When I was little, I had many of the personality characteristics I have now. I was determined, prideful, creative, intelligent, funny, competitive, and obsessive. I was and am very much my father’s daughter.
All of these characteristics, however, occasionally manifested in negative ways. In fact, as an adult, I can see that there were definite times when I was just a bully. The very word “bully” declares my behavior excessive, of course, but nothing I did was newsworthy. All of my antics were relatively standard teen movie moments, but it was still cruelty. I’m not proud of it. I don’t tell those stories to get a laugh and I know people who do. I, however, analyze what made me act the way I did, particularly when I hear story after story after story of children pushed to the brink over bullying… because bullying ain’t new, folks. Cain bullied Able for crying out loud. Perhaps, since the act hasn’t much changed, maybe the reasons behind it haven’t either. So here it is, from a former (occasional) bully.
I thought it was funny.
I grew up in a really sarcastic family. Just a few years ago, my cousins (who are my age) spent a good 20 minutes encouraging one of the little kids to blow out a candle that was battery powered. They thought it was hilarious.
They were so totally right.
The same little kid was informed that if he acted up, all of the mounted animals in the house would come alive and eat him.On that note, I had to have been seven or eight when I figured out that the rest of the deer was not, in fact, on the other side of the wall, as my dad insisted. When I was little, I would cry when the horses died in westerns and my dad would laugh at me. This is the same man who convinced me he was driving me to the orphanage to leave me with Miss Hannigan from Annie when I’d act like a brat in the car. For realz, yo. I was raised by sadists.
We’re still all like this, and for some reason, we expect the kids not to pick up on said meanness and sarcasm and think that’s what funny is. That’s precisely what I did. Why, exactly, was it funny when my dad pushed me into the pool, but not when I shoved my cousin without warning, only for her to fall against the side and remove a layer of skin off her leg? Why was everyone so mad at me? Why wasn’t it okay when I went through my weird pinching phase, even though my dad and uncles did that kind of stuff all the time? How come I couldn’t call people fat when my aunts could? Why didn’t anyone like me?!?!?!
Not only do we tease each other relentlessly, we’re also really open with criticism, some worse than others. I once watched my aunt stand directly outside her 9-year-old daughter’s dressing room and loudly tell my grandma Kay that her little girl was “getting a belly on her.” We have a ladies-only party called The Water Buffalo, every year, because all of the women are big. My grandma Kay told Bea, just last Thanksgiving, that my hair “looks more interesting” than hers, because of the highlights. I adore my family and I think we’re all fucking hilarious. It’s not that anyone’s trying to be cruel. That’s just how we interact.
As an adult, I take these things with a grain of salt and acknowledge that none of this is how normal people interact. I save my barbed humor for Gail, Jane, and Niki and have no other female friends. As a child? Well, I didn’t quite get why I couldn’t tell someone those shoes were ugly or that that hairstyle looked stupid. Why didn’t anyone like me?!?!
I was bullied.
From about the second grade on, I wore a target on my back. Not only was my humor mean, but with divorcing parents, who were too preoccupied to keep track of my personal hygiene, it’s no surprise that I was the smelly kid for awhile. The day I realized I needed to wear deodorant was the day my dad snapped “God, Belle, did you not put on deodorant today?!?” In his defense, we were very much the household where the woman had that discussion with her daughter and the man with his son. As time went on, I was left in charge of my own eating habits, so I put on weight. I was an even bigger target… see what I did there?
I once cried in my Gramma’s arms for hours when a popular boy, who regularly called me fat, upped the ante by laughing at me, because my parents were getting a divorce. I’d never done anything to him. This kind of thing had made me intensely defensive and sensitive. I remember a pair of popular boys whispering in the lunch line, when I was in the fourth grade. I got really upset and yelled at them to stop talking about me. They insisted it wasn’t about me and I only got angrier and angrier. Who doesn’t want to be friends with the emotionally unstable, fat, smelly kid?
By the time middle school hit, I had resumed regular hygiene, but was still surly and sarcastic, with a terrible self-image. So, when the popular boys in my neighborhood started throwing rocks and bricks at me when I walked by, I took that anger out on other people; as I also did when a popular girl sang Who Let the Whales Out as I walked down the hall. That chick did not even know my name. In retaliation, I made fun of everyone that was considered popular, even the people who were never mean to me. They could’ve been my friends, but that would’ve required I risk more rejection and I’ll tell you right now, a chunk of brick to the thigh does not cause strictly physical pain.
So, my hostility toward anyone popular lasted, quite frankly, straight through high school. If everyone liked these people, it must be because they were putting on a new persona with each of them. After all, everyone liked the people I just mentioned. No one believed they would do those things. At this point, it was really just me keeping us from being friends. While I still had the same fucking 6th grade bully on my back in my damned senior year – I just looked him up on Facebook and jeez, he is still a dick – the majority of popular people didn’t refuse to be my friend. I just wasn’t that approachable and pretty much refused to talk to them, because I assumed they would be mean to me. I isolated myself with Jane and Gail and a handful of other loser friends dressed up in tiaras for an AP English class. Fuck those other kids. We were having a spinning contest at lunch.
I had a lot of creative energy.
I was the smart kid. You wanna know a quick way for all the juniors and seniors in your chemistry class to think you’re a kissass? Study with your AP friends and get a 93 your sophomore year, when everyone else is failing. Even better, walk across the gym to receive a certificate for having the highest grade. Yeah… those kids were mean to me, especially considering the fact that I was completely mute in that class. Come to think of it, they did the same thing in geometry… and French… and history. Huh. Maybe that’s why I decided to start a blog with my friends, targeting my hometown of Shetland.
Now, do not misread that last sentence. I did not target people I didn’t like. I targeted the town. I quoted people I didn’t like. I will say that most of these people had actually bullied me, but it still wasn’t a very nice thing to do. No one wanted to kill themselves over it and the people who did get really upset were being melodramatic, because no one had more than one quote. I am certain. More than anything, I wrote stories. I wrote a story about the drug bust during Red Ribbon Week, the time the little person did jumping jacks as a novelty during the assembly, the hypocrisy of the cheerleaders being allowed to break dress code. I had a voice and people were listening to it!
Today, I realize that this showed some real potential. I didn’t just like to write, I was fucking great at it. I made well thought-out arguments and I was funny. If someone had helped me channel that creative energy properly, perhaps with a school discussion board, a school newspaper, a debate team, I could’ve not only saved some hurt feelings, but honed a skill. But, no. We didn’t have those things at my high school because our funding went to football, cheerleading, football, soccer, and football; despite the fact that our academic team went to nationals and we had one of the best bands in the state. Welcome to the Midwest, y’all. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I decided to start a blog with my friends, targeting my hometown of Shetland.
No one corrected the behavior.
When I was in the 6th grade, I got my first real crush. His name was Nate and he was friends with everyone, including the rock throwers. He was so nice, though, even to me. I figured it must be because he was madly in love. Alas, I was wrong. Utter heartbreak. Soooooo, naturally, I responded by telling everyone that he was an asshole, throwing things at him at lunch, and instant messaging him constantly. With encouragement from a friend, I even played a part in dousing him with soda at a school dance. What?!?! THAT’S HOW YOU MAKE BOYS LIKE YOU, BITCH!
This is the absolute worst bullying story in which I played the antagonist. I dread the day my child has any interaction with someone who has my mother for a parent. My treatment of Nate got so bad that his mother called mine to tell her to get her daughter to back the fuck off. She only did so after getting on Nate’s AOL account to message me and warn me that she’d be contacting my mom. I actually told her “She’ll take my side.” I wish I could apologize to this lady today, without sounding like a total lunatic. I was awful. You know what? I was also right. My mother did take my side.
What the fuck?!?!?! Why on earth did she let me treat someone that way?!?! I was 12 years old! I was a child. I didn’t understand that I was the bully in this situation! I thought this boy was just another kid sitting on a roof and hurling rocks at me and my dog. It hurt a lot more this time, though, because I had a crush on him and thought he’d liked me back. I thought he was being intentionally cruel and had told everyone he knew that he’d turned me down. I was being rejected again and handling it poorly. At the very least, it should’ve been made clear that I was to have no contact with Nate ever again after my letter of apology. Honestly, some counseling would’ve been the best result. The aforementioned reaction to “nah, let’s just be friends” is a sign of some deep emotional trauma. I clearly had severe self-image issues and should’ve been put in an environment with kids my own age, where I felt consistently safe, like a religious class. Church youth group, a once a week visit with the school counselor, and a demand that I never treat another person the way I treated Nate may have kept me from taking up cutting myself that year. Guidance. That’s what I needed. I was obviously ill-equipped to figure that shit out myself.
My home life… sucked.
My mother was either extremely hands-off or extremely hands-on. The former was a joke about neglect and the latter was a joke about abuse. Told you I was funny.
You know what I had to look forward to after a long day of middle school kids throwing things at me? A mom who either set absolutely no boundaries or tried to set boundaries by hitting me in the head with a step ladder. Those were her two settings. To this day, I can’t believe the neighbors never called DHS. It would have been for the best if they had, because my father would’ve gotten custody. As it was, I either did whatever the hell I wanted or I got dragged across the floor with a dog leash. That shit happened. If I had gone home from a day of fat jokes, to a place of warmth, where I knew I was safe and loved, maybe I wouldn’t have been such a shit to everyone else. People my age talk about how much they hate being adults and I think it’s the bomb. No one hits me as an adult. That’s almost guaranteed. How fucking awesome is that?!?!
My point is, if hadn’t had to defend myself at home, perhaps it wouldn’t have been my default at school. Maybe I would’ve been more willing to subject myself to the vulnerability that it takes to make new friends. Maybe I would’ve known how you’re supposed to treat people you value. Maybe I would’ve been okay with the idea that someone didn’t like me if I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that more people did. I needed support, structure, and protecting, because I was a child, damn it!
A couple of days before my freshman year, I got online and asked someone in a chat room how to make friends. That has got to be the most depressing part of this article. Fo sho. His advice was “You can’t force anyone to be your friend. You just have to be nice to people and it happens.” I had to have someone online tell me to be nice to people if I wanted to make friends. It sounds like such an obvious piece of advice, but there’s a reason I still remember it. I didn’t understand that my humor wasn’t humor to some people. It was just hurtful. No one taught me to fit in with anyone, so I didn’t have a support group of friends until high school. I was creative and didn’t have anyone channeling that interest somewhere productive, rather than harmful. But most importantly, I was the occasional bully, because I didn’t realize it. I never would’ve called myself a bully when I was in school. Granted, no one died, but I either didn’t realize I was being hateful, or I felt that it was my only option for retaliation. No one corrected the behavior, because no one was paying attention to me or providing me with the structure a teenager needs.
So there it is. I guarantee all of the newsworthy results of bullying have the same roots. We like to fancy teenagers as requiring less energy than grade school kids, because we’re all lazy, self-indulgent, and irresponsible. We’re plugging youth into technology to get them out of our hair, only to look up from our own gadgets and see they’ve simply reformatted their normal teen antics. After all, the Mean Girls phenomenon ain’t new. There’s a friggin’ movie named after it. The trend has just escalated because adults have allowed it to do so, by giving children unlimited access to the Internet. That’s the difference. Fewer parents are paying attention.
Note: I may not have my own teenagers, but I do have a degree in secondary education and years of experience working with teens.