I was a childhood bully. The mean girl. The one people remember and tell stories about years later.
Though it was more than thirty years ago, I vividly recall opening the door to see the mother of a classmate standing there with tears in her eyes. She begged me to leave her daughter alone and to stop bullying kids at school. I laughed. She asked to speak to my mother, hoping she could change my mind. “Speak to my mother? If you can find her, go ahead,” I replied flatly before closing the door in her face. Her pain, her daughter’s pain didn’t matter to me. My heart was hardened from the hurt of my own life; I didn’t care about their pain because nobody cared about mine.
My childhood was difficult. When I was 6 years old my mother handed me to my then 13-year-old sister and said, “she’s all yours now,” and meant it. Our father drifted in and out of our lives and so my mother worked three jobs to keep our family afloat. She was exhausted and battling her own demons, too busy to know or care about what we were doing.
At 8 years old I had my first taste of alcohol and cigarettes at one of my father’s parties and by nine I was in the backseat of a car on weekends “cruising” the streets with my teenage sisters. They would leave me in the car while they went into a house party. Food was scarce, bills piled up and each morning I said goodbye to my mother as she lay in bed. She never walked me to school, opened my backpack or made me breakfast. Before I hit my 10th birthday, I felt completely alone in the world, wondering what I had ever done to my parents to have them forget I existed.
At school, life was different. There was normalcy. Teachers and students showed up every day, classes were structured and I had a place. I learned very quickly that I was smart and after spending so much time with older kids and adults, I came across as “charming”. This was my secret weapon. I learned to “work the room,” convincing adults that I wasn’t a bad kid, all the while manipulating the kids in my class. I did this not out of joy, but as a way to protect myself and to hide the secret that I was deeply wounded inside. I never wanted anyone to know how scared I was, how alone I felt and how deeply sad I truly was. When you grow up this way, invisible and abandoned the last thing you want to be is vulnerable. My reality was incredibly hard to face so I hid behind a mean façade. I became a bully.
I was on a path to stay a mean girl throughout high school, with my tough attitude guarding my very broken heart. Then one day I met my match. I thought I was tough, but I met a girl much tougher and ended up getting my butt kicked. It was a wake up call. In that moment I understood what it felt like to be on the other side of my actions and how I truly affected other people. I also learned I had the capacity to change. I worked to turn myself around and built a life and legacy I could be proud of.
That is part of the reason I started Mazu; a place for kids who have no one to feel loved and accepted so they would not feel the hurt I felt, and act the way I acted. I was able to turn my own life around and believe that every child deserves the same chance. The chance to feel accepted, loved and welcomed somewhere in the world even if it is not at home.
I have been on this journey for many years, but 4 years ago I received a letter from a girl I knew in elementary school. She had heard about my company in the paper and thought it was time to let me know how I am to blame for how her life turned out. She said I had “no right” to make a company dedicated to friendship, love and openness. That she wished nothing but horror for my life, as I was responsible for her never feeling that she could “belong” anywhere. It was a tough letter to read. It was full of pain. I could argue a million different points that would suggest otherwise for her feelings but when I read it, all I could think about was my 12 year old self…a scared little girl who never thought about anything else than surviving the day at hand.
Bullies do affect their victims in real, damaging ways, there is no question, but when we focus on the victims we aren’t necessarily fixing the problem. We have painted bullies as cruel and heartless kids, almost sociopaths who take joy in hurting others. As though they wake up and say to themselves, “I can’t wait to be mean today.”
I can assure you as a child who went to school and attempted to rule my classmates with an iron fist, I never woke up desiring to be mean. I woke up desiring to be loved; something that escaped me for much of my childhood. Not feeling love, not feeling worthy was the entire reason I ever acted the way I did, but no one noticed. No one asked why and no one listened.
We celebrate anti-bullying campaigns as a way to solve the problem but that seems backwards to me. Of course we shouldn’t allow bullying, of course we should help the children who are hurt, but are we not also obligated to help the bully? In my experience the bully is almost always a child who feels marginalized, unloved and excluded. By promoting a day of “anti-bullying” we’re further saying to these children that they are unworthy and unlovable.
Please let that sink in for a moment. Stop and think about how a child feels inside when they truly believe that they are unworthy of being loved when their own parents can’t find the capacity to care for or love them and then at school they are told they are bad and unwelcome. A bully is a deeply wounded, scared kid who has no inner sense of control. Bullying is purely a symptom of unworthiness. No one asked why I was the bully, and I think we still aren’t asking that question today.
We all have moments of meanness in us. We have moments of complacency and moments of greatness. We all have times where our best self shows up and other times where it takes every ounce of energy just to get out of bed. Humans are like that. Deeply flawed, deeply wounded. Bullies are no different. If we really want to stop bullying, we have to start with why children become bullies to begin with.
I do believe that it is our wounds that create the person we ultimately become. Thankfully, I learned a new way to be. I learned to love myself and forgive my mistakes. To those I personally affected by acting out I am truly sorry, and to those who acted out towards me, I forgive you. To those who have been both “bully” and or “victim” I would love for all of us to throw these labels in the bin and to begin to have conversations around our true selves. Who we are beyond our pain, beyond our wounds. It is there that we will find we are more alike than different. It is there we begin to heal.
At some point I am hoping all of us move from being the student to the teacher. To prevent further wounded kids from acting the way I once did.