Four Former Mean Girls Tell Their Side of the Story
At some point, everyone has been the Mean Girl. Perhaps more seared into your brain, though, were the times you were The Target. As all stories go, there are so many layers. A million sides. But not everyone tends to share theirs. We spoke to four former Mean Girls — all decidedly good humans now. Below, their reflections, regrets and what they’ve learned.
I was just home for a wedding where I saw a bunch of my high school friends. We were reminiscing about high school and were like, ‘We were terrible. What was wrong with us.’
There was this one girl in particular, Dana Smith.
She was so nice. Quiet. Runs the other way when she sees us now. She was in and out of our group but we always felt like we had to invite her to things because she was a friend of a friend.
For senior year homecoming, I was allowed to have people at my house before and a sleepover after. We didn’t want her to come for whatever reason. Someone had the idea to use my mom as an excuse; we decided we would tell her that my mom was only letting me have four people over.
One of my friends was in charge of telling Dana. Dana cried. She went to homecoming with some random person — I don’t think she really had anyone to go with — and we went with a group. Whenever she saw my mom after that, she was afraid to say hi. I finally told my mom what we did, and she was so mad at us. “I cannot believe you did that,” she said.
We all feel so badly about it now. The girl who actually broke the news to Dana is haunted by it. She was one drunk one night and sobbed about it. She wants to message Dana about the whole thing but she doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t know if it’s worth it, if Dana cares anymore or if it will bring up hurtful stuff.
There were a couple of times I realized I was a sucky human back then. My mom once said to me, “What happened to my sweet daughter? You’re mean now.” I knew she did not raise me to be this person. I lost one of my best friends for a while because I was straight-up mean to her.
My friends and I have all changed. We’ve all grown up. You asked me what the endgame was in not inviting Dana, and I have no idea. I guess it was power. Teenagers suck. We went to a really tough high school and maybe we felt like we had to assert ourselves. This is going to sound like an excuse, but I was going through things in my own life. My parents were getting a divorce. I was in an abusive relationship. Everyone’s got something going on. People who act nasty like that — it tends to come from a place of pain.
Because I was class president, I was part of the planning committee when my class was gearing up for our 10 year reunion. There was a Facebook group for it, and I was in it, and there were all of these terrible messages about me. I didn’t even know I was mean to the people who wrote them. That hurt.
I’ve moved on. I’m done with that whole part of my life. But if I could go back in time, I’d tell myself that one night in the scheme of life doesn’t matter. Just invite her.
Eve, 27, NY
I transferred from a co-ed school to an all-girls school in 9th grade. My new school had a combination of “lifers” — pre-K to 12th grade, girls who started in middle school and girls who started in 9th grade, like me. It was a really small school. Everyone knew every single person in their grade.
I made a group of friends right away. It was like puppy love, where you want to spend all of your time together, do everything together, talk on the phone together. We mostly kept to ourselves; we had a lot of the same nerdy stuff in common.
That spring I made varsity for a sports team even though I was a freshman. I was the youngest person on the team. All of the juniors and seniors started inviting me to parties, so I began hanging out with them. Suddenly I had a whole new group of friends, really pretty girls who partied a lot and were kissing boys. They had cars and would drive me around. I wasn’t sure how I wound up in their group, but I did. Then in the fall, I kind of started breaking up with my other friends.
Instead of talking about it, a Cold War started. It reached a head my junior year when I was on AIM talking to a girl who was part of my first friend group. She was kind of popular, too, but a different group. She was still friends with the other girls, and she and I weren’t really friends. She always hated me. She saw me flirting with her brother freshman year and was like, “You’re such a slut, stop talking to my brother.” So we were fake friends. I was talking to her on AIM and complained about another girl who used to be in that first group of friends. I complained about how she always seemed to be playing the victim, and how I was sick of her. Well. She printed out our conversation and showed it to the girl who I was talking about. That girl then showed our headmistress. She said I was a bully and felt threatened by me — I never threatened her.
They called my mom and said I couldn’t come to school the next day. I had to speak to the school psychologist and the headmistress. She made it seem like I said I was going to beat her up. I was like, yes, I said those things, but I am not dangerous. Then someone showed my headmistress my Webshots account. It was all photos of us drinking on the weekend or before dances. Ugh. So then the school said I couldn’t come back — because of the drinking, and because other girls said I was a Mean Girl.
Granted, I was not super nice. Once I hit a level of confidence, I was not very friendly and at an all-girls school, everyone was friendly. People knew who I was, I stood out because of how I dressed — super fashion-y. I got a lot of attention that I didn’t ask for but that I didn’t hate, either. But a lot of people hated me.
I was eventually let back into school. I had to write an apology note to the girl and assure her that I was not dangerous, that I had no ill will toward her. Of course I frosted her out after that. Then senior year we had a come-to-Jesus moment. She said she was sorry and I said I was sorry.
My life turned out fine, but it was scary to see how vindictive girls can be, and it was an exercise in how all of this came around to me — getting in trouble, getting kicked out — because I wasn’t nice in the first place. It was my own undoing.
I think that, especially when you’re competing in a small community like high school, you try to find something that you’re good at and gives you confidence. I never felt like I was good at anything despite playing on varsity teams, getting straight A’s, but it didn’t matter. I was so insecure, and my meanness was a manifestation of that. I wanted to be included so badly that I was willing to act out. It was a kill or be killed mentality. I was going to try and win first.
When I started interning for a publication — my dream internship — that promoted feminism and positivity and the importance of supporting one another, I realized that I was the opposite of everything it stood for. It changed me. Having an outlet that you can get your self-worth from that has nothing to do with other people is so important. It’s important to have something that makes you feel good and special but doesn’t require validation from others.
If I could tell my former self or young girls anything, it would be that everything feels like forever when you’re in high school, and it’s not. You’re going to live a very happy adult life one day.
You can also make the choice not to be mean. I am bothered by the fact that I’m going to go to my high school reunion this year and run into people who I may not know I was mean to, but the things I said or did have stuck with them all these years later. I just read that something negative takes half a second to imprint on your brain. But something positive has to be repeated for 15 seconds over and over and over. If I called someone ugly, that stuck. They’ll never remember the time I said something nice. That’s so sad.
Jane, 30, NY
I very much hurt guys when I was in school. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a sociopath because I didn’t feel bad about it. I couldn’t relate to them caring, and I didn’t know what to do with them. I’m sorry to James Griffin. To Kyle. To Max and Tom. And Marvin. Fuck.
I told one of them that I didn’t have room in my parents’ car to take him to an after party for the middle school dance because I figured he wouldn’t be invited anyway.
But he was.
He spent the night drinking alone under the giant trampoline.
When he first asked me to the dance, I said no. My sister watched the conversation and made me call him back. I was the only one going with a date, because we were seventh graders in an all-girls school. I ran away from him the whole dance. I still feel bad about it, but it’s so much worse because back then I had ZERO empathy.
There are just specific moments in life that make you cringe. Like when I was taking the bus with my dad from South Station to Falmouth and I told him we could buy the tickets on the bus, and I already had my ticket, but it turned out that couldn’t buy them aboard that time, so he had to run back to the desk to buy his. He wasn’t back in time, and I DIDN’T STOP THE BUS OR GET OFF. Who am I? What kind of monster does that? And I am so close with my dad. I don’t know what happened. That makes me sick to my stomach every time.
I was a mean girl a at a very young age. I was unaware of people’s feelings. I was comfortable and had a lot of friends. We all grew up together, so it was easy for us to be a clique. I’ve always been a leader, too. I had a strong personality from the time I was six years old and would impose my point of view on everyone else.
Our group was mean to other people and to each other, but back then I think we thought it was just playful. We would push one girl away for a week, and then it would be over.
There are a few people that come to mind who we made fun of. One girl was super developed for her age; she had boobs before all of us did, had underarm hair when none of us did. I seriously can’t remember what we said but we made fun of her. There was another kid who was really tiny and got bloody noses out of nowhere. All the time. We’d make fun of him, throw paper or erasers at him in class. Our school was tough, so I don’t think we thought we were being bad in comparison. But when we look back on what we did now, it’s like, “Fuck, that was really mean.”
One girl started dating a guy who I was in love with, and because of that, I hated her. I was so jealous of her. When they broke up, I made her life a nightmare. I told everyone to stop being friends with her. She hated me. Her mom hated me. What’s funny is that two years later we actually became good friends. We just…grew up and got over it. But I regret it.
I think I started to change around age 15 when I moved to a new city. Suddenly, I was away from everyone who I grew up with and became the new kid. Everyone was like, “Who the hell are you?” It took me a while to fit in and make new friends, and I hated that year so much. It was very hard to not be the cool girl anymore. It was hard to not fit in. All you want when you’re that age is to be cool.
But you evolve. You grow up. You become more aware of how other people feel. You start feeling things that you haven’t experienced before, like rejection. You know how they say you don’t know what a broken heart really feels like until you’ve had yours broken? You don’t know that you’re a total asshole until someone else is a total asshole to you and makes you feel like crap.
I would not wish any of this on anyone. If it were my kid being bullied? Listen, it’s a tough world out there, but I would stand up for her. It’s hard because you probably want your kid to have friends and be social, but I wouldn’t want her to change who she was. And if I were to talk to mean girls right now, I’d tell them to think about how they would feel. Put yourself in other people’s shoes. If something doesn’t feel good, don’t do it.
That kid I told you about, that small kid who got bloody noses all the time, he’s really successful. He owns a bunch of companies. I don’t know if he’s still getting those bloody noses, but whatever. Everyone grows up.
I think behind every mean girl there is a nice girl, by the way. I wasn’t allowed to go out without adult supervision back then, but all of my friends were, so on weekends, I stayed home. I would play World of Warcraft with my neighbor. So. You never know.
ANONYMOUS STORIES OF ALL AGES
My school has always been the type to say they would do everything they could to prevent bullying. Tons of assembly’s about anti-bullying. But in 7th grade, I felt like I would be better off dead. This one girl and I were friends, kinda. We laughed together. But she didn’t know the limits. She started hurting me. Physically and mentally. She hit me square in the stomach one day. That’s when I realized that this wasn’t a joke to her. She kicked me. She slapped me. Left red marks on my face. She would even go as far as grabbing my hand with such a powerful grip that I couldn’t get away and she would dig three nails into my wrist, leaving a purple mark afterwards. One time I started bleeding. She left a scar there for two weeks at a time. I was upset. I didn’t know what to do. Some of my friends saw it too. But did nothing. I felt hopeless. She decided to go to our schools assistant principal and twist the story to say that I was hurting her and causing her harm. I thought that maybe this would be the way out of this by telling the assistant principal that it was the other way around. I told him about the marks on me. And I showed him the mark. And he even called in some of my friends to interview them on this. They said that it was true. I thought “yes. I will finally be free of her.”. It was a dream come true, or so I thought it would be. The assistant ended up just telling us to keep our distance. I was heartbroken. I even resorted to self harm. She got nothing for my times spent crying in the shower or random break downs. My separation from the outside world. I have a boyfriend now who is the light of my world. Always there for me. He understands me. I’m grateful. But I still want this girl to at least understand that she hurt me. Even though it’s been a while, a long time, I still remember it like it was yesterday. I don’t want this girl to die or anything. Never. But I want her to have a little understanding of what I felt like. If she has a genuine apology, I would start taking baby steps to forgiving her.
Getting Over the Effects
I have two brothers who were both bullied in school. I don’t know if I got lucky or something, but watching the effects hurts me so much. There’s a decent age gap between us. My brother is 24, I am 14, and my youngest brother is only 9. I never understood why my brother hated school when I, his little sister, loved it. Now, I understand. My best friend and I were so excited to have our little brothers, who were already best friends, start kindergarten, but when they started, a child barely in second grade started messing with them on the bus. He insulted them, took things until I made him give it back, and even physically hit them. That drew the line. I loved school, and I was not letting him ruin it for my brother. I found the kid’s name in a yearbook and reported him. He was punished and moved to a different bus. My mother had such mixed emotions about not confronting him how she did with my eldest brother- going to the bully’s house. I didn’t let her. The WORST PART? My little brother still dislikes school. It’s gotten better, but he believes he will never be like me or enjoy school. This is the same kid that can give you the entire history, including pop culture, of America to you in fourth grade. Im so proud of him, too. But one bully simply ruined my brothers’ opinions of school. As soon as my littlest was introduced to the situation, he was bullied. He’s over the bully, but I don’t think he will ever recover from what his first impression of school was like.
when i was in kindergarten i knew this guy named D. He had some problems going on at home with his parents, i believe. He would tell me things like ” you’re so stupid,” “you don’t understand struggle” and so on. For one straight week it was raining pretty hard. Friday the rain let up and we could go outside for play time. on our way out just as i stepped out on the concrete he tripped me. I fell and ended up scratching my knee bad enough where we couldn’t go outside. He was right behind me, and i felt him trip me. He laughed when I fell. His goons laughed too. Needless to say i’m glad i moved away from him.
Yesterday I witnessed a kid in class being fat shamed and bullied behind his back. I’m not going to sugar coat it the kid that was being bullied was not the most pleasant to be around. But I sat there and watched the bully mock him and make fun of him. I desperately wanted to help him, but I for some reason couldn’t speak. I was angry and I left that class angry not only at the bully but at myself for not doing something. So last night I laid in bed rehearsing what I was going to say to the bully in class. Now this morning I went into my 5th period (econ) and was filled with rage and anger when I saw that now the bullies were throwing food at the kid. And at that moment I gave him a piece of my mind. And the bully brushed it off and tried to act cool , that’s when I rock it one step further and told the teacher and then I got a thank you from the kid I was standing up for. It feels good to stand up and speak your mind versus not saying anything and beating yourself up for not saying anything. But I don’t want to make people feel like this act was brave or heroic in someway or form because I believe that if we all were to stand up to bullies then, more people could enjoy their lives.
Sticks And Stones Break My Bones But The Names Were What Destroyed Me
I’ve been picked on for as long as I can remember, from 3 years old and years later I’m still being bullied. It used to be because I couldn’t show emotion due to being autistic, then it was because I was in care, then because I knew the people who did the assemblies in school. I thought it would stop when I left school at the end of year 11 but I’m still being bullied because of having autism.
My bullying journey
In elementary school I was a very great kid, I had good grades, good friends, and everything was great. Once I got to middle school I made a lot of new friends and faded with other of my old ones. The new “friends” ended up bullying me. They would whisper stuff about me, punch me in the stomach, tell people to punch me, and made up rumors that I had lice so no one ever wanted to talk to me. I had no one. And once I was home I pretended to be okay. I didn’t want to be a snitch and tell my parents. Once the day was over I’d cry myself to sleep for hours. I even eventually thought of self-harm. I never had one real friend who was nice, and they would all say it was a “joke”.
I have a story from last year that I’d like to share. There was this girl in my class that is more of a “troublemaker” student. Out of the blue, she started calling me “Momo”. She even made a sticker of Momo’s face on Snapchat and put it on my face. On the outside, I was fine, but being based on something as unattractive as that made me hurt inside. I told my sister about it, and she got furious and told the girl to not mess with me again. The girl still kind of makes fun of me because of how I sing, but I know now that it’s none of her business. I don’t care what she thinks.
I was cyber bullied about a year ago from girls i called my best friends. One apologized but the other was still talking behind my back and turning others against me. She made me feel terrible about myself and lead me back to self-harm i felt so alone and scared i was gonna do something worse. I’ve been in a dark place since then they made me feel like i needed to have walls up and not trust anyone. Recently I’ve been really happy and getting better but she still bothers me a little and tried to break my boyfriend and I up. I have tried so hard to ignore everything but it isn’t that easy when you can’t really talk to anyone. I know i’m not what they called me but everyone else believes them and what scares me the most is that i always feel like anyone is gonna hurt me if i let them in. My trust for everyone is gone and its hard to earn.
my story is not as awful or sad as some others but i have been bullied it was in fourth grade [im in sixth now] on the bus. now i used to hate riding the bus but this just made it worse this girl i won’t say her name but her her older sister and one of their friends used to send me off the bus in tears every day and i wish i could say this continued till i stood up to them or told the teacher but in reality it continued till the girl’s older sister and her friend moved up to sixth grade and next year the girl didn’t really bother me but for a big chunk of fourth grade it was awful on the bus and there was this one girl i want to mention again i won’t say names but for the story i’ll call her Z now she is also a year older than me but she was still really nice and the only thing i had to cheer up those parts of the year were her and her corny yet funny jokes
sooo yeah that’s my story i hope things in this world change soon people need to just be kind!!!
Still haunted by her childhood pain
At my young age,I am an outcast, friends don’t want to talk to me ,they see me as an ugly witch and someone who might die soon because I suffer from concussion.Teachers don’t want to talk to me. My brother thought I was a threat and disgrace. My parents were the only one I could hold to my neighborhood friend were distant from me. But I am now in University bt I still feel the pain I suffered because this pain caused my insecurity. Still some people don’t want to be friends, and my feeling is because I am so ugly. i also have the right to live but I think I don’t. i want to leave freely like the gal who did not lose her childhood, but my childhood is gone.
Josh’s story: getting bullied at school
In my first year of middle school, kids taunted me and spit on me in hallways. It didn’t occur to me to tell my parents or teachers. Finally, when a group of 20 kids threatened to beat me up at the carwash the next day, I told my older brother, who in turn informed my parents. My dad looked up my main tormentor’s phone number in the phone book and told her dad to make his daughter stop or he’d contact the police. It worked.
Twenty years later, when my 11-year-old stepson, who I’ll call Josh, came home with a sprained wrist and a head injury as a result of bullying, nothing seemed so simple. A true contemporary family — three parents with radically different parenting styles — we were all busy working and parenting other children, too. Who had the time to slow down, figure out what was happening, research solutions, decide what to do, call the school, and demand action? It was the beginning of Josh’s sixth grade at a new school, so we didn’t know anyone. Every night, as we listened to his stories of getting insulted and roughed up in hallways, we wondered: is this the new normal?
Since the days when I was bullied, there have been campaigns, dozens of books, a bumper crop of bullying experts, a presidential initiative, a feature-length documentary, and thousands of heartbreaking stories about kids whose bullying allegedly led to terrible consequences: suicide, mental illness, prison sentences. But the sad fact is that the very definition of bullying remains somewhat in dispute.
“We are all against bullying until we have to define it,” writes bullDeboTemkin.rahying expert “The division between ‘normal’ childhood conflict, joking around, and bullying is a very thin, ever-changing line.”
Definitions of bullying vary, but the most commonly cited one comes from Dan Olweus, a Norweigan psychology professor who began studying bullying in the 1970s. He defines bullying as being “exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.” Olweus found that repeated abuse is what really affects kids. But Temkin warns against strict definitions. “[I]n bullying, as in any human rights violation, dismissing a person’s reported trauma based on too strict a threshold can inflict further damage.” In other words, it’s the child’s experience that matters.
Adding abuse to injury
Given my background of facing a leering mob in my middle school hallways, you might think I would have had the clarity of mind to be proactive when it came to Josh. But I hesitated. Josh had been excited to start middle school, so excited that the first Saturday after school started, he was disappointed to stay home. But then he started coming home with injuries from kids hurting him on the basketball court during lunch. Kids insulted him, he said, and after recess he’d find notes on his back saying, “kick me” or “loser.” After being pelted with fruit in the cafeteria, he started eating lunch alone in the hallway. The third week of school, Josh came home with a broken foot. He said he slipped on the stairs, but his mom suspected he’d been pushed. Then Josh told us kids were trying to step on his broken foot or saying, “When that one heals, I’m gonna break the other one.”
Like most of us living in this knowledge-obsessed Internet age, I tried to combat my fear with information. I learned that instead of focusing on punishing the kids who were bullying him, I should figure out how to help Josh and understand what the school could and could not do. I learned that schools can’t disclose how they deal with other kids involved, and we should help Josh get involved in activities where he felt safe and could make new friends.
We tried to follow these directives. Josh’s mom enrolled him in martial arts to build his confidence and teach him self-defense. Once his foot healed, he started playing soccer again. I told Josh about my bullying experiences. At times, he seemed happy to hear he wasn’t alone. But other times he responded that there must be something wrong with him. I could see his confidence wither as abuse fueled his doubts.
According to statistics, approximately 77 percent of students have been physically or verbally bullied. But it was hard to tell if Josh was being targeted, exaggerating, or if this aggressive behavior was normal for sixth grade boys.
A sensitive kid who is intelligent, handsome, and has always been a head taller than his classmates, Josh is often timid with other youths. He constantly asked for advice on how to feel. Sometimes he seemed to stick with kids who were mean to him, waiting for acceptance that would never come. I wondered if Josh was too comfortable in the victim role. Part of me was angry at him for being bullied and wondered why he couldn’t just stand up for himself. I survived being bullied, I’d think; and then, I’d feel guilty. Even if only part of what he told us was true, it was awful.
I know now that certain kids are more likely to be bullied. Victims of bullying tend to have high levels of insecurity, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem (all feelings I saw in Josh), but it’s nearly impossible to tell if these feelings are the cause or the effect of bullying. The irony is that kids who bully often experience the same emotions and some 20 percent of kids who are bullied also bully others. Not surprisingly, these have the highest rates of depression and anxiety. aggressor/victims
Just make it stop
Josh’s mother and father called the principal, vice principal, and school counselor repeatedly, but it took weeks to get them on the phone and schedule meetings. Josh’s mom showed up at the counselor’s office unannounced one day to discover that he had just put Josh and the boy who had given Josh a black eye the day before in mediation, asking them both to apologize — a tactic that took a high-minded “nobody’s to blame” approach but left Josh even more demoralized. Josh started eating lunch with a group of eighth graders, doing their homework, and giving them his lunch in exchange for protection.
One afternoon in our kitchen, Josh described lying on the hall floor and being repeatedly kicked while other kids watched. We called the vice-principal, who apologized but said he didn’t have footage of the beating on their video cameras and no other kids would corroborate Josh’s story. According to statistics, more than half of the time, bullying stops if another kid intervenes, but no one stepped in to help Josh.
We weren’t helping either. I was angry with Josh’s dad (my partner) for not doing enough. Since I wasn’t a biological parent, I was legally powerless to call the school. As a stepparent, I also felt I should take a back seat to Josh’s mom and dad. We were all angry with the school, and our frustration seeped into our relationships with each other. Should we threaten these kids, tell Josh to fight, go to the police? At the end of a long day of working and parenting, my partner and I worriedly compared notes, decided who to call and what to ask for. Deep down, we all just wanted it to go away. Also, we felt bad about ourselves as parents. Had we raised Josh badly? Why did he seem to be everyone’s punching bag? Every morning, it felt like we were sending him into a war zone with no protection.
One day, Josh said a boy called Omar knocked him down and started punching and kicking him in the face and body. A crowd of kids gathered and screamed at Omar, aggressively egging him on. “I was scared to fight back and get suspended,” Josh told me. The next day, he told me he had fantasies about stabbing his bullies.
At almost 6 feet tall, Josh was far bigger than these kids. Though I knew it contradicted every piece of expert advice I’d read, I told him to defend himself. I was afraid for him, afraid of him being hurt, but even more afraid of what he was internalizing about himself. Josh would ask me if he was ugly or stupid, and when I said no, he’d ask why all the kids said so. When Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, interviewed adults who had been bullied, she found their experiences were still raw and painful, even years later. I didn’t want Josh to have these memories.
In early March, a kid punched Josh in the face in gym class. The teacher separated the kids and told them to go back to “playing.” Instead, the boy punched Josh again. The school expelled the boy — who had a history of violence and clearly needed support — from Josh’s class. The vice principal and counselor met with Josh, developed safety plans and places for him during lunch, but the verbal and physical abuse continued. Two weeks later, two friends of the expelled boy cornered Josh in a stairwell and attacked him.
I had finally had enough. I sat down and wrote up a timeline of all the abuse Josh had experienced since September and our attempts to get support from the school. I sent the list to Josh’s mom who filled in more detail. Josh’s dad filed an official police report against Josh’s primary tormentor, emailed the timeline to the superintendent of schools, and removed Josh from school citing physical assault. We were finally united as a team with the single goal of protecting Josh. We met with the superintendent, who was shocked by the abuse and lack of response we described, and requested an emergency safety transfer to a new middle school, which was granted.
Two years later, I’m ashamed of how long it took me to take the abuse seriously, get the police involved, and pull Josh from that school. We learned that every school has a police officer assigned to it, and that those officers exist to help in these sorts of situations. Our fear of authority, concerns that Josh was lying or should toughen up, and lack of knowledge about his school life all contributed to our delay. We waited too long to intervene and allowed our own insecurities, poor communication, and confusion to get in the way.
I know now that Josh’s experience is atypical. These days, many schools have systems and regulations in place that demand they act quickly, especially when bullying is physical. States and local lawmakers have enacted laws, usually through the education code, to protect children. In general, in-person bullying seems to be decreasing although other forms of harassment, such as cyberbullying, may be increasing. Josh’s experience has changed all of us. I try to listen to Josh and his experiences without judgment, and now, with his dad’s blessing, I am empowered to intervene on Josh’s behalf. Josh, now 6’3” and weighing in at 200 pounds, just finished up at his new middle school and is excited for high school next year. Of course, rude, abusive kids haven’t evaporated from Josh’s life. Last week, he told us about a kid taunting him, making obscene remarks about what Josh and a friend liked to do with each other.
Josh’s friend told Josh to “deal with the situation.” Josh told his taunter to shut up, but the kid retaliated physically.
“He was punching me in the stomach, but it didn’t hurt since he’s tiny,” Josh said.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I told him to stop, but when he wouldn’t, I hook punched him in the back of his head with medium force, but he fell on his ass anyway,” Josh said.
“You should never hit someone on the head!” I exclaimed, horrified, realizing that my urging him to defend himself, and that he was taking his cues from a questionable friend, may have led to this.
“You could have killed him! You should have reacted defensively.”
Josh shot me stricken look and stormed out.
Lines of communication
His dad watched him go, then turned to me: “If you react like that, he’s going to stop confiding in us.”
I sought Josh out and found him sitting on his bed.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was really scared when you told me you punched that kid in the back of the head. My mind went to the worst case scenario.”
“Everyone gives me different advice,” Josh responded. “I told him to stop. If I ran away, everyone would have laughed at me because the kid is over a foot shorter than me.”
Josh’s actions made me nervous. The physically aggressive behavior worried me, and I didn’t want Josh to be comfortable resorting to violence. Was this what Josh learned from being bullied? I wanted to control Josh’s school experience: delete the meanness and make it all peaceful and happy. But even I know that isn’t realistic. I could tell Josh to never to raise a hand, but is that truly the right answer for him? I don’t know. And it isn’t my fight. Josh’s life will be full of tough decisions like the one he described.
“It’s so hard to decide what to do on the spot like that. Do you think you made the right choice?”
“I do,” he said.
I took a deep breath … and kept silent. Real parenting is messy and doesn’t follow textbook lines. I don’t want Josh to learn to protect his honor with his fists. But this is his experience, not mine. Isn’t my job to help him weigh his options, make a decision, and handle the consequences for himself?