I am twelve years old. Clutching my new red vinyl binder to my chest like a shield and standing with my back against the wall in a corner of the girls lavatory at the new junior high school. A gang of girls surrounds me on the other three sides. They are jeering, mocking. Something snaps in me. I hurl the binder like a hand grenade into the midst of the girls and hear an endless, wordless scream coming from my mouth.
The music teacher comes running in “What did you do to her?!” and gathers me to her bosom. I cling to her, sobbing.
Forty-five years go by.
There is an on-line game I sometimes play, an MMORPG (massively multi-player on-line role-playing game) – one of those games where lots of people are on at the same time and there is a chat box where you can interact with one another. This is not a “shooter” or a particularly strategic game and many – perhaps most – of the players are children in junior high and high school, with a sprinkling of middle-aged women. It’s fun.
I was playing yesterday and noticed some of the players taunting another player. From what was said, it seemed clear to me that the bullies were a couple of years older than their victim and that none of them were over 15 or 16. With every bone in my body, I wanted to intervene, I wanted to be the music teacher who came running into the girls lav, but I also felt scared because I knew that if I said anything, the bullies would turn on me. For a minute or two I was twelve years old again.
Then I gathered myself back up into the present. “Stop bullying him, you guys!” I typed into the chatbox. Predictably, the bullies turned on me. One of them said something like, “Who do you think you are, stupid?” “I am an adult who cares about this behavior,” I typed. And the bullies shut up. Just like that.
Why am I writing about this minor incident? Because it was not minor to me. All these years later – almost half a century! – I am still marked by the bullying in my childhood. While I was writing the first paragraph of this post tears came to my eyes. I felt old, familiar feelings of vulnerability and anxiety and fear of ridicule. All the self love and self confidence that I have gained over the years melted away and I had to make a conscious effort to regain them.
So why did I put myself through that? Because yesterday’s incident reminded me that bullying is significant. Bullying on-line or off-line hurts people. Children and teens who are bullied will carry that around with them for a long, long time. But if someone intervenes, they will carry that with them, too, like I do the music teacher who held me and comforted me.
Please don’t stand by and watch.