I’ve written very little on my experiences with being bullied. I have explored the topic from a distance, devoting my graduate thesis to undergraduate men’s bullying narratives, but the act of writing it out – airing the old wounds and sharing their scars – is something I have, to this point, avoided.
It’s a reality I think I owe to an age-old issue: my refusal to let my problems take up anybody’s space. But that’s a wrong impulse, I’ve learned, and it does nothing to shed light on the paths of people still struggling. It’s October, and anti-bullying messages have been part of the conversation this month, and so I’ll bare my bruises and share my story. Here goes.
My earliest experiences with bullying came in the middle school years, and – stressful though they seemed – they were primarily a series of small to moderate waves. Such seemed to be the way of middle school, as though all of us – save for those effervescent gods and goddesses amongst the popular – were destined to take a turn at the bullying stand. I remember a few rough comments, being called a ‘girly boy’ or a ‘fag’ here or there, but I got through it by hiding and fading into the background. When others were bullied, I did nothing but sigh with relief. It wasn’t my turn to be ridiculed.
When high school rolled around, I started to hit my groove a bit. Tired of shrinking myself, I began exploring who I could really be. My sense of humor, marked by irreverence and absurdity, started to gain traction with my peers. I got involved with high-spotlight activities, the lip sync and the morning announcements and student council, and I started to let go of the worry that there was nothing in me worth knowing. I shed my invisibility, and – incredible though it felt – it meant I was also visible to my bullies.
One day, while at lunch, a guy from the grade ahead of us sat at our table, right across from me. I knew very little about him, except that he was apparently on the wrestling team, but he laughed readily and seemed to have a connection with some of my friends.
At some point in the lunch, he held a Little Debbie snack in my direction: ‘You want this?’ he asked. I declined with a no thank you. A strange smile came over his face. ‘Are you sure, Michael King? You don’t want my Fudge Round?’ I shook my head, still naïve to what he was doing. ‘I heard you like Fudge Rounds.’
My heart sank, and my face flushed. ‘Oh,’ I said with an eye roll, ‘good one.’
From that point on, every time I saw him in the hallway, my guts tied themselves into knots. Soon, when I would open my locker, I would find notes with messages like ‘faggot’ and ‘kill yourself’ and ‘come out, come out, queerever you are.’ (I know. Incredible ingenuity.) When I found them, I crumpled them as quickly as I could, checking my peripheral and walking to the nearest trashcan. Out of sight, out of mind, I told myself.
One day, when his teacher called in sick late notice, his gym class came into the bandroom and the band kids were given a study hour. I sat with my friends, laughing and having a good time, until I felt something sting against my back. I looked behind me, spotting a yellow Skittle rolling onto the floor.
Then there was laughter, and there he was – holding a large bag of Skittles and impressing the hell out of his peers. ‘Taste the rainbow,’ he mouthed, putting his hand to his mouth and simulating a blowjob. Very cerebral humor. Sixteen Skittles stung my back, neck, and head through the rest of the hour, but I refused to acknowledge. Just stop, I begged silently.
But my begging was silent. I did not seek help, and I could not stand up. My bullies had numbers, I felt, and what had I? Each Skittle sting a small fragment, every harsh word a bruise.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can break my heart. Somebody shared this quote with me, an amended version of the common ‘hate-on-me-haters’ sticks-and-stones mantra, and it resonated deeply. I would rather have been punched or kicked than belittled by my bullies’ words. The worst attacks aren’t physical in nature. Not every scar rests on the surface.
The bullying died down. I heard murmurs that he and his friends still made comments whenever I was on the morning announcements, but it wasn’t in my bubble. My anxiety lessened; my breaths grew deeper. I didn’t need to be afraid to walk the hallways anymore.
While I was in college, I visited home, and I stopped by my sister’s home to see my niece. ‘I need to run to the store,’ she told me, ‘Can you stay here and let the ceiling guys in when they get here?’ Yeah no problem.
A few minutes later, the doorbell rang, and – when I opened it – there he was, dressed in work coveralls. We both dropped our eyes to the pavement, and I was surprised to see his face turn to shame.
I don’t know what he was feeling. I’d like to think he was ashamed of the way he had treated me, that he didn’t think he’d have to face me once we graduated and that he had come to regret treating me like I was less than human. But I imagine the shame had more to do with where we were, me in the big, spacious house and him in the dirty coveralls. Regardless, his shame didn’t make me feel any better.
While he patched the roof, I gave him space and played with my niece. But, when he came down the ladder, I told him it was good to see him, and I worked my hardest to convey forgiveness in my voice. What was in the past could remain in the past.
He left soon after, and maybe he gave me a lot more thought or a little more thought or maybe he hasn’t thought of me since. But I have forgiven him, I realized, which told me a lot more about myself than it did him, and I decided to stop letting myself relive those times. The days in which people made me feel small by behaving like they, themselves, were small.
It has been quite some time since I experienced any of this. My bullies are past-tense, and so are their words and aggressions. I’ve come a long way in advocating for myself, too, and I wouldn’t stand to be pushed around quite like that anymore. I’m a human being, and I’ve done nothing to ask for the jeers and the cuts and that tingling shame in my neck.
But the scars are still with me. Reminding me to be compassionate when someone has made me angry, when the weaker parts of my spirit want to write someone off as ‘annoying’ or ‘not worthwhile.’ We all deserve humanity, second and third chances to exist among our peers. We each deserve grace and the right to exist away from fear.
Bullies and bruises will fade, but it is a cop-out to say they are inevitable. We each take some responsibility in allowing these systems to resume. We enable bullies with our silence. We owe it to one another, to our loved ones, to ourselves, to erase as much of it as we are able. Maybe then the bullies be the ones to hide themselves, their bruises never broken free.