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Confessions of a Former Bully

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Photograph by Twenty20

I saw an ad on Facebook the other day about bullies. It was a video of three girls, who all looked like normal, sweet teens, waiting for a train. But two were the bullies and were taunting the third girl. Their taunts were delivered very matter of factly, almost gently. They were as simple as:

“Do you have any friends besides your parents?”

Just a few questions like that.

I kept waiting for the real “bully” part to kick in. You know, punches thrown and nasty, dirty stuff. It never did. This was it. This is what bullying looks like. I had always imagined bullying would look different. I pictured a group of mean scary girls throwing rocks at some pee wee in the middle of the circle.

It then occurred to me, bullying can be as simple as taunting and tormenting. The delivery can take on many different shapes and forms. Then I felt sick. Because I then realized that I was a bully.

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As a young child of six, I was so introverted that my parents took me to a therapist. In kindergarten I would cling to the teacher and stay stuck in her lap for as long as possible. I celebrated being in a Woody Allen film by getting my ears pierced. Soon after, a group of older girls circled me in the park, chanting, “We’re gonna rip your earrings out!” I was terrified. I left that school after first grade, haunted by this moment.

For second and third grade I went to a local public school. All was cool there. I felt no social pressure and was still undefined by my social experience. It wasn’t until fourth grade when I was moved to Horace Mann, one of the most elite, tony private schools in the country, where my entire world started to rock, crack and crumble. This is where I started to change.

I contorted my personality in any way possible to fit in with the East Side girls. But just when I was tucked in so sweetly with the most popular click in school, something horrible happened.

If you’ve ever wondered what makes a bully, all I know is my story and that my road to bullydom started with being bullied myself. I was not only bullied by other kids, but also by myself and to myself. Fourth grade is where I grew acutely aware of where I fit in and how. From day one, I felt like an outsider. First of all, Horace Mann was gruelingly challenging academically. I always felt behind and pressured to keep up. I would beat myself up about my shortcomings. I was my harshest critic.

I lived on the Upper West Side, considered the dangerous part of Manhattan at the time. Kids were not allowed to come to my house. Everyone was rich—like full-time drivers, live-in help, South Hampton estate, Upper East Side mansion rich. Don’t get me wrong, we were very “well to do” as they said back then. I was as privileged as they come, but it was nothing compared to the East Side kids. This made me feel less than and ashamed.

I was teased or made to feel bad everywhere, in school, in camp, even by my own friends. I shopped in the husky department and this made me feel awful. When I got the role of the Ugly Duckling in a camp show, I was mortified. Oh no, they know. They can see it. The school bus matron, a guy named Calvin in beige polyester bell bottoms, called me "pie face" one day and it haunted me for years. I felt alone and singled out in my theater company where I only got roles like a Shadow or a Tree Branch when I wanted to be the star.

Eight grade in Horace Mann was nothing but elitist clicks. You were in or you were out. I contorted my personality in any way possible to fit in with the East Side girls. But just when I was tucked in so sweetly with the most popular click in school, something horrible happened. I went to school one day, and overnight, they decided to turn on me. The had a notebook devoted to me with an awful name and drawings about how gross I was. They didn’t sit with me at lunch. I was suddenly "out" for no reason. I’ll never forget when my one best friend, a fellow West Sider, called out from the school bus after it took off from the Bronx en route back to Manhattan, “I hate you Emily Wagner.” I was in shock. I had done nothing. This is when my innocence broke. Nothing made sense. I hated everyone. A fire started.

I wonder what would have happened if back in fourth grade, I had someone to talk to about my building feelings of inadequacy.

All the abuse from “friends” was the kindle. By the time I arrived in a new high school, tan and skinny from a summer at Weight Watchers camp, it was a full on forest fire. I was primed to spew my flames on any unsuspecting “loser” in my path. If there was someone anyone who vaguely reminded me of my former self, they were going to hear it from me. I was locked and loaded and ready to destroy. With the power of my new good looks and fashion in my court (pink Benetton cords, lavender midriff angora sweater, Laura Ashley perfume) I was the meanest girl on the block. My "friends" were a certain kind of person. They were girls who wanted to play with fire because that's who I was.

I was mean because I was angry. I was mean because I had to get it out. I had to get back at someone. Anyone. I remember the taunting. That time I cornered a girl on the stairwell and grilled her about her acting career when I knew she didn't have one. I remember the awkward girl with braces and braids in camp who I tormented in a tent one night. I put my legs across her sleeping bag and pretended I wasn't aware of it. I told her I couldn't help it because I was part human and part leech, until she was crying and fully believing. I did little things like that, things to hurt and destroy.

I was also a victim of my own bullying. I wasn't exempt from rage and destruction, and the ways I hurt myself could fill a long list. I imagine much of it was typical teen behavior, but I did take things too far, on a few occasions acting out in ways that would put a kid in jail in 2016.

To this day I think I was getting back at the girls who hurt me. I wanted to fit in for so many years then when I finally did, I had to become the most feared. I was a weapon.

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The most important thing I can learn from this is making sure our kids have a voice. I wonder what would have happened if I had downloaded all my difficult feelings from an early age. I wonder who I would have been if I had the tools and outlets to process them as the were happening. By the time I was in eighth grade, I was in Freudian therapy. I would sit there in Dr. Adler's office, smoking and falling asleep and talking about my mother. But it was too late. I was too angry. And the style of therapy was too esoteric to help me in the moment. I wonder what would have happened if back in fourth grade, I had someone to talk to about my building feelings of inadequacy.

I want to make sure my kids know I am here for them. We are so focused on protecting our kids from bullies these days but we forget to ask: What make a bully and how can we help prevent our kids from becoming one?

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