Illustration by Angelica Alzona/GMG.
The bully moved to town in fourth grade, when social groups were already solidified and best friends were already established. As memory serves, he was the main antagonist in all my middle school stories. Legend has it that on his first day, he made his grand entrance by slipping and falling on a single Kleenex on the ground. That story is likely false or has been built up over time, and is now a myth more than an actual fact. Regardless, he made an indelible impression.
At the time, what he did was never really thought of as bullying—just the result of being a bored kid in a small town. Once, he slapped a girl across the face in our 7th grade history class. For what must have been a few weeks, he tried to start a club that discriminated against one kid for no reason. I have a vague recollection of the bully’s Nazi phase, expressed mostly during a week in which he wore a trench coat filched from his parent’s closet. There’s one memory that stands out to me in particular, though.
In my hometown, my middle school class was maybe 80 kids, tops, and located in a tiny building in the center of town, next to the Church of the Good Shepherd. Scheduling and space issues meant that math and science classes were taught at the high school down the road and English and history classes were taught in the middle school. As a class, we were divided by our math and science skills—kids who were better at math were assumed to also be better at the language arts. As a teen who was very bad at math but excellent in English, being placed with a group of kids who my rude teen mind determined were stupid felt like an affront to my razor-sharp, 13-year-old intellect. Middle school is a vulnerable, weird time for anyone, and being separated from the friends I’d been cultivating for years felt like a death sentence for my social life.
I channeled my feelings of isolation into long-winded journal entries, dutifully accounting the stupidity of my classmates every night while listening to the local radio station’s Top Nine at Nine countdown. The lyrics to Salt’n’Pepa’s “Shoop” are interspersed with pages and pages of mean-spirited and petty rantings about the stupidity of my classmates. When I was finished being angry about being grouped with the dumb kids, I would close my journal and go to sleep.
The town I grew up in was the kind of place where doors were left unlocked and kids were allowed to roam the streets. My house was small, but we had a huge yard and my father worked from home, inside but out of sight, while the rest of us ran around in the yard, playing soccer. It was probably during one of these soccer games when the incident took place. Working with an accomplice, the bully came into my house, stole my journal, photocopied some particularly damning excerpts—I recall calling a girl in my class a stupid cow—and distributed these excerpts to the very same people I was writing about in school the next day.
It’s much easier to cast yourself as the victim in a memory when you may have been the villain, but the fact remains that this memory exists. What happened after is much clearer, corroborated by my father whose memory is, to be fair, just as spotty as mine: the journal was returned to me after a few days, deposited on my front porch in a box of compost and mulch. It wasn’t hard to figure out who stole the journal; when it was returned to me, I saw the bully and his friend retreat.
Thankfully, time has erased any real, solid memory of the fallout from this incident. The people I was trying to fake my way through friendships with saw through my charade, which I suppose I deserved. I’m sure many people were angry at me. I’m sure I cried.
Over breakfast with my father the other day, I asked him if the story was as I remembered it and he couldn’t really place it.
“I know you guys used to torture him in the backyard,” he said. “I had to call his dad to apologize for why he came home crying at least more than once.” I’m not sure what we could’ve done to the bully to make him feel bad; though he was extremely rude, we were generally in thrall to whatever activity he planned, gamely running through musical theatre rehearsals or learning some original song he’d plunk out for us on his piano.
Children for the most part are monsters practicing for adulthood and we were not different. We tolerated the bully, but in turn, he was regularly bullied himself, pushed into a locker every now and then by a doofus in a white baseball hat who was twice his size, calling him a “fag” and walking away.
A horrible shared memory that I discuss in shame with friends from home is of a time when the entire class bonded together in united, baseless hate, making fun of a girl who had moved to town a few years before so much that she eventually left the school. Then and now, it feels as if everyone was bullied in equal measure and not much was done about it. We just rolled with the punches, compartmentalizing the hurt from our time in the victim’s chair and weaponizing it later when the roles were reversed. The bullying wasn’t nearly as pervasive and overwhelming as it sounds to share with someone who wasn’t there; in retrospect, we were just being dicks, because that’s what kids do. Of course, part of that is that that’s my perspective, one that dominates how each of us carries the weight of these seminal memories.
Being a new kid in school at any age is hard, but the town I grew up in was insular. Most kids went to the same nursery school and by the time kindergarten rolled around, everyone knew each other well enough to move in pre-established friend groups that felt impenetrable to an outsider. Any new person who entered the fray was up for inspection. Kids often lack the filter that most adults use to keep their rude observations about other people in check. My bully was savvier than most kids; he knew that his best tactic for escaping scrutiny would be to beat the assholes at their own game.
A few years after the diary incident, I moved out of my hometown and across the country to California to live with my mom for the rest of high school. That event wasn’t the reason why, though I’m sure it was related on some level. My hometown was very white and I am not. I wanted the opportunity to be in a more diverse school and so I took it. High school continued without further incident for the most part after I moved. Back home, the bully graduated and then mostly disappeared, possibly equally pleased to escape a place that had been unkind to him. From what I hear, he’s doing fine.