It all started with an invite to my 20-year high school reunion. I was really looking forward to seeing my former classmates, as we’ve all spread out and settled down across the country and we don’t get to see each other very much anymore.
I expected the usual from my dear old friends — drinks, camaraderie, swapping old stories, and plenty of laughs. What I didn’t expect was the sudden attack of conscience that I got shortly after arriving into town.
The class reunions are always on Jubilee weekend in my small hometown. I met up with a bunch of my classmates at the beer garden the night before the reunion, and we were talking about who was all going to be in town and when they were arriving.
Then someone said her name. She was part of our class at one time until she moved away in middle school. She had since moved back to town and settled down with her family, and a friend was wondering aloud if she was going to come to the reunion. Hearing her name gave me immediate pause, but I didn’t say anything and went on with the evening.
The next day I boarded the class float of 1993 with my classmates, and we rode around the town square in the Jubilee parade. I saw her out of the corner of my eye standing with her mom, and you can tell a lot from the body language of a person — even in a half-glance. She appeared to stiffen as she saw us ride by. The brief sight of her gave me an uneasy feeling in my gut, but again I was caught up in the moment and didn’t say anything and continued on with the day.
She did not come to the reunion. The rest of my time in town was spent visiting with family and friends and doing activities with my kids, nieces and nephews, and cousins and their kids. Encountering her was stuck in the back of my mind and I thought of her several times, but again I didn’t say or do anything about it.
The night before I was going to make the long trip back home, I met a classmate for dinner at one of the few restaurants in town. And she walked in. She and her husband sat down at a nearby table and we managed quick, polite awkward smiles at each other. I really wanted to say something. I knew I had to say something. I treated her badly all of those years ago, and I knew the conversation had to happen.
But I didn’t know how she would react and we were in a public place. She would have been well within her rights to yell and point fingers and act aggressive towards me for the verbal torment I subjected her to when we were young. It was awkward and I was a coward, so again I said nothing.
About a week after getting home, I contacted her. I was too chicken to talk to her in person or try to get a phone number for her, so I sent her a friend request on Facebook and planned to send her a private message. Because that’s distanced and safe, and it’s what cowards do.
She didn’t answer the request for a few days, but did surprisingly accept it and I was relieved.
I carefully wrote my apology letting her know that in my grade-school immaturity, I was not aware of the damage or the long-term effects my actions would have. I told her that my actions were all about me and the trauma I had in my life at the time, and that it was wrong for me to target her because she hadn’t done anything wrong and that I was truly sorry for my actions. There wasn’t anything wrong with her, it was all on me, and I thankfully found healing after many years.
I waited on pins and needles for her response. I expected to be told to take the longest flying leap off of the highest cliff and I braced myself for the tongue lashing I deserved. Or even worse, the silence.
I had a lot of time to think as the days passed, and I made myself remember. The verbal taunting on the playground when the teachers weren’t looking. Anything that brought a laugh in our small 12-year-old minds was game. Things that didn’t even matter or weren’t even true. I remember her cautiously trying to avoid and ignore me, which was the common advice back then. She would pretend she was sick because she didn’t want to go to school. Because she was afraid.
Every night in my bed growing up at the time, I was the girl with covers pulled up to her neck, afraid to hear those late night footsteps coming up the stairs, and into my bedroom. So I knew what it was like to grow up afraid, and I’m ashamed to have inflicted that on to someone else.
As I matured and became an adult, I realized the weight of my actions towards an innocent person and I was remorseful for lashing out at her. Why on Earth would I expect that she would accept a friend request from me on Facebook or even want to think of me again just in general? Of course she wouldn’t want any form of contact from me.
But then I got this response from her a few days later:
“Audra, It means a lot that you would say this, and I recognize how hard it must have been. I struggled with the decision to accept your friend request, but I also recognize the courage it takes to put yourself out there knowing rejection is an option …
… I am trying to get past the psychological baggage I’ve been carrying with me for more than 20 years. And, I’m happy to say I’m getting there. I hated myself SO much for so long, because I really believed that if the only people I had as ‘friends’ could hate me so much, there must be a reason. I developed social anxiety disorder, and have been working through that. I narrowly avoided a panic attack at the Jubilee just knowing I could bump into an old classmate at any time, so I know I’m definitely not reunion-ready. And, that’s OK, too. Baby steps.
To be honest, yes, I have the worst memories at your hand, however, yours was not the only one that treated me with anger and hate. I am sorry, truly sorry, that you suffered so much at the hands of someone who was supposed to cherish and protect you, and I want you to know that I say that with genuine sorrow …
I wish you the best, and with a little healing on both sides, maybe now we can be the friends we could have been. I am glad that you are happy, and that you have found a path that fits you. I am glad that you have found peace, because every soul deserves it. And, though it may be worth little, here is forgiveness.”
Here is forgiveness.
Not “eff you and the horse you rode in on,” or “I’d rather stick red hot pokers in my eyes than hear a single word from you,” but “here is forgiveness.”
I was moved to the core. I admired the strength and resolve it took for her to go high and even express sympathy for me, after I went so, so low so long ago. I couldn’t believe it. I thanked her profusely and said that her words spoke volumes to her character and true heart, and I was so grateful to get to experience it.
Some time later, I even reached out and apologized to her mother. Because now that I’m a mom, I have had a small taste of what it’s like when your child comes home from school crying and she must have wanted to wring my neck back then. And through that conversation with her mother, I learned that the reason her family moved away in middle school was because of me. My heart sank.
But she also expressed forgiveness.
I would give anything to go back and change what I did and I feel true regret for causing so much unnecessary pain. I thought I was making myself feel better by lashing out, but all I did was spread pain to others.
Bullying was treated so differently back then. It was seen as just a part of life, and kids just had to toughen up. Though our situation was addressed by our parents and the school, I never did stop and think of the real damage I was doing. I wish I had taken it more seriously.
Her scars will sadly always be there, but the validation and acknowledgement of my wrongful actions and an apology meant a lot to her. She could have reacted strongly the other way, but instead chose to rewrite the ending to this story with integrity and grace.
If you were the victim of bullying and a particular person comes to mind as you are reading this, I hope to offer some form of comfort. Bullying is all about the bully, and not the victim. It isn’t right or justified, but bullies often feel powerless in another area of life, and that causes them to lash out. Happy, confident, well-adjusted kids do not feel the need to tear other kids down. Kids aren’t “just mean,” the root problem is close to the bully.
If you are reading this and you were the bully like me and a particular person comes to mind, I hope you are inspired to make amends and give the apology that is owed. It is scary and it is humbling and uncomfortable and awkward, but you need to make it right. Even if your apology isn’t accepted, I think the gesture will go a long way towards their sad inner child, and they deserve peace.
If I had received a different reaction, I believe I still would have been glad I had the conversation, and I think the gesture still would have meant a lot behind closed doors.
People shouldn’t have to fear class reunions. It’s so important to make it right. Making that effort can be life-changing, and it just might change yours in the process.