As the shortest kid in seventh grade, it was pretty hard not to feel intimidated by everybody. All my classmates seemed better than me whether it was playing basketball, making friends, or getting those A’s in school. Because I felt inferior, I didn’t have any friends and spent most of my time reading at the library, as I escaped in my world of adventure and suspense.
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I met Maria, my first friend, when I was 11 years old. Her eyes, though trying to hide a great deal of pain, showed anger and coldness. Her attitude always conveyed a message that she was powerful and nothing could hurt her. Even though she had toughness about her, she was bright, intelligent, and fun to be with.
Because Maria’s parents worked a lot, her grandmother pretty much raised her though perhaps never really understood her. When her grandmother and my mother became friends, so did we. Living only a couple of blocks apart, we spent a lot of time together and became fast friends. I was always excited when the school bell would ring and I would finally be able to go to Maria’s house. We would do homework together, play with dolls, or just share a card game. I finally felt good about myself knowing that I was worthy of having a friend.
Over time, Maria started to change. When she started bragging about how great she was and what wonderful toys she would get, my feelings of self-hate came back. I tried to tolerate her behavior because I wasn’t ready to admit defeat and give up my only friend.
The strain on the friendship kept getting worse. One day, while we were talking on the phone, Maria started to yell at me. “Your mother bragged to me that you are smart. Bragging is not right. You need to control her.” She grunted loudly. Because I knew there was nothing I could do about this, on the spur of the moment I ended our friendship and hung up the phone.
The next day, when I was eating my lunch at the table, Maria looked at me from across the table, gave me a dirty look, and called me a bitch. I was in complete awe as I looked at her, wondering why she did that. Maria made sure that I overheard her tell everybody that I was not worthy of friendship because I was a bitch. Because I didn’t fight back, she gained more confidence and made sure to let me know that I will end up a bloody mess in the hospital.
In my weakened state, in order to escape my tormentor, I would sleep twelve hours a day and dream of sitting alongside the peaceful waters overlooking a sandy beach. I would go to bed before my mom would tell me to and I never wanted to wake up. I felt protected with my soft blanket and teddy bear holding me tight.
Lacking the emotional and physical strength, I couldn’t stand up to her. I was plagued with feelings of terror, as I jumped at every sound of a pin drop. I decided to avoid Maria, not knowing what else to do. Fortunately, she wasn’t in any of my classes. I would take the long way through the back staircases to avoid her in the hall, go straight to my class without rummaging around the hallway, get in late to my first class, and leave late from my last class. The only problem was lunchtime where she would make sure to find me and taunt me.
All I could do was blame myself as I felt God was punishing me for being bad. I questioned where I went wrong in my life to obviously deserve such abuse. The answer to my questions didn’t come but just made my head ache with the overflow of even more questions than answers. I wished so much that it would all just go away and that I would have peace again.
It didn’t go away. She got her friends, Julia and Jennifer to hurt me. Knowing it was impossible to avoid three people, I swallowed my shame, and told my mother what was going on. My mother, now knowing what to do, expressed the politically correct view - to make up and be friends. I thought my ears deceived me that I should just give in to Maria’s wishes without taking into account my own. This was not an option.
In the evenings, as I cowered over the bathroom sink to brush my teeth, I would sob while recounting the events of the day. I was sickened with worry and everyday lived in a state of fear. My family, not knowing what to do said nothing, left me alone with my feelings of humiliation and self-doubt.
It was on the first spring day, that events unfolded to lead me to my breaking point. After having a quick lunch, I went outside to watch the trees turn color. I was standing in a corner watching the other kids play when I saw Maria and her friends coming toward me. Suddenly, my legs froze and I couldn’t move. “Bitch, we’re going to get you; you’re going to be sorry", they chanted. “You are nothing, you are the dirt under my shoes”. The words, cutting into my heart were carving a hole in my soul. Trying to pretend not to listen, I just kept looking down at my shoes wishing I could hide behind them. With my legs frozen and my mind going blank, I couldn’t walk much less run. I could feel the tears welling up inside me but I refused to show any fear or give them any satisfaction of the pain in my heart.
Then a miracle happened. The bell rang and it was time to go to the next class. My mind could focus again. As I started to walk past them to my next class, they followed behind me continuing to belittle me. I was so mortified when the other kids overheard that I wanted to die. It was now obvious that I was the freak in the school.
When I finally got to my class, I couldn’t hold my pain in anymore. I went into hysterics, letting out all the hurt, fear, and shame. I heard somebody mention that kids were picking on me when the teacher expressed her concern about my breakdown. I was too busy in my emotional turmoil to care. When the teacher asked for a volunteer to escort me to the dean’s office, Jessica, a girl in the class, volunteered. On the way to the dean’s office, Jessica kept trying to comfort me by patting me on my back while I was busy trying to catch my breath.
“Who did this?” roared Mrs. Johnson, the Dean, catching me off guard. “Nobody.” I answered her timidly. I was still going to stick to my guns and not tattle tale for I feared it would only make things worse. Jessica, responding with Maria’s name and the events in the hallway, satisfied Mrs. Johnson’s curiosity. My heart skipped a beat and the pit in my stomach returned, as I didn’t know how this would unfold. While Jessica went back to class, Mrs. Johnson walked me to see the Vice Principal and left me there alone.
Mr. Smith, the Vice Principal, who had a very commanding presence, was dressed in professional attire with freshly pressed pants and a white shirt and tie. I had never been taken to see the vice principal before and I had always thought of it as being a bad thing – only kids who got in trouble went to see the vice principal. My head started to spin and I was feeling faint but in a calm voice Mr. Smith reassured me that I was not in any trouble. Mr. Smith calmly expressed his anger and low tolerance of bullies who victimize innocent children. His reaction was music to my ears giving me a little courage that maybe things would turn out okay. While we were waiting for Maria to come into the office, Mr. Smith, who kept trying to reassure me everything would be all right, gave me hope that it would all be over soon.
After sitting down in the chair across from me, Maria, who stared at my teary eyed face with hatred and revenge in her eyes, was making me wonder how I ended up here. When Mr. Smith confronted her about the situation, she denied everything claiming no knowledge of the events. As I kept wondering what I had gotten myself into, Mr. Smith demanded an explanation about why I was crying. When she couldn’t provide an appropriate response, he knew that she was lying.
“I will call your parents if you continue to bother her, is that what you want?” he threatened angrily.
“No.” Maria cried.
For the first time, seeing fear in Maria’s eyes, I finally had a sense of power and control, knowing the intimidation would soon be over.
“If you continue to bother her, I will call your parents.” Mr. Smith bellowed to Maria, his face letting her know that he was serious.
After Mr. Smith excused Maria, he told me to come back if Maria’s behavior continued. I agreed and returned to my classroom, happy to put the experience behind me.
The next day, while I was walking up the stairs to my class, I heard Maria bellowing behind me “Can you believe it? That bitch got me in trouble with the Vice Principal.” This time, angry that she was still trying to intimidate me, I went back to see Mr. Smith again. Even though Maria’s explanation was that she was simply talking to her friend, Mr. Smith gave her another stern warning and let her go. That was the last time Maria bothered me.
When I told my family about the school’s involvement, they were relieved that everything was all right but I was far from being all right. The experience left me with emotional scars that weren’t going away and I had no idea how to heal them. What I had truly needed was guidance and clarity but I neither knew how to ask for it nor had the courage to admit that I needed any. The bullying was over and everyone assumed everything went back to “normal”. I couldn’t bring myself to admit that they weren’t for fear of appearing weak.
When rumors of the incident had started flying all around school, several people had come up to me and stated that Maria was a “bitch” and asked me why was I friends with her in the first place. I really couldn’t answer them except to shrug with a weak reply of “I don’t know”. I had never thought of her as a bitch, just a good friend but their reaction only taught me that I was a poor judge of character.
Being deathly afraid of repeating my mistake, I retreated further into a dark, soulless place. I couldn’t risk going through any more pain. The bullying was much more than I could handle at the tender age of twelve. I no longer made any effort to say hello or make any eye contact with anybody. I just didn’t see the point. It was probably for the best considering I wasn’t capable of trusting people. I couldn’t imagine telling anybody a single thing about myself, even my likes or dislikes for fear of being chastised. I had told Maria everything and she just blew it up in my face, telling everybody all my secrets when things didn’t work out. God, how that hurt! I could still feel the back stabbing when I breezed by her in the hall. She may have stopped bullying me but I felt her hatred of me oozing out of the thick walls of the school.
Nobody bullied me when news of the incident had spread. I still had the occasional snide remarks but they were nothing compared to the anguish Maria had caused me. It was also a lot easier to ignore them since I learned to stay away from people. It was a lonely life but one that I was ready to accept for the rest of my life.
Tagged as the “quiet one”, I lived my life as a hermit in solitary for the next several years. It was perfectly fine by me since I found other joys in my life - my books for one had brought me immense pleasure and TV shows had made me feel like I was someone else with a perfect life. And if I ever felt really bad about myself, I still had my world of dreams to escape to.
When I entered high school, I did not have to face Maria or any of her pals and it became an amazing relief. No longer did I have to feel sharp arrows of loathing thrown in my face or any dark memories lurking behind every unopened door.
Every several months, the high school had “flower day” to raise funds for after school events such as the annual school dance. I would stare with envy as every girl in class had received flowers with either a love note that expressed an unfulfilled desire of longing or a friendship note that announced a bond of sisterhood. The girls would be beaming with glee knowing that they were special to someone else. When I had not received any gifts of appreciation telling me someone was happy that I was alive, I could no longer hide in my imagination. Reality was staring me in the face. I had never realized what I was missing because I was living in an unrealistic but magical world of dreams where only I existed. In reality, I was as empty as the Atlantic Ocean without a drop of water. Maybe it was due to the number of years that I had lived in isolation, realizing it was not where I wanted to be or maybe it was that time heals all wounds but it was a dark moment that had made me determined to change my life.
In order to accomplish this, I knew I had to come to terms with the bullying. I had read all sorts of books from classics to mystery to horror but I had completely avoided any topic that was about bullying for fear of reliving those horrible feelings about myself. Ironically, those feelings were always with me, I was just trying to run away from something that was always a shadow standing beside me.
It was on a cold blistering winter day that I walked into the library ready to conquer my fears. My hands were sweating and my heart seemed to pound a mile a minute. I felt such terror at facing my demons that I almost turned around and went back home. But in addition to the dread, I also felt a small tinge of hope and excitement for life had become as dull as listening to that monotone teacher lecture for hours on end.
After gathering several books and magazines, I sat down in an empty table in a dark corner of library. I wept as I devoured every single word I could find about bullying. I was letting go all those emotions that I had been harboring for so long – sorrow for myself and every other child who had similar experiences. I consumed everything from psychology to real life stories to articles of another tragedy. What I learned that day was invaluable. Not only did I learn that bullying was wrong but I was able to answer the questions that I had been asking from God all along.
I was so busy in my misery that I never thought about Maria’s life. Her parents, who worked for days on end, never paid much attention to her even when they were home. They tried to make it up to her by buying her expensive toys. That was why she always bragged about them, trying to convince herself that she was loved. Her grandmother, who took care of her, due to age and cultural differences, could not understand how life is so much different than when she was growing up. She couldn’t provide the guidance Maria needed about living in a world filled with so much pressure.
Until the time I had ended our friendship, I was also Maria’s only friend and I hadn’t realized how important it was to her. When I rejected her, she couldn’t handle it and tried to do the only thing she could – force me into changing my mind the only way she knew how. Although the intensions to reconcile our friendship were good, the way she did it was not. I don’t believe she knew of any other way. When I thought about her lonely life, I had actually started to feel sorry for her and was finally able to forgive her.
I had not only learned a lot about Maria but I had also discovered a great deal about myself. I was living my life as a victim believing that I was nothing and blaming the world for everything that had gone wrong in my life. I could see why it became so easy to bully me. After all, I gave everybody else control and had made it effortless for them to feel so powerful by being able to push my buttons and make me cry.
One of my biggest regrets was that at the age of fifteen, I still did not know how to ride a bike. While everyone else rode through the streets of the city, my transportation was limited to as far as my legs could take me. I got a job and saved up some money to buy a run down used bike from a second hand store. I’ll never forget the day I brought it home. It was my first accomplishment. I spent day after day trying to learn how to ride. I kept constantly trying to push myself off a wrought iron fence. Fall after fall, I was determined to be able to glide on a cruise to nowhere. Then it happened. One day by some chance of a miracle, I began to soar to my favorite place – the local library. Pedaling harder, I was exhilarated with the wind splashing cold waves across my face. It was my proudest moment. I realized nothing was impossible as long as I was determined to follow my dreams.
When I became a person that I was proud of, nobody bullied me anymore. Bullies received no satisfaction when they couldn’t make me feel inferior. They only had power because I gave it to them from my feelings of insecurity and insignificance for bullies are only trying to make up for their own.
With some hard work, I eventually overcame my trust issues and gained a few close friends that have been there for me in good times and in bad. I became another “normal” person with dreams and desires of a rich life of happiness. This time, I believed I could accomplish them.
My experience had given me a thick rubber suit of protection from which I no longer internalize negativity but only try to learn from it. For me, rejection only means to try harder and criticism is a way of accomplishing my goals. I have learned how to handle interpersonal conflicts better for we are all human being trying to survive in a complicated world of lowered self-esteem and rejection.
I am grateful for my love of books and some little part of me that believed that life could get better. Even though, I became an emotionally strong person, I am heartbroken for all the kids whose stories didn’t turn out like mine and live life in isolation and fear with no one to turn to. I can almost picture my life going down a different path where the article in the newspaper would read “Teen commits suicide, parents are at a loss”.
Even though it took me several years to recover and be able to trust people again, whenever I hear a story of another victim, I relive my own experience - one that I shall never forget.