Unfortunately Debby's experience of bullying is shared by many. If you are affected by any of the issues touched on within this article, follow the links throughout to our trained support advisors.
My first day of middle school, I got on the wrong bus to go home. I hadn’t paid attention to the number and I thought I should just get on one even though I wasn’t sure which one. Looking at the kids around me, I realized my mistake but felt ashamed and confused. So I just sat in my seat until all the stops had been made. Finally after the last stop, the bus driver noticed me, tears streaming down my face. Her face went red and her lips pinched tight. She looked like what people look when they are angry. In retrospect, she was probably hungry and tired and wanted to go home. Or maybe she was afraid she’d get in trouble for not checking her passengers with better diligence on the first day. I just felt guilty and stupid. We drove back to the school. My mother was waiting, scared. I perceived this as disappointment with me for being so spacey and immature. That was the moment that something in me broke. A part of me shrank and gave up. I wasn’t omnipotent. That fear, that hyper-awareness of my vulnerability, was the only crack the bullies needed to come in.
I’ve heard that bullies “smell” weakness. By 7th grade I couldn’t tell you how many incidents of meanness there had been. I do know that the teachers’ and administration’s policy back then seemed to be not to get involved and to let the “kids just work it out.” I know at first I told myself things like, “I’m sure they’re not TRYING to be mean. Probably they’re joking and I need to have a better sense of humor.” And “I’m sure they’ll stop when they realize I’m not actually the loser they think I am. I’ve never been that kid.” But then I started accepting it and working on disappearing. Psychiatrists call it “disassociating.” So my memories of being bullied come back in shards, like sharp glass.
My nickname was “Duh Dodds.” This confused me because I was in all the top class sections and got A’s. But looking back, I realize that I enjoyed listening to my teachers so much, I wasn’t aware of anything else going on around me. I think sometimes my mouth even hung open a bit. In retrospect, I self-deprecatingly and ruefully joked that I fit that “Dazed Dork” stereotype.
In Language Arts class, three boys kicked my chair back and forth on each side and from the back – with me in it – trying to move it away, as if in a Bizarro soccer game. I concentrated hard to avoid falling over, counterbalancing without giving them the “satisfaction” of acknowledging my plight. At a tryout, girls mocked me for wanting to be a cheerleader: “You CAN’T be a cheerleader if you’re not popular and you aren’t.” Each savage attack left me feeling beaten and more fragile.
At this point, my best friend Jane, no longer sat with me on the bus. My other buddies from the neighborhood, Mark and Stan, had guy friends. Hanging out with girls wasn’t cool unless you were “going with them” and nobody was asking me to be their girlfriend or play spin the bottle. Adrift, I took a seat with whoever would let me. But I knew to stay to the front of the bus. That was safer.
But then the day came when there were no seats at the front, or even the middle, of the bus. I might’ve asked someone if I could share, but all I got in response was a “No, I’m saving this.” Or maybe I’d given up by then.
I heard the snorting as I took an empty seat in the back. This area was the BOYS DOMAIN. The ones who swore. The ones who smoked and did drugs. The ones who got bad grades. The savages. Back then I feared them as much as I would the thought of jumping into a pit of rattlesnakes.
One of them had a violent last name. We’ll call him Jeff Pounder. Pounder fixed on me immediately. The teasing quickly escalated to intimidation and then to torment. I remember some of what he said was sexual but I was pretty innocent at that age so didn’t understand most of it. Everyone was laughing at me. I burned with shame. I hate to admit it but if I could’ve sent them after anyone else, someone weaker than myself on the bus, in that moment, I would’ve. I’d just read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and I fully understood it with a crystal clarity on that bus ride. I burrowed as deeply inside myself as I ever had. I felt little pings. I ignored them. I found them later, little spitballs shot with a straw and lodged in my hair. Maybe that’s why it was such a shock when I felt it, warm and went on the back of my neck. Did he shoot a water gun at me? Spill milk on me? Put snail slime on me somehow?
“Oh crap!” A snicker. “You hocked a giant loogie on her! A GROSS one!” Then I knew. Pounder had spit on me. I’d never done anything to him. But he spit on me like I was a dirty sidewalk or a toilet. I was choking back the prickly tears with every bit of strength I had.
That’s when I made eye contact with my former friend, Stan. We hadn’t been close in over a year. But still. Before that, we’d played tag in the cornfield in the morning, cooled off at the community pool in the afternoon, then giggled through hide and seek at dusk. Jane, Mark, Stan, and I used to move through each other’s back yards as easily as water through a highly permeable cell membrane.
Stan was there. Stan was laughing at me with the rest. It took every bit of strength I had but I got off that bus at our stop and walked home alone, never letting myself tear up.
It was not long after that incident when my mom started taking me to acting classes in a nearby city. Then I changed schools. High school was a remarkably happy experience for me. I had my share of ups and downs but I made friends. I never told any of them about that spitting incident. It was buried and that’s how I wanted it to stay. I fell out of touch with most of the people from my middle school for many years. Then, oddly, social media reunited some of us. My wounds had healed. I didn’t need to rehash anything with anyone. I felt in a good place. I was sure that all of us probably hurt each other at one time or another, so I pretty indiscriminately approved any friend request.
Then recently, an editor who had published a piece of mine in a NY Times best-selling anthology contacted me. She wanted to do a piece on “funny women.” Could she interview me? Honored, I gladly agreed. The questions were provocative. One was if I had always perceived myself as “beautiful.” Somehow she got me to tell the spitting story. She posted my interview as a “work in progress” on her website. I shared the link on my Facebook page. I was okay with people reading about this event now. It was so long ago. But what I hadn’t thought about was that one of those old middle school contacts I’d agreed to be social media friends with was Stan.
The day after I posted the link, I got an email from Stan. Stan had done well. He had a beautiful family. They all looked happy and shiny. He was a lawyer now. He still lived near the same area we’d grown up. His note read something like this:
Hi Debby! I enjoyed reading your interview from a comedy standpoint, but it provoked other, unexpected feelings, too. I remembered the day that Jeff Pounders I picked on you on the bus, shooting paper spitballs with straws as I recall. I think it was 7th grade. I want you to know that I am so sorry and hope that you can forgive me all these years later. I could be a real jerk as a kid, and I regret not being kinder and not getting to know others better than I did. Pure insecurity on my part. I guess apologizing is the closest thing to a “do-over” one can hope for, even though it’s really not close. I’m sure I missed out on some great friendships as a result of my trying to impress some of the “cool kids” in those awful middle school years.
I was stunned. I wrote back quickly but briefly. I thanked him and told him I’d write more soon. I didn’t tell him that his email hit me so hard in the solar plexus I was having problems breathing. I needed time to process. Maybe that wound wasn’t completely healed after all… I thought I was done with the past but the past wasn’t done with me.
I let myself be back in that moment. I felt it, without intellectualizing the incident or belittling it or laughing about it. I just felt it. I cried for that awkward and scared girl I was. I imagined hugging her and telling her she’d be okay and not to give up.
Getting Stan’s letter inspired me to not only forgive him fully, but to forgive myself. It sounds weird but I think, in a way, I always blamed myself for being so weak and scared- for letting people pick on me.
I wrote back to Stan something like:
So that incident on the bus (What the heck was with that bus?!! It was like Lord of the Flies!): I won’t pretend it wasn’t horrible, but the last thing I want to do is make you feel bad. I so appreciate you writing me and apologizing.
I remember it escalated from spitballs to John actually hocking a giant gob of spit in the back of my hair. SO gross! And so humiliating to walk home to Oxford with warm spit on my scalp, trying not to cry. I knew that Jeff was hard to challenge or to try to change for any of our peers.
But I guess one of the toughest things was back in 5th grade, I thought you and I were friends. I’d played at your house as you had at mine. I just felt so surprised/betrayed by the fact that everyone looked the other way.
Later, I found out about the beatings Jeff got at home and I realized that he had to be in a lot of pain to want to hurt others like he did. It made me have a much clearer and more compassionate relationship with others. And I forgave him, though never in person. I want you to know how highly I think of you for writing me.
Looking at my correspondence to him, I find it interesting I needed to clarify the incident. I’m sure that Stan either hadn’t seen that full-on spitting part or truly forgot it. I also had to point out that I’d liked him, so it made the bullying more of a betrayal. I hadn’t wanted to make him feel worse. But I think I couldn’t forgive without acknowledging the severity of what I was forgiving. Maybe that’s petty. But that’s what I needed to do.
Then he wrote again, thanking me for accepting my apology and for my understanding.
I think very highly of Stan and he’s rewritten a part of my life. Given it a new ending. Yes, I could understand and forgive to a certain degree without that apology. But getting hearing from him meant so much to me I tear up every time I think of it.
Perhaps not everyone wants to hear from a person who bullied them. I respect that. But for me, it was a gift I’d never expected. It was as astonishing to me as the initial bullying had been. But this acknowledgment and apology, gave me insights that went into the genesis of my first novel, Amish Guys Don’t Call. It’s a fictional story, but many of the feelings that they protagonist experiences when being bullied, are real. They are my own.
By Debby Dodds, author of the novel Amish Guys Don’t Call.
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