Valerie Jones was an earnest sixth-grader with glasses, braces and a bladder control problem. We met in homeroom on the first day of middle school, both new and friendless, having just left the womb of elementary school. I chatted her up and she seemed grateful to have made a social connection. But after I made newer and cooler friends, I used that connection to crush her.
Once, after a particularly long social studies lecture, it became clear from the growing dark spot on her skirt and her uncomfortable shifting that Valerie had wet her pants. (Valerie is not her real name, by the way. I've changed names to protect the real people.) I sidled up next to her and whispered, “Did you have an accident? It’s OK, you can tell me.” After she finally admitted she had, I told everyone.
Manipulation formed the heart of our relationship. Recently, I found an entry in my middle school diary: “Dear Journal, Guess what! Valerie Jones, the biggest nerd in school, has an uncle who owns a dance/dinner club. For her birthday, he’s letting her rent it and invite 100 friends! Since she has no friends, I get to make the invitation list! This is gonna be great!” (The party never took place.)
Valerie was naive and mild-mannered, more comfortable around adults than those her own age, and I enjoyed mocking her innocence. I invited her to join the “Pen 15 Club,” which involved writing the word “PENIS” on her hand in permanent marker. She was the only person who fell for it. Later, Valerie’s teacher pulled me into the hall. “How would you feel if I wrote ‘penis’ on your hand?” she asked me. Frankly, I’d be confused. Why would a grown woman write “penis” on my hand?
But Valerie wasn't my only victim. Julia Ryan was pretty, blond and flirtatious; the boys loved her. Her house was across the street from mine, so we were close, but our relationship ran hot and cold. One big fight and, poof — we hated each other for the entire school year. But while she simply ignored me, I schemed up ways to humiliate her and bring others onto my side. I spread rumors. I kicked the back of her chair during band practice. I slammed her head against a locker in the hallway. One afternoon, on the bus home from school, I passed an empty plastic jar around and asked everyone to spit in it. Then, as the bus flew over bumps, I crept up behind Julia and poured the contents over her head.
Stories about bullying in grade school almost always appear from the perspective of the persecuted, and with good reason: It’s hard to admit you were once a total jerk. But what these pieces rarely talk about is how bullying someone else can haunt you, the persecutor. Eighteen years after it took place, I still wanted to know: How much damage did I inflict? And why did I do it in the first place?
Kids bully for many reasons. Sometimes they’re mirroring the aggressive behavior they see in their parents. And sometimes they’re going through problems at home, like divorce or financial issues. But I grew up in a traditional, "Leave It to Beaver"-style family, unmarred by domestic drama. Instead, my motivation derived from something just as ordinary: tremendous insecurity.
At 12 years old, I was tall and loud, with braces, acne and thin hair. Once, at a sleepover in seventh grade, I stumbled upon a notebook in which the host and others had graded every girl in our class on personality and attractiveness. I got a seven in personality — and a three in looks.
Another excerpt from my diary, just weeks after the entry about Valerie, read, “I’m constantly worrying about homework and looks and popularity and guys and grades and teachers and abilities and everything imaginable. I get so depressed sometimes. I feel like no one cares about me. They all just care about themselves.”
I thought I was the only person in the world who felt this way. It never occurred to me that the people I was picking on were probably thinking the same thing about themselves — as a result of my bullying. In fact, I never considered my victims’ feelings or private lives at all. They could’ve been stabbing voodoo dolls of my likeness nightly, for all I knew or cared. My experience was all that mattered.
In an effort to understand what could’ve possibly made me so self-absorbed as a kid, I called up Rachel Simmons, author of “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.”
“Middle schoolers have epic empathy fail,” she explained. “It’s not because they’re bad people. There are plenty of bullies who grow up and realize the errors of their ways, but they need a level of self-reflection and accountability that not everyone has.”
At some point, around eighth or ninth grade, I stopped bullying. Instead, I fell in with a crowd of thespians who delighted in my brazenness. Now, at 30, the pain and confusion of middle school seem lifetimes away. But still, I couldn't shake the guilt. So I set out to do something most bullies never do, especially not 18 years after the fact: apologize.
I reached out to Julia and Valerie on Facebook, keeping in mind how touchy this subject could be. No one likes to open old wounds, and I didn’t know these girls anymore or have any idea how they’d respond. The thought of them fearing or hating me all over again almost made me slam my laptop shut and scrap the whole thing.
Julia and I had made up in seventh grade and were already Facebook friends, so I kept my email casual: “I remember giving you a really hard time in sixth grade. I think it's safe to say I bullied you. Do you have any memories of this?” I recalled the incident with the jar of spit on the bus. “I'd like to officially apologize. I'm really glad we were able to reconcile in seventh grade.”
It took Julia six days to respond, during which my mind ran amok: What if I touched a nerve, and she hates me now? What if she was so traumatized, she can’t bear to recall those memories? Am I still a horrible person?
As it turns out she was just busy and found my email hilarious: “I laughed out loud when I read this message!” she wrote. “So funny to think about childhood memories but, yes, we were really mean to one another at times.”
We? That was generous. I’m pretty sure I was the instigator 99 percent of the time. Julia offered up a different memory on the bus that involved me pressuring another kid into shoving her. “I’m sure my mom remembers that moment too because [when I got home] I was ready to go nuts,” she wrote. But she didn’t show a hint of bitterness or resentment in her words, and our exchange quickly evolved into did-you-hear-that-so-and-so-got-married pleasantry.
My interaction with Valerie, on the other hand, was more formal. We’d never become friends and I hadn’t seen her since high school. “I want to apologize for being so mean to you during our school days,” I wrote. “It's only been through looking back as an adult that I realize I was a bully. I remember saying things to you and doing things that were cruel, and I wish I could take them all back. You never did a single thing to deserve being treated that way.”
She responded to my message immediately, with a friend request and written reply that read a bit like a form letter. “I hold no ill will towards you, or anyone else, for the things that were said or done to me during our school years,” she wrote. “All is forgiven.”
I asked to apologize verbally, so we set up a time to talk on the phone a week later — her in Des Moines, where she works as a daycare teacher, and me in Minneapolis, where I’m a magazine editor at a regional publishing company. My heart thudded as I dialed her number. I imagined her breaking down and sobbing, saying that I’d made her life hell and she’d needed years of reparative therapy. Or maybe she’d been waiting for this moment and was finally going to let me have it, barraging me with a string of curse words. Or, as one of my friends had joked, I was on the top of her “To Kill” list and this was my last chance to lift the death sentence.
She answered the phone, and we chatted amicably for a few minutes about our jobs and the schoolmates we’d kept in touch with over the years. Eventually, we ran out of things to say and there was an awkward pause as we both waited for me to bring up the reason for the phone call. I took a breath. “Valerie, do you remember me bullying you in middle school?”
“I really don’t,” she replied, her voice confident and mature. “I remember that things happened. I remember that things were probably said. But, however many years later, you just have to come to a point where you let it go.”
Valerie couldn’t (or perhaps chose not to) recall any interactions with me in school, but apparently I wasn’t her worst persecutor. She told me that a guy named Andy used to berate her daily during 10th grade choir class, whispering things like, “You suck” and “I hate you” across his music stand.
“Choir was my favorite part of the day, and it started affecting my love for music,” she said. “The choir director finally noticed and talked to the assistant principal, and Andy stopped for a little bit, but then he started back up again during junior year.”
Andy was an exception — the bulk of her bullying came from other girls, like me. “I was that kid that people picked on, for whatever reason,” she said. “I couldn’t tell you why specifically. In that environment, you’ve got the kids who are the mean ones or the bullies, and then you’ve got the ones who are easy targets. And I guess I was an easy target.”
Adults had told her to ignore her bullies and they’d go away, so she never stood up for herself. This tactic didn’t help. “Those words and the things that people said were very hurtful, you know?” she said. “As much as people can say, ‘Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,’ well, I don’t really find that to be true. Now that years have passed, and I’ve gotten over it, I think that those kinds of things can have an effect on a person, even years later. I think it probably made me a stronger person.
As we neared the end of our phone call, I apologized again and told her, half-jokingly, that I was glad to hear I hadn’t ruined her life.
“No, you did not ruin my life. Not at all,” she said. “I totally forgive you. It’s in the past. I don’t think it’s healthy for either of us to hold on to that kind of stuff. Move forward and move on.”
We hung up, and I sat in silence for a while, letting her words reverberate.
Both of my victims seemed unfazed by my emails and phone call, yet here I was, still punishing myself. What was I holding on to? I’m 30 years old and my life is everything I’ve ever wanted it to be: I love my job. I have an amazing boyfriend and tons of friends (many of whom would be surprised to learn that I was once a bully). The acne that plagued me in middle school has since disappeared. My hair became thick and wavy in my 20s. And at 5-foot-10, I love being tall and wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s become clear to me that confronting my victims has rattled my normally strong self-esteem. I’ve been forced to face the darkest part of my past -- the insecure, spiteful little girl capable of hurting another person without thinking twice, the child who hates being tall and fears that she's ugly -- and only through talking it out and writing it down have I realized just how far I’ve come. That time in my life is ancient history, a brief, but potent chapter that’ll serve as a lesson for future offspring.
Valerie and Julia didn’t need my apology after all — they’d put the past to bed long ago. All I’d really needed to do, as it turns out, is forgive myself.