I Was a Third Grade Bully
When I was in grade school, if you were to ask me what a bully looked like I would’ve conjured up an image of a kid from the 1950s with a close shaved head, constant sneer, and dungarees rolled at the ankles. I’d picture him as being the largest kid in the classroom, shoving books off kids’ desks and taking their lunch money while shaking a threatening fist in their faces. I had no idea it could arrive in the form of a short, blue-eyed girl with a quick smile and a happy laugh. Nor would I have ever guessed the bullying could come from a few simple drawings. Yet it did, and, as it turned out, I was one of the bullies. It was the third grade. My friend Jill and I spent a lot of time together during school hours. If memory serves me correctly, we were in a Kindergarten classroom because that year the school administrators had separated the classes into reading, math, science, etc. and used various classrooms for these functions. I remember sitting at a desk in a toddler child-sized chair, and drawing pictures. There was a girl in school named Tammy who was heavier than the rest of us. A lot of kids picked on her. Being a bigger girl, she was an easy target. Back in the ‘70s it was unusual for kids to be heavy. She stuck out like onions in meatloaf. If there’s anything I’ve learned in life, if you are remotely different looking from everyone else, you will become prey for those who need to attack someone. I didn’t have a problem with Tammy. Jill didn’t, either. We didn’t know her very well, but we were often spectators when it came to others treating her poorly. We became used to the jabs aimed at her. Tammy shrugged it off well. Didn’t seem concerned. That fateful day, as Jill and I sat drawing pictures, one of us came up with the idea of drawing pictures of Tammy. I don’t know who was first to instigate this, and it doesn’t matter. Neither of us saw anything wrong in exaggerating Tammy’s features and making her appear like a monster. We laughed, trying to outdo one another. I can’t remember if we showed Tammy the pictures, or if she overheard us, but somehow she found out we’d been drawing these nasty works of art and told the teacher. Uh oh. I wish I could remember the name of the teacher that took us aside and spoke with us because she did us a huge favor. Art in hand, she said, “Take a look at these and tell me if you drew them.” Jill and I silently nodded as she showed us drawing after drawing. But one of the pictures was the worst one of all. It made Tammy appear even heavier. Uglier. Horrific. I didn’t recognize the picture, and neither did Jill. The teacher was puzzled. The teacher walked over to Tammy, who was sitting several seats from us, and spoke with her. Returning, mouth a grim line, the teacher informed us, “Well. It seems Tammy drew that one herself.” My jaw dropped. She had? Why? To get us in worse trouble? “You know,” the teacher continued, lowering her voice, “this is very unkind. Making fun of someone is hurtful.” Jill and I exchanged glances. Hurtful? We just thought it was funny. “How would you feel if someone made pictures like these of you? If people laughed at the way you look, the way you spoke, or even the way you walked?” she asked. “What you do affects others. She’s over there crying because of the way you’ve treated her. It hurts deep inside when someone pokes fun at you.” “But…but…” I looked at Jill. “She doesn’t seem to care when people make fun of her.” The teacher shook her head. “Kim, most people don’t show their hurt. They hide it in a place where others can’t see it. That’s how they protect themselves.” “So if she was so hurt,” Jill said, placing a hand on the worst of the drawings, “why did she draw this?” The teacher’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know.” But I was pretty sure I knew. That picture was how Tammy was beginning to see herself. The paper was her mirror. The next day, while kids played in the playground, ignoring Tammy because if they weren’t making fun of her they were avoiding her, Jill and I marched up to Tammy. “Want to play with us?” Jill asked. Smiling shyly, she nodded. I turned around and said, “Jump on my back. I’ll give you a piggy-back ride.” Just to show her she wasn’t really all that heavy. And she climbed on and I twirled her and walked around with her as she leaned against my back, laughing. And you know what? She really wasn’t that heavy. Not at all.