I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t being bullied. It started the summer before kindergarten, so some of my earliest memories involve being the victim of attempted murder. Or at least that’s how it felt when I was five years old.
The bully was my neighbor, whom I will call Summer (only because it was summer when I met her and I don’t know any real person named Summer, so there shall be no confusion). Summer was also starting kindergarten in the fall, so I suppose our mothers thought it would be a good idea for us to play together before school started. I can imagine the conversation going something like this:
My mom: “Hi, Summer’s mom. Our kids are going to be starting school soon, and they will be riding the bus together. Perhaps they should meet.”
Summer’s mom: “Hi, Dana’s mom. I think that’s a great idea. Summer loves to make new friends. I’ve noticed that your daughter is a bit shy, but I’m sure Summer will help her out of her shell.”
My mom: “My daughter is socially incapable, so I was just hoping Summer would sit with her on the bus. I know Dana won’t introduce herself to anyone.”
Summer’s mom: “I’ll send Summer over to play with her straight away.”
I believe that was the point at which the universe removed any shred of hope that I would grow up to be a self-confident human being.
In the interest of time, I will attempt to bottom-line this part of the story by saying that my only memories of Summer from Kindergarten and first grade involve numerous deliberately placed toes followed by a sudden fall to the ground, several shoves from behind to knock me off my feet, a right hook to the stomach (to which I retorted with a left jab to her stomach and subsequently received a stern lecture in the hallway after recess), a valiant effort to push me off my bike (abrasions abounded from head to toe), and an attempted (and almost successful) drowning in a backyard wading pool.
Summer was trying to kill me.
Fortunately, Summer’s mother noticed her daughter’s murderous nature, withdrew her from public school, and gave her to the nuns. By second grade, I was able to go to school without wondering if I would make it home alive. Except for one little detail: Even though she was no longer my classmate, Summer was still my neighbor. The other girls who lived on our street were very careful not to make friends with me, because they had obviously been threatened by Summer. If they played with me, they’d really get it. As much as I wanted to be friends with the other girls, I also sympathized. If they played with me, they’d receive the same torture I did. So rather than standing up for myself and all other independent little girls in central PA, I just let them play without me and I stayed in my room and wrote stories. I spent most of my childhood afraid to leave my own house.
I learned in junior high that Summer was not destined to be the only bully in my life. The physical abuse may have ended, but a whole new type of bullying emerged. Smart girls who seemed to have similar interests as me would completely ignore me. Why? Because of what I wore. I had the unfortunate fate of being the exact same size as my older sister, so I wore her hand-me-downs which were already three years out of style. Put those clothes on a short, painfully shy girl with frizzy hair (who also happens to be in the band) and there’s not much hope.
The advice I always received from the adults was “Just be nice to them! Say hi! Be friendly, and they’ll be friends with you!” Oh, how I wished that was all I had to do. I’d get the evil eye from other kids, or they’d avoid me. When it came to blows (verbal of course – at that age, fortunately nobody was drowning me), the advice from the adults was “Just ignore them.” Now that I’m an adult, I can see the truth in that advice, but it’s not easy to swallow when you’re thirteen.
I was never popular. I was musical and artsy, and I wasn’t athletic in the traditional sense. I came to accept that, and by the time I was in high school, I fell in love with my friends and my life. But I always scrutinized what I wore, what I did, and who I did it with. I wouldn’t do certain things because I feared what others would think. I was afraid I was being judged for every little thing (which I was, of course, because that's what teenagers do).
Fortunately, today I’ve come to accept the fact that I will continue to be bullied to some degree. There’s always something about me that someone will make fun of: my reading glasses, my porcelain legs, my strict adherence to a schedule, my choice to spend a Saturday night at the symphony rather than a bar. The difference now is that I don’t really care what anyone else thinks, and when they make fun of me, I can laugh at myself along with them. It doesn't matter anymore. I will never be the stereotypical girl that society finds attractive. I’m not going to refrain from doing the things I like just because there are people out there who will make fun of it, and trust me, there are people - adults - out there who don't hesitate to make fun of me, even now.
And Summer? She’s still out there. She was popular in school. She was friends with everyone. She probably never had to hear “Just ignore them”, because people wanted to be with her. Even now, people still want to be with her (one of many reasons I am skipping my 20-year class reunion this weekend). I wish I could say she made me a better, stronger woman, but I don't feel she deserves that honor. She was a jerk. And I’m sure anyone who’s ever had a bully would agree with me.