Confronting a childhood bully helps woman recognize her strength

Albany Times UnionJuly 23, 2012 

  • Keeping bullies at bay Beyond notifying teachers and administrators about bullying, kids can take steps to manage the problem. Advice on dealing with bullies from 1. Walking with awareness, calm and confidence People are less likely to be picked on if they walk and sit with awareness, calm and confidence. Confidence means keeping one’s head up, back straight, taking assertive steps, looking around, having a peaceful face and body. Show your child the difference among being passive, aggressive and assertive in body language, tone of voice and choice of words. Have your child walk across the floor, coaching her or him by saying, for example, “That’s great!” “Now straighten your back.” etc. 2. Setting a boundary If a bully is following or threatening your child in a situation where she or he cannot just leave, your child needs to set a boundary. Pretend to poke your child in the back (do this very gently). Coach your child to turn, stand up tall, put his or her hands up in front of the body like a fence, palms out and open, and say “Stop!” Coach your child to have a calm but clear voice and polite firm words – not whiney and not aggressive. Children need support to learn these skills. The idea is that your child takes charge of his or her space. 3. Protecting your feelings You can teach children how to protect themselves from insults. Tell your child that responding by saying something mean makes the problem bigger, not better. One way to take the power out of hurting words is saying them out loud and imagining throwing them away. Doing this physically and out loud at home will help a child to do this in his or her imagination at school. For example, if someone says, “I don’t like you,” you can throw those words away and say to yourself, “I like myself.”

Last month, I confronted my grade-school bully. And by confronted, I mean I reached out to her on Facebook to ask if she remembered what motivated her, or if she could recall the catalyst for her behavior. I wrote and rewrote the note, and was sure to use non-threatening terms like “appreciate,” “understand” and “curious.”

Because, really, that’s what I was.

This wasn’t a bad breakup or an unexpected firing that needed closure. Instead, I’d come to the conclusion bullying had shaped me as an adult, and I wanted “Carrie” to know what she’d done had actually helped me.

While stopping bullying, or saying we should have zero tolerance may be nice in theory, it is not realistic. Many are mean, others are nasty, millions are insecure. All of this causes them to act the way they do, and it’s not always preventable.

Rather than trying to get parents or guidance counselors to intervene, there’s value in teaching children how to handle bullying, arming them with the tools that will carry them into adulthood.

Learning to cope with it certainly helped me. And that’s why I wrote to Carrie.

That, and I was curious about what happened to her. There were two girls on the bus who harassed my sister and me on a daily basis, threatening to stick our heads in the toilet or shove us in the locker, but Carrie was the ringleader. She didn’t like my clothes, and thought I was too prissy (true). She’d hover over us on the bus, older and intimidating. I’d cry, but not till I got home. She and her friend made the bus ride horrible.

Life got worse

School wasn’t any better. I had hair so curly it looked like a blonde Brillo pad was sprouting from my scalp. My glasses were large and my lenses thick. I had braces – twice – and I was naive.

How naive?

There was a petition passed around in seventh grade asking anyone who thought I was clueless to sign below. This started when I asked someone I thought was a friend what “BJ” meant.

My grades slipped, and I was sad.

Really sad.

I alienated my real friends and tried way too hard to get in with the group that wanted little-to-nothing to do with me. They were, in fact, the group behind the petition. I bought the same clothes they had, tried to wear my hair in a similar fashion and pretended to be them, not me.

Life got worse.

Today, people ask what my parents said. The answer is nothing, because I didn’t tell them. I was embarrassed, and believed the nastiness and insults from Carrie and her friends. If the entire grade seemed to dislike me, they must be onto something, right?

High school was slightly less tumultuous, but the emphasis is on “slightly.” I was still weird and awkward.

The threatening continued (those girls were still on my bus), and I’d dart from one classroom to another between bells, hoping to avoid the hallway pummeling I’d been promised.

Then, graduation. A chance to be free of high school and start from the beginning. I was shy and quiet, intimidated and afraid, worried grade school would repeat itself.

And it did, to a degree.

On to college

My freshman year at college I was kicked out of a frat party for declining to drink and was alienated by the girls on my floor because they pledged a sorority and I opted out.

They whispered and played pranks. It was all part of the pledging, they promised.

That year changed me. I left school down, and possibly depressed (this is before that diagnosis was so prevalent), but entered another college bright and confident. Age and time caused me to realize those years of harassment made things a little tougher for me, and that was a good thing.

Not only did I know adversity existed, but I experienced it. I learned that when you not only act like you don’t care, but truly stop obsessing over what others think, that tightness in your chest dissipates.

I learned that being mean isn’t effective, but being strong, confident and self-assured – and sometimes a little tough – is.

I realized I had several things going for me, including the fact that I would never be remembered as the “mean girl.” I never picked on, threatened, harassed or teased a classmate. I knew too well how it felt.

And I told Carrie as much in my note.

It took her a few days, but she responded. She said she was surprised by my message. My words caused her to take a step back, she said, and she apologized.

She didn’t elaborate, but said she believes strongly in karma, and that she had “received what I have given out, or dished out, in different ways. I am against bullying and all that comes with it.”

She’s a mom. She has a career. She is grown up now.

“I do know I was awful growing up, very rebellious,” she started. ”And I have gone through a lot during the years that has made me the woman I am today,” she wrote.

That makes two of us.

Kristi Barlette, 35, is a staff writer at the Times Union in Albany, N.Y.

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