Bullying and the journey to forgiveness — it gets better

Someone asked me to write about bullying. As it happens, I have a story of my own.

The day I graduated from high school, I watched the captain of the football team walk out the front door, surrounded, as usual, by friends. Walking past his habitual hangout, now empty, to return my graduation robes to the auditorium, I whispered a heartfelt prayer: “Thank you, Lord. He is one person I will never have to see again.”

Along the front hallway of the school, just past the entrance area, there was a glassed-in area where botany students raised interesting plants. It had a glass roof. Sunlight streamed in so the glass walls of this giant terrarium gave light to the hallway. It was a very pleasant place, visually; a kind hallway greenhouse. The popular athletes would sit on the benches along the windows.

For some reason, the captain of the football team had designated me for his unwelcome, unfriendly attentions. I was terrified of him and his friends. To avoid the area, I would walk around three sides of a rectangle that the hallways made to go to classes that were just one hallway away so as not to pass “jock row.” I was a socially awkward teenager, with little idea of how to relate to people my age. I had few friends, and was most comfortable speaking with my teachers and other adults. I had a large vocabulary and was in mostly advanced placement classes. I was an intellectual snob, 5’ 9″ tall, and with, shall we say, certain noticeable anatomical features. I was sure I was the ugliest person on the planet, and the occupiers of “jock row” reinforced that conviction regularly.

If the captain of the football team was there, I could not pass the place without some sort of comment about how ugly I was, how my hair looked terrible, how fat I was, how certain parts of my anatomy drew attention and what a pretentious creep I was. If the captain was not there, I could usually get past without comment from the others. I had to go there at least once every day, because the auditorium, where all my study halls took place, was opposite the terrarium.

I could not figure out how these guys knew my name, because I wasn’t in any of their classes, and our graduating class alone had 450 people in it. After freshman year, the verbal abuse began extending into the hallways. The captain, and occasionally some of his friends, would call out hostile remarks when they passed me on the way to class.

There was no talk of “bullying” in those days, the 1960s. The behavior was tolerated because the people who engaged in it were “popular.” To report them was to risk further repercussions. My parents would have taken action if I had talked to them about it, but my fear prevented me from doing so. For four years, this went on nearly every school day. I never learned how to deal with it. I just endured it.

I went away to university, I met people who shared my interests, I had compassionate roommates who put up with my social awkwardness and taught me, by good example, some social skills, and I had a great time. I couldn’t believe that school could be fun as well as educational, but it was. In short, I had friends, I had a wonderful church, I had dates, I had boyfriends, and eventually I learned how to relate to people better.

End of story? No.

A couple of years ago, a high school classmate, now an opera singer, friended me on Facebook. I saw the photo of the dread “captain” on his list of friends, and was surprised to see a kind and friendly face rather than the sneer I remembered.

The “captain,” I learned from comments on the singer’s page, had become a captain indeed. He had been the police chief of our home town for 20 years, and an officer on the force for nearly 20 years before becoming the chief. After “retirement,” he had become an officer on the tiny police force of the nearby village where I had gone to elementary school.

Not long after, I found a friend request from “the captain” on my Facebook page. I sent a private message to my friend the singer: “This guy and a few others made my life difficult for four years, and I really am surprised to find a friend request from him. What do you think? Should I respond?”

He answered that the captain had not had an easy life in many ways, that he had changed a lot since high school. “Haven’t we all?” he asked. He thought I should respond positively. He didn’t exactly put it this way, but implied a question: aren’t you in the forgiveness business?

So. I did. I did not comment on the captain’s page at all, but found that he commented regularly on mine, always positively.

From a comment I posted on the anniversary of Sept. 11, I discovered that he had been working as a volunteer policeman at the ruins in lower Manhattan at the same time I was at St. Paul’s Chapel nearby — and that he had done that hard work for five months. A comment about a trip to Ireland drew comments from him about the visit he and his wife made there to meet her long-lost relatives.

Bullying is a miserable and frightening behavior that probably indicates something about the bully’s own inner misery. I survived. Eventually, I even thrived. The abuse was not physical, and it did not make me suicidal, as with the far-too-many horrible instances that have been occurring lately. But I do know that far too many teachers knew what was going on and did nothing to stop it. I know that people who didn’t participate also said nothing. I know that laughter from bystanders encouraged the behavior. And this was in a time before cell phones that make harsh comments go “viral” in the space of the time between classes.

If there is a “moral,” it is this: Philo of Alexandria said it in the time of Christ: “Be very kind; everyone you see is fighting a great battle.”

Jesus said it differently: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. The behavior we model to children is the behavior they will take into the playground, into school, onto the bus, and into the rest of their lives.

I still wonder what the captain learned at home. I know that eventually he learned differently than he behaved in school. The best thing I learned from him was to not do what he did. And eventually, I even learned to forgive.

 

— The Rev. Georgia DuBose is the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Harpers Ferry.

 

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