This post was inspired by the recent contribution by Sue about being bullied. I admire Sue’s strength and perspective. What I know is that there is more to all of us than how we are perceived or treated by others.
I feel nervous writing this post. I don’t want to be judged or labeled or vilified. Until recently I thought I had grown up pretty much like everyone else. My childhood had plenty of “ups” and a few “downs” but overall I was a happy, outgoing, confident child. The pre-teen or “tween” years were more of a struggle but no more than anyone else. Overall, I have always looked back on my childhood and teen years with a hazy fondness.
But recently I was forced to question all of what I thought I knew. I was forced to look at myself from another angle and face the impact that my choices and behaviour had on another person.
I was at the wedding of a family friend. Our parents, along with a bunch of other couples had been in the same circle when we grew up so we would see each other occasionally and play or, as we got older, hang out. We never went to the same school but as we grew up we found ourselves at the same parties. We were connected.
There were many people at the wedding that I recognized from my childhood, passing faces from a long time past. I met their spouses and they met mine. We updated each other on our lives over the course of the evening with a friendly feeling of reminiscence.
The evening progressed and people began to celebrate with a few drinks and dancing. At one point I slipped out to call my babysitter and check in on the kids. As I was making my way back into the party someone approached me. She walked up to me with a slight stumble; she had obviously enjoyed a few drinks, and said, “Do you know who I am?” I looked closely at her face and felt a wave of familiarity but couldn’t quite place her. “You look familiar.” I responded with a smile. She did not smile back.
She took a deep breath and looked into my eyes, “I am Nadia. Remember me? The girl you picked on for years?” I stared at her in shock. What is she talking about?
“I have thought about this moment and wondered what I would do if I ever saw you again.” She continued. “Would I confront you? Would I have the guts to hold you accountable for what you did to me?”
I was speechless, taken completely off guard. I vaguely remembered Nadia who lived on my street. We went to the same school for grade 7 and 8 and then she moved on to a different High School. I wrack my brain trying to think of what to say.
“Um, Nadia? From the neighbourhood? I remember you. Our parents were friends. But, I honestly don’t know what you are talking about. ” I am still trying to dig up a more specific memory of Nadia from my childhood. Something more than the quiet awkward girl who sometimes played with us on the street. I remember that my mom would try and force playdates on us and I remember thinking she was a pest, always following me around. Our parents were friends along with others on the street and they would socialize so our moms thought it would be a good thing if we were pals. I didn’t. The truth is, I had no interest in Nadia. She was constantly complaining or down about something, far too serious for my upbeat, social self.
I think Nadia was in my class in grade 7. I remember for a while in grade 8 my best friends, Jennifer and Kelly, called her my “shadow” because she hung around us so much. We had a pack of kids we hung out with and we didn’t want Nadia cramping our style. We never targeted Nadia, or anyone for that matter, but we avoided her. She was always on the periphery but the truth is, I really have no specific memories of Nadia.
Her eyes are full of anger and hatred. I am so confused. “I am so sorry, Nadia. But I really don’t remember much about you. We were kids. Did I do something to upset you?” My hands are shaking now. I don’t know what to do.
Nadia laughs. There are tears in her eyes. “You don’t remember me? You don’t remember the girl you tormented for years? You don’t remember how we were friends one minute and then you ditched me to hang out with the cool kids? You don’t remember the broken promises? The humiliation? The rejection? How convenient for you.” She laughs again as tears stream down her face.
“Nadia. Oh my god. I think you are mistaken. I don’t mean to be rude but I barely even remember you. We were never friends. I remember you being around but we didn’t hang out or anything. What are you talking about?” At this point I am starting to freak out. I know I wasn’t exactly welcoming to Nadia as a child but I am shocked at her words. I can see the anger in her face and I am genuinely afraid.
She begins to speak, “Yah. I was “around”. Kind of like a pesky fly buzzing around you. I was desperate to be your friend. Do you remember the first day of grade 7? We walked to school together. It was a new school. A fresh start. We were in the same class. I was so excited to have a friend to hang out with. But you had different ideas. As soon as we got to school you tried to ditch me. You went straight over to Jennifer and Kelly and didn’t even bother to see where I was. Well, I was there. I was always there. Standing invisible watching and waiting for you to let me in. Do you remember that?”
I have a vague memory of that day. I remember a huge fight I had with my mom because she made me walk to school with Nadia who I barely even knew instead of with my best friends, Jen and Kelly. I didn’t want to but I did it. My mom gave me no choice. “Nadia, our moms arranged for us to walk together. I was supposed to walk with Jen and Kelly but I walked with you instead because you were new. I already had a bunch of friends. To be honest, I really didn’t think much about it.”
And that’s when she starts to cry. Real tears streaming down her face. “What about the time we all broke into the abandoned building at the end of our street with a group of boys? Do you remember? You left me there when a neighbour called the police and you and your friends ran off. I hid in there for hours by myself. You didn’t come back and you never once said a thing.”
I do remember that day. I remember a huge group of us laughing and running through the halls. I remember being kissed by Henry, my grade 8 boyfriend. I remember my best friends Kelly and Jen whispering together and telling me it was private, too private for me to hear. I remember the feeling of desperation and the fear of losing my best friends. And I remember running like hell after the police arrived, every person for themselves, across the field and into the railway junkyard behind the building. I also remember it had only been a few weeks before that my parents had separated and my world was turned upside down.
But I don’t remember Nadia.
I try to tell her this but it is making her more upset. I try and comfort her but she just keeps talking, story after story of how she was ignored and left out. And my confusion deepens.
But this can’t be true. My head is spinning. We were self-absorbed, yes, but we were never cruel to anyone. I was a good kid. So were my friends. But, I do know that I didn’t want to be friends with Nadia. It wasn’t like it was even a conscious decision. I was never drawn to her. I try and come up with a good reason why and all I can come up with is that I just didn’t like her. I didn’t actively dislike her but I had no interest in being her friend.
I know that we were never intentionally mean to Nadia. I know this because she was barely even on our radar. We were so wrapped up in our own lives, our friendships and boyfriends and newfound freedom that Nadia’s presence is barely a blip in my memory. As she said, she was like a pesky fly, annoying and ever-present.
For the first time I think about what it must have been like to be Nadia. Always on the outside l
ooking in, desperate to be accepted. I think about all of the hours I spent chatting and laughing with my friends,hanging out or on the phone. What was Nadia doing? Was she alone? And then I think about her mother begging my mom to encourage the friendship, so desperate for her daughter to fit in.
And now I see it clearly. I see it as a mother would. I see my daughter being alone and what I would do, the lengths I would go to. I see the heartbreak on my little girl’s face and the tears and the loneliness and I feel sick.
But then I see my daughter as me, the confident go-getter, established in her friendships, happy and successful. I see her choosing her path and, in the process, unintentionally leaving another child behind. I see myself getting involved, trying to force a friendship that is not coming naturally. Trying to make my daughter responsible for someone else.
And from this I see the dilemma. Neither is right, neither will fix it. Nadia was alone and sad and this is terrible. But could I have fixed it? Is it fair or even possible to make one child responsible for another? Even if I had been aware and had tried, I am not sure it would have given Nadia what she wanted. To force us together would have been pity, not friendship, it would have been contrived, not the connection she so desperately needed.
I think about that time, I was a child evolving and becoming my grown-up self. I remember a lot about that time. It was when I had my first real boyfriend, Henry. And it was during those years that after a lifetime of being the Three Musketeers, my two best friends became a twosome without me.
Grade 8 was the year my parents split up. My dad moved in with his “friend” Gail and we saw him twice a month on weekends until we saw him hardly at all. My mom went back to work and, although it took many years, she eventually became a strong, happy and successful woman, a role model for me. But those first few years were a whirlwind of change and loss and redefining myself.
Nadia looks to me and says, “I just need you to apologize. To admit what you did so I can finally move on.”
I feel sad for her. I really do. This has tortured and defined her and held her back. It is heartbreaking. I think back to that day at the abandoned building. That day did happen. All of it. But her perception of events is totally different than mine and I am sure that if we asked Henry or Jen or Kelly or any of that group, theirs would be different too.
So, I turned to Nadia and said, “I am sorry you have spent so long feeling this way. I hope you can move on and find some resolution. I never meant to hurt you.”
I think about Nadia often. I think about how powerful one’s perspective and perception is in how we interact with others. I think about this as a mother and a human being. I think about whether at 12 and 13 I could have done anything differently.
So, what do you think? Was I The Bully?