That’s what they called her at the junior high bus stop. Overweight and acne pocked, every morning, she slowly made her way up the street past the jeering group of adolescent boys to sit alone on the curb, light a cigarette and wait for the bus.
I was one of those boys.
There was a point in my rationalizations both then and later on when I had grown up and begun my career, that upon recalling those many sad mornings, I took pride that I was never one who called her names, never pushed her, berated her or talked about her behind her back. For awhile, when haunted with these memories, I had taken comfort in what I had prematurely resolved as my “innocence” despite being one in the crowd of those boys.
When I was about 35, having boldly worked up the courage to locate my own high school bully, I called him on the phone out of the blue and tactfully confronted him with what I experienced as his unprovoked, heartless, cruel and mostly verbal attacks on me back then and what, ultimately, those experiences had caused me for the rest of my life. As I made it past the brief niceties of our opening conversation and understood he was willing to listen, I spoke my piece to him. What followed was dumbfounding. While I’d hoped for and anticipated that things would be set straight, an overdue explanation would be handed to me and resulting apologies exchanged as we wound up the call, never happened. I was left with a dial tone to hang up with a message from him that “we were kids, get over it.”
Perhaps he was right. Perhaps he was dead wrong.
Bullied children never get over it. The bully cycles of life peak around adolescence out of multiple reasons I won’t explain here. But I will note that this period of life is formative for so much of our adult self and relational development that left unresolved, without intervention, damages are for a lifetime. The link to drug use, passivity, gross self-images, suicidality and more tragedy later in life for those bullied needs no studies to support the claim.
I had been fortunate for my sophomore year to have been offered an easy way out of the bullying while still saving face. Many students were offered the option of populating the newly constructed Bonanza High School and I was one of the first to sign up. For reasons of self preservation, I chose to silently leave behind many very close friends for the hope of social peace and unbullied belonging starting the new school might promise.
Fast forward. Around my 10 year high school class reunion.
10 years after high school, things change. What was once bullying had become a social posturing among classmates eager to show themselves having been most successful in education, careers, family and possessions. I walked in to my own reunion expecting this and was not at all disappointed. I waded through the bullshit and was generally pleased with the story of my own first decade. But something was missing. Someone was missing.
Fat Anne, (Anne now for the sake of respect,) had remained to graduate at Clark, my former high school. I still had some contact with friends from there and inquired about their reunion date that summer. Choosing the traditional Sunday family picnic event, I showed up at their event for one purpose only.
As if the posturing bit from former classmates at my own high school wasn’t enough, I weathered the limp handshakes and stories of greatness of all the rich, old money kids who’d remained to graduate at Clark during this second reunion round of my summer. I was on a hunt for someone, and it wasn’t my own bully, who was, undoubtedly there…somewhere. I’d got over it.
I first saw her leaning against a pole at the shaded picnic area pavilion in the park. She was still overweight, overdressed and had that same cigarette dripping from her mouth. And again, she was alone. I’d rehearsed my approach many times that morning but had hoped, if she was indeed going to be there, that it wouldn’t be such a flashback, and that like all the rest, she’d be flanked with a loving husband and a couple small tikes playing with the balloons that spiraled up the pavilion to a pinnacled sign, “Welcome Back 10 Years Clark Chargers!”
“Hi Anne,” I said, hoping she would remember who I was after a decade that had been good to me, but apparently not to her. “Hi Don,” she said, snuffing her cigarette on the pole embarrassed as if she were caught smoking by some meddling parent at the bus stop years ago. We hugged and talked about superficial stuff as everyone did that day. I refrained from telling too much of my successes. I mostly listened to her as she, also, had a story to tell to which quite obviously few had bothered to listen to that day, or never.
She tried to appear upbeat while she spoke of the many demons she dealt with, still did, and her employment history as if it were a verbal resume seeking affirmation by someone, anyone.
About a half hour of chat went by before we exchanged hugs once again and I walked the long way across the grass to my car, occasionally glancing back. She had disappeared from her post. Scanning in all directions, I couldn’t find her nor her cigarette smoke anywhere in sight. I opened my door, slid inside, turned on the air conditioning and cried. I had failed to do what I had set out that day. I spoke nothing that resembled an acknowledgement or apology that afternoon for what I had done…rather, what I had left undone…ten years earlier.
You see, I am my brother’s keeper. I know it now. I knew it at the bus stop ten years earlier.
My biggest regret had been my lack of courage to step out of the bunch of boys at that bus stop and into plain sight where she could see me, to see that I was, indeed different from them. And perhaps on a particularly courageous morning, I might even had ventured some small talk with her there at risk of ridicule later on from the boys.
Before Anne and I had parted, we’d exchanged addresses. Email was in its infancy back then and I figured I might yet be able to clear my conscience and perhaps bring a smile to her weathered face with a letter some day.
I wish I had kept a copy of the letter I wrote that following fall. I was brief but to the point having stated that I had learned it wasn’t enough to have not been one who taunted her or called her by the labels to which she’d become accustomed back then. I was most ashamed that I’d also not been strong enough with myself to defend her publicly against such ridicule. I asked for her forgiveness the best I could, sealed and stamped the envelope, and sent it on its way.
To this day, I don’t know if Anne ever received my letter or if by some slim chance she’d received any such letters from others who might have also realized their shame at that bus stop. Certainly, there were enough witnesses to her daily stoning and the occasional glance into the eyes of a few bystanders at the bus stop showed me that their adolescent minds and hearts felt the same as mine but were also silenced by the status quo.
My experience on both sides of the bully when I was young may never be resolved to my satisfaction. Lance may never write me with a well deserved apology. Anne may never acknowledge my own letter of apology. Both relationships may eventually expire, each with that unwritten final chapter. But that’s okay.
God has an incredible way of working these kinds of things out. And if, indeed, everything in life happens for a reason, until a better one comes along, it is this:
He has given me the events of this story for you and for your children. Read it to them when they are young. Perhaps they may be saved from the fate of Anne.
Teach them courage.Teach them that in a very real sense, they are their brother’s keepers, if not for today, for one to come.