I remember her name was Chrystal*. I can remember the honey color of her hair. But I can’t recall her face at all.
Sometimes our minds take mercy on us, even when we are least deserving.
I hated myself in middle school. A boy in my sixth grade science class told me I was ugly. I believed him. A girl at the sixth grade dance told me I looked stupid dancing. I believed her. Ugly, stupid, unpopular… I accepted whatever label my peers offered me**. I never challenged them. By eleven, I believed I was worthless.
I wasn’t bullied. I had a good home life. But I still felt alone. Weird. No, not just weird… I actually believed that if anyone knew me, they would find me disgusting. Gross.
Pain and powerlessness. Self-loathing. And Chrystal.
This turned out to be a toxic mix.
I think I picked her because she seemed weaker than me, somehow. I don’t remember if we bullied Chrystal the one time or if it was ongoing. But there’s one memory that is so clear to me:
Some other girls and I were in a storage closet with Chrystal. I think we’d been sent to gather props for drama. Regardless, we got what we wanted because we had Chrystal alone. No adults anywhere to be found.
We said awful things to her. I’m sure they were awful not because I remember the exact words, but because I get a very particular feeling in the pit of my stomach when I remember it. My words were designed for maximum impact–to make her feel as insignificant and unworthy as I did. She was trapped in this closet with us, and we rained verbal abuse down on her relentlessly. I may not remember the words I said, but I do remember the thrill of power. I usually felt invisible. But right then, I felt what I was sure the popular girls felt all the time: I felt superior. Untouchable.
One of the girls in our band of bullies moved closer to Chrystal; a metal pole–like the ones used to hold up velvet theater ropes–fell on her knee. It was her tears that snapped me back into myself. Her jagged gasps for breath between sobs broke through my rage. Her tears made me human again.
Immediately, I remorse kicked in. I was sorry, but I didn’t want to admit the full extent of my transgressions. I pretended she was crying because her knee hurt. I begged for forgiveness for that hurt knee. She kept sobbing. And in between those sobs, she asked over and over again why we were so mean to her.
I didn’t have the answer then. I don’t have a good answer now. But God, do I wish I could do that 15 minutes of my life over again.
The first time I told Jane this story, she was in PreK. I re-tell it every so often. Why? Because words can hurt more than fists. Because even when we believe ourselves to be “good” we can be capable of evils–great and small.
I tell the story as a kind of penance. And as a reminder that our sins change us–and only we get to decide how. I tell Jane the story in the hopes that, if she’s ever in a similar situation, she will choose kindness instead.
*Chrystal is a fictional name. The story is real.
**I had plenty of peers who said kind things to me. But I did not, could not, hear them over my own self-loathing.
Photo Credit: Instagram-@gbarkz