"The day a guy picks you up is the day I die. Oh, and your mother's a skank."
We were on the yellow school bus. I remember it, clear as day. I sat in my seat, hands folded and head down, waiting for the bus driver to pull up to Highlawn Avenue and West 6th (the stop closest to my family's tiny Brooklyn apartment). Mark, my sixth grade peer, took this opportunity to graciously inform me that I had approximately no hope of ever being considered attractive to the opposite sex. And not only that, but just in case I were curious, he wished to inform me that my mom, a young wife, mother, and hardworking medical assistant, perhaps had a questionable reputation.
It's funny, how a simple Facebook friend request can conjure such a memory.
I was 11 years old When Mark spit those words at me. He was a popular kid with the crush-worthy, physical aesthetics akin to a young Ian Ziering (Beverly Hills, 90210 was becoming hugely popular at the time, a fact from which Mark benefited greatly, however accidentally).
He was also one of my biggest bullies who, a little over two decades since I've seen him in the flesh, decided to Facebook friend request me.
I guess he was curious.
I was a shy, quiet kid; like most shy kids my goal, above all else, was to remain invisible. Alas, I had a huge, unruly head of curly hair that my parents refused to allow me to tame with LA Looks (or any other product, for that matter). My unfortunate blond mop was complimented by massive buck teeth, qualities which earned me an unwanted place in the spotlight among my school's most venomous bullies.
My height certainly helped matters tremendously: Achieving 5'1" stature (and growing) by the time I entered the fifth grade rendered me the tallest out of all the students, both male and female, an issue that would not resolve itself until well into the ninth grade.
I think about my bullies sometimes. I think about them when they friend request me; I think about them when I read something in the news about the increasingly prolific anti-bully legislation.
I think about my childhood bullies when I read that another kid has committed suicide because of relentless bullying and the silent adults who turned deaf ears and blind eyes.
My memories of my bullies share a home base: They either occurred on school grounds or on the school bus. When the bullying occurred on school grounds, it was sometimes in front of other adults, usually the PTA parents of the bullies who, for some reason, thought nothing of their child's behavior.
My most painful memories of being bullied occurred on the mini-bus, that small yellow vessel which meant that, if you attempted to hide in the back of the bus you may as well just stay in the front anyway, as there was no escaping any of them. My bullies would make up songs about me, my hair, my body, anything they could think of, and sing them loudly. The bus driver, a white-haired man in his 60s, laughed heartily.
Explain that to a child quietly desperate for adult intervention.
Most of the bullying, now that I think of it, occurred in the presence of a school bus driver.
As such, yellow school buses often provoke, for me, a special flavor of terror. Hell hath no fury like a bunch of quarantined, pre-teenagebullies on a yellow school bus.
The taunting was mostly verbal (such as when Adam announced to a table of peers in our Earth Science class, provoked by nothing other than my existence in the seat next to him, that I was One. Ugly. Girl.), but sometimes it became physical, as when Joe grabbed my books from my hands and threw them into a muddy puddle while we waited outside of school for the bus to arrive. There was also the time when Jason, with an audience, tripped me as I ran to my eighth grade math class; I hit the floor, knees and elbows first, with a painful thud. My books scattered further. The overly made-up and padded girlfriends stood back and laughed, some nervously, some cruelly.
I think about my childhood bullies sometimes. And because I (like most of you) am naturally curious, I accepted all of their Facebook friend requests.
I'll never cease to be amazed at what one can learn from a simple perusal of a Facebook wall. Of my bullies, there are five who were memorably venomous. Of these five, four are now parents. Of these five, three (so far as I can tell) went on to become teachers, including Mark, who went on to teach junior high school.
For the record, he teaches in the same school where I kept my head down, daily, trying to avoid his eye-contact and his steadfast attempts to do permanent damage to my spirit. (He no longer works in this school; I do not know why.)
Becoming reacquainted with my childhood bullies, even if only virtually, forces me to wonder about what happens when bullies become teachers. As far as these particular people are concerned, I have absolutely no idea. I hope their students love them. I hope they are making a difference, one student's life at a time. And while I hope that these particular people have evolved into the thinking, reflective, and caring adults that we, as a society, should demand of our teachers, I think I have a response to my own question. But, I cannot offer this response without also divulging another painful memory.
As a child, I dealt with being viciously bullied by staying silent when I saw others being bullied in much the same way. I will always believe that my silence rendered me a bully by proxy.
Desperate to remove the spotlight from my existence for a change, I hid in the shadows when they turned their attention to her, another shy, quiet classmate who earned excellent grades and wouldn't, couldn't hurt a fly even if she wanted to.
I remember her name. In fact, we share the same first name. For the record, I also attended weekly CCD (religion courses offered by the local parish) with another little girl who happened to have the same name as me and my fellow target. There were a few kids in CCD who refused to sit next to her, unless the teacher made them (the irony of this treatment occurring in an institution of worship, of all places, is not lost on me). I do not know why they treated her this way, but I was utterly convinced that girls with my first name were destined for a childhood (life?) marred and shaped by bullying and mistreatment. As a result, I grew up hating my first name. I associated it with little girls who were not only bullied, but with those who perhaps deserved to be bullied.
Try convincing my irrational child self that I was wrong about this interpretation.
At school, I knew what my classmate was going through, damn I knew what she was going through, but I dared not befriend her. I dared not support her. Any support I could have shown was sure to turn the bullies on me even worse.
She cried a lot, and I stayed silent and you bet I never dared cry. Tears were our bullies' lifeblood. On some days, I think she got it worse for exactly that reason.
And it is with these paired memories of being bullied and fearful silence that I recall how my dad would often remind me that "hurt people hurt people."
Think about that for a second: Hurt people hurt people.
I now take my father's words to mean that, sometimes, hurt people bully others. Other times, hurt people remain silent and watch as others are bullied. Hurt people indeed hurt people.
And so, in the spirit of attempting to live up to the expectations we should all have of our nation's teachers, I wish to apologize to her, my fellow target, for my silence. And I hope that those bullies-turned-teachers are anything but silent when they see their child-selves reflected in the relationships they notice playing out in their classrooms, school hallways, and those dreadful yellow school buses.
*This post is dedicated to my loving mother, who shed tears upon reliving these memories through my words.
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