Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bullied: A Confession

I was bullied growing up. A lot. I was an easy target: shy, skinny, insecure, quick-to-cry, and, most crucially, slow-to-tattle. For some unGodly reason, I didn't rat out my tormenters, no matter the offense. A kid who doesn't tell is the Ultimate Lottery Ticket for playground thugs.

I've been thinking a lot about bullying lately. Actually, if I'm honest, I started thinking about bullying 9 years ago, when I got pregnant with Miss D. I remember talking to my mother over grilled cheese and soup, saying, "I hope this kid has more spirit than I had. I was a wimpy kid. I've always hated that about myself. I want this kid to be tougher."

The Good News: Miss D. certainly has spirit. In spades.

The Bad News: Miss D. is incredibly sensitive. Like her Mama, tears well up in her eyes easily and often. And when I see those tears, a cold shiver rattles through me. I can't help it. I both cherish and mourn that soft little heart.

Miss D. learned about bullies last year, in first grade. First. Grade. I couldn't believe that we were facing the Ugly Dragon so early in her school career. But life isn't fair, eh? So I tried to navigate her through the minefield as best I could, and we did okay, I think. But it's a long and jagged road ahead of us; just thinking about it deflates me.

I thought about bullies the other day, when I was going through a shoebox of old photos and stumbled across this one.

This photo was taken my senior year in high school. A group of kids from Advanced Biology took a week-long whitewater rafting trip down the Yampa and the Green Rivers. I was a member of that group. So was Jill.

That rafting trip was filled with thrills, hi-jinks and hilarity. It also had a surprise waiting for me--a surprise that had a lot to do with Jill.

A little background. Jill was odd. Odd enough to place her far, far down on the social food chain. On that food chain, it wouldn't be a stretch to call Jill a paramecium.

Parameciums eat lunch alone. They sit in the library alone. They are the last ones chosen for the flag-football team in Phys. Ed. I'll stop there--you know who I'm talking about. Every school has them.

It also didn't help that Jill had bright orange hair and ghostly white skin and was blanketed in hundreds of freckles. She sported glasses. And braces. And outdated, off-brand athletic shoes.

Jill was in my section of Advanced Biology. One day, when I was out with strep throat, our class chose lab partners for the dreaded Rat Project.

Every year, the Rat Project struck fear in the hearts of Advanced Biology students. The Rat Project was a month-long, intensive dissection of an enormous white rat. Each pair of students got its own formaldehyde-soaked specimen right after Thanksgiving. And if, by Holiday break, the dissection wasn't completed, one student in the pair toted that rat home and stuck it in the deep freeze for a few weeks. Just the idea of shlepping a half dissected rodent, the size of a cat, cram in beside the ice cream and the Stouffer's dinners? It gave me the willies.

Long story short: because I was absent on partner-picking day, I got Jill. When I learned that I'd be spending a month alone with Jill and a gi-normous, reeking rat, I was less than pleased. I am ashamed to say that I even sulked a little.

What I didn't know was that being paired with Jill was a happy accident in disguise. Turns out, Jill loved dissection. She was good at it, too. She enthusiastically tore into Godzilla (our rat) and had him rationed into tiny, dessicated bits in no time. When Holiday break came around, we bid Godzilla goodbye. No deep freeze for us.

After the Rat Project, I forgot about Jill. She went back to her own table and her paramecium existence. And then Spring came. Jill and I were assigned to the same raft on the Yampa Adventure. Again, I was less than thrilled--a week in a small raft with Jill and a handful of others, attempting pleasant chit chat and paddling like mad? Yick.

The first morning, Jill emerged from her tent slathered, head-to-toe, in a heavy layer of zinc oxide. The snickers and remarks were immediate.

"God, doesn't she know what normal sunscreen looks like?"
"Who's Casper?"
"EEK! Bright light! Bright light! Mogwai!"
"Hey, Marshmallow girl!"

I was furious. Nice. Our raft was a laughingstock. Jill adjusted her floppy hat and pretended not to hear, paddling harder than the rest of us.

One night during the trip, I couldn't sleep. In truth, I hadn't slept much the entire week. The ground was hard and lumpy and the tent smelled funny and the spring nights were shockingly cold. I'm an indoor girl. Restless, I grabbed my jacket and headed outside. I wandered along the river for a while, listening to it burble and eddy beside me. When I got to a group of large rocks, I was surprised to see a long-haired figure sitting there. Jill.

"Can't sleep?" I said.
She shrugged.
"I am so not a camper," I said. "I hate how lumpy the ground is. My tent smells weird, too, like wet dog or something."
She didn't answer.
"Wasn't that gross today?" I rattled, plopping down on a neighboring rock. "All of those water crickets we ran into? Ewwww." I shivered. "Those things were freaking huge."
Pause. "That was kinda gross."
"Jeez, I'm freezing. How long have you been out here?"
"I'm out here every night." She pointed skyward. "You can see the stars really well from here."
"They are pretty. I have no idea what I'm looking at, though."
"Not even the dippers, there?"
She laughed a little. And then she pointed out each constellation, one by one, patiently guiding me through them and explaining what I was seeing.
"That's cool. You know a lot about stars."
She shrugged. "My dad bought me a telescope when I was nine."
We talked about stars and planets and space until, teeth chattering, I headed for the stinky comfort of my tent.
"Thanks," I said, over my shoulder. "For the lesson."

I'd like to say that Jill and I became friends after that. I'd like to say that for the remainder of my high school year, I smiled at Jill and chatted with her in the hall. I'd like to say that I told everyone in the raft the next morning how much Jill knew about stars. I'd like to say that. But I didn't do any of those things.

I never bullied Jill, but I bore witness. I did nothing to stop the giggles and eye rolls and barbed remarks. It's not something I'm proud of, particularly since I was bullied as a kid and knew the collateral damage. I knew, and I did nothing. And those who do nothing aren't much better than the ones hurling the insults, are they?

I attended my 10-year high-school reunion, hoping to see Jill there. Hoping to tell her that I was sorry. That she taught me a lot that night. Of course, she did not attend. Why on Earth would she want to see us again, walk into a room of old, ugly faces?

It's something I hope to tell Miss D. someday. How one night, one starry spring night, a freckled girl taught her mother a lesson. In more ways than one.


  1. Bullying is the one thing that terrifies me most about parenting. I'm terrified that my kids will be bullied. I'm terrified that they will passively accept bullying. Bullying seems to best represent the stuff that happens to kids that's just beyond our control. Shudder.

  2. What scares me is all the new ways bullies can get to their pray. Scares the crap out of me... knowing how bad it could be back in the day, i can't imagine what it'd be like today. How young it starts. Oy.

    I think bearing witness in the way you (and I at points) did was an act of self preservation. I wonder if you could find Jill on Facebook?

  3. Jr. High and High School are so hard and the whole issue of pecking order and bullies is so hard. Looking back I think that most of us find that we were young cowards trying to survive in a Lord of the Flies sort of situation.

  4. What a great post! Your daughter is so lucky to have you as a Mom. Your lessons will serve her well.

    I think bullying has become so much tolerated in our schools these days. I sure hope so. I know in our public school district there is a zero tolerance rule for bullying.

    I remember a girl in my grade who was always on the outside. I too wish I had done more to help her. She did finally come to one of our reunions and its was great to see her. She is happy and successful and felt so glad for her.

  5. Your memory of Jill made me weepy. I pray that I will be strong for my children when it's their turn (because inevitably we'll have to deal with bullying). I pray that I've raised them to be strong enough to get through it.

    The Misses are lucky to have you. They are in capable, experienced, compassionate hands.

  6. I was bullied a lot as a kid, too. And I feared that for my boys. I've dealt with it with them, too. It's hard to think about, really. It is one of the many reasons I now homeschool the youngest. He's sensitive, and was on the verge of full blown depression. A lot of things just added up for him. Middle son won't ever be bullied, most kids are too afraid of him because he's fearless. And my oldest has Down Syndrome, and yes he's been bullied. Only once tho, he then learned how to knock the crap out of someone. Most kids are awesome to him.

    Your kids are lucky to have you, and all of your wisdom. They will thank you for it.

  7. What amazes me is that so many people don't learn the lessons. There are bullies among us now, in their 30s, 40s and 50s. And it's infuriating.

    But then, the desire to be accepted is a hard one to let go of. And for bullies I think, ironically, that that desire is stronger than for the rest of us. It's strange to say, but dealing with a bully takes more compassion than anything else. To be strong and not give in, but also, to understand what it MEANS to be strong and not give in. Why you are doing it, not just because you should.

    If that makes sense.

    Beautiful piece, Kitchie. I adore your stories. And I'm left wondering if you could somehow find this Jill someday, somewhere. Then again, this post is a gift that maybe holds more weight unsent.

  8. My Jill's name was Lola. Oh, how I wish I could tell her how much she taught me, too.

    I can't believe it starts in first grade now. My heart is not ready.

  9. You always leave me with something to think about.

    I was in the middle. Mostly between the Jills and the people who tormented them. Usually ignored (in a school with a lot of violence, that was a good thing), but also key at ignoring others.

    Having kids, especially of the same sex, really makes us face a lot of things, doesn't it? I wonder what it's like for people like Jill to grow up and face those things again in their children?

  10. I was bullied as a kid, too. It was one of the few things I couldn't talk to my parents about because I knew it would upset them and there wasn't anything they could do about it. I don't think you can save a kid from the usual social bullying (mind it gets now where kids commit suicide over here and judging from the treatment we get when we run past groups of grade school kids, they are fearless little creeps). It was just part of growing up, having to tough it out. I did decide I would never make fun of others and I didn't, but I doubt I ever rescued anyone either. I don't know what it would be like to parent a child who was bullied; very frustrating I would guess. My step-son was Mr Cool himself and completely fearless, and that's just between the ages of 2 and 9. My bet is that if there was bullying going on, he'd be doing it, unfortunately.

  11. I wasn't bullied or a bullier but I also didn't stand up for the ones who I should have. Great post!

  12. this is very nicely written, and it sends a good message. i'm certainly among those who regret not stepping in to stop bullying-in-progress.

  13. I hope that maybe Jill reads this... can be so really can. I hate bullies...they say bullies are like that because they are usually bullied themselves but I don't always believe that...otherwise why would you do it? I also know what you mean about not speaking up. There is so much insecurity and uncertainty when you are young and there is the pack-mentality at go back with what I know might be interesting... xxx

  14. It's been something like 30 years and I still remember being bullied. Our ability to be so cruel to one another is astounding.

  15. Wow, great post. Sounds like Jill would be just fine, but at what price, right? Bullying is such an issue for school kids at all levels. MA is now trying to pass a bullying law, encompassing cyber bullies and school. I don't know how it works or what I think about it yet, but it's certainly intriguing. I don't know how the law can really stop it. It's all of us, teachers included, that allow it to happen. And so often when kids don't complain, it's not even noticed by anyone.
    Very thought provoking stuff, thanks.

  16. You are absolutely right - bullying is not only about the one slinging the words.

    I hope and pray that my daughter can be the one that gets along with everyone. That is included and doesn't disclude.

    If not - I hope to prepare her adequately for both sides of the spectrum...or at least how to throw a mean right hook. ;)

  17. What a touching post. I myself was not one to pick on others, and I even rescued a few on the victims...but there were times around more popular kids that I did nothing or said something that only the others but not the victim could hear just to make myself one of them. And like you, I hold such guilt over it.If we could only live those childhood and teenage years already equipped with the knowledge one only gets through experience.

  18. This is one of my favorites of all of your posts. Even without a list of ingredients, there's a recipe here....

  19. This is one of the hardest things about being a parent. Instilling a stong self confidence while at the same time teaching empathy and respect for others. Then we just have to stand back and cross our fingers that it worked.

  20. You have a big heart. I hope you are not being too hard on yourself. I will be 100% honest here: I am ashamed to admit that if my son were ever in your situation when he's in Middle School or HS, even though I know what the right thing to do is, I am not sure I would be confident enough about his social status to tell him that he needs to befriend "Jill". Home schooling is sounding more and more attractive...

  21. Jill is probably a Nuclear Physicist now. :)

    Sometimes when I read your posts I feel like I'm reading about my own life!

  22. Bullies effing suck. As a kid I was neither a bully or a bullie-y, but I also never had the cajones to stand up to other bullies. So, I make up for it now. By bullying kids who bully mine. It's way more fun than you would think. No. Kidding. I wish I could do that. So much in fact, that I actually plot evil ways to get back at ugly kids who hurt my babies. But, I'm going for the whole "take the high road" approach. Not sure why. But it feels like the right thing to do. Anyway, maybe you could find Jill on FB and send her one of those online apology things. That would be original. Funny thing is though, that she has probably grown up to be a normal, everyday chick. Husband and kids, or a lesbian lover with whom she has an adopted baby. Either way. Point is, she's probably a-ok which means she's likely not even thinking about the bullies you didn't save her from. At least that's what you hope, ya know?

  23. Once again, you made me cry and remember. I wasn't bullied like throw-you-on-the-ground bullying, but I was emotionally and socially bullied. It was heart breaking.

    It is also the reason I will NEVER attend a reunion and don't really care for what my old class mates are up to.

    Yet, like you, I saw people bullied far worse. And I did nothing. I am still haunted by their faces at times.

    As for my children? I know they may be bullied. I just hope they DON'T become the bullies. I think I would have a harder time with that.

  24. This subject hits close to home for me. I just posted about this very same thing yesterday. My son has been bullied since he was in grade school. He is now in H.S., last week he was jumped at school. This is the hardest part I think about being a parent. Not knowing what to do.

  25. What an amazing story/memory/post. You have such a gift with the written word. And you've given me so much to think about. I was never bullied but I never defended the bullied, either. And as I stood by and watched my daughter go through some bullying when she entered public school at an older age I was at such a loss at how to help her. I wonder if Jill's parents were feeling the same way. Such a tough subject.

  26. Oh Kitch, what a fantastic post. Something so many of us can relate to. I was bullied by the biggest, meanest bullies in town and I NEVER understood what the hell I ever did to them. It was probably that all over my face was written, "I won't stand up for myself but I want so badly to be liked". I was an easy target. But I also never stood up for the Jill. And I wish I had after everything I dealt with. I hope you find Jill... I'm sure she'd just ADORE you today.

  27. I imagine you'll get a lot of comments on this post. We've all had experiences like this. I though schools were getting tough on bullies, but I suppose it can't be eradicated entirely. And they grow up to be bullies too.
    I worry so about kids like Jill because they're the ones that one day just can't take it anymore and explode. I hope Jill has made a good life for herself and had parents as loving as you are.
    As I said to my kids one know that nerd over there? He grew up to be Bill Gates.

  28. Miss D. and Miss M. are lucky to have you, TKW. There's nothing that can replace a mother who gets it. Even if, or in fact, because you feel that you bore witness to the bullying so many years ago. That's an insight I imagine your girls will only benefit from.

  29. Oh Kitch! I was bullied incessantly as a child through late junior high...I wore the wrong clothes, wasn't a smart alecky kid to the teachers, never told on anyone and was the most miserable child ever. And the really terrible thing is that you never forget those words...they still hurt, even after all these years. I thnk it is the worst for girls...other girls can be so vicious...

    Be strong for your will be liberating for you and teach them the value of kindness to others, although I am sure that that lesson is well learned in your home!

  30. Sweet, Awesome Readers,

    Thanks so much for weighing in and sharing your memories, even if they were painful.

    To answer your question, no, I won't be contacting Jill. I imagine that a girl who avoided her 10-year reunion wanted nothing to do with us Bastards. For good reason. I picture her living in some awesome flat in the Silicon Valley or happily teaching students how to dissect enormous rodents on a beautiful University campus.

    That's my vision. And I'm sticking to it.

  31. God, this is a great post. It's so darn honest. You know I have already dealt with bullying and I am terrified at what's still to come. With each story that my girls bring home, I recognize someone from my past. I try to use what I have learned to teach my girls, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. I know that no matter how hard I try, they will still have to live through some of the awful things that I lived through as a girl, too. It sucks. Bullies suck. But you don' rock, Kitch!

  32. This is such a human post, and to me it underscores the compassion that evolves as we mature, particularly as we parent (if we are fortunate enough to have enough love to be safe and grow). I think we all carry our scars from either bullying, being bullied or being vicariously traumatized by watching others get bullied (which can sometimes be psychologically worse than just being the target).

    One side of bullies I try to keep in mind is their own pain and the likely pain of their low-self-esteem families. For more thoughts on the social context of bullying see:

    In these difficult economic times we are only too likely to see increased bullying in the context of stress and wounds to parental self-esteem.

    Here's to a compassionate community that you cultivate here Kitchen Witch. Namaste

  33. I still remember the bully who tormented me in third and fourth grade. I still remember not telling. And I still remember that, when we had the fetal pig experiment in high school, my partner and I named the pig after our class's paramecium.
    I'm not proud of it, but I learned early that it's pick on or be picked on. I was always two rungs from the bottom, and I clung on by kicking the two beneath me. Ugh. I didn't like me much then.
    Good luck to all our children. I hope they have the self esteem to stick up for themselves and for those below them in the pecking order.

  34. Wow, TKW, I don't know why I'm so late reading this today. I had a chequered career in school. Sometimes there was some racially- based bullying in Chicago that wasn't personally directed at me and then there was the hassles after we moved to Phoenix. I was basically called "Chin" for 5 years by two vermin.

    I'm VERY paranoid about my kids being put through what I went through, which is probably why my husband and I have paid a small fortune in private school tuition. Our school just instituted a "Girls Circle" for my daughter's class where the girls can talk freely about their feelings and to one another (mediated by a counselor) and it stamped out any "mean girl" stuff that was beginning. Worth every penny but hopefully we'll have money left for college!

  35. I am with Linda in being behind on my blog reading. Darn life has been getting in the way.

    Bullying is difficult. Now it comes in forms we would have never thought of when we were kids. Worse, parents who were bullies as children or who were bullied as children take it upon themselves to bully back for their children. Rather than teaching what is right and wrong, these adults figure two wrongs will make a right. Bad math!!

    While I know bullying starts young, the worst of it is middle school. Those poor kids are in such transition - not little kids anymore but not teens yet - and they do not realize they should be supporting each other. Instead, they just rip each other apart.

  36. Such a well-written post. Just joining the chorus above that say your daughters are lucky to have you as their mom!

  37. Lovely written post KW! I have a twin sister, and since I was 30 minutes older, I just assumed it was my responsibility to take care of her.

    I made sure no one touched her, I talked for us most of time, etc. It wasn't until we separated for the first time in college - she followed my brother to Iowa State, I ended up with a field hockey scholarship to SIU.

    I got back from practice one day and my roommate said "some girl that sounds like you was crying and wants you to call her back." I called her and she cried "I had no idea how much you took care of me!"

    It was then that I said if I ever had a daughter, I would make her tough and self-sufficient - and while I succeeded, she still is a sensitive girl, and that's just something you can will away - its one of my daughters favorite qualities.

    Bullies are awful, and that it starts as early as first grade is beyond me!

    Give your girl an extra hug for me - they grow up so quick!

    Hope you had a kick ass time in Vegas for your bday!!

  38. Interesting post. I think all parents worry about bullies - especially if our kids are small for their age (mine were).

    It's also interesting to consider the fine line between malicious teasing and bullying. I wouldn't say I was bullied as a child, but I was teased, sometimes viciously. It's a bit different, but scars you somewhere. Even there - what rolls off one child's back, burns into another's.

    As a parent, all we can do is try to give them some tools to deal with both bullies and nasty teasers. And give them as much sense of self as possible.

    (Hope your trip was fun!)

  39. I don't even remember this person from our High School years! But I do remember being in the receiving end of some nasty bullying. More in Jr. High though. I feel lucky that I found friends that share my values - friend like you. We can teach our kids together, and lean on each other when we are imperfect (often!)

  40. What I admire about the teenaged Jill is the confidence she had that I, the vainly, regretfully uncool, did not have. Standing quietly and minimizing distinction felt like self-preservation, as Corinne said. But I'll bet Jill learned great lessons about succeeding as herself long before I did.

  41. Beautiful. And honest. As we've discussed before, I was bullied too, hence my (possibly over) reaction to Ben's playground behavior. This is a sore subject for me. I just hope it is our personal experiences that resonate with our children as we teach, as they grow. I don't know what is worse for a parent: having your kid be the bully, or being bullied. Both painful in two totally different ways. I walk the line between having my kids grow up to be stronger than I was and not being so strong that they dominate. It is my hope that Hubby and I teach through example, but these days, I'm not so sure if Sponge Bob isn't the stronger teacher around here.

  42. What a great post! You are so right. And now you know. You know better so you can teach better. Your daughter will get it right because of you and Jill. I think that is pretty great. And it's been said here a lot, but I'll say it again...bullies suck. We've been dealing with them here since first grade also. I can't believe that. As sweet and loving as children can be, some of them can be just as mean and cruel. But, our children will get through it just as we did. And hopefully, it will help define their character as it has yours and mine.

  43. Beautiful. And the way you write this, I ache for both you AND Jill.

    I was not bullied during my childhood, but I was very, very sensitive to those who were. And also often too immature to do anything buy bear witness, like you said. It was awful, and I wouldn't want to go back.

    But then again, we all have to go back, through our children, don't we? Sigh.

  44. My eyes are welling up like little Miss D's. We all knew someone like Jill in school. We are doing our best to teach our children that NICE really does matter.

  45. That is a great story...and bearing witness is not as bad...but we should all speak up!

  46. What a beautiful story. Helping kids navigate through waters I still feel lost in is a scary thing indeed.

  47. I was bullied. It wasn't as bad as Jill's situation, but it was bad. And I too won't attend a reunion. I'm scared for my children, especially my twin girls, even though my 2nd grader son has already experienced some bullying.

    This was a beautiful post, KW. Thank you. Like Miss D., I cry easily and this did it for me.

    I do get a little bit of satisfaction knowing the girl who bullied me isn't really happy with her life. Her academic career isn't working as she would like it to and she has no personal life.