Live Through This

The Cruelty of Children

I thought I had escaped my fourth-grade bully. Then she found me on Facebook.

Illustration by Camille.

Illustration by Camille.

Everyone says middle school is the worst, and it is, but for me fourth grade was way worse. I lived in a fairly small town and that year I went to a super-small school. It was a one-room schoolhouse, the kind where all the kids from every grade take every class together—like in Laura Ingalls Wilder but not at all quaint. I found out quickly that the social scene at tiny schools is the same as at big schools: Every schoolyard has a scapegoat, and that year I was it. Every schoolyard has a leader; ours was Susie. She came from a big family, and her three younger brothers were there too. Together, they ruled the blacktop as a redheaded gang.

It wasn’t like in the movies—they didn’t push me in the hallway or steal my lunch money. I was never dumped into a trash can. But they said my olive sandwich looked like bugs and made them want to barf—I can still see a dirty finger pointed in my direction as they all yelled, “Ewww!” in unison. When we sang in chorus, they whispered that my voice would probably break the stained-glass windows. Before an impending field trip, one of them raised his hand and told the teacher I would not be able to attend because “dogs aren’t allowed.” He didn’t get in trouble, but I did because I yelled “shut up” at the top of my lungs, and everyone laughed at me as I shuffled off to the principal’s office.

Susie was the oldest of the siblings and the oldest kid in school; she was also the coolest and the prettiest because she had freckles and boobs and she could play the guitar and she could sew. Her brothers were cool by default just by being related to her. I spent every school day in a single room with all of them, and since our school was part of our church, we also saw one another on Sundays. And if the weather was nice and someone hosted a barbecue or a baptism celebration or a block party, I might see them seven days a week.

Sometimes, I thought we were friends. I remember one afternoon when Susie and I figured out all the lyrics to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”—I can still sing the whole song today. But blood is thicker than recess; inevitably, a brother would say something about my shoes or my hair or my artwork, and she’d laugh along at my expense.

This was before social media, before bullying documentaries and celebrity support on YouTube. The adults I turned to, like my parents and teachers, told me that “kids will be kids” and encouraged me to grow a thicker skin, to stop taking it all so personally, and told me my classmates were probably just jealous of my math and reading skills. I know they were trying to help, but the message I heard was that it was my fault that I felt hurt, and that being smart was a reason for ridicule. Some adults pointed out that the names the kids were calling me—one I remember and remain baffled by was “wannabe”—were stupid or didn’t make sense. But when I tried to argue logic with the redheads and their many followers, asking again and again, “Wannabe what?” they would say, “You just ARE,” and that was the end of that. I would happily have forfeited logic for some measure of acceptance.

Despite all this discouragement, I kept on trying to fit in, always hoping that I’d eventually find the secret password to friendship. But it seemed there was nothing I could do to gain approval. I would try to talk about music, naïvely assuming that everyone loved the Christian singer Amy Grant as much as I did, only to learn that Susie and her brother preferred the rock radio station in town, which I was not allowed to listen to. I didn’t know anything about fashion or style, so I was always dressed wrong, my hair was cut into an awkward mullet-ish bob, and I had thick, dark eyebrows that became the basis of a lot of jokes. One time, our school principal—trying to do me a favor, I guess?—actually told Susie’s brothers that they would be sorry when I grew up to be pretty, and they laughed in his face. I was even told that the pizza restaurant my family frequented (Mary’s Pizza Shack) was the wrong pizza restaurant. (Pinky’s Pizza Parlor was the cool one. How could I have known that?)

At home after school, I would stand in front of the mirror and practice the genius retorts and scathing insults that I could never come up with on the spot and that I was sure would devastate the siblings and thus earn me everyone’s respect. But what I always ended up doing when confronted by my classmates was to run to an adult and cry, and the adult would make everyone mumble “sorry” to me.

The bullying never stopped. I never developed a thick skin, but the universe took pity on me anyway. In a series of nearly synchronous events, my parents finally pulled me out of that school, and Susie and her family moved to another state. At my new neighborhood public school, I made friends easily and no one called me a wannabe. Regardless, the memories of that time haunted me for years. Even after I moved away, I had nightmares wherein Susie and her brothers would track me down and mock me for who I’d become as a teenager, and then as an adult. In college, I had to keep my fingernails filed short because my dreams about the fourth grade were so stressful that I would wake up with clenched fists and bloody palms. Occasionally I thought I saw them in grocery stores or at music festivals, always together as a foursome, just like the old days. I would simultaneously panic and raise my chin defiantly, just in case it was them, and just in case they saw me. Once, I visited the state they had moved to, and I actually considered what I would do and say if I saw them on the street. It affected what clothes I packed for the trip. Seriously.

Eventually, as I came to embrace my love of reading, my mediocre art skills, and my thick eyebrows, the pain dulled to an occasional ache. The bad dreams became less frequent. I stopped practicing my vengeful monologues in the mirror. I made a lot of real friends who didn’t care where my family ate pizza and who, instead of laughing at my music taste, made me mixtapes to broaden my horizons. As an adult, I learned that being smart is an asset, that I am not as ugly as those kids had me believe, and that it doesn’t matter all that much anyway.

Then, earlier this year, Susie found me on Facebook.

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32 Comments

  • hoflan October 14th, 2013 3:46 PM

    I was bullied at primary school, and for so long I thought “bullied” was too strong a word, but it really was bullying. And unfortunately when I was nine I tried desperately hard to make it look like these kids picking on me was just a joke that I was in on instead of telling them to f off. Luckily I have the best mum ever, though, and I moved schools.

    I am actually kind of good friends with those girls now… I think we all grew up. Interesting that the kids who were cruel to you were redheads because I think my red hair was a factor in the people being mean to me (I guess being ginger made me “different” and therefore a “victim”)

  • intergalactic fork October 14th, 2013 3:54 PM

    im so sorry you had to go through all that crud, bullying is the worst. very powerful piece though, and you handled that situation very well!

    http://veesecretstyle.blogspot.com/

  • poetess October 14th, 2013 4:17 PM

    I really appreciate you writing this.

  • ColoredSoft October 14th, 2013 4:21 PM

    Holy shit I thought i was the only one who was affected by bullying this much. I mean, I didn’t have nightmares or anything but that stuff happened back in elementary still affects me today….thanks for writing this. I’m so happy your daughter has that attitude. I hope that when I have kids, they will be the same way

  • nancyboy October 14th, 2013 4:25 PM

    Wow I want to cry now.

    My journey through my social life has been such a long, strange road. I was a loner/misfit in school, the frequent subject of bullying. I was known for snapping back with devastating retorts, which earned me some respect, but in retrospect I think people enjoyed watching me get picked on even more because my retorts were so sharp and funny. But despite my tough demeanor, the bullying and loneliness took a huge toll on me.

    By the time I reached highschool, no one picked on me to my face anymore because I really wasn’t worth the trouble, but I still wasn’t cool. I was one of two queer kids in my tiny school and I dressed weird and liked old punk rock. Even my friends didn’t accept me, and one of them eventually “did me the favor” of telling me that my name was shorthand amongst the boys for “ugly girl.” I dropped out of high school at the end of 10th grade.

    Today I am a 24 year old transgender man and I have found my niche in San Francisco’s queer scene. From being an outcast I have unexpectedly become, of all things… popular. This is great because it means having a large circle of friends who like me for who I am, and gives my natural extroversion a chance to finally bloom. But I have also received a lot of weird envy and unearned admiration and people wanting to be close to me because of some weird image that isn’t me.Most of all, I still feel like a fake. Don’t they know I was a loser in high school?!

    Anyway, thanks for this article.

  • solitarysister October 14th, 2013 4:40 PM

    Thanks so much for this article, I could relate so much. I was bullied in primary school and all through secondary (high) school and it affected my mental health so badly that a few years on I still suffer from bouts of depression every so often. I managed to forgive my bullies although they never knew what impact they had on my life so its heartwarming to see that your bullies understood what they had done and were truly sorry. Thanks Rookie, you guys always seem to know when to post things at the right time I swear!

  • Nomali October 14th, 2013 4:47 PM

    This was so lovely and sad. The heartache we put each other through… I actually started tearing up while reading your correspondence with Susana. Also, your daughter is a rockstar.

  • ArmyOfRabbits October 14th, 2013 5:11 PM

    Awww, I love Mary’s Pizza Shack (I grew up in Northern California)– but then again it should not matter where your family prefers to eat.

    I really love how used your writing to send Susie a good note– I also liked that you were honest but not wish mean things towards her.

    I’m glad that Susana matured; I think now, she’s an ally who can also help teach children to be nicer and considerate of others.

    It’s nice to hear that your daughter is handling her situation well.

  • October 14th, 2013 5:23 PM

    This article really means a lot to me.
    In my tiny elementary school, I was physically, mentally, and emotionally bullied, and to this day it haunts me.
    I find it difficult to view myself positively now–if I was a good person, why would those kids beat me up every day? Even though I am now blessed with wonderful and amazing friends, it’s difficult for me to trust others. Like in the article, every time I leave the house I am reminded of the bullying I suffered.
    I am so thankful for this article; it really captures the way I feel.

  • Sssophiabh October 14th, 2013 6:15 PM

    Wow wow wow, this means so much. I had similar experiences in 3rd grade and this article really describes that feeling well.

  • Abby October 14th, 2013 6:21 PM

    Thank you.

  • Kenz October 14th, 2013 7:52 PM

    Thanks for sharing this. I went to a small elementary school and the more I look back the more I realize I was bullied and miserable. My little sister has been having the same problems, and since her unhappiness was more obvious she changed schools this year and the difference has been amazing. Little schools are great, until you’re thr kid that doesn’t quite fit in.

  • lyssagrltx October 14th, 2013 8:05 PM

    This article makes me so happy, thank you.

  • ghostgrrl October 14th, 2013 8:41 PM

    This made me cry? I was bullied a lot and I really appreciate your hopeful (?) (I can’t think of the right word) message. Also it’s great that you’ve raised your daughter to not care what others think of her. I really loved this article!

    ghostgrrlfriend.tumblr.com

  • whyamidreamingwhenimstillawake October 14th, 2013 10:01 PM

    I can relate to the first part so much. I was bullied almost all through primary school, by a series of manipulative girls who turned all the people I thought were my friends against me. It was awful, and as a result I find it hard to form strong friendships and trust people.
    The worst part was that these girls led me to believe that it was all my fault. And that the teachers told me I was ‘too sensitive’ and that I should ‘just ignore me’.
    I’m so glad that your story has a happy ending of sorts, Eva. I hope that the girls who bullied me mature eventually, and realise how horrid what they did was. I sort of feel sorry for them, because they were so toxic they didn’t know how to feel compassion.

  • Mimi7 October 14th, 2013 11:37 PM

    Is the Pinky’s Pizza Parlor in Petaluma? If it isn’t theres this pizza place called the same thing and they have this mannequin standing on the roof so I always remember it. On another note, great writing and it’s so lovely what Sussie had to say. Faith in humanity :)
    http://dreaminginfashion.wordpress.com/

  • carlycarbonate October 15th, 2013 12:58 AM

    This is a lovely piece of writing. I relate to your approach a lot because that’s the way I often try to speak to people who have hurt me. Sometimes it doesn’t get through to them, but when it does, it’s pretty magical. I’m very happy to see you feel better now and that your daughter is happy too. :)

  • Isabellla October 15th, 2013 2:11 AM

    ahhh I cried this is fabulous. People often think that ‘kids will be kids and it’s no big deal’, but I truly do think what happens in those years lingers and completely shapes the way we feel about ourselves- I’m glad you had closure! I had a similar experience and luckily in the past couple of years I have started to mend my self esteem and move on with my life- nothing is forever. Thank you for this gr8 article :)

  • Isobelley October 15th, 2013 2:27 AM

    I’ve been bullied a few times, and every time it was by someone I considered my best friend, which is something important that bullying stories never include but this did and I liked that.

  • xdogbaitx October 15th, 2013 5:47 AM

    I’m 27 and my high school bully STILL gives me dirty looks in the street and tries to intimidate me. FFS!

  • cabinfeverray October 15th, 2013 6:10 AM

    Wow. Rookie you deal with bullying in the best of ways.

    It’s so messed up that so many people walk around feeling like this, myself included.

    I’ve only just started therapy and I have realised more and more how messed up I am due to a childhood and young adulthood of being bullied. I don’t trust people. But also, I seek out ‘mean’ friends. It’s like I’m hardwired to be drawn to those who would ultimately reject me and betray me. And if ever I meet someone who genuinly cares and wants to be my friend, I’m immediately suspicious: ‘something must be wrong with them if they truly like me’.

    I think victims of bullying need to reach out to each other more. And reading about others’ experiences do make you feel better. This story was great and so relatable.

  • Savidi October 15th, 2013 7:51 AM

    oh god, grade 5 is the worstttt…. i’m really happy that your daughter doesn’t care about all the drama, but she knows the real friends that she has. When i was in grade 5, i would not have been able to handle it like that.

  • thebrownette October 15th, 2013 11:36 AM

    Thank you so much for touching on how we tie our identities with our past experiences, whether or not it’s a good thing. I personally have lost a great deal of weight in the last few year, and funnily enough, I started loving my body just before I started loosing it. I wanted to be healthy, and I had been an emotional eater for years without recognizing it as a valid problem. Even today, I feel awkward when called “skinny” by people who see that as desirable and openly acknowledge that they are unhappy with the way that look. I still don’t identify as “skinny” or “fit,” but I’m happy with my body and capabilities! It really saddens me when people tell me, “Wow! You look so great?” I think it’s implied that I look so great NOW…what, was I not just as fabulous before? I’m so tied to that “self-conscious and overweight” identity that while I have a ton of self-confidence now, I still haven’t figured out how to respond when people say things like “I wish I looked like you,” or “You don’t understand, you look great,” or the like. It’s so, so uncomfortable. Especially when it comes from adults I respect and have known an long time. How do I get past my “respect your elders” mentality and tell them how I feel in a fleeting conversation?
    My weight and emotion were so closely tied together that, when I was younger, I tried to create this facade of a “strong” person by purposefully cutting myself off from emotions. It backfired.
    Today, I recognize my old experiences for what they were, and wonder:
    HOW can I help others avoid this?

  • elliecp October 15th, 2013 1:03 PM

    I love this. Middle school is always hardest, and sometimes you just have to push through and remember that it always gets better <3

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • TinaBallerina October 15th, 2013 3:32 PM

    Thank you, this was wonderful! I hope I can reconcile with my former bullies someday. I was bullied in some form every day through junior high. They made me feel horrible by saying I was ugly and nerdy, or simply by not acknowledging I was in the room. The teachers saw it, but none reacted. My last year of junior high this guy who had bullied me for years wrote something very sexist on Facebook about me. The school expelled him for a fex days, but then I had the whole class against me. Those days were the worst, as they blamed me for “ruining his life”. I swapped classes, and ended up making some friends and having an ok final six months. I suffered from PTSD for a long time, mostly exhaustion and maybe some light depression. I’m in my final year of high school now, and luckily I don’t meet my bullies so often. When I do, my insides get all cold, and I’m afraid they will say something, trip me over or something to make me look dumb. I think it will take a long time for me to forgive them. They have ruined my self-esteem for such a long period of my “precious” teenage years. I do hope they someday realise they acted horrible to med and a lot of other kids, and that they think about how they treat other people in the future.

  • Alienor October 16th, 2013 7:55 AM

    i’ve been horribly bullied throughout 9th and 10th grade, and now 4 years later i still sometimes hope for an apology.

  • talula October 16th, 2013 8:14 PM

    My heart goes out to you. I hope you have gotten a chance to tell Susana that you have forgiven her, so she’ll know.

  • mariasnow October 16th, 2013 9:17 PM

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. One day at my community college, my professor spoke about how he had been bullied and then a student spoke about her experiences and then another and then another and it turned out all twenty students and the teacher had been bullied at school. It really does damage and can set you back. Not that there’s anything wrong with community college (gotta start somewhere) but I wondered how many of those people were held back from successes because of past hurts.

    I really feel the author on being called a dog. The day I boarded my school bus and the only seat available was one next to the oldest, most popular guy who happened to look like Luke Skywalker and when I went to sit there, he slammed his books down and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t sit with dogs.” After everyone had laughed for a few minutes, he rolled his eyes and moved his books so I could sit there. People rolled up paper and threw it at me until the bus driver yelled. By senior year all of the people who had participated in this ridiculous behavior were trying to be my friend but I’d moved on, had already started to create happiness that did not depend on the approval of a crowd, and did not owe them the time of day.

    I’m so glad the author’s daughter already knows at ten what I didn’t realize until I was 18.

  • ShockHorror October 20th, 2013 4:21 PM

    This has made me feel good reading this.

    When I was in primary school a lot of my friends would wind me up until I snapped a fought back. Generally they would verbally hurt me, or hide from me, or sometimes shove or poke me a bit, and I would react with a MUCH harder shove. I get I shouldn’t have reacted violently.

    I always got in trouble for it, and as far as I know the children starting it were never told off. I was told to stop being sensitive and to stop ‘wearing my heart on my sleeve’ and to walk away.

    I remember joining clubs lies brownies and stuff and leaving very soon because people didnt like me or I was convinced they didn’t like me. So I would ‘walk away’ because fighting back, in any way, didnt work.

    I finally joined a drama club but left after a boy told me I was shit and stuff and barely did anything out of school for 3or4 years.

    And I saw that boy recently. Turns out he’s a year younger than me, and still horrid.

    I didn’t make up with him.

    I told him he was the most disgusting person I’ve met, and that I don’t want him to think he is the sole reason I hate myself and lost all confidence – he was just the final straw, because he isn’t even ‘good enough’ at bullying to do that.

    It felt good. I still hate him though, and wish he’d remembered or I’d made him cry or sometihng. the fact he didn’t remember made me so upset.

    I started acting classes recently and acting angry is something I bloody hate. I hate showing I’m angry. I just feel sad instead.

    • ShockHorror October 20th, 2013 4:37 PM

      SOrry Rookie, I needed to vent a bit :L

      (also haha who’s genuinly considering a career in theatre/performance, and who’s still a gross little shitstain?)

      I suppose I wrote this as a thankyou for showing that people grow up to be sensible, but that for me with this one boy, talking (loudly) to him in front of his friends in the canteen and telling him how horrible he was/is (current friend who is in his year/class has been hurt by him) and NOT making up with him seemed right.

      I want to say this kind of thing to the ‘friends’ who hurt me first, chucked pebbles at me, called me a friend then ran away from me, made me hate myself and meant I couldn’t weather his childish insults, but I’m still confused. They were my best mates.

      I’m still sort of friends with one of them, one moved far away, and the other I never see.

      idk Rookie.

  • rapunzoll October 28th, 2013 4:52 PM

    what a beautiful ending
    x

  • morganosaur October 29th, 2013 8:31 PM

    Gosh, this made me cry. I’m a 10th grader, and I’m home schooled (not for bullying reasons, but for health reasons), and for a big majority of elementary school and middle school, I was bullied. It was stuff that people don’t normally think of as straightforward “bullying”. Stuff like prank calls, being poked or pinched hard, being treated like I was less of a person than the rest of my grade. And more intense stuff, like being called fat or ugly or “sick girl”. And earlier this year, I broke off my relationship with one of my best friends after almost 6 years of mental abuse from her (that I didn’t even fully realize until after the fact). I cannot even explain all of the nights I have spent fantasizing about some kind of revenge, some kind of justice for what I went through.

    I haven’t gotten any messages from past bullies saying their apologies (maybe because I am too scared to confront them, even now), but reading your story gave me that peace. I’ve spent so many years feeling horrible about myself, but your story gave me the extra reassurance that I needed to just let go, and not feel so weighed down by the past. Thank you SO much for this story. Bless you xo