Last month, when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, it was a perfect, if exaggerated example of how victims of bullying see their fate. The bully assaults you and then gets an award and a standing ovation. The victim is left wondering, what about me? What about right and wrong? Why does the bully matter more and why doesn’t someone stand up for me?
The incident was a trigger for many victims of bullying. Triggers are everywhere. It doesn’t matter how far removed you are from the bullying.
I’m going to tell you about something that triggered me, and a story of bullying I’ve never fully told before. The bullying is important to the point I’m making, but it’s not the point. We all have crappy stuff happen to us. We (hopefully) get over it but it can help shape who we become. This happened long ago. Kids can be cruel. With that said, here we go.
Derek and I watched a TV show where a bunch of women were having a slumber party. I flashed back to a slumber party thrown by a classmate named Janet during my grade 4 year, the year of bullying Lisa. And it led me to a surprising change of mind about a pivotal moment from my childhood. First, the slumber party story.
That school year began with my confession to a classmate about a crush. Terry was the cool, cute boy in class. I’d had a dream about going to a baseball game with him and my classmate Vicky lapped up every detail. Unbeknownst to me, she had a crush on Terry too. To my horror, she told him about it to eliminate the competition. Terry, the cool kid, was furious that I, a not-cool kid, would have the audacity to dream about him. He decided to teach me a lesson about staying in my place. Beating me up became his new after-school activity.
I’ve told some of this bullying story before. And about how although I wouldn’t explain my bruises and cuts, my Dad covertly watched me leave school one day and saw what I endured. My Dad talked to Terry’s Dad, and the beatings stopped. But daily assaults – I could never outrun Terry – branded me a weak, unlikable kid. Friends I’d had since grade 1 kept their distance to avoid a similar fate. The stench of victimhood is strong in elementary school. Even the teacher didn’t like me and told my parents so. It was hard.
So, why was I invited to a slumber party with all of those girls, including Vicky, the one who fueled my tormentor? Did Janet’s parents make her invite me because we were in Brownies together? I don’t know. But the night peaked with me naked, rolled in a ball in the furnace room, crying, finally discovered by Janet’s father. The other girls had ganged up and taken away my clothes and PJs while I was changing. They tried in vain to drag my bare, prepubescent form to parade for some boys who’d come to the basement window. I had successfully fought them off and cowered on a cold cement floor near the furnace.
Janet’s Dad did nothing but throw me my clothes. He didn’t even scold the girls except to say keep the noise down. And I still had to spend the night with them. Sleep in that environment, alone and ostracized. I pulled my sleeping bag as far away from the others as I could. Finally, I drifted off while they giggled and gossiped. It never occurred to me to call my parents to come get me. We didn’t have that kind of household. I knew I would have been gaslighted over “making a big deal” out of it. So I toughed it out.
I was thinking about all of this as we watched TV. I’d always felt that a few years later, our parents took me from the only community I’d ever known when we moved away when I was in grade 7. I didn’t want to move but had no choice. It was hard to bond with new peers during one final year in elementary school before going to high school. I thought that move was unfair to young me and assumed it affected my ability to make friends.
But a new thought came to me: What if it had saved me?
What if the slumber party was a bigger part of what my young life was like than I remember? Instead of recalling the move as ripping me away from all that was familiar, what if I viewed it as an act of kindness? What if taking me out of that environment made my life better than it would have been if we’d stayed? Would I have gotten into radio? Had the guts to think I could write? Been the same person at all?
Life isn’t only about what happens to you. It’s about what you tell yourself about what happens to you. Everybody has bad stuff happen. Those who cope better with that stuff are telling themselves a different story. They don’t make it about their own inadequacies. They understand the universe isn’t singling them out. This is a major factor in how people confined to wheelchairs can be happy while others with every advantage can be miserable. We get to write the story of our lives. We can write a different story.
I did have friends. But I also had the lingering after-effect of being a long-term victim of physical and emotional abuse by peers. I realized later that the slumber party made me, even as an adult, nervous in groups of women I don’t know. If I never came to your Tupperware, pashmina, Pampered Chef or whatever party, this is why. I also became acutely aware of other bullied kids. Being kind to them came naturally.
My parents may have done me the biggest favor of my life. I stopped caring about this move many years ago, but now I’ve rewritten the story. My internal dialogue about moving has forever changed with this realization. Now I’m looking for other negatives of my life to apply that thinking to, and I’ll rewrite those stories as well. I’m happy to say I’m not coming up with much to work on. But when I do, I’ll make those stories kinder, gentler, and with a happier ending. The person who chose the victim over the bully, is me.