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Last fall, Salon.com started a new personal essay series in which they invited readers to post interviews with the people who had bullied them when they were young. I heard about it when a friend posted Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s excellent essay.
I’ve written about bad experiences I had in kindergarten and about experiences I had in middle and high school. Middle school is really the only time I felt actively bullied. The kids in kindergarten weren’t nice, but they were more a curiosity than a menace.
John, my 7th grade tormentor, was a boy with a mission, one I’ve never understood. I wonder if he could have articulated at the time the need that fueled his daily verbal assaults. Somehow I doubt it. He could have pointed out the obviousness of my color, but I was neither the first black person he’d met, nor anything like a threat or challenge to him. Why come at me? Since learning about the Salon series, I’ve been thinking about John. Would I interview him? Would I go to the trouble of looking for him and asking if I could interview him? I’m really not sure.
While I consider, Facebook has chosen to offer me some other options. In the sidebar where FB lists people it thinks I know or would want to know, I was just given the chance to be friends with Michael, the first person to call me a nigger. Good times. And a few days later I got a message from an old classmate asking if I would be coming to reunion this year.
Reunion. Loaded in so many ways. I am, of course, entirely different from who I was in high school. Of course that’s true, but in my case it’s maybe even more true. I am no longer willing to ignore or pretend not to be offended by the kinds of comments I let pass when I was a kid. Yes, we’re all grown ups now, and that could mean that my old classmates know better than to say some of the things they used to say to me. Could mean that … doesn’t necessarily. And I can just see myself having to call people out of their names and stalk off for the train home long before the cocktail reception has ended.
All possible. Also possible is that Michael could be there. That John could. That maybe, with a few beers or glasses of wine, I could orchestrate an easy enough interview without having to go to the trouble of searching for anyone or pretending to be friends on FB.
But what would be the point? I’ve been trying to reason my way through the idea behind the Salon call-out. On its face the idea is plain, and plainly stated on the site: “to provide some closure, and maybe even build some understanding and common ground between the picked-on” and the pickers. And I guess that could happen. It feels not so likely, though, you know? After all, your conversation is bound to start awkwardly. You announce to your old schoolmate that you want to interview him because he bullied you mercilessly during the whole of middle school, and he has a high probability of being angry, defensive, or both. And maybe he has grown up to be an adult bully, and attempting an interview only opens you up to more abuse.
Even if the conversation went swimmingly, what would you gain from it? You’ve moved on from who you were at 13. You have a whole other life. What is gained by throwing yourself back into the pain of adolescence? If I found John, and if he were willing to talk with me, what would that conversation give me? What would be gained by my telling him he was a jerk, telling him that, to this day, I don’t regret smacking him in the head with my history book? Oh, right, I’m not supposed to say that. Rewind. What would be gained by my asking him why he taunted me every day?
But Salon has put a bug in my ear. I would never have thought of interviewing anyone who treated me badly, wouldn’t have imagined trusting the distance of time and age to create a space for useful conversation. Now I wonder. Now I’m thinking about John, about Michael, about several others …
I may well go to reunion. There are quite a few people I would be very happy to see, and I’d be in no way obligated to chat up John, Michael or anyone whose acquaintance I don’t care to renew.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne ?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.