When A Bullied Kid Grows Up: What I Learned Then, And What I'm Learning Now
A couple of weeks ago, I went back to high school. I didn’t go back as a student, of course. I went as a newly minted young professional who had graduated from college some months prior, and who was starting her first ‘big girl’ job that same week. It was an exciting time for me. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was getting what I wanted, what I deserved. I was going to work in my field: writing. I was living in the greatest city on the planet, New York City. And best of all, I was starting over. After a string of failed relationships that seemed more like a waste of time, I was ready to take a break from the constant stream of disappointment and stay away from the dating scene for a while. But even with that under my belt, I was proud of all of my accomplishments of the previous four years. I knew very few people who had poured their heart and soul into their work the way I had.
In the last four years, I held down two jobs and a full course load, and maintained consistently good grades. I volunteered at a local middle school where I taught a young girl how to read and write in English. In my third year of college, I wrote a book, and in my fourth year I published it. And most importantly, I grew into the person I always wanted to become. After years of struggling with the question, “Who am I?” I was finally able to answer it with honesty, certainty, and pride.
It was a question I struggled with all throughout high school, mostly because of the sense of inferiority my peers impressed upon me. My family was not wealthy and well connected. We lived in New Jersey. I focused on my grades and never attended parties, although I would have if I had been invited. It came down to the fact that I was physically and socially segregated from my peers. Throw in the question of race, and I appeared to be the ultimate social pariah.
Needless to say, I had a hard time in high school, mostly because I was extremely unhappy. Going back to that place that I knew would conjure up so many unpleasant memories was comparable to suicide. I knew it would take me some time to recover from those vivid memories if I wasn’t prepared.
But I went on a whim. I was meeting a friend in that neighborhood, and on the bus ride there, I contemplated the consequences of going, and even worse, the consequences of not going. Part of me wanted to show up unexpectedly and show them all what I had become. I could brag about those accomplishments I was so proud of. And ultimately, that desire trumped the fear of being rejected. If I didn’t go, I couldn’t say that I was brave enough to face one of my biggest fears: that in the face of rejection, I could still triumph.
So I pushed back my lunch, and went back to my high school.
Surprisingly, it was such a joy to be back. Some instructors and some other members of the school’s staff recognized me. They were impressed by what I had done in those four years since they had overseen my education, and even more impressed by how different I looked.
It was true, I looked different. I looked better. I leaned out, got fit, wore more...fashionable...clothes...and I held my head up high - something I didn’t know how to do before. And I looked the way I felt: happy.
Walking through the front door was the only hurdle I had anticipated, and I thought that I had successfully overcome it.
But that only lasted until about an hour into my visit.
I walked into one of the teacher’s lounges, hoping to see friendly, smiling faces, looking up at me in awe. Instead I caught perplexed scowls from two former classmates.
I shifted nervously into the room, the way I used to shift around people when I was deeply uncomfortable, and when I felt small.
It was like a setup to a very bad joke. In all the movies, the person who was picked on is supposed to come out on top. In all the movies I’ve seen and all the books I’ve read, the underdog always wins by becoming a CEO, or traveling the world, or just becoming famous. I wasn’t asking for any of that - I just wanted to never be in the same room as the people who made me a miserable, damaged, and anxious child. I hunched over in shame, as if I instinctively knew that I wasn’t welcomed simply because they were there first. It had always been that way, in my fragile youth: I was never really welcomed for reasons that escaped me then, but that I’ve narrowed down now - I simply wasn’t one of them.
It killed me inside that after four years of working on becoming a person I was truly proud of, I was reduced to nothing in five seconds flat. My former classmates ignored me after that perplexed look they simultaneously gave me. It didn’t matter how much I had changed - I could have had terrible plastic surgery or grown to ten feet tall, and they still wouldn’t have shown the least bit interest in me. I was particularly shaken by the fact that one of them, with whom I had grown up with since the age of 3, couldn’t even mutter a simple ‘hello’.
I couldn’t tell if I was offended or hurt, or even disappointed by the fact that these people still treated me like I was a brick wall a dog had recently used to defecate. What was so wrong with me then? And what was so wrong with me now that even years of absence couldn’t erase? I walked out of my high school hunched over and brooding, as I had so many times before. I was mostly disappointed that I let something so trivial to batter and bruise my ego so easily. I tried to convince myself that they had been shocked into silence, but I knew deep inside that this wasn’t true. I was too ethnic, too middle-class. These were the same people who told me that I spoke with an “Asian accent”, when I don’t even speak an Asian language. These were the people who told me I was only “allowed” to support a soccer team of an Asian country because of my race, forgetting that I hold dual-nationality, and neither are from an Asian country. These were the people who taught me to hate myself - the way I looked and what I valued - until I saw them for what they really were : insolent, irresponsible, and ungrateful overprivileged children.
It was very sobering, to say the least. I thought long and hard about what it meant for me, why I was so easily affected by people I thought I had forgotten years ago. Maybe it was because they shaped the way I saw myself for years, and when I finally broke out of the cycle of self-hatred, I worked to prove to them how wrong they were. I should have been working on myself for myself, but I think that all that time in college, I secretly entertained the fantasy of seeing the shocked looks on their faces once they saw how much both my physique and my personality had changed. But I never got that satisfaction, and now I doubt that I ever will.
I suppose that I was so taken aback by my classmates’ reactions because I didn’t change as much as I had hoped. Maybe deep down, I still need some kind of validation from my peers. But it was my mistake in hoping that my peers had evolved and grown as much as I did. In college, I learned very quickly how, there too, I didn’t fit in with the general crowd and culture, and that at the end of the day, I really didn’t want to. And I recognized that the people I went to college with were at their very core, the same kind of people I went to high school with. Why should I have expected any of them to even bother to take a second look at me?
By the time I got home later that afternoon, I put the experience in perspective: if I actually had these people’s approval, I would actually have to talk to them. So I counted my blessings that maybe this time, I should be thankful to be that brick wall. At least that way, they can’t tear me down so easily.