I had my first bully experience when I was 8 years old. I was at sleep-away camp and very excited to be there. I had pictured an eight-week slumber party.
I met Karen Cunningham the second day. It was early morning and we were standing in a pile of pine needles. She was a year older than I was and she seemed sophisticated, although I wouldn't have known that word back then. But she carried herself with grace. She was tall and thin, elegant -- not gangly. She had pronounced features and a lot of hair. I was stumpy, unathletic and one of the youngest kids in the camp.
I wasn't cool and she could tell. The fact that I shared her name enraged her. Evidently, it diminished her. She kicked the pine needles in my face and told me she wouldn't call me Karen. She told me she wouldn't call me anything. She had a posse of friends within the first 24 hours of camp and turned them against me in a single day. It didn't help that I didn't have many of the skills that would make you a star camper at that age. I was terrible at gymnastics, I had no strength and while there was no danger of my drowning, I was neither Esther Williams nor Dara Torres. At camp, you don't get social cred for being an avid reader.
I don't recall any physical violence, but I remember a summer of taunts. Karen started a rumor that I wasn't from the United States -- it wasn't exactly the same as the Birther movement, but the entire camp believed I was from France. And when I argued that I wasn't, they called me a liar.
I have a vague memory of some hair pulling and maybe a few shin kicks, but nothing bloody. And the turning-everyone-against-me-thing was so much worse. I had enough self-preservation to avoid her at all costs. I never confronted her.
Karen Cunningham didn't come back to that camp again and I rarely thought about her. Whenever the subject of mean people came up in a conversation, I just said her name over and over again. KarenCunningham KarenCunningham KarenCunningham.
When I was in my twenties, a close friend from both high school and college had a small dinner party. She wanted to introduce her old friends to her new work friends. She especially wanted us all to meet her new friend Cake. We had been hearing about Cake for months. It was hard to forget her, what with a name like Cake. And my friend was obviously pleased with her new, close work buddy.
Cake was fabulous. She was warm and friendly. She was elegant but not arrogant. And she had a particular interest in me. She asked me so many questions -- I kept thinking, wow, I must make a fantastic first impression.
At the end of the evening, Cake asked me "did you go to such and such camp?"
I said, "yes."
She said her name is Karen Cunningham.
"No, it's Cake."
"Who names her kid cake? I reinvented myself when I was 11, and I liked cake and people started calling me Cake."
But Karen Cunningham was such a bitch and she was so nice. I couldn't process the fact that they were the same person.
And then it all came pouring out. Cake's parents were going through a blood-curdling divorce. One of the parents -- I can't remember which -- wasn't in her life anymore. She was miserable every day. She picked on younger kids because it was easy and made her feel good.
"I'm so sorry. " She kept repeating it over and over. "I was so unhappy."
Funny, Karen Cunningham didn't seem unhappy. She owned our cabin.
"Yup. And I'm sorry."
And for the next hour or so I kept asking her if this was a true story. "I can't believe you were Karen Cunningham," and "Karen Cunningham was a bitch."
And Cake took it. Because Cake was, in fact, a different person.
I have told my kids this story on more than one occasion, particularly because the word cake plays such a prominent role in it. But I also tell them that happy people don't bully. It doesn't occur to happy people to decimate another little kid for no apparent reason, because a happy person feels good about herself without putting other kids down.
I never saw Cake again. But I give her more credit than she will ever know for coming clean with me.