On being bullied and being the bully

As a thirteen year old, I wanted, desperately, to be good-looking and popular. What I was instead was smart. These days, a combination of alcohol and re-watching Gilmore Girls on repeat means people have caught up to me, and I can’t consider myself any smarter than most of the people I meet – but back then I could. I was quick and I was mean and I told jokes that hurt.

I did it because I wanted to be liked, obviously – because if someone with long blonde hair and long brown legs and round blue eyes, like Jessica Wakefield made flesh and blood, made a snide comment to me, I had to turn it back around – the focus, the social mirror, had to land not me because otherwise everyone else would see me, reflected again and again, boring and freckled and sharp nosed and ordinary, but on them.

It was easy, instead to point out that she was stupid. Because even if it wasn’t true exactly, she was certainly stupider than me.

But nobody saw that she was stupid and that I was clever; that she was boring and that I was the one worth talking to and laughing with.

What ended up happening to me, as an incredibly arrogant and unsure thirteen year old, who hid everything under hair-dye and eye-liner and faux bravado, was that I lost all my friends.

I can look back and say that I was bullied as a teenager, and it’s true. My group of friends, four or five girls who I knew to be thinner and cooler and more beautiful than myself, turned on me in a way only girls thinking as one can do. They left me sitting by myself in lessons, so that my Japanese teacher looked at me in a way that made me stony and so so sore. They talked about parties that I wasn’t invited to; they passed notes in front of me; they looked back on me from the front row as I cried in the middle of English, and laughed when the teacher picked someone else to read Titania because I was sobbing too hard to manage it.

They were bullies in the way that people who have a group can be, because you can afford to be awful when you have someone to back you up.

14 years later and I can still feel it in that knot at the bottom of my neck. But what I remember isn’t what they said, particularly, but one thing they did.

They found a magazine, Girlfriend or Dolly or something like that, which had done a feature on bullying, part of which was a breakdown of the names you could be called. One of them was “loser”, and that was the one they tore out and stuck to my desk, sealing it down with tape so it took me a good five minutes to pick free.

Here’s the kicker, though: it came with a note that read “Stop calling us this”.

Despite everything I thought, I was the bully.

I didn’t know it, and couldn’t have called it that. I was so busy, always, trying to make up for what I perceived as my short-comings that I didn’t even realise what I was doing was trying to drag them down to my own lows, rather than clambering up to where I thought they sat.

It doesn’t excuse them, and I still think teenage girls are the most dangerous, spiteful, clever, cruel, brilliant untapped source of power out there. But even at 13 years old I saw what I had done, and I did change it. Or I tried to. It didn’t come quickly, because I still hated what I saw in the mirror and tried to compensate for it by what came out of my mouth. I was still mean, and I still thought I was smarter than everyone else. But I did it more quietly.

It’s strange really – self-confidence, the real kind, came when I didn’t feel like the smartest anymore, because it came when I realized I wasn’t the ugliest, either. I failed an exam; I got a boyfriend. The one didn’t occur because of the other but the combination of the two made me a more balanced person. A better person – not the best, either inside my own head, or by anyone else’s reckoning – but better.

I’m a nicer person now because of the lesson they taught me then; and I’ve learned humility. And I’ve never, since learning harshly and quickly what it really felt like to lose, called anyone a loser ever again.

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