The Bully In Me

One of the more insidious problems with raising a kid is that it forces you to revisit past sins, however small. I recently read a collection of stories from people relating encounters they’d had with bullies from their past. It gave me pause as I considered what lessons I need to teach my son about bullying in preparation for the awful arena of the pre-teen and teenage years.

I don’t think bullying is as black and white as it’s often portrayed. At least, for me it wasn’t. I was a geek growing up and in the grand scheme of things was certainly on the receiving end more often then I dished it out. But dish it out I did on at least a couple of occasions; just because you’re getting picked on doesn’t mean you’re immune to being a prick in your own right.  One in particular has always haunted me.

It was in junior high, when a group of us were sitting at a table in the cafeteria talking about who-knows-what. At one point the conversation turned to one of our classmates – a girl our class had deemed unattractive as part of that horrible typecasting that goes on among adolescents . And, riff’ing on this, I laughingly said something to the effect of, “yeah, she’s so ugly!”

… and turned to find her standing right behind me.

It was exactly awful as it sounds. 30-some years later I still cringe at the memory.  But unlike the hollywood version of this little drama there is no climactic confrontation. That moment is the one and only memory I have of this girl. Any recollection of how she may have reacted is hidden in a fog of ringing-in-the-ears shame.  Nor do I know what happened to her in the days and years that followed. All I have is that hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach that says I’m responsible for an un-righted wrong. It is a visceral thing that, fortunately, rarely surfaces.  But I’m reminded of it one way or another every year or two, and still react the same way.

I don’t expect to get the opportunity to apologize, much as I would welcome it. Nor am I even sure what it would mean.  We are both such different people.  Two strangers reconciling over the actions of their much-younger doppelgangers?  It would be awkward and weird.  Uncomfortable at best, but healing for at least one of us and hopefully both.

I suppose that’s the lesson for my son. These inevitable missteps in life are part of growing up. You will hurt people who don’t deserve it.  It’s how you own those moments that are important.  Realize your errors as quickly as possible. Learn from them and do your best to fix things.  You may never get the chance to later.  And when all is said and done your mistakes are a part of you for the rest of your life, for better or worse.