A lot has been said in the past two weeks about the devastation wrought on children by bullies. I wince when I hear the stories, wince through identification and with shame.
I was bullied in school – but I was also a bully.
It is easier to talk about being a victim than of victimising others, to speak of abused innocence rather than malevolent guilt. It’s also easier because I remember so much more about the emotions and strategies of victimisation – the initial show of defiance that began the bullying, the weeks spent hiding out during recess in the library, and the negotiated settlement that brought me respite, but turned the heat on a new victim.
When it happened the next time, several years later in a different school, I waited out my social exile with greater equanimity. I still hid out, this time with those on the periphery of my gang forced to take remedial English during lunch, but was confident that adherence to my mother’s instruction – “don’t react and they’ll find someone more interesting to tease” – would eventually bring the warring party to the table. When it did, I turned the bristling discontent at the general nastiness of gang leadership and its penchant for internal bullying into a revolt that landed me in the gang’s Top Dog position.
In America, such a girl wins the epithet “most popular girl”. I discovered this when, several years after graduating from university, I ran into a boy who’d been in my year at school and who introduced me to his mother with this title.
During those years, I was unaware of the power our gang’s casual cruelty or even indifference had over classmates – they were terrified of us, something I learned in my last year of high school. I had dropped out of the main high school to become a student at the Alternative (or “A”) school after ditching cheerleading, gaining a few stones and performing other rituals associated with a popular-girl-drop-out. I was washing my hands when a fellow “A”-schooler casually remarked: “I remember when you and your gang had the biggest screaming match in here. You were there, and Amy was there and Cynthia was crying and then someone called me a geek and pushed Vicki into a stall and she hit her leg and got a bruise mark that lasted for weeks. And then …” The story went on and on.
While my new friend recalled every last insult and each casual cruelty, I remembered none of it. What sounded like a formative experience for her I couldn’t even recall.
The one thing I do remember is the impact the words of a teacher had on my behavior.
Flash back to junior high school. I’m 11 and playing Robyn to Cynthia’s Batman. Back then, she wasn’t just “the prettiest girl”, she was also “the most popular”.
Our prey was Sarah, a girl cursed with parents who were among the most hated teachers at school. Sarah’s mother also refused to buy her a bra to soften out the sharp points of her developing breasts. These were the “crimes” as I remember them, and Cynthia and I made Sarah pay dearly.
We teased what she said and how she said it, we mocked her clothes, and the size and wantonness of her breasts. We encouraged the boys, all eager to curry our favor, to give her titty twisters.
Ms Moore, a kind grandmotherly woman, held us back one afternoon after dismissing the rest of the class.
“You are both beautiful and bright girls,” she said gently, “but you are behaving cruelly to Sarah.”
Cynthia and I protested that it was the boys, but Ms Moore cut us off. “I think you both know what you are doing and it’s wrong. The other kids look up to you and follow you, if you stop, they’ll follow your lead.”
She dismissed us with a disappointed wave of her hand.
Cynthia was incensed that we had been singled out for treatment when the whole class had participated in Sarah’s torture. I listened to her rant in silence, mortified and deeply ashamed.
I made sure in the intervening years that I remained silent and peripheral to the group when we’d roam the playground in our clogs – earning us the moniker “The Herd” – in search of a victim.
I still remember trailing The Herd with Jill, both of us trying to become as small as possible when proceedings had begun with the day’s victim. We were ashamed but remained silent for years, too afraid that speaking up would turn the abuse on us.
When I ascended the “most popular” throne, my reign was characterised by an absence of internecine and extra-curricular bullying and Jill’s status in the group metamorphosed from hanger-on to “second most popular girl”.
But I’ll forgive our victims if they didn’t even notice.