You’ve read all the updates on the Phoebe Prince case, which has made you cry, and you’re not alone. You read this story last Sunday in the Globe and felt terrible for Lexi, and you’re not alone. The increase in news about bullying lately has made you reflect on how mean people at school were to you when you were younger, and you’re not alone. But when you were in middle school, it sure felt like you were.
So you were awkward. Not because of one thing, but a combination of things that added up. You had long, tangled hair and an overbite so bad you couldn’t close your mouth. You didn’t make friends easily, and the friends you had were awkward for their own reasons. You liked to read on the bus. You did well in school, which often made you a target. You weren’t quite sure how other smart people managed to escape the labeling and being badgered about grades, so that people could either make fun of you for doing well or for not doing so well this time, but you certainly couldn’t. You weren’t good at sports and always got picked last in gym class. You could never figure out what the right clothes to wear were, and when you tried to wear something trendy, you weren’t comfortable.
To be fair, you didn’t do yourself any favors, either. You didn’t pick up on some social cues. You cried easily, when you didn’t do as well on a test as you wanted to or when you were upset with someone. You would talk about how much you didn’t like the popular girls in your class, which sometimes got back to them. If people made fun of you, you’d try to come up with a comeback, which usually backfired when they just laughed at you more.
But you certainly paid for it. People would ask you why you were wearing what you were wearing in a pointed voice. They’d tell you to get a haircut. They’d put two fingers in front of their mouths making fun of your teeth and call you a buck-toothed rabbit. You heard “nerd-girl” and “Miss Perfect” a lot. Every time people found out your grade on anything, they’d make fun of you, and they’d announce every mistake you made. People would ask if you and your equally awkward friends were lesbians. One guy asked you if you’d ever had a date, and when you asked him why he wanted to know, he said, “Because it doesn’t look like you’ll ever have one.” If a guy was teasing his friend, he’d call out to you, “Hey, will you go out with Mike?” because you were like the symbol of all that was uncool in a girl. It wasn’t just one person or group of people, either—it was pretty universal in your grade.
High school was better. It was bigger, first of all, and since everyone was trying to get into college, it was no longer uncool to be smart. Most of your classes were honors or AP classes, where the people were nicer and more like you. You enjoyed school for the most part, and you made new friends, but they mostly weren’t close friends. You never thought that people would miss you if you weren’t there. Some semesters, you spent a lot of time in the library during lunch. In group settings, you felt like you were always saying or doing the wrong thing and spent a lot of time beating yourself up over it. People mostly thought you were really quiet because you’d decided, to paraphrase an old saying, better to keep your mouth closed and be thought awkward than to open your mouth and erase all doubt.
Even now that people have long since stopped making fun of you to your face, the fear that they’re talking about you behind your back remains. In college, you thought you’d found a group of friends who’d actually miss you when you weren’t there, until you realized that, because you’d once again not picked up on social cues, they actually thought you were annoying and didn’t want you around at all. Sometimes now, you see on Facebook that your friends were invited to a party that you weren’t, or you see pictures from a birthday party or wedding that you weren’t invited to, and you can’t help but take it personally and wonder why no one wants to get close to you. The guy who told you you’d never have a date was right for a long time- you didn’t go on a date until you were in your twenties, and you’ve still never had a boyfriend. You wonder if the things in you that made people taunt you over ten years ago are still in you now, and people are just too polite to say so.
Someone you’re close to doesn’t like to hear you talk about how much middle school sucked. She never had a hard time in school herself, so when you bring up your own middle school days, she rolls her eyes and, in so many words, tells you to get over it and stop playing the victim. You wish you could just relax and have confidence that people do want you around, but it’s hard. You never assume you’re welcome anywhere without an explicit invitation, and you scrutinize everything you say, still beating yourself up if you think you made a faux pas somewhere.
You’re glad that awareness of bullying is increasing, at least in the media, but you’re scared about how school must be for kids today, now that there’s Facebook and Myspace and Twitter and Formspring. You know that rules and laws can punish kids for physical violence or saying outright mean things, but that there are some things that can’t be controlled—the spreading rumor, the subtle dig, the eye-roll. Bullying might never go away, and maybe you always would have been the awkward kid no matter what, but you do spend a lot of time wondering who you would have turned out to be if people hadn’t been so mean to you all those years ago.