’s what everyone in our class did!” He said I was the ringleader. This was at the time that everything was going on with us and I was like, if anything, I’m the last person you’d call a bully—I was at the very bottom of this social totem pole! Maybe he just found me easy to confront, amongst the group of people who were picking on him.

KELSEY: Do you remember how you felt about me? You can be brutally honest.

REBEKAH: Gosh, uh, probably terrible things. Probably really terrible things, if I’m going to be honest. I think that was the first time I used the word “bitch” in my life. I wrote it in my diary and my mother, who liked to go through my diary, confronted me about it. She asked me, “Why did you use that word? It’s not a very nice word to use.” I told her, “Because she deserves it!” My mother was so concerned back then. Part of it, too, was me going through this insecure phase. Part of me thought, “She’s awful, I hate her” but part of me also thought, “Well, clearly I’m not feminine enough, or cool enough, or popular enough.” I thought I deserved it.

KELSEY: God, I can’t believe that. You know, I was always bullied after that year.

REBEKAH: Everyone’s a bit of both, I think, though. A bully and bullied. They used to give us those bullying presentations and tell us that it was a chain. One person gets bullied and feels insecure so they bully someone else. Everyone was taking it and dishing it out.

KELSEY: Do you remember how long you felt mad at me or resentful of the whole situation?

REBEKAH: I don’t remember the resentment ever stopping. Until I saw you over [this past] summer, it was really hard to think of you getting older the way I was getting older. Hearing your name from mutual friends just brought back memories of fifth grade and misery. You never think about how people from back then are also maturing. A lot of times they don’t, but they’re not the same people anymore. But the stuff that you go through then, I don’t think ever fully leaves you. I think the anxieties always stay with you, even as you start to build up your self-esteem and build relationships with other people. I haven’t had very many female friends since then. I have no idea if it had anything to do with you, or that first encounter with “best friends” ending in tears. It could just be that I don’t relate well to girls.

KELSEY: Do you remember feeling any sympathy with me, knowing me as well as you did?

REBEKAH: Looking back years later, of course, I know what was going on in your life, and it’s so easy to see how that manifested itself. But as a fifth grader, I don’t know if I made the connection. I think I was indignant still, thinking, “Well, yeah, maybe that’s why she’s like this, but I wish she would just stop and get over it.” Which is terrible. And, like I said, I don’t remember that feeling of resentment ever really going away. Even looking back years later, I thought, “I know why she did it, but that doesn’t make it any better.”

KELSEY: What did you think when I sent you that weird MySpace message in ninth grade apologizing? I think that’s the first time I became aware of what my personality was like four years earlier.

REBEKAH: I think, as much as we were older and as much as I was beginning to see you as a real person, that I still harbored those feelings for a long time, partly because I was holding on to the feeling that there was something wrong with me. Especially because when you sent it, it was early high school and it was still a difficult time for me. I think it was a relief, though, to read it and realize it wasn’t just me. I didn’t completely make up those feelings.

KELSEY: When do you feel like you stopped feeling so self-conscious?

REBEKAH: Studying abroad in Australia was a big turning point for me. Being independent, I was able to break free out of those things and start over with a clean slate. That made it a lot easier.

KELSEY: Do you have any words of advice for bullies out there, or for the bullied?

REBEKAH: I cringe, because I remember in school when people would come in and do anti-bullying things, it was so cheesy. It seems cheesy now, even, but there are so many things in life that just take getting older. You deal with it, and everyone deals with it, and I guess that’s not so much advice as words of consolation. Literally everyone goes through it. As much as you may think that the person who is being crappy toward you is the worst person in the world, chances are someone else is doing the same thing to them, on the other side. You realize as you get older that you need to stop being crappy to people. You get nicer, and you stop being so insecure, and you start cherishing the fact that you’re different. I wish back then I had been able to tell myself to say something back [to you], or to just be proud of myself instead of thinking I needed to change. I wish I could have taken things in stride. Maybe the best piece of advice I could have received was just to relax. You know? Relax. The world is a much bigger place. ♦

*Name has been changed.

Kelsey Gee is an editor at the Chicago Weekly and the feminist magazine Vita Excolatur.

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14 Comments

  • Susann January 30th, 2012 3:09 PM

    These honest conversations amaze me, they really do.

    http://fashioninpepperland.blogspot.com

  • Jamie January 30th, 2012 3:41 PM

    i love how lots of the bullied remember being bullies too

    humans are complex animals

  • Abby January 30th, 2012 4:06 PM

    These were beautiful. I wish I could still find the people who bullied me in middle school. I’d love to have calm, adult (well, almost adult; I’m a senior) conversations with them about it, and hear their side of the story.

  • MissKnowItAll January 30th, 2012 5:06 PM

    When I read this I sort of wanted to cry. I think it takes a lot of guts to be able to talk about how you hurt someone else and apologize for it. I really wish I could do this on two levels. I wish I could find the girl that bullied me in the fourth grade and talk about why she did. I also want to talk to the girl that I was mean to in the sixth grade so I could apologize for being mean to her. In a way, I’ve learnt a lot about myself through Rookie. Thanks

  • queserasera January 30th, 2012 5:19 PM

    so true how everyone, at some point in their lives, experience bullying someone and being bullied. it’s never black and white at all. at my school, the counselors thought it would be a good idea to install a “bully box” that students could anonymously report without being involved. turns out the “bully” in an incident would often be the “victim” in another incident. hmm

    http://mercurialmanic.blogspot.com/

  • stylepukka January 30th, 2012 7:06 PM

    I really appreciate how this website incorporates these kinds of topics and articles, unlike many other teen girl magazines and sites. So thank you for doing this because it helps me to see (somewhat) why other people do the things they do.

    stylepukka.tumblr.com

  • noquierodecir January 30th, 2012 7:58 PM

    Hi there,

    I really enjoyed this piece, and honestly I have fallen in love with the website as a whole.

    I found the series about alcohol and drug use really interesting. Is there any chance you could have a series specifically addressing “poor coping mechanisms”? i.e. Eating disorders, cutting, etc.

    Obviously Rookie isn’t going to cure anyone’s problems, but I keep thinking back to the Sexual Abuse (We are Survivors because…) article, and how empowered and much better I felt after reading it.

    I think specific accounts about experiences with self injury, eating issues, drug abuse to deal with unhappiness, etc. would be awesome.
    This article touched upon both eating disorders and cutting, and I was intrigued about both women’s experiences.

    Thanks!

  • TessAnnesley January 31st, 2012 12:01 AM

    I would want to be friends forever with them if any of my former bullies did this for me. Legit. I hope that happens.

  • Starboardd January 31st, 2012 2:26 PM

    I think these articles are really, really important in modern girl-related journalism not just because they talk about a problem that faces so many girls, and not just because they humanize bullies to the extent that they seem real, but they show us that years later, after the pain and hurt, things do work out for the better. You know I think a lot of the time bullying just ends up being some kind of sadistic positive feedback loop, and it’s important to know that the process ends. Even if eventually.

  • Hedwig February 3rd, 2012 12:10 AM

    Amazing

  • Ellie February 16th, 2012 6:19 PM

    Brilliant.

  • Peanutpug April 14th, 2012 7:27 AM

    5 years ago there was an incident in secondary school where most of my year played a prank on this one girl who didn’t have many friends and was “ugly”. Everyone told her that this guy (who, incidentally was oblivious) liked her a lot and wanted to “meet” her upstairs. I wasn’t the one who started the lie but I played along because I was too cowardly to tell her the truth, even when she was asking me and other girls if she looked good. I am so ashamed about this. I am no longer in secondary school but I cannot stop thinking about the poor girl who was made fun of behind her back for many years. I am friends with her on Facebook and as far as I know she is happy and having a great time at university. Do I just stop thinking about it or say something to her? I have mentioned it to my friends who also participated in the bullying but they do not think it is a big deal.

    • Anaheed April 14th, 2012 12:41 PM

      I think the girl might not want to revisit what happened — or, if she has no idea (not likely), why make her feel bad now? I say don’t talk to her about it unless SHE brings it up.

      You feel bad about it because you’re a decent person. Don’t beat yourself up over it — we’ve all been there.