Wednesday, October 27, 2010

It's about to get heavy.

It’s not easy to admit that at one time in your life you were a really evil person. But I was, for a while, a terribly heartless and cruel girl. I was not this way all the time, mind you. During the school year, I was a pretty good kid with lots of friends and good grades. My wicked side seemed to lie dormant until my annual trip to summer camp. There, in that microcosm of all things adolescent, I discovered my dark side and claimed two victims along the way.

Tormenting a girl named Terri Jo was my first foray into peer torture, or bullying. We were cabin mates during my second summer at camp, right after finishing fifth grade. We were eleven. Terri Jo was a tad goofy and lanky, not unlike almost every other eleven-year-old girl in the world including myself. She had a mass of untamed curly brown hair on her head and big brown eyes. She was from a small town ten miles from mine and used to trumpet the fact that she and her younger brother had been adopted. “Chosen” she called it. She let on that her parents shuttled her and her brother off to an endless series of camps over the summer. Basically, they spent the entire summer away from home while their parents traveled around. Terri Jo was loud and rambunctious, and always tried a bit too hard to fit in. But my friends and I decided not to let her.

I’m not sure why I focused my viciousness on Terri Jo. Maybe she annoyed me. Maybe it was because she didn’t seem to have as many nice clothes and things as the rest of us. Or maybe (and this seems far more likely in hindsight) I figured she was just a bit weirder and more insecure than I was, and picking on her gave me a perceived “upper hand” among the rest of our cabin mates. Whatever the screwed-up reasoning, I was relentless. When she had crushes on the guy counselors, I’d tell them right in front of her just to embarrass her. I cut her training bra in half and hung the halves on either end of her bunk bed. I covered her sheets with powdered laundry detergent right before lights out. And one evening after everyone had showered, I waited outside the bathhouse with an accomplice, and we ripped Terri Jo’s towel off causing her to streak back to the cabin naked and crying. Meanwhile, my friend and I rolled on the ground laughing our asses off.

With this last act of meanness, I’d finally done something worthy of a real reprimand. I had to “go to the office” where one of the camp’s directors sat me down and gave me a good talking to. Then he made me sew Terri Jo’s bra back together. Then he made me call my mother and tell her what I’d done and that I was in trouble. Then he made me apologize to Terri Jo in front of the entire cabin. And he warned me that if I didn’t leave her completely alone until the end of camp, they’d call my parents to come and get me. I remember being ashamed of what I’d done, but more than that, I was pissed off that I’d been caught.

It was surprisingly easy to avoid Terri Jo those last few days of camp. She simply went from being the object of torment to being completely ignored by my cohorts and me. She was totally ostracized. One night during the free hours between supper and our scheduled evening activity, I saw her wandering in the big field that made up the outer reaches of the campus. The sun was setting, and in the brilliant orange light, I could make out that she was talking to herself while she picked wildflowers and poked anthills with a stick. She was utterly alone, and it was more or less my fault. It’s an image that still haunts me to this day.

The following summer, I chose a new victim: Katherine. She was trim and athletic, with a short blonde bob haircut. And she had the biggest buckteeth I’d ever seen. She loved horses, and claimed to have some back where she was from. She loved horses so much, in fact, that she brought plastic model horses with her to camp and lined them up in the windowsill next to her bunk. And she’d dress them up with homemade horse outfits she’d brought with her. She’d even wander out to the horse stables to “talk” with the horses between our scheduled activities. In other words, she was a prime target for my summer of malevolence. However, I was more covert with my meanness toward Katherine than I had been with Terri Jo. I’d been caught once, and I wasn’t going to let that happen again. Instead, my cabin mates and I made fun of Katherine behind her back and did stupid stuff like stripping her horses and putting them in compromising positions while she was out of the cabin. We’d impersonate her by sticking our teeth out and neighing whenever we wanted to crack each other up. She was terrified of spiders, so we gathered up a bunch of dead ones we’d found around the cabin, and put them on her bed. But the meanest thing we ever did was read her diary.

I’m not sure where she had gone, but Katherine wasn’t in the cabin one afternoon while we were having “rest period.” We’d seen her writing in her diary, and my friends Kelly, Mary and I went snooping around for it. It wasn’t hard to find wedged in between her mattress and the frame of the bunk bed. We seized it and started scanning it for anything worth making fun of. There were a few passages about some boy she’d had a crush on at school. “Jason smiled at me today in the hall.” “Jason asked to borrow my pen.” And the saddest: “Jason threw a tennis ball at me today after lunch. I think he likes me.” But the entry that REALLY made us howl was the one about her cat “Puff” that had gotten hit by a car and killed. For some reason, that story really tickled our collective funny bone—especially when read aloud while doing our best Katherine impersonations, complete with stuck out teeth and a horse neigh or two thrown in. We were horrible. Eventually Katherine found out that we’d violated her privacy and, justifiably, threw a fit. She told our counselors, and once again, I received a talking to. After that, she spent more and more time at the stables and as little time as possible with us.

Somehow, over the course of my remaining years as a camper, I managed to end up in the same cabin with Terri Jo and with Katherine one more time each (Katherine when we were 13 and Terri Jo when we were 14). My meanness was still there, but not as pronounced and obvious. They were both just left out of everything that the rest of the cabin might have been doing.

I think of what Terri Jo and Katherine must have felt like as they came driving in through the camp gates those second years, with their cabin assignments in their hands, reading that I was going to be in their cabin...again. I try and imagine the dread they must have felt knowing what the next two weeks held in store for them. Some kids hate going to camp because of the heat or the mosquitoes. These girls hated camp because of me and my all-too-willing friends and our totally misguided belief that we were somehow superior to them.

The most ironic thing about this is that around this same time (age 13 and 14), I began to be bullied at school by some older girls who didn’t like the fact that “their guys” (the boys in ninth grade) were friends with me. They would wait for me at lunch time and say horrible things to me as I walked past them on my way to the cafeteria. They would taunt me in the halls whenever they’d see me, and they even started threatening me with violence. I got so freaked out that I spent a great deal of my lunch periods hanging out in the choir room with my choir director, eating and talking and avoiding the meanness. But somehow, even though I was a pretty smart kid, it never occurred to me that the tormenting that I was receiving was just a taste of what my victims had experienced at summer camp. In fact, my ah-ha moment didn’t come until many years later.

As an adult, it’s easy to look back and see that I was an immature, geeky only child from a divorced middle class family who intensely wanted to fit in and be cooler than I was. But these were things I just couldn’t pull it off in my normal, day-to-day life at home and at school, so I jumped at the chance to declare myself an Alpha kid at camp and deliberately hurt those who I perceived as weak.

These memories have haunted me for many years, but they've been even more present lately because of the powerful “It Gets Better” project that’s sweeping the country thanks to the social media. Believe me: It is very hard to admit that you were once a bully, even if you’ve learned from your mistakes and are sincerely, deeply sorry for your actions. I was a good, smart kid who excelled in school and had friends. I came from a home where I was loved and supported. There was no “after-school special” type of reason for me to behave as I did. I am responsible for my actions—there is no one and nothing to blame for how I treated Terri Jo and Katherine. There is also little in my life that makes me more ashamed than what I did to those girls during those long ago summers. My biggest hope is that they have no memory of me, and that they can’t even conjure up my name or my face in their minds. But in all likelihood, they remember me quite well, and that breaks my heart.


Mags said...

You know, I was Katherine/Terri Jo, for quite a number of years. Four and a half, maybe five.

And, I have to admit, looking back at myself, I kinda get the attraction of the bullies. I was smart, but apparently incapable of coming up with a retort. No clothing sense, and lacking the kind of mother that would help in that regard. I was attempting to be invisible, while at the same time clearly desperate to be liked. I mean, I reeked of it - and, I can kinda see the perspective of the bully, because I loathe that part of myself, too.

However, it got better for all of us. And we got stronger, and funnier, and grew into our bodies, and found love. We like ourselves, and we're OK. And we are glad that you added your voice to the chorus of anti-bullying. (Helps to have some of the charismatic folks on your side, as it turns out!)

Thank you for your bravery.

Mags said...
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Lumberyard said...

Great one. Thanks for sharing that.