didn’t have a childhood bully. Like every other kid I had moments of extreme humiliation and embarrassment as a result of occasional bullying but I didn’t have my own personal bully, someone who picked on me relentlessly over a long period of time.
But I witnessed a lot of bullying and mean-girling as a child and teenager and while I didn’t actively participate, I’m ashamed to say that I stood on the sidelines and never attempted to rescue someone from their tormentor. My parents taught us the importance of kindness and compassion but for most of my school life, my desire to fit in was greater than any sense of obligation to help others. Looking back, I can see that I was just too insecure in my own skin to come to the defense of someone else. Although I squirmed when I saw girls being bullied, I was just so relieved that it wasn’t me that I stayed silent. My inability to speak up has haunted me in the intervening decades and I often wonder whatever happened to one girl in grade five who was bullied every single day because she was poor, socially awkward and often wore her brother’s hand-me-down clothes. I hope she’s happy and fulfilled and that she never thinks about those days but what if she’s permanently scarred? What if the bullies, and me through my inaction, had such a negative impact on her confidence that she never hit her stride in life?
So I was intrigued by a Salon series,Interview With My Bully which encourages adults to track down their childhood bullies confront them and write about the experience. The published essays are fascinating. Though the authors are successful, accomplished, mostly-happy adults, they have been unable to let go of the painful memories caused by a childhood bully and have tracked them down in the hopes of answering the question that has been bothering them for decades – Why me? Some of the bullies are truly apologetic and welcome the chance to relieve their own conscience. Others are surprised that they were capable of inflicting so much pain and are shocked to hear that they have been on someone’s mind for so long. And sadly, a few are still the horrible people they were at age 10, like the woman in the most recent essay who went on Facebook immediately after her interview to insult the person she had bullied as a child.
Most of the essayists are in their late 30s or early 40s which not only tends to be a time of reflection or renewal but also often coincides with their own kids reaching middle school. They came of age at a time when bullying wasn’t properly addressed in the school setting and in fact, many teachers could be considered bullies themselves. Yes, I’m talking to you grade six gym teacher. Today, bullying is discussed at length. School boards have sweeping zero-tolerance policies. Celebrities pledge their support for anti-bullying campaigns and in theory at least, children are supposed to feel more comfortable talking about it. And yet, it continues. Here in Toronto, there is a very disturbing case in the courts about a disabled youth who was bullied so mercilessly that he committed suicide.