I never did find out what started it. Perhaps it was the party I threw at the end of seventh grade. I thought I’d invited everybody who “counted,” but maybe I left someone out, someone who then had the whole summer to massage his grudge. Perhaps it was something I said that was not a part of the accepted tribal lexicon. Or maybe I offended some boy by not picking up on his subtle signals that, yes, he’d like to make out with me at the party. Most likely, it was simply that my time had come to be the target of bullying.
All I know is that the boys’ taunting began at the start of eighth grade and continued for the entire school year. In every classroom, every hallway, every corner of the cafeteria I encountered a minefield of mockery and derision. They made fun of my clothes. My attempts to cling to friendships. My desire to make the cheerleading squad. (I didn’t.) No matter where I went, I was greeted by the same loud, sing-songy chant: “Ooo-ew, Smo-lowe!” It got so I hated the sound of my own name.
Until then, I’d been a happy and confident kid, one of the “smart” students in the “cool” crowd. Outside the classroom, I was content to adhere to the social dictates of the leaders — which is to say the cutest boys and the prettiest girls. Ruthlessly, they prescribed what we wore and what activities were acceptable, which parties we attended and which lips were desirable for make-out sessions. That year, my lips were designated the least desirable of all.
Come weekends, there was occasional respite. One of the three girls who’d been my closest friends the previous school year might phone to discuss homework. On rare occasions, one might invite me for a sleepover. Though we’d never been a harmonious bunch — rivalries, alliances and affections shifted constantly — we’d been a quartet. Now, it was more a trio and the odd-girl-out. I understood that their forbearance could be withdrawn at any moment.
This trio, at least, didn’t encourage my tormentors. The most popular girls would egg the boys on by giggling at their taunts and literally stepping away from me in the hallways. These three, instead, looked at their feet or turned away from the spectacle of my humiliation. I don’t recall any one of them ever coming to my rescue. I don’t recall ever expecting them to. That, I understood, would have been social suicide.
Though I tried to feign indifference, I fretted endlessly about what this one or that one thought of me. I became a keen observer of the society from which I’d been evicted, scrutinizing every look, gesture and interaction. All of this I poured into my diary: who said what to whom; how a certain boy had looked at me and why that was more promising than the day before; what so-and-so had done to fuel my misery. I was incapable of taking another step back to wonder what I thought of any of this or any of them.
Had I had a mind of my own, I would have seen that by responding to my tormentors, I succeeded only in encouraging their ridicule. But at 13, I was not interested in thinking for myself. I just wanted to rush into the embrace of anyone who would have me — which was nobody. Around mid-year, I remember considering trying to make some new friends, but the prospect of being part of a crowd that wasn’t “cool” made me feel like even more of a loser. Besides, by then I was certain that everyone in the school knew I was a pariah.
The year of being bullied had taught me that in order to feel “in,” social tribes require others to feel left “out.”
It was an incident near the end of the school year that enabled me, finally, to break free of the group-think chokehold. I was walking past a tennis court when I heard a familiar voice say, “I don’t like Jill, but I feel sorry for her.” My head whipped toward the voice and there was one of the three girls from my quartet, chatting across the net to a boy.
I quickened my pace, not turning my head when I heard her gasp, then break into frantic giggles. After I got home, I shut myself in my bedroom. When the phone rang, it was exactly what I anticipated: “You misunderstood…I didn’t mean it…Can you ever forgive me?” As she babbled on and on, all I could think about was her cruel comment. I didn’t believe she didn’t like me; I believed she’d been trying to score points with the boy at my expense. She felt sorry for me? That I believed — and it made me feel sick. Had I fallen so low that I was pitiable?
That’s when I realized that something had to change. I had to change. I could no longer spend my days dependent on the judgments of others. I had to stop worrying what others thought about me and pay closer attention to what I thought about me.
Soon after, I set off on a cross-country summer teen tour. Thankfully, none of the kids were from my school, though two girls, both a year older than I, were from my town. The kids on this tour hadn’t gotten the memo about me being a pariah. I made new friends. Kissed two boys. By the time I returned home, I was close to the two girls from my town, who soon introduced me to their high school friends.
At my junior high, the taunting resumed the first day of classes. “Oh, grow up,” I snapped at the offending boy and walked away. After that, it quickly stopped, probably because I no longer responded. The year of being bullied had taught me that in order to feel “in,” social tribes require others to feel left “out.” I no longer wanted a role in either part of that equation.
My disinterest in large social groups proved enduring. As for smaller constellations, it took two more go-rounds, first as part of a quartet, then a trio, to see finally that I was not cut out for groups of any size. For me, true friendship could evolve only when it was unmediated by others.
The friendships I hold dearest today (all of them, it now occurs to me, with people who are independent in their thinking and undrawn by the magnetism of social groups) were each decades in the making. The progression from casual affection to unwavering trust and steadfast love involved demonstrations of mutual respect for each other’s privacy. Experience handling each other’s vulnerabilities. Gestures of reliability, loyalty and support. A track record of safeguarding each other’s confidences and well-being. An ability to apologize; a capacity to forgive. I know now that all of that requires time, which is fine by me. I’m not so young anymore; I’m not in a rush.
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