Interview with my bully: The courage to remember

As the author\'s writing career blossomed, old classmates got back in touch. But only one faced up to the truth

By Janni Lee Simner
Published October 3, 2011 11:24PM (EDT)

Interview your own bully -- and send it to Salon. Read how here.

"My name is David Santisi," the email read. "There was a Janni Simner in my fourth- or fifth-grade class ... was that you?"

It was me, but even so, I was slow to respond. When former classmates got back in touch, they always seemed happy to have found me, eager to catch up on our lives -- and not at all interested in mentioning the fact that, if we went to elementary or early middle school together, chances were they were among those who taunted me, in countless quiet and not-so-quiet ways.

Throughout those early school years, I was that kid: the one who was a little too awkward and who cried a little too easily, who it was safe to pick on -- to tease and call names, to pull the hair of and throw rocks at -- because, well, everyone else did. There was no one well-defined bully who made my life miserable. It was, as far as I could tell, nearly everyone. Anyone who remembered me well enough to Google me should have remembered that, but you wouldn't know it from their too-cheerful emails. There were no apologies in those emails, and there were no regrets.

Still, I was always polite. I didn't recall David as clearly as other classmates, but I wrote back, and we compared teachers and confirmed we'd been in fourth grade together. I figured we'd go on to exchange some polite small talk, and then, as usually happened with these sorts of conversations, realize we didn't have anything else to talk about and be done.

So I was pretty floored when I received this email instead:

Do you remember me at all? This is going to sound weird but I've thought about you over the years and wondered if you were OK. I'm a veterinarian, and I think a lot about the jerky kid I was in those days. I remember you were kind of an easy target back then and we would tease you (which makes me slightly nauseous to think I could be mean to someone or something defenseless). I have two boys (1- and 3-year-olds) and I will do everything in my power to teach them to be good and kind to everyone they meet.

The funny thing is I had started to become a "better person" in middle school. I stopped caring so much about what people thought about me, and started doing what I thought was correct regardless of the social consequences. Obviously that didn't make me very popular, but I can hold my head up high thinking of some of my experiences where I didn't succumb to peer pressure to be mean or bully someone. I once took a punch for defending a special education kid that was being teased. Ironically I now take care of a cat that belongs to the brother of the guy who hit me!

Anyway I'm so glad to see you've become successful and I really wish you so much happiness. I just thought you would like to know that I never forgot about you and I'll be looking out for your books to read to our little ones. :-)

He remembered, and he admitted he remembered. That had never happened before.

Hearing someone else admit to the same shared experiences, even from the side of taunter rather than taunted, was oddly heartening, and it called for a longer and less distant response than my first few emails. I wrote:

I don't remember you specifically (though the name sounds faintly familiar), but I definitely do remember the teasing, which pretty much did define just how hard elementary school was for me. And this is going to sound just as strange, but it makes me glad that you remember it, too ... because I've heard from people I went to school with from time to time, and most of the time, they seem to have no memory of what went on then, or of just how bad it was. So it's good to see I'm not the only one remembering ... and better still to see that you're working hard to teach kindness to your kids. That makes me happiest of all, because I think we all have a role to play in making it better for the next group of kids. It's part of why I write, too.

And I am okay, and more than okay. Things began getting better for me in middle school, too, also because I stopped caring so much what other people thought, and they kept getting better from there. And life now ... is pretty much everything I hoped it would be, and more. These days, I think of myself as incredibly lucky in so many ways ...

Anyway, thanks for getting back in touch ... and I hope your kids enjoy my books, once they're old enough. And here's to both of us doing what we can to make the world a better place, in all the ways we can.

Then I sent David a link to a blog post I'd written that described my experiences in more detail.

He replied:

Your essay is excellent ... and it is strange that I finally decided to look you up after all this time and you had written that essay not that long ago. I don't know why my brain can be so locked in the past. I remember that you sat to the right of me close to the wall. I was never physical with you, but you were very sensitive to the verbal teasing that had become familiar to me as I was victimized by my older brother. One time you were out of the classroom and [our fourth-grade teacher] spoke to the class and said in the nicest way that we needed to be kind to you. That actually did help for a little while, but we know the rest of the story.

As David and I wrote to each other, I realized that because of our shared memories -- because we'd both made the effort to remember the past instead of pretending it had never happened -- we were on the same side now: the side that cared about making things better for the kids who came after us.

I'd thought, as I gritted my teeth and answered those cheerful emails from other classmates, that I wanted them to remember and show regret because it would make me feel better. Now I understood that remembering mattered not for my sake, but because if we don't acknowledge the past, we can't even try to change it. This wasn't about what had happened to me or David, or not only about that. It was -- is -- about what's happening to children and teens right now.

Of course, remembering can be uncomfortable, for former bullied and bullying kids both.  Maybe that discomfort was why so many of my classmates preferred to act as if their teasing, relentless as it often was, never happened.

I was a little hesitant when I asked David if I could share his letters, because I knew I was asking him to share pieces of his story as well, something he'd written with no intention of anyone seeing his words but me. I told him I wouldn't write this article unless he was completely comfortable with my doing so.

His response came back within the hour, and there was no hesitation at all in it:

Absolutely yes. I am committed to help fight bullying in any way.

That told me, as much as any of our other emails had, that we really were on the same side now, after all.

Janni Lee Simner is the author of many young-adult novels, including "Faerie Winter," "Bones of Faerie," "Thief Eyes" and the Phantom Rider trilogy.

Janni Lee Simner

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