Monday, April 30, 2012

Hometown Memories: Face To Face With Mean Girls

“Don't blindly follow your friends into self-destructive behavior in order to be accepted by them.
If they were truly your friends, they wouldn't expect that from you in the first place”

Last week, I wrote about how tough the high school I attended was and ended it with this:

I was never really aware to what level of nastiness the ‘bad’ girls could climb – I’d never needed or cared to find out – until it hit close to home and was literally shoved in my face. Until that day I was living in my idyllic world where ignorance truly is truly bliss.

And I will share that story with you - next week.


...

Well, it’s ‘next week’, so here is that story...

When I was in elementary school, I was really good friends with a girl named (let’s call her) ‘Ashley’. Sometime toward the middle of our elementary school years, she moved away and changed schools. Because we were so fond of one another, we decided to keep in touch. By writing letters to each other. And we did, regularly.
Hanging out with a best friend. (I'm on the left)

For years to follow, we mailed letters back and forth; sharing our news, talking about our lives, friends and schools, and basically growing up together through words. It was a joyous event whenever I received a letter from her, something I always looked forward to. None of my day to day friends knew about this part of my life. My cherished friendship with ‘Ashley’ was my secret; a place I visited alone --- like a secret garden.

Because we were quite young when we started our pen pal adventure, we were not quite clear on distances, so we were convinced that the area she moved to was exotically far away. This made our correspondence that much more exciting. But when we started high school and become more ‘worldly’, we discovered that we weren’t as far away from each other as we had always assumed - no more than 8 to 10 kilometers (5 or 6 miles). It was about that time that we started to hint at the idea of reuniting in person. And since we had learned by this time how to get around by public transportation, we knew it was only a matter of time before we would make this happen.

Girls I hung out with in high school. (I'm on the right)
I must have been about 15 when I received a letter from ‘Ashley’ asking me if she could come down to my school with some friends to meet me. She listed a date; I wrote back and confirmed. I told her to ‘just ask for me’ when she arrived, and that someone would be sure to locate me and pass the message. I was beside myself with excitement. We were finally going to see each other in person again; all grown-up, teenagers, young ladies. I had a childhood image of her but now I’d get to see her as an adolescent. I wondered what she was like now. In elementary school, she had been a kind and sensitive girl, and the letters I received from her indicated to me that not much had changed. I imagined us feeling a little awkward at first, trying to conjugate the present and past by compressing the distance of the years between the two like the folding of an accordion. But no matter what, I knew that the friendship that we had kept alive for so long on paper would surface rapidly in person, and the years of physical separation would quickly fade away. The initial nervousness would be squelched by the strong bond that had kept those letters coming – regularly, avidly – for so many years.

I never did see Ashley that day. I just knew that she had been there. She had traveled down with her friends to see me, but never got a chance to find me.

Here is what happened...

During lunch period on that day, I entered the school foyer (a big open space where we hung out during the colder days and listened to music from our school’s radio station run by students that volunteered as DJs), and as I strolled along, several students ran up to me to inform me that (let’s call her) ‘Jenny’ – a leader of a callous gang of girls in our grade level – was searching for me. And that she looked angry. My heart stopped. Looking for me? Angrily? No one wanted ‘Jenny’, a bona fide bully, ‘looking for them’. Especially in such a foul mood.
(I'm on the left) The girl whose arm is around me was one
of my best friends in high school. We're still great friends.

When I reached halfway through the foyer, I spotted ‘Jenny’ and thugs. They saw me and started heading toward me with determination. I tensed, preparing myself for the worst. Nothing good could come out of this. They stopped in front of me, five of them, ‘Jenny’ in the middle, and two cronies on each side. It was always that way with them – traveling en masse with the leader center stage. She towered over them, not so much in size as in ruthlessness. Her followers were looking up at her in admiration. As if being hardhearted was something to be proud of.

‘Jenny’ looked straight into my eyes as she dropped devastating news right into my lap. My heart was pounding so hard against my chest, and I was drawing such deep breaths, that I was convinced that any minute I was going to pass out as she rambled on.

“Ashley...said she came to see you...”

‘Ashley’.

My head was spinning so hard at the mention of her name that I could hardly make out Jenny’s words. The background faded and was replaced by cut-out figures of students. I was no longer in a sensible reality. I was standing on quicksand that was sucking me into a gruesome abyss.

“...with her little friends...taught them all a good lesson...”

I heard laughter. Her cronies were laughing, nodding their heads in approval, proud of this bully, and of themselves. I felt the nausea building as ‘Jenny’ fed me this poisonous information. This couldn’t be truly happening; the scene was too surreal.

“...think they can come around here...”

I never took my eyes off this vicious girl, frozen, feeling my head throbbing. I couldn’t feel the rest of my body. Had it gone numb? Had it vanished altogether? Had the quicksand finally managed to pull me all the way down leaving only my head and its – my eyes, my ears – as witness?

“...never show their faces here again...”

‘Jenny’ was shaking. Pumped up with adrenaline. It was clear just how much pleasure she had derived from the experience. It was like a drug that she needed to keep her cold heart pumping.

“...had to let you know...”

More laughter. And then silence. Suddenly all eyes were on me. She was asking me something. I didn’t hear what she was saying at first. I was too mesmerized by the look in her eyes. I’d never seen a look like that. It was like looking in the eyes of a wild animal after it’s hunted down its prey.

Hanging out with friends. (I'm on the seat to the right)
"What do you think about that?” That was her question. What did I think about that? I just stared at her for the longest time. There were no words. My mind was blank. The satisfied smiles, the laughter, the cold eyes – it all stunned me. The lack of shame, lack of remorse and lack of sensitivity was beyond my comprehension. These girls could have foamed at the mouth, writhed on the ground, shown horns, cloven hooves and pointed tails – it wouldn’t have surprised me. Because I was, after all, in the presence of demons. These weren’t human beings. They couldn’t be. They had surfaced from hell. No one could behave in this manner, hurt other people intentionally, without feeling guilty, and not be evil. After all, what kind of a sick mind carries out such an abusive act, and is then fanatically eager to brag about it?

I couldn’t breathe. I felt as if my lungs were being squeezed. I opened my mouth to speak, to ask ‘why’ they would do this and felt my tongue twisting inside it, paralyzed. I closed it, opened it and tried once more. Nothing. But they didn’t care for an answer. They never really expected one. As quickly and forcefully as they had arrived is as quickly and forcefully as they turned around and left. En masse. Always, en masse.

I never heard from Ashley again after that. She never contacted me. I never contacted her. We disappeared from each other’s lives, each one of us hiding behind our own wall. Perhaps for her it was anger. Perhaps it was embarrassment. Perhaps it was even the feeling of betrayal -- my betrayal of her. I never did find out. But my own wall was multi-faceted. Regret. I should have warned her. I knew what type of school I was in, what could have awaited her. And yet it had never crossed my mind. Because I’d always been safely ignored by these nasty girls, I’d assumed that she’d be safe, too, simply because she was my friend. Anger.I was angry at myself for not having protected her. Shouldn’t I have kept an eye out for her, checking every now and then to see if she had arrived, running out the minute I saw her approach to meet with her? Would this have kept her safe? If those girls had seen me with her, might they have left her alone? Shame. I had stood before the demons and done nothing. I’d stood before them shocked; immobilized by fear and horror. For years and years I told myself that I should have pulled myself together and punched that bitch in the face, right then and there, and simply lived with the consequences that would come from it. Even if that meant being relentlessly bullied for the remainder of my high school years. But I didn’t. And struggled with that.

It’s been over 30 years since this happened, and yet, whenever I think about it, I’m transported back to that foyer, staring into that vicious girl’s eyes, stunned by the iciness in them, and shocked by how proud she was of herself. How keen she was to gloat about victimizing an innocent human being.

In the present, ‘Jenny’ is friends with good friends of mine; friends that never knew what happened back in high school. Recently, one of my friends sang praises about ‘Jenny’, saying “She’s such a wonderful person. And even back then, she wasn’t that bad. She was a good kid. It was the other girls in her gang that were really bad.”

Maybe I would have shared that perspective if not for my own unpleasant experience with her. I guess it all depends on which side of the fence you’re standing on. And who’s telling the story.

Another friend recently said about high school bullies: “All that happened a long time ago. We should forget about it.”

And she went on to say about another notorious female bully: “Remember (let’s call her) ‘Macy’ [last name omitted]? I’m good friends with her now and she’s turned out to be the sweetest, nicest person.”

And that’s great. But it doesn’t change what happened back then.

She went on to add: “We’ve all done stupid things in the past. We learn from them. They help shape who we are today.”

They absolutely do. But the abuse that bullies dish out also shape the victim they dish it out to. Should we not ponder how those moments have affected a victim? What it’s done to them? It’s not one-sided, after all. And the other side is always more devastating.

What puzzles me is that making a reference to anyone’s debauched past, even our own, seems to be taboo. What gives? Can we simply sweep misdeeds and elements that we are ashamed of under a rug and pretend they never happened? Is there a statute of limitations on ruthlessness? Or do we grow as human beings by owning these moments, and feeling the guilt and remorse that these actions should rouse? And what about the people that were victimized by these bullies? Do we simply wave away the impact those days had on them because it’s easier to just ‘forget about it’? Isn’t that a lot more convenient for the bully than the bullied?

I will write a little more about my thoughts on this next time...

“There is one thing alone that stands the brunt of life throughout its course: a quiet conscience”

16 comments:

  1. Oh Martha,
    I hate bullies, I really do. I wrote a bit about bullying in my post "The Importance of Kindness". You would be surprised how many get to my blog by typing in those words, and I wonder what makes people type that into a search engine.
    Would you be able to try to contact Ashley now? I wonder if she might find you through your blog?

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    1. I read that post, Kay, and it really spoke to me. It brought back to mind this incident, among others. I have searched for this old friend now that there's Facebook and a whole bunch of other things on the internet. The problem is that I have no clue what she looks like and don't remember her surname. But I believe that eventually I will find her, perhaps by asking around until I find someone who knows someone who knows someone that knows her.

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  2. Martha, your Monday Musings are resonating with me. From my experience of having been bullied from Kindergarten through to Grade 11 constantly, there are 2 types of bullies. The ringleaders and the followers. The followers are the ones that may feel remorse later in life and make changes. The ring leaders I just don't understand and have difficulty forgiving. The bullies actions have left me scarred to the point that I don't like walking by myself even during daylight. I jump when I'm approached from behind and don't hear the person coming. I'm overly aware of my surroundings. I am nervous walking near hedges where people can hide. I'm still nervous as an adult walking through the crosswalk near my elementary school because of the ghosts of memories. One girl bully is very successful and on a national stage (television) a few years ago, I heard her described as generous, giving, caring, supportive. I can't believe that she is that changed.

    I have moved on from the terrible memories by using those bullies and ghosts from the past as examples of how not to act. I've tried to teach my children to always care about others' feelings and to stand up for those who are being bullied. I never want someone else to have their self-worth and self-esteem so battered that it takes years to overcome as it did for me.

    I would like to think that "Ashley" could connect again with you as an adult and you could air your remorse of long ago for not thinking ahead. However, you also need to forgive yourself for just being a teenager. It has been scientifically proven that the area of the brain that foresees consequences of actions/situations is not fully developed until age 24. Martha, you are a beautiful person inside and out and my hope is that you can forgive yourself and have some peace.

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    1. Cathy, I'm so sorry to hear this. And this is what I'm talking about when I emphasize the effects those days have on kids that were bullied. Bullies in our schools bother me more than I can put into words. The schools belong to all our children; they all have a right to be right, to be safe, to enjoy and to experience happiness. What was done to you is completely unacceptable.

      I can see the results with your children as you teach them to respect others and stand up to those who are being abused. They are both great kids that will grow up to be great adults.

      As for 'Ashley', I hope to find her one day. We may never connect, but if I get an opportunity to apologize, that will make me so happy.

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  3. What a horrible ordeal Martha, for you and Ashley. I don't think we should sweep this kind of past behaviour under the carpet, especially when the victims of such behaviour are still living with the after effects.Bullying doesn't always end after school - I know lots of people who have been bullied in their place of work. I think it's easier to excuse one incident - but a prolonged campaign of bullying is unforgivable. I wouldn't think twice about reminding a bully about their past behaviour. You really shouldn't be so hard on yourself - you were up against impossible odds. This was beautifully written...and on the up side weren't you the cute looking teenager! I've said it before, there's something in Canadian water for sure...

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    1. I believe, like Cathy wrote above, that the followers do become better people as time progresses and they mature, but that the ringleaders aren't all that nice deep down inside. Some young bullies turn into adult bullies. Where else would they come from? I've seen many of them in work places; they are tyrants.

      Oh, and thank you for the compliment! That is sweet :)

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  4. Well, I didn't get bullied because I always did what you wished you would have done, punched her in the face. I did that stuff in highschool. I sucker punched guys who gave me trouble, I elbow jabbed or threatened those who threathened my friends. At the time it was a great feeling of power... no one could pick on me or push me and my friends around. Sure that's great, but I paid for it. I paid for it in detentions, suspensions, and finally expulsion from school...and a police record. I can see someone looking back and wishing they'd stood up for themselves, and that's good up to a point, but for me, it was too far and it was ridiculous. My record still haunts me to this day when I try to get jobs, etc. Be careful what you wish for!

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    1. Well, I certainly appreciate your honesty TB. The fact that you put it all out there certainly shows that you have learned and grown from your experiences. I've typically been the type to stand up for myself, but the school I went to was far beyond anything I imagined. And kids like the ones I wrote above were absolutely horrible; nasty to the core. I could never had been the way you describe your youth, but one punch on that day wouldn't have been all that bad!

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  5. Martha, I am glad you shared your story. I was bullied in elementary school by a boy (my Dad put an end to that), and endured subtle bullying by girls in high school when I moved to a larger town(I escaped by graduating). Maybe 'Ashley' would understand now that she is an adult and welcome your friendship again. Please don't blame yourself for what happened, you were a victim.

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    1. I'm sorry to hear that CraveCute. It surprises me how many people have had to endure things like that. I like to think that as adults, my old friend and I can reconnect. If not, I'd like nothing more than to tell her how sorry I was. That would be enough.

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  6. What a tragic story! It may or may not help but recent studies have found that people don't fully develop empathy until about age 19. So it is no wonder why some kids with little or no parental guidance that enforces good behaviour turn into bullies. It seems, though, that along with empathy comes remorse. (Remembering something you did as a kid and wondering how you could have done that.) Chances are the mean girls fell terrible now. Probably there is a statute of limitations on things we did as teens but certainly adults who bully should be held accountable.

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    1. Wow, 19? That sounds like a little late to me, Francie. From what I’ve read, the development of empathy begins very early in life. By age two, children typically begin to display essential behaviours of empathy, and this important trait really begins to grow during preschool. It is during the elementary school years, however, that empathy should really take root and become a way of life. If it doesn’t, emotional callousness sets in. Young children who are very empathetic blossom into compassionate, sensitive teens that are a joy to be around. Teens that lack empathy can be quite harsh and nasty – certainly capable of becoming bullies. And there are also kids who will not practice empathy because they are so focused on competing with others for social dominance that the feelings of others is not important.

      Obviously, other factors come into play that can be detrimental to the development of empathy. Bad parenting is one of them, psychological problems, etc. Children who are dealing with trauma, stress and difficulties in life are also not in a position to practice empathy.

      I do believe that some of those that were rotten back then did feel remorse and regret later on. But not all of them. Some have just moved along and not cared in the least. There are mean, rotten adults, after all; they do come from somewhere.

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  7. Hi Martha,

    I'm so sad that you never got to see Ashley and that this person and her friends did this to her and the girls she came to your school with to see you that day. How awful. I don't understand why someone would do something so horrible. What in the world would be the purpose? There really isn't any. It's cruel, low, and honestly, completely stupid. It's a very stupid and low level of mentality and immaturity. And the pack mentality of those that follow a personality like that, well, you can't really reason with totally unreasonable people. It's so horrible that you and your friend Ashley had to go through any bullying and harsh treatment.

    To me, when the bullying gets brushed under the rug like that, when people turn away from the looking and remembering and talking about it all, it's still a form of influence the person has over other people. It's still a form of bullying. If people are willing to look away it's easier for them to feel safe or something like that. And not realizing what it does to the people who were victims of such rotten behavior and hatred, actually, not so much of not realizing but refusing to really look at what it is to be on the receiving end of bullying and harassment, makes it all so much easier to swallow.

    We are a society of "leaders" and "followers". Our social structures are almost un-evolved in so many ways. People fold under peer pressure (many do anyway) and those who resist or do not fit in end up being mocked, bullied, taunted, beaten up and so on. It's so below what an "advanced" species should be about. I do not understand it. I really don't. It causes me great confusion when I read about these things happening to other people. I have lived through bullying and teasing and being beaten up too for being so different because I'm an Aspie... and I do not understand why being different from the "norm" means that one must be zeroed in on and hurt because of it. I do not understand it at all.

    And I really get confused when I read something like your post. Those girls just hurt anyone they felt like and enjoyed it. They took great enjoyment in scaring you and harming your friend, which harmed you. What in the world is wrong with people like that? Something must be broken inside to be able to do that. They must feel so small about themselves that they have to make themselves "big" in whatever way is possible and for them, I guess they think it's violence because that gives the false sense that they are better because they can cause pain and fear? That's just terrifically sad.

    I wouldn't be able to be friends with "Jenny" at all. I would not spend any time with her at all. People can change, yes, that's true. But I would choose to not be around someone who could gain such power over people and influence them and even frighten them into following her.

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    1. I am not friends with "Jenny". I just can't do it. It's a long time ago, and I don't hate her or anything, but I have no desire to be in her circle, any more than I have the desire for her to be in mine. I hope that she has become a great person and made up for the pain she caused in the past by passing along good things in the present. But that's her life; her choices to make.

      In any case, there are a number of reasons, I suppose, why some people are cruel, but none justify the victim's suffering at the victimizers hands. I don't care what the reasons are, everyone has the right to live a safe life, and every one has a right to be in this world.

      You made a lot of good points in your comments, and I am in awe by how wonderful you've turned out to be considering all you've been through. You could have turned out to be angry and bitter, but you didn't. You chose to be a better person, and I admire you for it.

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  8. I cannot for the life of me remember this scene. Am I suffering from Stocholm syndrome... quick send help! Who, what, when where? You have my undying attention on this one. As for the recent convo... got it. If two and two make four... then I think I just found the answer. Really? I am shocked... Why didn't you ever mention this? Need more info...!!!

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    1. You can't remember because I never told you. And maybe I didn't get around all that much. I didn't mention it because it was my cross to bear. And you know how private I am about my life. I deal with my issues on my own most of the time. This was no exception. In any case, it was over 30 years ago. What's done is done. If I knew then what I know now, I would have handled things differently.

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