On the last day of school this year, my youngest daughter was tying her shoes in the front hall while I stood waiting with her lunchbox. She asked, “Do you remember fourth grade, Mom?” as she struggled to lace up the Chuck Taylors. She’s had a great fourth grade year, loved her teacher, had fun with her friends, learned and matured without even realizing it.
I think my answer surprised both of us. “I did. I hated it. It was the worst year of school I ever had.”
My fourth grade tormenter looked like a Gap Kids model. “C” had porcelain skin, perfect white teeth, cornflower eyes, and blonde hair that hung thick and straight, regardless of weather conditions. She arrived in Mrs. McKenna’s classroom, took one look around, and decided that my best friend Kitty, the one whose family I vacationed with every summer, the one who shared the troll love, was better suited to be HER best friend. She just needed to figure out how to drive me away from the herd.
She teased me for being fat, for wearing glasses. She treated me like I was stupid, and got other kids to laugh at me. The worst of it was how, for days at a time, she was kind to me, inviting me to birthday parties and sleepovers. Then BAM – I was back in the doghouse, not knowing why. It turned out that she passed notes around to the girls in class written in her perfect handwriting and decorated with flowers – “Don’t talk to Nancy until Friday.” The other girls, appropriately terrified of being on the receiving end of C’s machinations, complied.
I remember eating lunch alone, fleeing the classroom in tears day after day. I begged my parents to let me transfer to a different school. On the last day of fourth grade, the cage door swung wide open. The middle schools in my town went from 5th-8th grade, and C and I were heading in different directions for the next four years. I felt the specific joy that accrues to knowing that a bad situation is well and truly over.
When we met again for high school, I had gained two invaluable weapons: perspective, and confidence. I realized by 9th grade that the problem lay not with me, but with her. And with a close group of new friends at my side – one that eventually included Kitty again, much to our mutual and ongoing delight – C had no power over me. She remained beautiful and unfriendly, and completely irrelevant to me. As is always the case with a bully, I learned later that C’s family life was particularly unsavory during the year she picked on me. I remember thinking, “That’s a shame, but it’s no excuse.”
A dozen years out of high school I was working in San Francisco. I left my desk one day and went out for a late-afternoon waddle in the November sunshine, 8 months pregnant with my first daughter, and I passed C on the sidewalk. It would be cliché to say that she was shrunken and ugly from all the bad karma she’d put out into the world. The truth is, she was still drop dead gorgeous and, mindful of my spherical form, I put my head down and kept walking.
Then I thought: why? My life turned out great. And I wanted her to know it. I pivoted and called her name, and we stood there on the sidewalk chatting. Anyone walking by might have thought we were two old friends. The truth is, she had as big an impact on my life as any good friend might. Because of the way she treated me, my parents’ belief that I had the resiliency to get through a hard situation was surfaced, helping stoke my own confidence. Her actions helped shape me into the person I am now, someone who strives for compassion, a parent who will never tolerate bullying by my children. I know all too well that a person doesn’t have power over me unless I give it to them.
But I guess C still held one trump card, impervious to all my bravado. As I only realized the other day in the front hallway, she managed to make me hold my breath from the last day of my fourth grade until the last day of fourth grade had passed safely for both my daughters.