I can still remember the anticipation and excitement that I felt just before Winter Break in eighth grade.
That was supposed to be THE day.
The day my best friends had planned a surprise for me.
It had started a month or so before, in art class one day. Jules had leaned in and whispered, “We are working on something for you. It’s a surprise!”
“Really? What is it?” I had asked.
“We’ll tell you by Christmas,” said Laurie.
The others nodded in agreement.
Every once in a while one of my friends would ask me if I was excited about my surprise, or mention that it was getting closer. They all talked about it happily, with huge smiles. I trusted them completely. After all, they knew everything about me: who I had a crush on at school, my family stuff, and everything that happened at school every day. We had been friends for what seemed like forever!
After our class party before winter break, the four girls circled my desk. They completely blocked me from the view of the teacher and other students. I figured that this must be it, my surprise!
“Meg,” began Ally, “it’s time for your surprise.”
“And here it is,” continued Carly.
“We hate you,” sneered Laurie.
“We don’t want to be friends with you anymore,” stated Jules.
“In fact, you should just jump out a window and die,” finished Ally.
My face must have been a mask of horror.
I had expected intel on the guy I was crushing on, or plans for a cool party over break. Maybe even some Bath and Body Works stuff. Not for my four best friends to turn against me, en masse. Definitely not for my absolute bestie, the one I had spent a week on the Vineyard with just a few months ago, to tell me that I should kill myself.
The bell rang, and I quickly grabbed my bag and dashed out the door. I spent the next few hours hunkered down in the town library, sobbing quietly into a book, waiting for my mom to pick me up.
After the winter vacation, I went back to school and my mom went on the warpath.
She tried to get the girls suspended for harassment, get my class switched since we had all been in the same room, get anything accomplished. But since it was a case of I said/they said, and they all denied that it had happened, nothing could be done.
I was left without a group, without any friends at all, in my very small, insular middle school.
My lunch table had been assigned at the beginning of the year, and it was with them. My locker was right next to theirs. So I had to sit with them at lunch, silent as they laughed at my misery and loudly planned parties that didn’t include me. I had to listen to them giggle as we packed our bags, as they pointedly ignored my very existence.
I started eating lunch in the classroom, until I was told that it was a violation of school policy. I started to pre-pack my backpack at lunch, or on a bathroom trip, so I could just grab it and go. I didn’t want to draw any more attention to myself.
I switched Girl Scout troops, partly because mine was not going to be continued and partly to be in a different town, with different people. All of my friends from high school either moved to my district in ninth grade or are from the next town over.
I learned to smile, to be happy, bubbly and out going. I learned to feel people out before I really opened up, and even then to only trust a little.
I’m constantly assessing my daily interactions, wondering if I did something wrong today that will cost me a friend tomorrow. If I call or text, and don’t get a response, I wonder if it was something I said, if we are still friends.
I still do this today, right now, every single time, with very few exceptions.
And I can point to one day in eighth grade for the explanation.
Systematic bullying, through exclusion and silence, is cruel and leaves a lasting mark. It creates ripples through every day after that, through every social interaction, with every new friendship. This doesn’t end when the school year is over, or with an apology, or with any other way that adults try to “resolve” these type of things.
The psychological scars of being bullied last a lifetime.
It’s so so important that we teach our kids to respect each other, as human beings with feelings. We need to stress that words can hurt, just as much or more so than sticks and stones or broken bones. We need to be prepared as adults to take action to prevent bullying, to address it head on as soon as we see it, to make bullying antithetical to our school culture.
I can guarantee that there is a little girl or little boy out there tonight in tears because her best friends just dumped her, because his lunch money was stolen again, because it seems like the whole world is against them.
If I can prevent one child, just one, from going through the absolute torture that was my eighth grade year, the misery of navigating the aftermath of social death, recovering your confidence after it has been shattered, my time in teaching will have been worth it.
So, let’s put our heads together and figure out what we can do to help one less kid become a bully, and prevent one less kid from becoming another victim.