Sunday, October 2, 2011

Dear Bully

I remember bullies.

One in particular. Chris O. A tough little Irish kid from a big family. He came to school wrinkled and unprepared. He was always getting in trouble. The teachers couldn’t reprimand him enough.

And he tortured Gloria Z.

When I say that picking on Gloria was akin to kicking Bambi, I’m not exaggerating. Gloria was shy to the point of mute. She wore thick, coke-bottle-bottom glasses, and always walked with her head down and her shoulders slumped, as if she were trying to make herself invisible. In eighth grade, when most of us were sporting platform shoes and shag haircuts (sorry, it was the 70’s) Gloria showed up in knee socks and little-girl plaid skirts, only in large girl sizes.

Her grandmother dressed her. That’s because Gloria’s mother had died … none of us knew how, or why .. and Gloria and her brother had come to live with their grandparents. Who hadn’t gotten the memo about mod.

Gloria wasn’t my friend. She was just some quiet kid in the class and I was very busy with my own circle of friends and didn’t pay attention to her.

But you couldn’t not notice her when Chris O moved in.

With his spectacular homing device for detecting vulnerability, he focused every bit of mean he had on Gloria. He’d sit behind her and make kissy noises, and croon, “Gloooooria, won’t you be my girlfriend?” prompting laughter from all the boys around him. When she got up from her desk, he’d stick his foot out and trip her. Sometimes, during class, he’d whisper to her. Things that made her face turn bright red. Nothing for an audience that time, but designed solely for her pain and his delight.

Gloria was his goat, and the game was contagious. Other boys took up the cry. And even some girls (who years later would become doting mothers posting precious little Facebook details about their own cute daughters) would mock her, making fun of her clothes and her childish, whispery way of speaking.

To my credit, I never piled on Gloria. But to my shame, I don't recall ever rising to her defense, either. I was a shocked, silent, fearful bystander, horrified by what Chris O was doing ... but afraid of taking steps that might direct his aim at me.

I like to think I made a point of being kind to Gloria. But I didn’t invite her to my sleepovers. I didn’t sit with her at lunch. I can’t recall if she had friends. I think she didn’t.

The woman I am today considers that silent, former teenage self equally to blame for whatever emotional ruin Chris O might have caused Gloria. I can’t help it: I think bystanders suck. To witness bullying, or unkindness, and say nothing, is to tacitly condone it. I would do anything to go back in time for just ten minutes of that eighth grade English class, and get it right. But it doesn't work that way. The experienced middle-aged woman can't return to the eighth grade body and fight Chris O. I can't time travel back to the 70s and invite Gloria to anything.

Dear Bully, edited by the amazing Carrie Jones (love her YA books!) and Megan Kelley Hall, is a collection of essays written by authors, all sharing their stories about bullying. It’s a book about victims and perpetrators. Heroes and bystanders. Every role that one could play in the ongoing drama of bullying, all contained within this wonderful volume.

I haven’t finished all the essays yet, but more than one has moved me to tears. If you’re a teacher or librarian, I urge you to add this book to your class/library collection.

Epilogue to my bully saga: Chris O had an illustrious career as a perpetual troublemaker and bully, picking on smart girls (our future class valedictorian, who went on to become a mission doctor in Africa) and targeting Jews with particular venom (our future class salutatorian, who went on to become a famous medical researcher.) Administrators banned him from attending our high school class graduation trip, but he showed up anyway with cases of beer, got drunk with his friends, and trashed the hotel where we were all staying. I heard he later went on to become an inmate at some correctional facility, but I can't confirm that.

Gloria graduated from our high school, but I don’t know what became of her following graduation.

I went on to become a writer of teen novels, still processing all the things I learned … and didn’t learn … back then. Creating characters who are braver than I was, which, unfortunately, isn't saying much.

A portion of all proceeds from Dear Bully will be donated to Stomp Out Bullying.