Every now and then I remember bits and pieces of past incidents in which I felt like a social failure. The most painful are ones where I was humiliated in front of a group of classmates, or a group at school. For years these memories would replay in my head like a film set on repeat. Even after I was done with school for good, I would have recurring nightmares of the things I used to do to cope with the anxiety and ostracization I felt in those situations, which included skipping class to avoid certain classmates I felt intimidated/threatened by or to avoid classwork or assignments I couldn’t handle (oral presentations and in-class group work). In those dreams, I was stuck in high school, forever wandering the halls as I relived the school day over and over, with the perpetual despair of flunking for the year and having to repeat a grade. I never did flunk, but it was always a fear I had while in school. I couldn’t stop the memories from surfacing during my waking hours, so I tried to mentally train myself to destroy those memories.
When a bad memory comes up, I find myself transported into the situation, with the setting and people around me appearing exactly as I recall them to be. The only difference is the me that goes into the memory is the person I am now, instead of the person I was when the incident first happened. The memories used to consume me and I would allow myself to relive them from start to finish because I was lost in whatever pain I was feeling in that moment in time. I didn’t feel in control of those memories. It’s almost like a fictional reality in my head. Nowadays when I’m in a painful memory, I imagine freezing everything around me, including the people in the memory, and dumping a casket of oil on everything before setting it on fire as I walk out of the room. I kill the memory and the ghosts of the people in it until the memory repopulates itself in my mind at another time in my life. The burning isn’t done out of malice or wanting to actually hurt people, but it’s more symbolic and a way to say, “Hey, I am not going to be stuck in the pain of this memory.”
There was a boy named Michael in fifth grade who was so terrible that I still remember how horrible he was to me. It was so long ago, but, until meeting him, I had never been bullied before, and this had a big impact on me so early in life. Michael was assigned to sit next to me after causing trouble for another student whom he sat next to. I suppose the teacher assumed since I was quiet that Michael would not make trouble for me. Wrong. wrong, wrong. I was gone from the classroom during one period of each school day because I had to attend an extra math class at another classroom. Every time I came back to rejoin the regular class, Michael would have either thrown one of my textbooks onto the floor or ripped up one of my bookbinders. In my grammar school, students were allowed to put their notebooks and textbooks into their desks, and even if we had to change classrooms to go to different classes, we could just take the books we needed and leave the rest inside our desks.
Michael terrified me. I hardly ever spoke to him unless he spoke to me, which was almost never. Another boy he was friends with sat near me, and sometimes Michael would be in my seat chatting with his friend when I returned to rejoin the class. The one thing I could never understand about bullies is how they can treat a person so badly, yet treat their actual friends with civility and respect. There were a couple of times my blood ran cold when Michael point-blank told me that he hated me or that he would kill me. Conveniently, he would say those things when the teacher wasn’t around. His words scared me to near death, but I was frozen in my reactions. I would just become very quiet or continue working on my classwork, while on the inside, I was screaming for someone, anyone to help me.
The final straw was one day after school lunch was over. Everyone had returned to the classroom and back to their seats to wait for the teacher to arrive and begin a new lesson. Michael took a pair of scissors and mockingly began to snip them close to my hair. The other kids saw. Some laughed, while others just observed what was going on. I remember one kid told him to knock it off. I pretended to be elsewhere in my head and that I didn’t care what he was doing, although this was the exact opposite of what I was feeling. I turned my back to him and made myself not look. My throat felt parched and dry. It was like an out of body experience. When I did turn to look behind me, I caught a glimpse of a few stray black strands falling to the ground. My hair. I lost my nerve and screamed before I began sobbing. I hadn’t realized how deadly quiet the classroom was until the silence was broken by the teacher rushing to me and asking me what happened. After that Michael was put on probation and his parents were even informed of what happened. He still stayed in the same class as me, except the teacher moved his seat away from me. I felt mildly bad for getting him in trouble, only because I feared retaliation from him.
During fifth-grade summer school, I had the awkwardness of being paired with him for group work. Seeing him again gave me a renewed vigor of irritation towards him for what he did to me during the year, yet I was also worried he was going to mess with me again because I had gotten him in trouble. At the same time, I wasn’t particularly good at group work when I was paired with a stranger, and often times, I wouldn’t know how to talk with the other person. So my response to the situation was to sit and do my work in silence because I didn’t know how to begin communication with him. Several times, the teacher loudly noted that Michael and I were not working together, but still, I couldn’t bring myself to talk. Michael, at one point, tried to ask me a question about the assignment, and I gave a one-word answer because I felt awkward, but I think I came across as curt since he said in a frustrated tone, “I don’t even know why I bother trying.” When he said that, I felt annoyed and assumed he was being an asshole because he didn’t like me. However, looking back, I now see that I was in the wrong. I was the one being uncooperative because I was so caught up in my own mind and emotions.
It’s so easy to paint a bully as a bad person, but there are always two sides to every story and not everything is black or white. I saw glimpses of that in Michael sometimes. Of course, I didn’t think of him then with the mindset I have now. How could I? I was only a kid when I had those bad interactions with him. During the fifth-grade school year, I overheard a snippet of a conversation he had with a friend. He spoke of once having been a really good student and getting good grades in previous school years, but not anymore. At one parent-teacher conference night, my mom had become acquainted with Michael’s mother and I learned that Michael’s parents were divorced. After Michael’s seat was moved away from mine, he was then seated next to a girl who one of my friends was friends with. I was told by this friend that he began to mess with the girl’s books in the same manner he once did to mine. So his bad behavior wasn’t only specifically geared towards me. I can’t speculate if Michael’s personal life had an impact on how he treated others, but knowing the struggles I have faced as a socially anxious person, I know I have reasons for my behavior and perhaps he did too, even if whatever he was going through was not social anxiety. Maybe it’s easier to forgive because I can only imagine what kind of person he is today and hope that he is a better person than who he once was.
I do wonder how Michael turned out in adulthood. I have been curious enough, at times, to look him up on Facebook. To a certain degree, I think I’ve distanced myself from holding grudges against people I felt wronged by, though there were definitely times throughout my life that I wanted to make damn sure that people got what they deserved for hurting me. Almost as if getting revenge would make me feel better. But I never did retaliate. To think about revenge and actually doing it are two different things, and I never had the guts to get payback. It’s probably better that I didn’t. The people they were then are likely not the people they are now. It took me years to realize that. And even if people who once treated me badly haven’t changed or aren’t sorry for their behavior, it doesn’t mean I have to cling onto the pain and anger of the memories because letting go is about having peace of mind for myself.