When I was at boarding school in third grade, I made a friend on the playground one day. I was swinging by myself on a marry-go-round swing that was meant to have two people, and he came over and said, “Do you want a friend to swing with you?” Immediately followed by, “Well, not a friend.” This was the obvious thing to say, because 5th grade boys can’t very well be friends with 3rd grade girls. So he swung with me and even asked if I wanted some of his crackers.
It was a rare movie night and while we were waiting for the movie to start we wondered from the playground toward the entrance of the building. We were on the top of a small slope, and no one else was in the area. Somehow, our not-a-friendship evolved to the point where he pushed me down the hill. I laughed it off, and climbed back up, but when I got to the top, he just pushed me right back down again. I climbed up again and again and again, and each time, he pushed me back down.
I was starting to get a weird feeling about this guy. He no longer seemed like a slightly taller version of my other playmates. Actually, he was starting to seem huge. Gigantic. More along the lines of a very tall, extra-strength 5th grade beast that puny little 3rd graders would never have a hope of outrunning.
Just then, one of his friends rode up on a bike. My not-a-friend said, “Hey, check this out! Total wipe-out!” Then he proceeded to demonstrate how he could push me down the hill. I don’t remember what his friend said, but it was something along the lines of, “That’s not cool.” I am eternally grateful.
Needless to say, after that little incident, I avoided my not-a-friend like the plague. If I saw him across campus, I turned around and walked in the other direction, and I almost never went anywhere by myself if I could help it. One day I was running late after lunch and needed to go to my dorm before class. I was about half way there when I came up behind that 5th grader walking with one of his teachers at a leisurely pace. If I didn’t pass them, I would be late. If I passed them, he would see me.
I debated back and forth for a few minutes, during which time, they seemed to walk slower and slower. Finally I decided there was no way he would come after me if he was with a teacher and I speed-walked around them and up the path toward my dorm. I hadn’t gone far when I heard him hurriedly excuse himself and walk after me. I decided to play it cool, hoping he would just walk past, but when we were in a wooded area with no one around, he caught up to me and grabbed my arm.
What happened next was a bit of a blur. It involved some vague threat from him, a vicious threat from me in return (something like, “me and all my friends will get you”), and my nails digging into the flesh of his arm. I got away and ran as fast as I could back to my dorm. He never bothered me again.
A few years later, some friends were talking about someone they knew in the U.S. who was being bullied at school. I got up my courage and talked about the 5th grader who used to terrorize me. They brushed it off as not “real” bullying, because I didn’t get bruises or anything. I never talked about it again.
Have you ever seen a toddler with a cat? They love that cat. But they don’t really know how to play with it. The cat gets its tail pulled and feel threatened and will hide under the couch for hours if it has to. I think that’s how it was with the 5th grader. I don’t think he was a bad kid. I just don’t think he knew of an appropriate way to play with a 3rd grade girl. I’m sure he didn’t think he was bullying me, and he might even have thought I was having fun too.
I certainly didn’t feel like a bully in middle school when I made fun of the girls who wore makeup and had older boyfriends. I had a low self esteem and thought they were pretty. Somehow, in my mind that added up to mean that they were beyond my reach. That nothing I said could really hurt them, or even matter to them. So I bullied them without ever knowing that that was what I was doing.
When I was at Binns Park a few days ago with Nati and Lily, there was a wide range of kids there. In particular, there was a young elementary-aged girl playing with a slightly older elementary-aged boy. A little later, an emo tween boy came. It was obvious that the younger boy looked up to him. Somehow, the interactions that followed led to the girl standing in front of them and yelling gleefully, “I have ADHD! I was born that way!” The elementary-aged boy started to make fun of her, but the emo kid immediately interrupted and said, “No, that’s cool! There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Dear emo kid,
My hat is off to you.