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I never realized how badly I was teased in school until the day one of my bullies contacted me 35 years later. I was sitting in the movie theatre with my husband and two small children waiting for a movie to start when I got a seemingly random Facebook message on my phone. “Hi,” it said simply. I figured it was a scam. Somebody phishing for personal information so that they could drain my bank account later.
Then, I did a double-take at the name. I’d known that kid. I pictured him standing around with a group of balding middle-aged beer-bellied versions of my old classmates gleefully recounting the time I peed my chair, the ghastly out-of-date polyester bell bottoms my mom made me wear, the time they hid the pencils on me, the time they stole my new purple running shoes and how the kids on the school bus even got the bus driver taunting: “What’s that smell? Eeew! Gross! It’s Holly!”
Would someone really have so little in their life that they'd track me down years later in another city to remind me I'm worthless? I doubted it, but then people can be pretty ruthless when they have nothing better to do.
“Must be selling something,” I decided. I tried not to think about the message the whole way through the dreadful kids’ movie we were watching. I think I made it halfway through before I answered. What was the worst that could happen?
Turns out that he and his curling friends had talked about how cruel kids can be when they tease each other. “I feel like you were teased way too much in school. Not sure if I did, but I always felt bad about that,” he wrote.
As far as apologies go, it was pretty weak sauce. Even if he had not instigated my torment at times (and he did), he did not stick up for me, either. However, even vague apologies take a lot of courage. I accepted his and told him not to dwell on it any further, as I hadn’t really thought about it in years.
It was true, too. I hadn’t thought about it, although I had suffered the effects of it. I think it was a combination of bad luck and being a particularly sensitive sort that induced my peers to relentlessly bully me. I had decided to hang out alone that crucial first recess on my first day of school, and this made me a safe mark for my classmates. Once the taunting began, I probably produced a gratifying sum of tears, and things escalated from there. This affected my self-esteem; made me second-guess myself. It transformed me from an ordinary little girl into a victim. It started in Grade 1 and didn’t let up until Grade 9.
I lived a little further away from school than most of my classmates, and this gave me the option to attend a different high school from them. Guidance counsellors and teachers warned me to put my academic needs ahead of my social needs. The principal had repeatedly told my parents that sending me to another school likely would not solve my problems, that the kids would “sniff me out as the underdog” pretty quick and my reputation as the class kicking ball would most likely precede me. They were wrong.
By Grade 9, I was old enough to babysit and get a paper route. I no longer had to wear those itchy ugly bell bottoms if I didn’t want to. I could buy my own clothes. The chair-peeing incident from Grade 1 had long blown over, and most importantly, I’d learned that it didn’t matter what I did; people were going to think I was a freak. I had nothing to lose, so I might as well stop caring what others thought.
I went forward into my new school bearing my personality quirks and unusual style with confidence. Oddly enough, I wasn’t made fun of for it. I was a weirdo and proud of it. Other students not only tolerated it, but some even found me interesting. In my own little alternative-kid clique, I may even have been considered “cool.”
My father encouraged me to finish high school and do a degree in something, anything, so I did. I completed a bachelor’s in English literature and later picked up a diploma in journalism. I got a job at a newspaper, quit my job to go live abroad, came back, got married and had a couple of kids. I was almost feigning normalcy when I got that message from my elementary-school classmate.
Before that moment, I’d figured that being bullied was something just about everyone had had to overcome at some point or another.
The message was a bit of a wake-up call: The teasing had been so bad that 35 years later someone from my class, whom I hadn’t spoken to since, remembered it. I would even say I was a little retraumatized for a few weeks. I hadn’t remembered how bad it was. Worse yet, when I told my friends about the message and asked about their experiences with bullying, it turned out that very few of my acquaintances experienced the type of relentless torment that I had in school. I felt alone in that.
At the same time, I realized the effects have helped shape who I am. I am not afraid to go against the grain, try new things and be different. The worst that can happen is failure (and I’ve done that a few times). I am compassionate toward the underdog and always do my best to help others when they are down.
There is a flip-side though, and it’s not pretty. I am uncomfortable accepting praise, I have relentless imposter syndrome and I am suspicious of people who belong to cliquish friend and family groups. I have generalized anxiety disorder and all the unspeakable symptoms that go with it. It will probably be with me for life.
Making amends with my former bully has helped me beat that little voice inside that still tries to tell me I don’t belong. Now, when I am bothered by intrusive thoughts, I remind myself that I am worth something. I know this because at least one of the bullies who tore me down all those years ago agrees. He took the time 35 years later to track me down and tell me so.
Holly Jones lives in Guelph, Ont.