Note: My friend, author Carrie Goldman, inspired me to write this post and become a member of Team Bullied. Carrie's new book, Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending The Cycle of Fear (available on IndieBound or Amazon on Aug 14), is already gaining well-deserved accolades. Carrie's dedication to this book is as fierce as her love for her daughters; I know her research and advice will help others avoid scenarios like mine. Carrie also inspired me to submit a short video to Team Bullied, where you can contribute your story, too.
My True Confession
As a mom of three, I’d like to think I’m pretty tuned in to incidents of bullying. Knock on wood, we haven’t had any catastrophic run-ins, but we certainly haven’t been immune to it: at one time or another, each of my kids have been a victim, but just as important, they’ve each had a turn, unintentionally, bullying someone else.
While that last sentence may sound nonchalant, it’s anything but. In fact, I spent two weeks figuring out how to write it, then another two days to get up the courage to type it.
As a writer, I make an effort not to put my children or their mistakes in a public spotlight (and God knows I’ve got plenty of material to use), but the truth is, humans are an imperfect bunch. I know that because I’m human, too.
When I was in 4th grade, my mother remarried. I moved from River Forest to Hoffman Estates, Illinois, where my sister, Beth and I became the new girls on the block. We moved into our stepfather’s home, a raised ranch on a street called Nottingham Lane. The block was filled with what felt like a million kids who all attended the local public elementary school. Having attended Catholic school in River Forest, I couldn’t wait to ditch the plaid uniform and wear a different outfit every day, just like all my new friends.
I was nine years old, the same age as my youngest child. I was the oldest child in my family, so I thought I knew everything…except when it came to friendships.
Back in my old life in River Forest, I was easy pickings for teasing. As one of the shortest kids in school – with divorced parents, no less – I was either taunted or ignored. My biological father – an alcoholic and a wreck of a man – only contributed to my low self-esteem and tendency to cry easily. So, when Mom’s 2nd marriage whisked me away from what my nine-year-old self felt was a swamp of sadness, I felt nothing short of rescued. In my new neighborhood, there wasn’t enough time in the day to play with all the kids running around. Suddenly, I was a kid in demand.
The family living directly across the street, however, was socially distant from the rest of the block. They seemed to keep to themselves, never returning my waves and always scowling at everyone (including one another). Of their three children, the two younger ones, a boy and a girl, often sat on the curb watching the rest of us play. At first, I assumed they were just shy. It didn’t take long, however, to see why they didn’t join the fun.
“Phillip!” the other kids would call. “You’re a baby!” Phillip was perhaps a year or two younger than me.
I’d watch him sitting on the curb with his little sister while the rest of us ran through sprinklers or rode our bikes and Big Wheels up and down the sidewalks. Phillip never responded to the taunts and his little sister, Brenda, never left his side.
“Brenda!” the kids would shout, trying to get her attention. She rarely, if ever, acknowledged them. Her eyes remained fixed on the pavement near her brother’s feet. I wondered why they sat in their clothes, inches from a blazing blacktop driveway, while the rest of us slipped and slid across soaked lawns.
I can’t remember what compelled me to join my new friends in taunting Phillip and Brenda, but I did, and for that, I am still so ashamed. I only recall that my participation began slowly. Someone would begin the chant with a low, menacing voice.
“Brenda…Brenda…Brenda…” The little girl might look up at the offender, but she’d just look at her brother, then back down at the ground. Someone else would repeat the phrase, louder and closer to the brother and sister. Eventually, I’d join the mix, taking my turn saying her name and watching the reactions of the other kids. It was almost a competition to see who could get Brenda or Phillip to look up at us. I don’t know why we did this. There were plenty of swingsets to play on, trips to White Hen to bike to, ponds to fish in. However, the most popular sport on Nottingham Lane became teasing Phillip and Brenda.
It was mean. It was cruel. And it was wrong.
Why did I join in? It’s easy to say, “I just wanted to fit in with my new friends,” but the truth is, at nine years old, I didn’t know how to say things like:
“I think what we’re doing is wrong.”
“I think what we’re doing is mean.”
“I don’t like this.”
“We should stop.”
“We’re hurting her feelings.”
“This isn’t right.”
Plain and simple, I was the bully. I went along with the crowd because in my mind, it was the thing to do and I wanted to be accepted. I didn’t want to be the Phillip or the Brenda on my new block. I’d played that role in River Forest and wanted to leave it behind. Still, I wish I’d been able to see how wrong it was to dish it out on someone else and to think about Phillip’s and Brenda’s perspectives.
My actions still haunt me today. I wonder about Phillip and Brenda and their family. I wonder if they’d accept my apology for my behavior. If I saw them today, I’d say,
I’m sorry I excluded you.
I’m sorry I made you feel different.
I’m sorry I teased you for being who you were.
I’m sorry I hurt you.
I’m sorry I didn’t speak up for you.
I’m sorry for the pain I caused.
I don’t care that I was young or naïve. It’s never okay to be mean.
When I witness my own children exhibiting meanness (and let’s face it, the worst offenses are often displayed between siblings), I know my admonishments are often driven by my experiences with (and extreme guilt over) Phillip and Brenda.
My own parents taught me all the right things and instilled solid values, but still: I wish I’d been comfortable enough in my own skin back then to stand up for the bullied kids rather than contributing to the bullying. I wish I’d had the courage to reach out to Phillip and Brenda rather than putting them down.
I cannot change what I’ve done, but I have certainly learned from it and will never let go of my regret.
Phillip and Brenda, you both deserved respect and kindness. While I cannot do it over, if I had the chance, I'd sit down on the curb next to you and say, "I totally understand."