Thursday, November 13, 2014

When Bullied Kids Become Forgiving Adults

There’s been this article going around on the Internet recently: 17 Things Former Bullied Kids Do A Little Bit Differently As Adults.  It resonated with me on a number of levels.  I did experience some bullying as a kid.  I also experienced it in my first marriage.  And yes, it has shaped who I am as an adult.  In a way, it has made me a better educator and parent, because I know what to look for, what to ask, and how to empathize.

There are also some items on that list in the article that used to be a lot more true of me as a younger adult than they are now.  Time heals wounds, sure.  And as we age and mature and gain wiser insights from our experiences, we learn that our coping strategies and defense mechanisms are sometimes just that: masks and maneuvers we don’t always truly need.  But there is another silver bullet to overcoming bullying: forgiveness.

Some time this past year -- I don’t really recall exactly when -- Facebook suggested I befriend someone I kind of knew in high school.  Funny thing (not really) was that this person had bullied me during my first year of high school.  I guess it was kind of short-lived, but it was scary as hell and while it went on, it was relentless.  I’m not going to reveal too much about the person, and you’ll see why in a moment.  But I do need to tell you a bit about what happened so you can appreciate the progress I needed to make in myself to reach a place of forgiveness.

This older student was in two of my classes.  So was at least one of her friends, and I guess some other kids they knew.  In gym class, she threatened me one day out of the blue.  It continued here and there, and carried over into my art class.  The teacher was out for an extended illness, and as we worked on our projects with a substitute there for supervision purposes, this aggressor broke apart projects of students in other class periods and threw pieces of them at me from her table partway across the room.  Again, no provocation by me.  I was a freshman just minding my own business.

After gym class one day, as I returned to the locker room to change, the bullying girl and a couple of friends were waiting, menacingly, just inside the locker room door.  I had to detour into the teachers’ office to say, “I’m not going in there.  There are these girls that are going to beat the crap out of me if I go in that locker room.”  I ended up at the vice principal’s office, my Mom got called in, and it got dealt with, I guess.  And knowing our vice principal, I am sure he said that if they retaliated against me for telling on them, he’d call the police.  As it was, my mother threatened to have the police down there that very day if it wasn’t stopped immediately.

In the intervening years, I never knew what became of this young lady, except that I heard she had worked in a place I had once worked, with my sister I think.  If you’re reading this, and you’re from where I’m from, stop trying to figure out who it was.  It doesn’t matter now, as you will see in a moment.

So like I said, Facebook thought we might like to become friends.  I found that . . . well, kind of amusing.  Thirty years later.  So I didn’t request a friend add, but I did decide to write to this woman.  I sent her a private message via Facebook:

“Hi _______.  Do you remember me from high school? You and some other girls were in my art and gym classes when I was in 9th grade. For some reason, you decided to harass and threaten me. As far as I can tell, I had never done anything to cause these attacks. I know that you later worked with my sister. Looking at your Facebook, it seems like you are at a happy place in your life. Having been an educator myself for over 20 years and working with many kids over the years, I guess I have to chalk up the way you treated me in high school to some stuff you were maybe going through back then. I just thought that since Facebook suggested you as a friend for me, I would get in touch and tell you that I am happy that you are happy.”

She wrote back the very next morning and apologized.  I was on the right track that she had gone through some difficult times back then and took some of it out on me.   I’d be willing to bet that she never even remembered bullying me until I reminded her of it.  Her apology was sincere, and I was really moved by her offer to try to make things up to me.  I simply responded “all is forgiven” and I later did add her as a friend on Facebook.

And I am really glad I did.  I can see that she has encountered difficulties in her life and has triumphed over them.  Things I have never had to face.  I am encouraged and impressed by her bravery and strength.  Would I have known these things had I just snorted and clicked “ignore” at Facebook’s friend suggestion?  Even more importantly, would it have just been so much easier to consider myself superior in some way, after she expressed sincere contrition, by just “moving on” and considering it in the past and behind me?

What kind of Christian would that make me?  What kind of human being?  Bullying is bad.  It’s not okay.  But it doesn’t just arise out of nowhere.  People who bully others, whether they are children, adults, pet owners, commenters on social media, teachers, clergy, ANYONE . . . are hurting, damaged people.  And since we all are potentially in that same boat, aren’t we all just one or two thoughtless comments and snide remarks away from being the perpetrators ourselves?

So these difficult experiences did indeed mold me into a certain kind of person.  I have those reactions and feel those emotions outlined in the article.  But by confronting the experiences I had, and opening them up to look inside what they truly were, I was able to give myself and another person some healing and peace.  So let’s be careful when we throw around the term “bullying.”  And let’s also stop blaming the Internet.  It was, after all, a social network that enabled me to initiate this reconciliation with someone I would never have encountered otherwise.  And let’s just be kind to each other.  And forgive those who hurt us.  And tell them so.  For everyone’s sake.

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