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What My Bully Was Thinking

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LEAH BIELER
Leah Bieler

I was bullied as a child. Not the relentless, unbearably cruel, sickening kind of bullying that you read about only after the victim has taken her own life. It was the run-of-the-mill mean girl bullying that left me crying at home after school and being ever-so-slightly more reluctant to speak up in class -- and beyond. Truly, it sucked. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. But, since more than a few kids will recognize the story, maybe even identify, here goes.

In sixth grade I was, like most girls, in flux. A straight-A student, I spent all of my hours outside of school (and studying) at the dance studio. I was an early developer, though, and was slowly coming to a disappointing realization. I was unlikely to grow taller than my statuesque 5'1", and my once-smooth dancer's body was becoming a little more Dolly Parton each day. No matter how well I pirouetted, I was never going to be a ballerina.

A certain girl in my school, let's call her C, seemed to sense I was feeling a bit off balance. We were rivals in class, good students with a more grown-up sensibility than many of the other girls. We read Vonnegut and announced, to our piano teachers' pleasure and our classmates' befuddlement, that we preferred classical music to Duran Duran. We should have been friends. For some reason, C chose to go in the other direction.

She convinced nearly all of my classmates to participate in a game where they completely ignored me. If I asked one of them a question, they would say something like, "Is the wall talking to me? I think I heard a noise, but there's no one there." She even scared my closest friends into playing along. It made me feel unmoored and desperately lonely. I was miserable. Every afternoon when I came home from school, I would cry about it to my mother. My mother, helpful therapist that she is, would always say the same thing. "She's just jealous of you."

I did not want my mother psychoanalyzing my tormenter. I didn't want my mother to understand her. I wanted her to acknowledge my pain and tell me how much she hated C. But every evening, as I cried until my eyes were big and puffy and my nose ran, my mother repeated her Mantra. "She's just jealous of you." It was maddening.

I endured the bullying for another few months, but it felt like years. Over time, slowly, kids tired of the game. They began to acknowledge my presence, then to actually talk to me. My closest friends apologized for having participated, but it took a while for me to trust them again. The other kids pretended like it had never happened. And C and I maintained a kind of stalemate. We spoke to one another when necessary, but mostly practiced avoidance. We were in a delicate dance, she and I, but we managed to make it through the next couple of years with minimal conflict.

According to some studies, as many as 77 percent of children have been the victims of bullying at some point in their school career, and nearly 20 percent admit to doing the bullying. The other 3 percent? Liars. If everyone is involved, if nearly everyone is bullied (or bully) at some point, shouldn't that fact inform how we handle this piece of childhood?

The impulse to assert power over others is something we spend our whole lives trying to tame. From sibling rivalries to fraternity hazing to international politics, we take advantage of the moments when we can clearly see the chink in someone else's armor. Teaching our children to find the humanity in everyone is a challenge. One that doesn't disappear when childhood ends. The simple act of pausing and imagining the pain a bully is feeling will not magically make him your friend. But it may give you just enough distance from your own pain to not take the bully's words to heart. And if we can't imagine their pain, best to remember that the fault doesn't lie with the bullied, the defect is in the aggressor.

"She's just jealous of you," my mother insisted. It still felt like a crock.

C and I saw little of each other after middle school. I wasn't entirely sorry to be rid of her. Then, in our 20s, we found ourselves at the same party. We waved from across the room. I hoped against hope that that would be the end of it. I did not want to chat. But C started moving towards me, riding the wave of the other partygoers. We said hello, talked for a few minutes. It wasn't nearly as horrible as I had been anticipating, of course. C had grown up. The conversation came to a lull and I contemplated my exit strategy. C looked at the ground.

"You know," she started, "I've been wanting to say something to you for a long time. To apologize. I was really mean to you when we were kids. I'm sorry. I don't know why I did that stuff. I was kind of sad. And I think I was jealous."

Damn. My mother was right. Quite a revelation. But the flood of emotions that followed contained the true epiphany. Hearing her say it out loud really did make a difference. It was never about me at all. What a gift. My heart felt light. The dancer now mostly locked inside me wanted to leap in the air. I wish it on all bullied kids, everywhere. If they never have a moment like this, so surprising, so affirming, so freeing -- they can borrow mine.