I've known all kinds of people - bullies, the bullied, the voyeurs. I met them growing up a brown girl with a non-Canadian name in small-town Ontario in the 1980s.
When I was a preteen I confess I brought darkness into some students' days, but nothing I did compares to the bullying I endured at my junior high school in Newmarket.
A typical day in Grade 8 went something like this: I'd walk the halls doing a shoulder check, constantly on the watch for the inevitable kick in the butt and the shout of "lard arse." For the record I was less than 90 pounds and hardly overweight.
The students taunted me about my black hair and asked if I washed my tresses with motor oil. One boy spat a glob of bubble gum into my hair. My tormentors left nasty notes on my desk and hissed, "Paki, Paki, smelly Paki," as I walked by. They stole my shoes from the locker room while I was in gym class. They spread rumours about me.
They challenged me to fights in the woods across the street from school. Many of my afternoons were spent sprawled on the grass as students slapped, scratched and punched my face and body.
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I stuck up for myself but was consistently outnumbered. I was vulnerable everywhere except at home, which was my only sanctuary. I didn't tell my parents or brother or sister how horrid each school day was. I always felt that if I endured I would become stronger.
Now, more than 20 years later, a curious and uncomfortable event is unfurling. Three F words sum it up: Fake Facebook Friendship. The same people who tormented me have found me on Facebook and recently asked to be friends. Apparently they don't remember what they did to me. A couple of them even invited me to a junior-high reunion. As if.
It's not like I've spent the past 20 years in suspended animation, but I would be lying if I didn't say this splinter of a memory irritates me occasionally.
I'm too polite to tell them to bugger off. I've accepted a few Facebook requests although I'd feel a lot better hurling bottles of shampoo at them. There was no Facebook 20 years ago, but if there had been I'm sure someone in class would have created an "Everybody Hates Amber Nasrulla" page. Bullying wasn't outsourced back then.
I've forgiven the bullies (but not forgotten them) because they helped make me who I am today - a curious observer and someone who loves to travel far from where she grew up, to learn about the world and see if cruelty is universal (it is). Thankfully, kindness is also universal.
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I studied hard and made the honour roll in high school. I went to university and was fortunate to befriend people from countries all over the world, including Ghana, the Caribbean, South Africa, Israel, Scotland, China and, of course, Canada.
I got married, moved to California and now, as it turns out, live in Orange County, a homogeneous neighbourhood known to the locals as The O.C. or The Orange Curtain. It's absurdly beautiful but it's a yuppie-saturated wilderness that is fiercely Republican.
Back to the mid-1980s and the nuances of schoolyard anthropology. Two events brought an end to the bullying.
One spring afternoon I was in my usual spot fighting a popular girl in the woods. Miraculously, I managed to knock her down after she pulled out a clump of my hair. After that small victory the kids started to leave me alone.
More significantly, a new student named Stacy joined Grade 8 a few months before the end of school. Her parents were older, probably in their 40s (to a preteen, fortysomething is crypt material). They often dressed her in a lacy pink frock - think Laura Ingalls Wilder and Little House on the Prairie . She had red hair. You see where this is going. The situation was horrific for her. I'm beyond ashamed to say that I was almost as mercilessly cruel as the other students. I recall throwing candy at her.
I apologize to Stacy for being unforgivably unkind. I have a toddler now and my heart cracks as I imagine my Kamran enduring just a sliver of racism or bullying. I don't know what effect my taunts had on Stacy but I'm so sorry.
I've blocked the bullies on Facebook now but am still trying to find Stacy. If I do, I'll apologize and ask her to forgive me. I can't imagine she wants to be my friend.
Amber Nasrulla lives in Orange County, Calif.
Illustration by Rachel Ann Lindsay.