On the last day of fourth grade, my youngest daughter was tying her shoes while I stood waiting with her lunchbox. "Do you remember fourth grade, Mom?"she asked, as she struggled to lace up the Chuck Taylors.
My answer surprised both of us. "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 blond hair that hung thick and straight, regardless of weather conditions. She arrived in Mrs. McKenna's classroom, took one look around, and decided she wanted my best friend Kitty to be her best friend. And she went about driving me away from the herd the way only elementary school mean girls can.
She teased me for being fat, for wearing glasses. For days at a time, she would be kind to me, inviting me to birthday parties and sleepovers. Then, BAM -- I would be back in the doghouse, with no idea what happened. I later found 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."
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, relief came at last. The middle schools in my town ran from 5th to 8th grade, and C and I were heading in different directions for the next four years.
When we met again in high school, I'd gained two invaluable weapons: perspective, and confidence. With a close group of new friends at my side, C had no power over me. She remained beautiful and unfriendly, but now completely irrelevant to me. As is so often the case with a bully, I learned later that C's family life had been particularly unsavory during the year she picked on me.
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, eight months pregnant with my first daughter, and I passed C on the sidewalk. True to form, 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, on some level, I wanted her to know that. 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. Her childhood cruelty stoked my own confidence; because of how she treated me, I discovered a quality in myself I hadn't previously recognized -- resilience. The ordeal helped me become a compassionate adult, one who will not tolerate bullying by my own children.
But I guess C still held one trump card, despite 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.