On Bullying and the Self

I don’t know why I want to write about the bullying, as though that were a pleasant part of my life to remember. Maybe I want to remind myself of the good stuff that did happen at that time. Maybe I want to further explore the conversations Brad and I had when I recounted instance after instance of cruelty that I endured, and the moments I in turn inflicted, the normalization of them both. How I learned to sharpen my wit with meanness, or speak like a sycophant, or disappear entirely. I grew up in the 80s, the age of Heathers and the beginning of malls, back in a time when 5-7-9 mattered and I didn’t fit. Popularity was everything. I was taunted with it in the sixth grade, when a pretty girl asked me if I wanted to be popular and even spent time with me on the phone one night, only to laugh the next day in front of a crowd. I’ll never forget the way I could feel her snear sear into my skin when she said, “You? You really think you could be popular?” This was the year I had no friends in my classroom and one of the boys thought it was funny to say my name aloud in class at random moments, until the teacher made him stop and so he nicknamed me Skeeter and kept it going anyway and a chorus of snickers always followed. That was how I learned to go inside myself, deep, deep inside where I couldn’t hear them and they couldn’t hurt me, and my self lay curled up in a ball, reminding me that I knew I was not who they said I was. But I had to be, right? Because I had secret friends in those crowds, people who connected with me but only in private, people I knew were nice and funny and smart and had fun with me, but somehow my social status mattered in public, and I had none. I had a whole group of new friends once when I was in high school or late junior high, from a different town. Someone actually asked me if I was popular at my school and I remember that I knew my answer mattered and so I lied. And I passed. Then a schoolmate turned up at a party and was like, “Her?” and her breath blew my candle out. I had friends at camps and I would feel liked, and it was a glowing feeling and I felt like myself sometimes, like this could be real, and then the summer would end and I would return to school and all that shining fun must have been an act, because this was my real life, day after day. I mean, in my estimation, once I hit junior high I evaporated just enough to have friends and avoid active ridicule. I would do anything, I think, to avoid that kind of spotlight again. Parts of me became a social chameleon, or more accurately, I became parts of me, and I could serve up any of my qualities that would best please my current audience. I think of myself like a pie chart. I knew who I was in pieces, my attributes and faults, and I could portion myself out as the best possible ratio for this particular scenario. I lost that cowering little self along the way, the one who knew who I am. Last year I found it again, and this has been journey to nurture it, to bellows the coal in the core of me into a warm, Heathery glow. It hadn’t occurred to me that the people who love me saw through the pie chart the whole time. My friends, I think I thought I’d fooled you all. Until very, very recently, when I gave myself permission to believe your voices instead of theirs, and at the heart of it all, to hear my own. I’m not very good at this yet, but I am getting better. And I guess I want to say that if you have lost your little coal of self in the midst of cacophony, the harmony of your friends might be a really great song to focus on.

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