In the second or third grade, I remember being asked about friends. "Oh, I have lots of friends," I said, reciting a list that included all my teachers, day care providers, school janitors, and most of the kids I knew. Everyone was nice...at least I thought. I didn't understand the true nature of friendship - until I was bullied.
When I was in fourth grade, we moved to a new town. Having always felt different, I was always drawn to other outsiders. Which is why, on my first day of school, I was drawn to a girl who stood alone, off to the side, watching everything with big, soft, brown eyes. I liked her immediately.
But, I was soon to find out, others did not. One day, while I was playing alone on the merry go round, one of the popular girls sought me out. She wanted to be my friend, she said. But the conditions for her friendship were clear...drop my friend. I refused. Adamantly. That's when the bullying got serious.
But the bullies were in for a surprise...I didn't react the way they expected. The previous year, my PE teacher had decided to teach us the basics of Aikido, one of his passions. Deeply affected by Aikido's philosophy of non-violent self-defense, bolstered by my newly acquired church teachings to "turn the other cheek," I had become militantly pacifistic. So, I refused to fight. If they persisted, I'd use the Aikido techniques I'd learned to defend myself. But only that.
They didn’t know what to make of it. Who was this weird kid who refused to fight, ignored their taunting, and acted as if they didn’t exist? It was a challenge, so they upped the ante - and I couldn't keep up.
At first, my father was proud of my non-violent ways…but as the abuse began to escalate, his feelings began to change. One night, I came home crying over the latest assault. A taller kid had snuck up behind me and grabbed me by the hair, dragging me around the playground by it as the other kids laughed at my flailing attempts to free myself.
Suddenly, my father burst out, "Dammit! Why won't you defend yourself!!" I was crushed...I didn't know that his outburst was a product of his own feelings of helplessness and frustration at his inability to protect me – and anger at an administration that responded to his complaints with devastating indifference.
One day not long after, I was making my way to a spot my friend had saved for me at the front of the line for the lunchroom. Unexpectedly, I felt a pull on my hair. Sensitive from months of sneak attacks, I spun on a dime, fist flying - my father's words ringing in my ears. I popped the kid - right in the eye. Standing there, my hand fisted at my side, I felt strong. Enough!
Then the backlash came. In a matter of seconds, the line folded back in on itself, and I was surrounded by a mob of angry, shouting kids. As they took turns savagely kicking me, I looked around for a hole in the ranks, trying to escape.
Off to the side, I saw him...the kid who’d pulled my hair – his eye red, tears running down his face. A popular kid, whom I didn't know well – he had never hurt me before. He wasn't shouting and he made no move to join the melee. Something wasn’t right...but I wasn't sure what.
A few minutes later, I was surprised when the boy, eye still teary and beginning to purple, came to apologize: "I'm sorry I pulled your hair," he said. "I just wanted to get your attention." I was a little confused...but he continued, "They were going to come after you, if you took that place in line. I just thought if I could get your attention, I could warn you."
Standing there looking at him, I thought of his earlier behavior – and my heart sank. I realized that, in striking out at him, I had not only hurt an ally, but brought upon myself exactly what he had feared for me.
Feeling terrible, I gave him my heartfelt apology...telling him, in explanation, "I thought you were one of the others, coming to hurt me." He looked down, sighed, and said, "I know, I know."
Some time later, a group of bullies caught me alone on the playground. Grabbing me, they dragged me into a wooded area behind the school, threw me down on the ground against a tree, and began hitting. Curling up against the blows, unable to escape, I felt woozy, and my vision got dimmer and dimmer. Was I about to black out?
Suddenly, I saw a ray of light, as I felt a weight lifted off of me. Through the gap, I saw a boy from my reading class whom I barely knew. He charged into the fray, pulling the rest of the kids off of me. Then he held out his hand, and pulled me to safety.
During recess, one of the last weeks of school, I was walking along the playground, when I saw another kid acting strangely, dancing around behind a tiny little tree that didn’t have the first chance of concealing him. Curious, I went to see what was going on.
He leaped out, and punched me. Wham! Wham! Wham! Three times in quick succession. Looking up, I saw my friend nearby…she’d seen it. I reported the incident to the Playground Monitor...but the situation didn’t go as I expected.
I found myself in the Principal’s office, sitting across from my friend. The boy had accused me of hitting him first – and the Principal wanted to get to the bottom of it. Shaking inside, I told my story. Then the Principal turned to my friend, and asked her: “Did you see her hit him?” My friend said, "Yes."
My jaw dropped.
Then the Principal turned to me, and asked, “Are you sure you didn’t hit him, and you just forgot about it?” I opened my mouth to speak, but was utterly incapable of it. I knew he didn’t believe me – and he wouldn’t. Why would my friend, who had been my constant companion, lie?
I thought back on the year - of all the times that I had been beaten, kicked, knocked down, called names, etc. In all that time, I had never been the aggressor - and I had tried so hard to "take the high road." Did it mean nothing? Had they not seen?
Overwhelmed with the futility of it, I could only stare up at the ceiling, desperately trying to suppress the tears that I so hated to shed in public.
Soon after, I left that school...with a new understanding:
Not everyone is nice. People who say they want to "be friends," may not actually be friendly. And those that are your friends, may let you down. But the most remarkable friends and allies are those that you never know about...until everything falls apart.
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