04 March 2013

I have friends who came through junior high and high school unscathed and look back on that time as remarkably untraumatic... and they weren’t even cheerleaders or homecoming queens. I look at them as though they must be crazy. 

I wasn’t bullied as mercilessly as some and I had good friends and a loving family to buoy me when I was, but I can correlate every sense of self-doubt or bout of low self-esteem today back to an incident that happened between 5th and 12th grade. When something triggers it, I can recall the event and the helpless feeling it conjures up in nauseating, crippling detail as if I’m right back there. And for a moment, my 13-year old self wants to curl up in a ball and disappear. Even writing this, I feel hollowed out and sad.

I wonder still why they did it...any of them. For example, there were two boys in ninth grade math class who took great delight in popping my arm with a rubber snake that they knew how to whip with just the right velocity and precision to inflict the maximum welt potential. My arm would be covered and the teacher never did a thing. There was another twosome who relentlessly made fun of me. Their abuse didn't stop until school ended that year and one of the juvies got in so much trouble for other misdemeanors that his parents had to yank him out of school and put him in a pricy private school that was all too happy to take daddy's money and look the other way.

I've still been known to get jittery around mean girls, who, in my experience, never, ever grow out of being mean, they just get more practiced in their deception and skilled at cleanly sticking in the dagger with a cold, dead-eyed smile. And what's worse is there's part of me that still wants them to like me and I have to remind myself not to immediately cede power to them.

It’s clear I’m not alone. In January, New York Magazine ran a great piece by Jennifer Senior called “Why You Truly Never Leave High School: New science on its corrosive, traumatizing effects.” I’ve gone on from high school to live a life that far exceeds my wildest dreams, as cliche as that sounds, and that truly is the best revenge. However, I’m not proud of the fact that I’m not above taking a very small, extremely fleeting morsel of glee when I see on Facebook that some of the tormentors who used to make my life so miserable seem stuck in dead-end, extraordinarily dull jobs, though if they are happy, I certainly don’t begrudge them that. 

When I go to my high school reunions, the number of people I am truly delighted to see far outweighs those I’m not, but it's also a reminder of how happy I am that I left town after graduation. At my last reunion, I was talking to a man who had been mean to me so many times when I was little and I now know that his father had beat the crap out of him, his brother, and his mother when he was growing up. I don’t know what I would have done with that information if I’d had it then, but in hindsight, I know that he was receiving far worse than he was ever dishing out to me. Another one was selling porta-potties and living in a trailer. That seems like punishment enough (I’m sure there are some very happy portable toilet salespeople out there, but he was not one of them). 

For some reason, all that had been on my mind the last few days and then I read about Bailey O’Neill, a 12-year old boy who died this weekend after being severely beaten during recess a few weeks ago.  He had suffered seizures following the beatings by two classmates and doctors had placed him in a medically-induced coma. On Sunday, his family turned off the life support. A Facebook page set up for Bailey a few weeks ago often indicated that he was getting better, but doctors couldn’t save him, especially after he got pneumonia.  The two boys who beat up Bailey were suspended from school for two days, which seems like an extremely light punishment just for the fighting. Authorities are investigating if further action will be taken. 

Bailey’s family has asked for financial help. Today, someone in the family posted about sitting in the back seat as the family goes to “the cemetery and pick out a plot and now head to the funeral home to discuss the process of the funeral.”  There’s nothing about that sentence that is OK.

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