Pop-Ding* My phone lights up and Facebook notifies me of a message request from my former classmate.
It would be my first conversation with John since senior year and, of course, it had to be a life insurance offer. But what left me shocked, staring blankly at the screen, were the words, “Just wanted to say I’m sorry for being a jerk.” Granted, he may have said something else. But that’s what I’d been wanting to hear: the apology I had long been owed.
Most people’s nostalgic memories often involve high school days — the cool cliques they belonged to, corny promposals they witnessed, senior pranks that made teachers walk out, and yearly cheer-dance competitions that meant free time. Movies like High School Musical and The Breakfast Club depict high school as the best years of your life — except that wasn’t the reality I lived in.
Puberty was unkind to me. I had braces that trapped lunch, a head full of acne, and palms that would sweat like a river. My grades were far from perfect, but I spent the better part of high school participating in competitions, writing for our school newspaper, and making artsy science projects that my teachers would parade around.
I felt like a good student, but something else didn’t feel quite right. The crisp certificates and shiny medals couldn’t protect me from the faults my schoolmates would dig up.
“Pimple-lic nerd!” was what they’d shout, giggling, to put me in my place. I lost count of the number of group projects I did mostly by myself so I could stay on the honor roll. Some laughed at the way I pronounced words, while a handful would teasingly sing the phrase “Teacher’s pet!” when I walked by. I wanted nothing to do with restroom vandalism but was surprised to see my name Sharpied for the principal to notice. Instead of celebrating with me, my ex almost-lover mocked me for posting about a college entrance exam I passed, which he failed.
I was enrolled in a Catholic school but, like Eleanor Shellstrop, I was convinced that it was The Bad Place. Bullying embedded itself in my teenage life, so much so that the thought of never having to cross paths with them again filled me with hope to tide me over until college.
In guidance class, we were taught that bullying is wrong. We never discussed what victims could do to stop it, why perpetrators do what they do, and what might be yet to come for both.
My parents, who taught me to pray for strength, told me, “Walk away and they’ll leave you alone” when I first encountered bullying in the form of a beetle the boys had snuck inside my three-layer pencil case back in elementary school.
While my parents had my best interest at heart, their advice neither boosted my self-esteem nor solved the problem. Baffled, I followed it anyway. What else could I do? A cry for help was a sign of weakness, and God knows prayers didn’t work.
In guidance class, we were taught that bullying is wrong. We never discussed what victims could do to stop it, why perpetrators do what they do, and what might be yet to come for both. What I know is that we were all expected to just get over it as we rolled into adulthood.
At 25, I come across as cheerful, resilient and independent. While that’s true, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I learned to become the life of the parties I’m now invited to, but still I’m hungry for social approval.
People remember me for my resting smile face, blissfully unaware of how hard it actually needed to work to hide my frustrations. I was a “yes girl” in my previous job, the one who would get panic attacks after discussing a big, supposedly exciting, project. When colleagues lent a hand, I would doubt their intentions. It’s difficult for me to trust anyone, because, for a long time, I was all I had.
Despite soldiering on, a Harvard Health article says victims of school bullying carry lasting scars, including depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. Like many, I resorted to repression, shoving the bitter memories inside Pandora’s box.
Many instances of bullying go unreported because the people victims should get support from abandon them during times when it matters most. Those who come forward are blamed for being oversensitive. Will we ever realize that silencing is as much of a culprit as tolerating?
Admittedly, what I went through is nothing compared to what my schoolmates were forced to endure. I witnessed artists, gamers and rockstars get their souls sucked out. There were more days I was happy just to be invisible. But the unprocessed pain was always there, lurking right beneath the surface.
Many instances of bullying go unreported because the people victims should get support from — family, teachers, co-workers, partners — abandon them during times when it matters most. Those who come forward are blamed for being oversensitive, while bullying passes for confidence. Will we ever realize that silencing is as much of a culprit as tolerating?
When John resurrected through my inbox, it became clear to me that it wasn’t the bullies whom I truly feared. Every kid who has been bullied shudders at the possibility of another human being experiencing the helplessness they felt.
Knowing I wasn’t the first nor the last made me wish someone did something. I get it: those who stay neutral are understandably afraid to be treated differently or else become a target for bullying, too. But when bystanders become upstanders, we feel seen, heard, and worth fighting for.
I’d long given up on waiting for closure. Now that it finally arrived, I was disappointed but relieved. It didn’t erase the trauma as I thought it would, but accepting the apology made me realize that we’re not the troubled teens we were years ago. Growing up vindictive, I became a wild child, an unreliable friend, an insecure employee and a controlling partner, all at one point or another.
But people gave me second chances and I don’t see why others don’t deserve the same. Just as atonement asks victims to reopen painful wounds, it takes past-life bullies a tremendous amount of courage to admit their mistakes, with sincerity, and do what’s right moving forward. If John could, anyone can.
Confronting the past was the final thing I never knew I needed to acknowledge my strength; to change what I could and accept what I couldn’t. As we wished each other well and went our separate ways, I felt a release of harbored emotions, freeing me from the shackles of my own fears.
With years of self-care and better social circles, I’m finally embracing the glorious mess that I now am. Even at the risk of retaliation, I’m unburdening myself for those who are bullied in school, at home, in the workplace, or online. I wish I stood up for my old self sooner, but I’m doing it now for those who remind me of her. This time, I’m no longer walking away.
Let me rally behind the idea that no one should feel bad for being their awesome selves. Bullying is a cycle that we must consciously and collectively end, not simply write about on posters. Speak your truth, encourage others, and raise the next generation to be kind. No life insurance can promise a more worry-free future.
Art by Christina Cawad