I don't know if Jenny and Melissa* tried to make eye contact as they slid into the seat in front of me on the school bus that day; I was too afraid to look up.
I sat nervously, trying not to fidget, trying to fold into myself until I disappeared. I wondered why they'd sit near me after so many months, but a few minutes later I got my answer in the form of a note dropped over the back of the seat into my lap.
Scrawled in Jenny's familiar, bubbly script it said, "If we apologized right now, would you forgive us?"
The three of us had grown up in the same neighborhood and were inseparable as far back as any of us could remember. We shared rides to the mall, swam in Jenny's above-ground pool, snuck into abandoned barns in search of adventure and trick-or-treated together on Halloween long after we were probably a few years too old.
We were best friends.
Until we weren't.
One day they simply decided I wasn't one of them anymore. I started finding cruel notes in my locker, heard whispered threats over the phone at 3 a.m. There was ugly name-calling in school hallways, gruff shoving at the bus stop. There was the knowledge that all the secrets I'd ever told my closest friends could be made public in the lunchroom at any moment.
Like most teens I was absorbed by the desire for peer acceptance, so abstract concepts ... couldn't really compete with the harsh reality.
Looking at their note, I wanted to be angry. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to finally stand up for myself, to echo the words my mom had used in her attempts to comfort me—that I didn't need them, that people who treated me this way were never really my friends to begin with. I wanted to laugh or cry or run away or tell them to f*ck off.
But mostly I just wanted it to be over.
I read the note again. "If we apologized right now, would you forgive us?" With very little hesitation I wrote, "Yes" and dropped the note over the back of their seat. I watched it disappear into the world between them where I used to belong.
There was some shuffling before the note returned to my lap, and for a moment I was ashamed at how grateful I felt, grateful that they'd offered to end a war they had begun for no reason.
But the shame quickly crumbled into despair as I read their all-caps response, "TOUGH SHIT!" Clearly an apology wasn't coming, as laughter erupted from the seat in front of me.
I rarely think about those days anymore; as much as their bullying tilted my world off its axis at the time, I found the world beyond middle and high school allowed plenty of space to avoid toxic relationships.
However, I have children of my own now, and I worry about them. Will they have to deal with bullies? Will they be blindsided by a best friend? Will I be equipped to parent in the digital age, to help them deal with the kinds of bullying I never had to endure—constant texts and emails, upsetting SnapChat posts, social media harassment?
Will I have any words of advice or explanation that will comfort them?
I have little reason to believe (my kids) will make it to adulthood untouched by the thorns of bullying in some form.
I always assumed being bullied by someone you thought was a close friend was a relatively rare occurrence; then I saw the trailer for "A Girl Like Her," a movie about a BFF-turned-bully that claims to be "based on a million true stories." Indeed, there's an overwhelming response on their Facebook page from people with experiences similar to mine. And those people overwhelmingly repeat the same sentiment, the same explanation, one that appears to be addressed in the movie as well: that bullies are frequently dealing with troubled lives themselves and haven't found another way to cope with their struggles.
I'm sure my mom told me something similar back then, along with "it's their loss" and "they weren't really your friends to begin with." But of course at the time, the words rung hollow; like most teens I was absorbed by the desire for peer acceptance, so abstract concepts like "people are sometimes hostile in a subconscious response to their unfortunate life circumstances" couldn't really compete with the harsh reality of being on the receiving end of that hostility.
I didn't understand the truth in those words until much later.
My second year in college I received a phone call, the voice on the other end made tinny by distance, both physical and emotional. Melissa had passed away. She was apparently recovering from a drug addiction, had a withdrawal-related seizure while driving and tragically died in the resulting crash. It was only then that I realized how extensive the tangled struggles were that had rooted and bloomed in her life, the early seeds of which probably reached as far back as that afternoon on the school bus.
I can only hope my kids don't have to deal with this—with any of it. But if I'm being realistic, I have little reason to believe they will make it to adulthood untouched by the thorns of bullying in some form. So if they do encounter it, I can really only hope that the words I use to try to explain it ring true.