Kelsey and Rebekah
Sometimes we’re bullies because we don’t know how to deal with our own weirdness. In fifth grade, I was mean to Rebekah because she couldn’t hide hers. We were in a small, magnet class of brainy fourth and fifth graders that had only five girls. Because being in a class for “gifted” kids was like walking around with the word LOSER tattooed onto your forehead, I tried to spend all of my lunch and recess periods with kids from outside of our class. On top of that, my mom had been battling ovarian cancer for several years so I was left alone to figure out how to imitate “normal” girls. I formed a tiny gang with some girls from outside the class, and begrudgingly invited two other “magnet” girls. Rebekah was one of them.
That year, my mother passed away, making me more certain than ever before that I was a big, obvious, abnormal freak. I needed to do something drastic before people caught on so I called a bathroom break conference for four of the five girls. I decided that Rebekah, who wore long pants even in the summertime, had frizzy hair, and wasn’t allowed to watch MTV, should be ousted from our group. Everyone seemed to agree.
We confronted Rebekah later that day and I’ll never forget the way her face changed from shocked to pained to furious. She heaved at the ground the kickball she had been bouncing just minutes before. We didn’t talk for the rest of the year. In ninth grade I tried to apologize. I sent her a Myspace message explaining how I had been acting out of pain and anxiety, “not on the outside, but deep, deep down where it hurts.” She told me she felt bad for having held a grudge for so long, but made no mention of the rest of my message. That was eight years ago. Before I interviewed Rebekah, we talked for two hours about college, our futures, our hometown, and our families. I’ve never felt closer to her than I did as we discussed our nerdy aspirations and our lost friendship.
KELSEY: How do you remember middle school?
REBEKAH: In middle school, you start to realize that everyone is very different. You’re so aware that people are segregated by so many things—whether it’s race, or gender, or ability, or who’s preppy and things like that. And it’s really tough. But at a certain point you realize that everyone’s too concerned with themselves to really pay attention to you.
KELSEY: Do you remember what your biggest insecurities were during those years?
REBEKAH: Well, I thought I wasn’t enough of a girl. Growing up with a mother who was not really feminine, I didn’t have many female role models. At that age, “female” meant “Barbie doll” and so I resented the fact that I didn’t have anyone to teach me how to do my hair pretty or tell me what clothes to buy. I was really sensitive to, you know, what being a girl should mean and what I should wear and who was getting attention from boys and who wasn’t even though we had no idea what that meant yet. I think I had this impression that that was the key to my difficulties with friends and the reason why boys didn’t like me. I thought I wasn’t enough of a girl. We didn’t realize it at the time, but it was totally a status symbol. Some girls’ moms would shop at Limited Too and let them buy clothes with those brands or wear lip gloss— you remember I wasn’t even allowed to wear shorts to school? That lasted through high school. It felt like it was mostly about clothes and about not knowing what to do with my hair.
KELSEY: Was there ever a time you felt like you were doing it right?
REBEKAH: I don’t think there was. And so when I went to high school, I started rebelling. I was this punk, goth-y girl who wore oversized shirts. And when I wore makeup, it was the opposite of what those other girls looked like. Rather than trying to fit in and still standing out, I thought, “I’m going to make myself stand out, and it’ll cushion it a little bit.” And I pretended at the time that I was doing it because I thought it was cool, but looking back, I think it was more like, I can’t do that, so I’m going to do the opposite.
KELSEY: It can be really terrifying to spot a difference in yourself at that age, but was there anything that you remember feeling glad about?
REBEKAH: I started playing the drums in middle school and thought, “Yeah, this is going to be my thing.” I also did musicals, even though I never got main parts or anything. I think magnet classes were sort of like that for me for a while. I was so proud of being a part of this special school until I started to realize that people were judging me for it. They’d look at me like, Oh, you’re smart? So I’d say something like, “I’m in this class, but it’s stupid.” But even being in a class as a fifth grader with a bunch of fourth graders who were so talented, it was hard not to feel like I didn’t measure up.
KELSEY: What really sticks out to you as a an example of being bullied?
REBEKAH: Specifics are hard for me to remember at this point. This is going to sound terrible, but I feel like I really did block out so much of fifth grade from my memory. I remember someone in our group of friends telling me that a decision had been made that we could no longer be friends. They were straight up honest about it. Then I remember you being gone one day. I think you were out sick. I hung out with all of those girls again at recess, and I thought, “Yeah! Just like old times!” Then you came back the next day, and I realized I should go sit back with the fourth graders.
I actually have more of a memory of being the bully. This boy in our class, do you remember Stevie?* I think he looked at me like I was his tormenter. He said I kicked wood chips at him or something, on the playground, and I thought, “That’s what everyone in our class did!” He said I was the ringleader. This was at the time that everything was going on with us and I was like, if anything, I’m the last person you’d call a bully—I was at the very bottom of this social totem pole! Maybe he just found me easy to confront, amongst the group of people who were picking on him.
KELSEY: Do you remember how you felt about me? You can be brutally honest.
REBEKAH: Gosh, uh, probably terrible things. Probably really terrible things, if I’m going to be honest. I think that was the first time I used the word “bitch” in my life. I wrote it in my diary and my mother, who liked to go through my diary, confronted me about it. She asked me, “Why did you use that word? It’s not a very nice word to use.” I told her, “Because she deserves it!” My mother was so concerned back then. Part of it, too, was me going through this insecure phase. Part of me thought, “She’s awful, I hate her” but part of me also thought, “Well, clearly I’m not feminine enough, or cool enough, or popular enough.” I thought I deserved it.
KELSEY: God, I can’t believe that. You know, I was always bullied after that year.
REBEKAH: Everyone’s a bit of both, I think, though. A bully and bullied. They used to give us those bullying presentations and tell us that it was a chain. One person gets bullied and feels insecure so they bully someone else. Everyone was taking it and dishing it out.
KELSEY: Do you remember how long you felt mad at me or resentful of the whole situation?
REBEKAH: I don’t remember the resentment ever stopping. Until I saw you over [this past] summer, it was really hard to think of you getting older the way I was getting older. Hearing your name from mutual friends just brought back memories of fifth grade and misery. You never think about how people from back then are also maturing. A lot of times they don’t, but they’re not the same people anymore. But the stuff that you go through then, I don’t think ever fully leaves you. I think the anxieties always stay with you, even as you start to build up your self-esteem and build relationships with other people. I haven’t had very many female friends since then. I have no idea if it had anything to do with you, or that first encounter with “best friends” ending in tears. It could just be that I don’t relate well to girls.
KELSEY: Do you remember feeling any sympathy with me, knowing me as well as you did?
REBEKAH: Looking back years later, of course, I know what was going on in your life, and it’s so easy to see how that manifested itself. But as a fifth grader, I don’t know if I made the connection. I think I was indignant still, thinking, “Well, yeah, maybe that’s why she’s like this, but I wish she would just stop and get over it.” Which is terrible. And, like I said, I don’t remember that feeling of resentment ever really going away. Even looking back years later, I thought, “I know why she did it, but that doesn’t make it any better.”
KELSEY: What did you think when I sent you that weird MySpace message in ninth grade apologizing? I think that’s the first time I became aware of what my personality was like four years earlier.
REBEKAH: I think, as much as we were older and as much as I was beginning to see you as a real person, that I still harbored those feelings for a long time, partly because I was holding on to the feeling that there was something wrong with me. Especially because when you sent it, it was early high school and it was still a difficult time for me. I think it was a relief, though, to read it and realize it wasn’t just me. I didn’t completely make up those feelings.
KELSEY: When do you feel like you stopped feeling so self-conscious?
REBEKAH: Studying abroad in Australia was a big turning point for me. Being independent, I was able to break free out of those things and start over with a clean slate. That made it a lot easier.
KELSEY: Do you have any words of advice for bullies out there, or for the bullied?
REBEKAH: I cringe, because I remember in school when people would come in and do anti-bullying things, it was so cheesy. It seems cheesy now, even, but there are so many things in life that just take getting older. You deal with it, and everyone deals with it, and I guess that’s not so much advice as words of consolation. Literally everyone goes through it. As much as you may think that the person who is being crappy toward you is the worst person in the world, chances are someone else is doing the same thing to them, on the other side. You realize as you get older that you need to stop being crappy to people. You get nicer, and you stop being so insecure, and you start cherishing the fact that you’re different. I wish back then I had been able to tell myself to say something back [to you], or to just be proud of myself instead of thinking I needed to change. I wish I could have taken things in stride. Maybe the best piece of advice I could have received was just to relax. You know? Relax. The world is a much bigger place. ♦
*Name has been changed.