It’s rare to go through life without being bullied at some point. I was no exception — middle school was a complete disaster. (Why is it that at our height of juvenile awkwardness, some of our peers are at the height of their cruelty? It’s like some Hunger Games-style survival of the fittest experiment, but with math homework.)
I remember my bully well: His name was Sam. I can easily recall his black hair, bowl cut, thick glasses, and large ears that sprung from the sides of his head. Not exactly the stereotypical popular jock or Queen Bee we tend to associate with bullying, but every bit as brutal.
Sam sat behind me in music class. I’d feel him lean in, close to my ear, as the hairs on the back of my neck stood on edge. I tried not to turn; instead, I’d watch the teacher, who wasn’t paying us any attention. I don’t blame her, of course — she couldn’t be aware of every possible interaction between her students. But sometimes I do wish she noticed the look on my face whenever Sam would hover behind my ear, whispering horrible things.
Every day, third period, I would have a trail of whispers telling me how fat I was, and how ugly. How gross my hair looked that day. How stupid I sounded when I spoke in class. I had a “boyfriend” at the time, and yet Sam managed to convince me I was too disgusting for one, and that he only liked me because he felt sorry for me. As a slightly chubby, frizzy-haired little girl with glasses, I had feared I was many of those things all on my own. But here Sam was, to confirm my suspicions.
That class was a special kind of hell.
To say I hated Sam wouldn’t even scratch the surface. He had a way of picking out all of my insecurities and just by mere mention, was able to create new ones I hadn’t even thought of. To be that methodical — to taunt a harmless girl minding her own business day after day after day — takes a very specific, calculated person.
I didn’t tell anyone, because I feared it would only cause Sam to become more aggressive. He didn’t have respect for authority, that much was obvious. But one day, I got an idea: My brother was a senior varsity jock at a different school. Late one night, I told him about a kid named Sam who was mean to me at school, but I was careful to leave things vague. I was too embarrassed and ashamed to tell him how bad it really was. “Want me to come to school and tell him to stop?” he asked casually. I nodded, and it was done.
The next day, my brother brought two of his friends and showed up outside of my school. I pointed Sam out, and as I ran back to the school bus, I caught my brother giving him a stern warning to never speak to me again. Once I sat in my seat, I nervously chewed my fingers. Would it work? Could this backfire? But the next day, the results were obvious: Sam walked into class and completely avoided eye contact. He never spoke to me again. He never even looked in my direction.
It worked. I was free.
But it didn’t take long for me to notice he redirected his attention towards other kids in my class. I wish I would have had the courage to speak up and say something, but I didn’t. I needed him to continue pretending I didn’t exist for my own emotional survival. I was just a little girl and I did the best I could.
As an adult, his torment was far behind me. Until last week, when I found myself Googling him, and was shocked by what I found.
While researching bullying for a piece I was writing, I decided to search his name. At first, there was virtually no trace of him. But then a search of his last name brought me to a law enforcement website, which linked to an article in the paper. And that’s when I saw it: His mugshot. He looked so deranged, I wasn’t sure it was even him at first. Crazy eyes. Wild black hair. A sinister grin with yellow teeth peeking behind curled lips.
He had been arrested for murder.
I was shocked, but not exactly surprised. According to the report, he murdered a man in an alley. Through old friends who graduated with Sam, I was later given more background information about him. He had been adopted when he was a little boy, along with another child. While his older adopted brother supposedly grew up to be very kind and accomplished, Sam had created so much grief and angst in his family, falling deep into drugs by high school. His family hadn’t spoken to him since his murder conviction.
It was then that I suddenly felt compassion for Sam — he was clearly grappling with mental health issues all along. It made me wonder what he may have endured before he was adopted, and perhaps what he may have endured after his adoption, in the shadow of “the good son.”
Confident, secure, self-loving adults don’t usually like to spend their time bullying or trolling people. In the same way I doubt confident, secure, self-loving children aren’t fond of brutally bullying their fellow classmates.
Occasional meanness is a common human behavior. Intense, methodical bullying is something else entirely. Maybe it’s rooted in deep insecurities. Maybe it’s a need to feel bigger and stronger to escape reality. Maybe it’s to avoid being bullied themselves. But from my research, it’s obvious bullying can also find life from something deeper, like abuse or neglect. Is there more we should be doing for those who bully, just as we rush to support those who are bullied?
Since seeing Sam’s mugshot, a wave of compassion has washed away all the trauma I endured from his whispers in my ear. I wonder — if I had known how badly he was struggling, would it have changed how I suffered too? It didn’t excuse it. No, Sam made his choice. But maybe I could have understood it. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so personal.
I wish I could go back and tell that little girl that Sam’s words were lies. I was beautiful and lovable, just as I was. And although I was never suicidal, I wonder if that little bit of truth can make a big difference to a bully battered child.
And to Sam, who had no clue as he sat behind me in music class that his future would be a prison cell, I would say this: I wish I would have known you weren’t evil. Just troubled. I still needed to be protected from you; you’re still responsible for the pain you’ve caused. But I’m sorry you were plagued with suffering, and that it robbed you of a joyful life.
I’m also glad you never caused me permanent damage, and that my brother scared you away. And most of all, I’m glad I never have to go back to that music class ever again.