Middle school was rough. If you don’t relate to that statement in any way at all, then you clearly did not go to middle school. Junior high, grades 6-8, ages 11-13, this terrible time in any young person’s life involves their body and mind going completely insane, and a sudden, new social world emerging in which they must make their own way through the darkness. Handholding is over, insecurity is all, and danger lurks around every corner. This is the breeding ground for bullies.
When I started sixth grade I was very small, and even worse than that, I was smart. I took some classes with the seventh graders, and there were several of them who did not appreciate this. I was bullied and tortured relentlessly. Thank God we did not have social media back then. When I would go to get off the bus, a foot would come out and I would trip down the stairs face first on the sidewalk. When I got a drink from the drinking fountain, a hand would come up from behind to either hold my face in the water, or slam me, teeth first, into the metal. They took my textbooks and ripped them up, or wrote curse words all over the pages. The grabbed me, punched me, kicked me, and made me very, very afraid.
I tried to report them, but I didn’t even know their names. These were not arch-enemies of mine, locked in an eternal struggle with me for all time. No, these were bullies. I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me. All they saw was someone weaker to prey upon; someone different was someone vulnerable. I am thankful every day that my school was a good school with good teachers and administrators (most of them), who cared about students and who took my problems seriously. The vice-principal became my personal bodyguard. Not in an obvious way, but whenever the bell rang and I had to change classes, there he would be, somewhere in view. I felt safer. I felt protected. By the end of the year, the bullying stopped. At least insofar as I was the victim of it.
What I will tell you next is not something I often share with people, and in fact perhaps have never shared before, because it is one of the things in my life of which I am the least proud, but I think it is important to tell. When seventh grade rolled around, there was this one kid. There was this one sixth grader who was small and annoying, and if I had learned anything in the previous year, it was that small sixth graders were for harassing. Clearly I had missed the entire point.
I never hit this boy, whose name I don’t even remember, but oh how I was mean to him. I would say nasty things, I would make fun of him mercilessly, and I would play humiliating pranks on him. He was my “me.” I may not be a physical person, but I am sometimes clever with words, perhaps too clever, so I was able to cut him down to the point of tears on more than one occasion, which of course made me laugh all the harder at his weakness. No one ever spoke to me about this, and I don’t know if he ever told anyone. It could be that, because I never hit him, it “didn’t count.” Maybe even in his own mind it didn’t count. Maybe he just accepted that older kids were mean to younger kids. Maybe he was mean to younger kids later on. I hope not.
I also don’t know what he remembers today. Does he have any memories of me, besides “middle school is rough?” Or does he see my face through the mists of time, always associating it whenever he hears the word “bully?” That is certainly not the association that I would ever want anyone to have with my name, but I know it is something I have to own. And I would like to say that it ended in middle school, but I know that I carry some of these behaviors with me to this day. I know that I will make a joke at someone else’s expense without thinking or realizing how much it might hurt them. As an adult I am able to stop now, when I see that I have damaged another human being with my words, but it is sometimes too late by that point. This is something I constantly struggle with. The attempt to make people laugh vs. the potential for hurting someone else.
My children both have very good hearts. Edward was named “Sir Gallant of Friendship” at his pre-school awards ceremony last year, for being the one person in the class who would always take care of a child who was upset or hurt. Just the other day one of his friends outside fell down while they were playing after school, and Edward picked him in his arms and carried him to his mother. Side note: Edward is terrifyingly strong. And Ruby, sweet Ruby, is always getting glowing social reports. “Plays well with all other children,” we hear over and over again. She is one of the insiders, yet drawn to the outsiders to invite them to be “in” as well. They are both wonderful, loving children. And so was I.
What will happen to my kids, as they edge further and further toward the edge of the nest? What hurts will they receive that I am powerless to stop, and what will they do with those hurts? I would be devastated to learn that my children were being bullied, but how much worse would I feel if I found out that they were the ones doing the bullying? No parent wants to believe that their child is capable of such things, but I can tell you that every child is. I was. You were. We have all been mean to someone at some time, and we all know how it feels when someone is less than kind to us. When the day comes that I am sitting on the couch, comforting a child who has borne the brunt of some juvenile cruelty, I will console them and I will hold them, but I will also ask them to remember that feeling anytime they are tempted to deal harshly with anyone else. I will ask them to break the cycle, to make life easier and not harder for the others that come after them, and to change the world, one held tongue at a time. I hope it works.