What the Bullied Girl Taught Me

(Collage by Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight)

Reunions are like reflections. At least, that’s the thought I had after a recent high-school class reunion, though I could apply the same sentiment to family reunions, or really any encounter with people I haven’t seen in years. For at least a moment, you flash back to how you remember them — and yourself — at that time. Then there’s the inevitable question, “what have you been doing since I last saw you?”

A friend once told me our reactions arc over time, much like our responses. At early reunions, like the five- or ten-year, familiarity still tends to run strong. You’ve stayed in touch with many old friends. They know what you’ve been doing. The range of individual achievements and failures remains fairly consistent. Many graduated college and got their first job; some got married. I was moving to New York. I was on my way up.

By the 15th year, though, you start reflecting on the things you had planned for when you grew up. Because now you are grown up. You are what you are going to be. Is it what you thought?

By the 15th year, you start reflecting on the things you had planned for when you grew up. Because now you are grown up. You are what you are going to be. Is it what you thought?

I had thought I’d be an Oscar-winning screenwriter. Or at least have sold a screenplay — or written one. In college, I had completed several; since then, none. Back then, professors coached us to “write what you know,” but I knew nothing. The end result was a stockpile of repetitive plotlines that all took place on campus with Greek-letter-bearing characters. They would be best described as “sucked.”

I still write occasionally, and occasionally it’s better. However, without the weight of a grade or pass-fail determination, I don’t pursue it with the same focus or frequency. So when I say “I do a little writing on the side,” it’s a lot like very little.

So at my 15th-year reunion, I felt compelled to sound like I was doing more, I had achieved more during those passing years. An odd sense of competitiveness arose, especially for someone who rarely engages in anything more sporting than Words with Friends. I turned the website I edit into the next Huffington Post; I was “work-shopping” a novel, which sounded more promising than going to a weekly class where other unpublished authors critiqued the two chapters I had completed.

Isn’t there something about being surrounded by people who knew you when? It’s like knowing a celebrity before they were famous, except there’s no Oscar to show off. So you come up with something — anything — to show how far you’ve come.

Just getting through the door was pretty far for me. There was a moment when I was sitting in the parking lot, watching strangers walk in, that I thought about leaving. I wondered why I was there, since I couldn’t even recognize them anymore. So why did I care to reminisce with these folks?

That’s when I realized that I didn’t have to care. This was one night, not four years of flashback. I got out of the car, went in, and had a much better time than I expected.

I saw the former popular girls, all smiles and circulating the room. They were still pretty, though time had evened out the field a bit. The rest of us had by now figured out how to control our hair, what makeup to wear. The days of acne and braces were past.

We’ve caught up on confidence, too, overcoming our teen shyness and sulking attitudes, with some perhaps making up for lost time. One classmate told my friend John, “You used to act like you were so cool. You wouldn’t even talk to me.” After a few more drinks, he asked John if he wanted to “take it outside.” Neither John nor I could remember this guy from high school. But in a class of nearly 300 people, we didn’t know everyone. Maybe he was right, but then, maybe he was aggressive back then.

I was cornered by another classmate with stories about his Harley and his Harley-oriented trips. I mostly listened, puzzled as to why he’d think I’d be impressed by Harleys. I tried to converse with him on travel in general, but every time I mentioned a destination where I had been, he’d say, “Oh, I’d never go there. Who would want to go there?” Um, I don’t know, me?

He asked how I could stand living in New York. “It’s so crowded. Too expensive. There’s no real reason to even go there. I mean, other than hot chicks.”

I walked away.

Then I ran into Lori, a girl who had been bullied for all four years I shared homeroom with her.  She had been overweight, plain and dressed in baggy, worn-looking clothes that never matched the mandatory Limited or Express styles. The boys had been cruel; the girls had been worse. When I saw her, I recalled with some shame how I had been too fearful to ever defend her.

I could say she was at the reunion to show off her new self, thinner and fabulously dressed, but she wasn’t. She was just comfortable with herself. She had a job she liked, was proud of owning her own home and loved gardening. She seemed happy, free from previous image and issues. She probably didn’t sit for 20 minutes in the parking lot before coming in.

I was then really glad I went. I got to see John and other people I had been really good friends with. I talked to others who I recalled not liking but couldn’t remember why. But it was Lori who confirmed for me that we’re not the same people. She’s not the girl who was bullied; I’m not the one who sat by quietly while it happened.

Over time, the importance of what happened or what people thought of us then will continue to diminish, and maybe, too, any remaining competitiveness. I’m sure in another ten to fifteen years, when people ask, “what have you been doing?” we’ll all say something similar.

“Not much.”

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