Lately, life has reminded me a lot of grade school. Why, you may ask, has my life brought on these feelings of reminiscence? It’s because every BIG life lesson was first presented to me when the complexities of life were much less complex. When your place at the lunch table was a daily reminder of your place on the ‘food chain’. When the sunshine and solace of recess was the only freedom your little heart needed. When notes, journals and diaries stood in place of texts, blogs and social media as your relief from the unjust world of society. When teacher’s pets brown-nosed to academic peaks in the classroom… and bullies ruled the school yard.
I now find myself struggling with the glaring similarities between the school yard and the work yard, the same games are being played with much higher stakes. Popularity contests, constant self-campaigning, he-said-she-said gossip trails of ‘telephone’ and the ever present comparison to your peers. Are you smart enough? Are you fast enough? Are you funny enough? Are you pretty enough? Are you rich enough? Are you good enough? All of these simple truths carried on from childhood have created a foundation of principles that have followed me into adulthood.
I don’t need to be popular. I don’t need to be the class president. I don’t need to hear the latest gossip. I don’t need to constantly compare myself to others. I don’t need to make a habit of seeking outside validation. Self-confidence doesn’t come from your title in the yearbook, your place at the lunch table or the label on your clothes. Self-confidence can only truly come from within ones-self.
We instill this value within ourselves by harboring healthy habits and producing healthy actions. Praising others, making no place for jealousy, following our truth and dealing justly. But what happens when we are met with someone who isn’t exactly harboring these values or reciprocating these actions? What happens when we encounter a bully?
In the 5th Grade I was faced with my first true blue, bad to the bone bully. Feeling no need to take rank in school yard society, I floated happily between the land of the popular, the land of the book-worms, and the land of the rebels. The popular children withstood me, the book-worms tried to reform me, and the rebels tried to break me. This seemed to work for me, I liked living the life of a social butterfly free of classist restrictions. I learned how to hold my own in each world. Small talking with the populars, theorizing with the book-worms and knocking the constraints of society with the rebels. I learned how to relate to a wide variety of personalities.
In the world of the rebels, one queen reigned supreme. Amy Barter, the trash talking queen of the neighborhood and the queen bee of the schoolyard. For some reason, Ms. Barter had taken a likin’ to me. While I didn’t understand this friendship fully, I embraced it with open arms; trust didn’t have to be earned in grade school. As the school year lead on, slumber parties and weekends brought us closer and I was sure we were on the fast track to being BFF’s. That was, until, one fine day when I almost met my maker on the hot black asphalt paving the back schoolyard of Grant Line Elementary School.
Amy had a very serious problem with jealousy. I overlooked this issue, because as a child I longed to see the best in each of my friends. Amy also had a very big tendency to crush, and crush hard! Her latest object of affection was none other than my desk neighbor and ultra-bad-boy Chris Gollard. I mean, if ever there was a match made in rebel heaven these two were it! Knowing my proximity to Chris, Amy had concocted this scheme to win his heart: I was to subtly drop her name in conversation between pencil passing and eraser sharing and Chris was supposed to bite on these tiny doses of intrigue and fall madly in love with Amy. The problem was, all the pencil passing and eraser sharing had lead Chris to become a little more intrigued with me, and Amy had noticed. However I, as a doe eyed school girl, was completely unaware of his blossoming affections towards me and I thought all was going according to plan.
One day, as we sat court side at daily the school yard pick up game, in a last ditch effort to win the love of the young rebel hearted basketball player, Amy said she had a plan. I was to stand up and yell out, “Chris Gollard loves Amy Barter!“, and a very coy Amy was supposed to blush in response and flutter her big lashes at Chris with a “Who, me?” response. I though the plan to be pretty hair brained, even for a 5th grader, but there was just no turning down Amy’s request ’cause when she had her eye on something, if you stood in the way, boy oh boy she was going to TAKE YOU DOWN. So after she whispered the grand scheme in my ear I looked back into her conniving fox eyed face with the fear of a rabbit in a trap. Out of fear, more than friendship, I sprung to my feet and yelled at the boys headed for a layup, “Chris Gollard loves Amy Barte…”, before I could finish everything went black.
Amy had sprung to her feet and pushed me to the ground before I could finish my sentence. Unprepared for the impact, my tiny little legs had slipped on the asphalt under her attack and my head had bounced off the hot pavement like a deflated basketball. I awoke to a playground full of sweaty 5th grade faces above me, all of them a hazy green blur until slowly I heard their voices through the buzzing in my ears. As the world lost its greenish hue and came into focus, right beside me kneeled Chris Gollard. Amy had fled the scene. Once again, her schemes had backfired. Shuffles and shouts seemed to move at a trance like pace and soon my teacher appeared above me. I spent the rest of the day in the nurses station being treated for a concussion, which I was told was lucky for such a fall.
With hours of silence to process the events, I slowly began to realize that Amy saw our situation less as a friendship and more as an advantage to her ultimate goal, the heart of bad boy Chris. When her plans had backfired, I had suddenly become a threat and she panicked. As the hours passed, shock turned to hurt which eventually broiled in to a full fledged rage. I saw Amy for what she was, and I was going to take her down.
I avoided Amy for several days plotting, scheming and regaining my strength. I stared steely at her across the lunch room, laser beams of anger shooting from my eyes. I sneered at her shrill voice and my stomach turned at the mention of her name. After about a week of wallowing in my disgust I was ready to make my move. The day went on as usual; angry glares across the lunch room, gnashing of my teeth at her voice and stomach flip flops at the mention of her name. I bore on through lunch, listening intently across the lunch table to her conversation. A pick up softball game was planned for recess and I was going to sabotage it.
When the recess bell rang my little body was practically vibrating with pent up anger. The energy was palatable and I felt a surge of adrenaline shoot through me. I laced up my purple velour tennis shoes and raced to the baseball diamond. The whole gang arrived and I shot a a steely glance in Amy’s direction and smirked, “I’m captain!”, I announced. I picked my team. All the best sports… except Amy. As Amy positioned herself at the pitchers mound, I took my place at home base, bat in hand. We smiled at one another, two sets of teeth bared like wolves in attack. The first pitch flew, nearly hitting my shoulder. I doubled back and composed myself. Chalking it up to bad aim I braced myself for the next pitch. This one zipped right past my forehead, I ducked as someone yelled, “Cool it Amy”. I was beginning to get the feeling that Amy’s terrible aim was less of a coincidence and more of a malicious intent to knock my lights out.
By the third pitch I was ready to blow one out of the park, and by blow one out of the park I really mean throw a blow right into Amy’s jaw and send her on her way out of the ballpark and straight to the nurses office. Unfortunately Amy had a pretty decent arm, and that third pitch zipped past my shoulder and hit the fence. “Three strikes, you’re out!”, Amy yelled as she grinned the evil grin of The Batman’s Joker. “I am NOT OUT! Your pitches were terrible, you owe me three fair balls!”, I yelled in the shrillest defensive voice my 5th grade vocal chords could muster.
Amy crossed the baseball diamond and pushed my shoulder up against the chain link fence as it rattled against the impact. “I don’t owe you ANYTHING!” she retorted, nostrils flaring wide like an angry bull. I looked her square in the eyes and rattled off something snarky about an angry Hippopotamus. To be honest I can’t even remember what I said but I think the vivid angry bull image in my mind somehow triggered my sharp witted Hippo diss. To be fair, this wasn’t even close to relevant, Amy was a twig. Whatever the case, her nostrils flared wider and she threw a punch. I jabbed to the left and her fist hit my arm. I threw both fists up towards my ears to brace myself against her blows and brought them down towards my shoulders in my best Rocky stance. By this time the entire baseball diamond was flooded with kids chanting “Hit her, hit the hippo. She deserves it!”. The crowd had garnered the attention of my teacher Mrs. Walters and before I could knock Amy out cold, the recess whistles were blowing and a pair of stout arms swiftly whisked me off to the detention wall.
Much like a P.O.W. I sat in the hot sun shielding my eyes, baking more under the anger of my situation than the punishment itself. I was in the right, everybody there knew it. I was defending myself not only from Amy’s latest attack, but even more vindicating myself after a semester full of manipulation. I was standing up to the girl who had pushed me down on the seething asphalt in broad daylight, in front of the entire 5th grade male population, and had gotten away with it. The girl who had given me a concussion and a solitary day in the nurses office. The girl who made the world go black for a good 60 seconds. I didn’t belong on this wall, SHE belonged there!
At the end of recess Mrs. Walters rose off the teacher’s bench and somberly walked over to me. She explained that if I apologized to Amy I would be forgiven and no further action would be taken. I pleaded my case, explaining that I was only acting out in self defense. I told her there was nothing to apologize for, that I was innocent of all guilt. Mrs. Walters replied that until I apologized to Amy, whether or not I was wrong, Ms. Barter and I would be spending our recess on the detention wall together for the rest of the school year. I thought the idea of an eternal recess detention with Amy to be my own private hell, but I knew there was absolutely no way I could apologize for protecting my own chin against her attack. How could I apologize when I had done nothing but befriend, care for and aide my bully in the plight to gain the love of the
young suitor bad boy she adored.
Our recess P.O.W. situation stood at a stalemate for three days straight, both parties making sure to stare off blankly into every direction but that of the other. By the third day my non-deodorized armpits were pooling with sweat. At the sight of my state I believe my teacher feared a possible mistreatment lawsuit. Mrs. Walters called me up to her recess bench on the fourth day and explained that if Amy and I shook hands, we would be free to join the rest of the 5th graders on the playground. I took inventory of my convictions and concluded that as long as she approached me, I would oblige her handshake sans an apology. Amy approached me and thrust her cold fish palm in my direction. Avoiding eye, contact I mirrored her gesture. One shake. Done. Mrs. Walters seemed less pleased than annoyed, but the situation had run its course. Amy and I turned our backs on the P.O.W. wall and sprinted towards opposite sides of the playground.
I remember little of what followed our last year of grade school. In retrospect it seems as if Amy slowly floated off into the background. That summer my parents decided to send me to private school and I never heard from Amy Barter again. I encountered many more bullies through middle and high school, even befriending a few reformed ‘ former bullies’ along the way, but your first bully always sticks with you. Much like your first ex boyfriend.
In 5th grade, I learned that not all is right in the world. Vindication is not guaranteed. Sometimes bullies win. Sometimes the innocent are punished. Sometimes turning the other cheek means gaining two black eyes. Sometimes there is no resolution. However, eventually, bullies will disappear in to the background. Jealousy, insecurity, strife and envy have no root in my life; but they are at the root of every bullying action.
When bullies win, let them win. Shake their hand and let them fade into the background. Go home to your loved ones, kiss their faces (whether bearded, furry, baby faced or wrinkled) and let yourself be reminded that bullying will never win a love like the love you share with those who feed your soul. Bullies may win a place of status, a big promotion, popularity, fame or fortune; but bullying will never win the love of another. At the end of the day, if you have found yourself in a place that is surrounded by love, YOU have won.
So when bullies win, let them think they’ve won. The prize they’re earning is far less valuable than the love you hold dear.
(All events recounted are 100% true, however the names of the guilty have been changed. I did some social media recon and was unable to find Amy ‘Barter’ on Facebook, you know, for research purposes. I’m pretty sure she and Chris never really panned out but it’s fun to imagine her somewhere out there in the great blue yonder indefinitely right swiping him on Tinder. He, of course, swipes left every time.)